On Optimism and Space: The Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference

Posted by Daniel Kravetz on October 27, 2016

Before 2016’s first presidential debate plunged into birtherism and beauty pageants and Donald Trump ran into a wall of his own making, the Republican nominee produced a few exclamatory lines from his routine on our present dystopia. Of visiting Pennsylvania and Ohio: “You will see devastation!” Of American inner-cities: “African-Americans and Hispanics are living in hell!” As usual, the rhetoric was a flame for his base, but its odor of cynicism was far more diffuse.

Two days later, the Center for Community Progress' 2016 Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference began in downtown Baltimore. The bulk of the 1,000-plus attendees came in from the inner cities and Rust Belt towns that Trump evoked, their work devoted to the challenges he distorted. The unifying concerns of blighted and abandoned land and property are the most visceral signposts of the devastation he depicted—they are what first cross the lens when photographers and filmmakers portray post-industrial decline.

Yet if the tenor of the conference could have been bottled and distributed, it would have made for a great antidote to Trumpism. Over the course of three days, panelists and attendees spoke of the abandonment covering distressed cities less as a sign of loss and devastation and more as a tried-and-true canvas for creating homes, making art, growing produce, starting businesses, preserving stories, uniting communities, and reimagining urban landscapes.

“If you think about distressed, underserved communities all across the country,” says Tamar Shapiro, CEO and President of Center for Community Progress (CCP), “part of the challenge is that they don’t have many resources. And yet land, if used well, is a tremendous resource. This land is an opportunity.”

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Television’s Antidote to Trump

Posted by John Atlas on October 25, 2016

David Simon’s underappreciated Show Me a Hero offers hope that racial divides can be mended, and past injustices overcome.

As November creeps up on us, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are accusing each other ever more of stirring up racial divisions. From the start of his campaign, Donald Trump has stoked the fear of Hispanic immigration among the white working class, hoping to divide them from people of color.

So it’s a tragedy that David Simon’s Show Me a Hero, one of the best limited-series TV shows of recent years, failed to get even a nomination for an Emmy Award earlier this month. The show has important lessons for what can be done when public officials try to divide their communities based on race. A character-driven docudrama, it goes deep into the heart of a U.S. city in the middle of racial strife to portray how black and white citizens succeeded in reducing the consequences of years-long racial discrimination. Hero is based on a true story that most viewers have never heard of, but need to know about.

Simon understands race and cities. His previous work, The Wire, an HBO series about criminal life in Baltimore at the beginning of the millennium, has influenced America’s perception of inner-city life. His HBO series Treme looked at post-Katrina New Orleans, dramatizing the devastation and tragedy that took place in one low-income area.

Hero goes back further to 1985, to yet another turbulent American city. In the first episode, we see developers and planners boarding a helicopter flying over Yonkers, New York, conversing about where to place low-income housing. As the camera sweeps high over the city we take in the mansions and large open spaces in east Yonkers. And as they fly west we observe apartment buildings and row homes crowded together. Suddenly, we are at ground level meeting Carmen Febles, a Dominican immigrant and single mother getting out of a cab with her three children. On the way to their public housing apartment they are forced to trudge up several flights of stairs to avoid the intimidating drug dealer doing business in the elevator. It’s clearly the kind of building where parents worry that their children might be bitten by a rat or hit by a stray bullet.

The stage is set for a tale of lower-income black and brown families trying to break out of the slums—and the developers and white working-class residents who oppose them.

We quickly learn that as a result of a lawsuit brought by the NAACP, a Federal district court judge, Leonard Sand, has ruled that Yonkers intentionally perpetuated segregation by concentrating almost all public housing in the city's overcrowded southwest, where most blacks and Hispanics lived. Sand has ordered the city to build 200 units of low-income housing in all-white neighborhoods to remedy past housing discrimination. The middle-class white residents, outraged at the outsiders bent on imposing their will on the community and fearful of living next to poor black neighbors, immediately begin organizing protests.

At a stormy city council session called by Mayor Angelo Martinelli in response to the court’s order, he urges the council not to appeal the ruling, arguing that the judge could impose fines that would bankrupt the city. But this just inflames the meeting’s protesters further, and they repeat their demands. “We’re not prejudiced, we just object!” yells one protester. Nick Wasicsko, a young, personable, ambitious but naive politician superbly played by Oscar Isaac, challenges the incumbent Mayor in the next election. His vote to appeal the decision puts him on the side of the irate white residents, and he wins an upset victory.

The ensuing battle plays out largely among four white men—a smart idealistic NAACP lawyer, a tenacious judge, an architectural consultant, and the 28-year-old Mayor Wasicsko, who is the hero referred to in the title. (The show follows his conversion from supporter of the white residents to champion of the public housing families.) But as the drama picks up the pace in the final two episodes, the lens turns toward the families of color, the victims of discrimination, and it is here that the show becomes uniquely revealing.

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Putting the “Public” Back into Public Housing: A Justice-oriented Agenda

Posted by Amy T. Khare and Janet Smith on October 21, 2016

This post is part of a Shelterforce series called Letters to the Next President.

Most policymakers, elected officials and advocates would agree that public housing has been transformed but also diminished the past few decades with increasing dependency on the private market. This includes growing reliance on housing vouchers, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), and most recently, the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). Regardless of the program, most have come to accept the position that the United States' public housing program can no longer function without private investors to help address its capital backlog of maintenance needs, maintain a supply of affordable housing units, and ensure redevelopment of significant housing assets held by Public Housing Authorities (PHAs). But with investors come expectations—financial returns and social outcomes—the former more important than the latter.

During this same time, we have witnessed one of the most toxic housing crises of modern American history, which calls into question the national value-laden priority of homeownership and the presumed superiority of the private sector in any form of housing development. The recession revealed the limitations of commodifying housing and allowing speculation to drive pricing. The casualties of the crisis, predominately communities of color and families living in modest to distressed areas of the country, remain financially damaged despite the overall economic recovery.

Given these perils, what are the risks and potential future of public housing if we continue to privatize it? Will public housing survive? Historically, public housing has not been discussed in national presidential campaigns. The last Clinton in the White House brought about rapid change with the support of Congress, resulting in the net loss of about 200,000 public housing units and the uprooting of many thousand families. The transformation touted is still not complete and in the meantime, even more families today are struggling to afford the housing they rent in the private market.

While some may argue that the next president’s public housing platform should maintain this movement towards privatization, we offer some alternative recommendations that can put the public back in public housing. We are not suggesting a return to a prior era. Instead, we envision the real possibility of strengthening the capacity of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and PHAs in order to become a national public housing program that is grounded in a justice-oriented agenda which supports a basic human right to housing. However, to do this we do need to adhere to some fundamentals of public housing, including the commitment to keeping a portion of rental housing stock indefinitely out of the speculative market.

The following agenda seeks to maintain public rights and ownership of housing and land in ways that permanently keeps it for the public good:

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4 Ways a President Clinton Could Help Cities Thrive in Her First 100 Days

Posted by Nikki Fortunato Bas on October 21, 2016

This post is part of a Shelterforce series called Letters to the Next President.

In cities across the country, our communities face crises of housing affordability, dangerous and unsustainable infrastructure, unprecedented inequality, and attacks on our right to participate democratically in determining our future. Given that much of our diversity, industry, and the vast majority of our country’s population can be found in cities, and with the chances of a Clinton presidency looking increasingly likely, it is important that we clearly outline what steps she should take to support cities in tackling these pressing issues.

While Secretary Clinton has started to outline a plan for rural America, there has been less focus on setting an urban-specific agenda. She would have many places to turn for help in developing that agenda. The Movement for Black Lives has developed a platform of comprehensive policy demands. Local Progress, an organization of progressive local elected officials, has outlined a national policy platform that would move us toward local communities that are inclusive, equitable, livable, sustainable, and just.

But where should she start?

Here, we highlight four executive actions that the next president should take within the first 100 days in office.

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A Strong Rule and Reforms Are Needed to Combat Payday Loans

Posted by Josh Silver on October 20, 2016

Something astonishing happened when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) asked the public for comments on its proposed rule to curb high-cost and abusive payday loans: the CFPB received 1 million comments. This doesn't happen too often for regulatory proposals, but the stakes are high. Consumer and community groups mobilized because abusive payday and other small dollar consumer lending create debt traps for modest-income borrowers, especially people of color. The payday-loan industry mobilized as well because reasonable curbs on small-dollar lending threatens to eat into their exorbitant profits earned by high fees and repeat borrowing.

Payday loans are usually for a few hundred dollars and typically cover emergency expenses such as medical or auto repair costs. They are typically due upon the borrower’s next paycheck. The difficulty is that borrowers often cannot repay the entire amount when their next paycheck arrives and thus must borrow more, racking up high fees. The CFPB documents that 75 percent of all payday loan fees are from borrowers who take out more than 10 loans a year. In addition to payday loans, the CFPB proposal covers other small-dollar loans such as car title and high-cost installment loans. These loans are also traps: 80 percent of all car title loan revenue comes from borrowers taking out more than 7 loans a year.

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Gramm Wrong, Again, on CRA

Posted by Gregory Squires on October 18, 2016

In an effort to undercut future public investment in the nation’s infrastructure, Phil Gramm, former chair of the Senate Banking Committee and currently with the Swiss bank UBS, once again trots out the long-discredited notion that the recent financial crisis was caused by the Community Reinvestment Act and other federal efforts to encourage lending to credit-worthy borrowers in traditionally underserved markets. In making this connection, he claims, “The U.S. and Europe are lowering capital standards for ‘investments’ in public infrastructure--ignoring the lessons from 2007-08.”

Some arguments apparently never die, no matter how much evidence contradicts them.

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Subprime Superhighway,” Gramm asserts, “President Clinton’s financial regulators used the CRA to force banks to make subprime loans.” But, as has frequently been reported, the Federal Reserve found that just 6 percent of high-priced loans (a proxy for subprime loans) were CRA related. The Fed also found that the delinquency rate of CRA-related loans was less than half the rate for all loans in lower-income neighborhoods. In other words, it was loans made by lenders not covered by the CRA that created the crisis.

Gramm also claims that HUD used CRA “to force Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and banks to serve government goals” by purchasing loans in underserved communities. But Fannie and Freddie did not start buying subprime loans until 2006, long after the crisis was underway. And, of course, the CRA was enacted in 1977, long before the Great Recession. In fact, as Fed researchers concluded, “the current best evidence suggests that the CRA was not a significant contributor to the financial crisis.”

Hopefully, stronger—and more accurate—evidence than this will be used to determine public infrastructure investment activity.

(Photo credit: FarTripper, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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How Could Homelessness Have Barely Budged During the Recession?

Posted by Judy Perlman on October 14, 2016

FACT: Rates of homelessness in the U.S. remained essentially unchanged between 2008-2012. This is surprising indeed, especially against the backdrop of a recession that had its origins in the housing market, and in which tens of thousands of homeowners lost their homes. 

Evan Horowitz made an important contribution to the conversation, “Does poverty drive homeless rates? Not so fast,” in The Boston Globe this past August. He analyzes multiple datasets and suggests that homelessness is not indexed to poverty rates, as one might assume, but rather to housing costs. It turns out that homelessness is actually lowest in some of the poorer areas of the country such as Mississippi and Alabama; and homelessness stays high and gets higher in red-hot housing markets. He draws the conclusion that the plummeting costs of housing opened up lower-rent stock during the economic recession, and the mechanisms of the market did the rest. 

However, another factor in the story of the recession and its non-rise in homelessness also warrants exploration: the federal government’s intervention.

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Stopping Declining Homeownership Requires More than Affordability

Posted by Doug Ryan on October 13, 2016

According to recent research, the availability of starter and "trade-up" homes is in the midst of a four-year decline, which, at least in most markets, shows little evidence of abating. (Trulia defines starter homes as those priced in the bottom third of the market and trade-up homes as the middle third.)

Homeownership rates continue to tumble from their 2005 perch of about 69 to less than 63 percent. The rates for African Americans and Latinos have settled in the mid-40 percent range.

This problem may get worse. A forthcoming paper by Arthur Acolin, Laurie Goodman, and Susan Wachter suggests that as California goes, so goes the nation. California, for many reasons—not the least of which is housing costs—has had in recent memory a homeownership rate considerably lower than that of the rest of the nation. According to the most recent data, California’s rate continues to decline. At 53.4 percent, the state now has the second-lowest rate of homeownership in the country (after New York). Acolin and his colleagues suggest that the factors that influence California’s low homeownership rate may drag the rest of the nation to the low 50s by 2050. One major reason, these authors argue, is the shortfall of production—300,000 fewer units than household formation in 2014.

A shortage of all homes impacts the likelihood of new homeowners. Fewer for-sale and rental homes, of course, raises prices, excluding families from the homeownership market. Meanwhile, the tight rental market eats up the cash that could otherwise be set aside for downpayments. And of course, not all markets are the same. The great variation among metropolitan areas is significant, and while prices in some markets have vaulted well past their previous highs, other have still not recovered. Dallas and Denver, for example, are up at least 30 percent above their July 2006 highs, yet much of Florida’s homeownership market remains stagnant.

Each of these market dynamics impacts the availability of homes for new buyers.

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The ‘Filtering’ Fallacy

Posted by Peter Cohen on October 12, 2016

The rationale behind recently-proposed “solutions” to the housing affordability crisis that seek to reduce limits and regulation on high-end housing development policy is the theory of Filtering. According to filtering, maximizing the supply of housing at the high-end of the market will eventually result in housing that “trickles down,” with reduced prices to meet all affordability needs. This theory relies upon the deregulation of the real estate market, through actions such as eliminating local development approval processes, eliminating requirements on developers to contribute to infrastructure or affordable housing, or easing restrictions on demolitions of existing housing.

But, as the head of the California State Buildings Trades Council pointed out recently in the Los Angeles Times, “We have found the history of mass deregulation in America doesn’t work well for working people.”

Understanding why deregulation policies like the "by-right" one proposed by California Governor Jerry Brown (Streamlining Affordable Housing Approvals), which would ease the zoning approval process for housing developers and other market-based solutions, won’t actually make housing more affordable requires a closer examination of the filtering theory. If you haven’t heard of filtering, have no fear–the Council of Community Housing Organizations has created an info-graphic (below) that breaks down the basics of filtering, the assumptions behind it, and the reasons it doesn’t work the way some say it does.

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#Renters Day of Action—Our Demands

Posted by Malcolm Torrejón Chu on October 10, 2016











Last month, on Sept. 22nd, renters took to the streets in 19 states and 52 cities for the national Renters Day of Action (RDA) to declare a national Renter State of Emergency. The uprising was the largest mobilization of renters for housing and economic justice in recent history. Thousands filled the streets, packed city halls, confronted landlord lobbying associations, marched on slumlords, and took the fight to the doorsteps of eviction courts.

“There is a national housing crisis facing renters,” says Dawn Phillips, executive director of Right to the City. “In nearly every state, evictions and rents are rising. One in four families pays 50 percent of their income on housing. In every community and at every level of government, the ability of renters and working families to thrive must be a central racial and economic justice issue of our time.”

The RDA was organized by the national Homes For All (HFA) campaign, a project initiated by the Right to the City Alliance and was conceived at the HFA #RenterPower2016 convening in Chicago in April.

“In Chicago, two things became clear,” explains Bárbara Suárez Galaeno of the Autonomous Tenants Union in Chicago. “First, organizing mass numbers of renters and people impacted by the housing crisis to defend against displacement must be central to our organizing. Second, the time is now to demand bold and transformative solutions to the crisis. The current system is failing our communities. Only a full overhaul of the system of land and housing will allow us to secure homes for all people.” 

Building off of this call for mass organizing and bold demands, organizers of the RDA initiated a process to develop demands with renters and organizers across the country under the following criteria:

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