Lawn Sign Liberalism

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on April 6, 2017

If you live anywhere with a substantial resistance to the current administration's attacks on immigrants, you may have seen these lawn/window signs–they say, in Spanish, English, and Arabic, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” (There’s also a variant in Hebrew, English, and Arabic.)

In an atmosphere of demagoguery and baseless hysteria about foreigners and immigrants, this kind of gesture is important (not sufficient, but important). I intend to get one.

But their popularity also makes me a little uncomfortable, and I imagine anyone else who pays attention to fair housing might feel similarly.

No Matter Where?

When I was on a work visit recently to Montclair, New Jersey, where Shelterforce's office is located, I saw these signs all over the place—on churches, lawns, and business windows. This is not surprising. Montclair is an epicenter for liberalism, well known as a haven for (upper class) interracial couples, and the home of multiple former Obama administration officials, New York Times higher ups, foundation officials, and the like.

Seeing those signs everywhere made me smile. And it also made me cringe.

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Indigenous Approaches to Succession and Mentoring

Posted by Brent Kakesako on April 4, 2017

What would you do if your output and activity at your current job dipped substantially? Looking from the outside, how might you feel to see someone else in a position you had at an organization you’ve worked at for a substantial time? How might your organization’s work continue after you leave?


I’ve been fortunate to transition into my role as executive director with the help of my predecessor, and I've see him grappling with these very real questions. The American approach to work often values productivity in terms of outputs and deliverables, and generally, this prevails even in our social justice work. Many of us give of ourselves and sacrifice our time, energy, and other facets of our lives for the cause or to advance the movement; but without some sort of balance and planning on our end, we could face a harsh reality as we meet our advanced years in life. There maybe an increased need for health care due to physical and emotional sacrifices. There may be a need for continued income due to financial sacrifices. And there is the undeniable fact that as we advance in years, our initial capacity and productivity (from the perspective of one set of metrics) may decrease. There is always a push to find younger talent that might at least maintain, if not increase, productivity levels and bring in fresh ideas. But what about the individuals who have accumulated years of valuable experience? How do we build in processes and systems within our workflow to learn from and honor them?

Sit back, close your eyes, and think of at least one person you know of who fits these descriptions and say their name out loud.

These individuals were and are tireless in their work, their advocacy. They are powerhouses and did the work of at least three people, because they had to. So the question many of us put off answering is: What will happen when they are gone? How do we create transition and succession plans for them and in turn, a plan for the organization?

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Local Contracting—Cost Cutting, Economic Development, Or Both?

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on March 31, 2017

We recently published both an article and an Answer column that shows how one group in Philadelphia, WPRE/NR, is challenging the conventional wisdom that scattered site, small-unit rehab has to be more expensive than new construction.

There are a few reasons WPRE/NR's scattered site units cost less:

  • They do batches of 20 to 60 units at a time resulting in lower costs per unit than one-off rehabs.
  • They don’t have to include many components required in a multiunit building—such as stairways, elevators, structured parking, or common areas—or have to pour foundations.
  • They hire small local subcontractors with community connections.

As we published the last item on that list, we knew that while it wasn't actually unique to this scattered-site rehab program, that it might spark some concern.

Hiring local contractors is a great way to support community economic development—it keeps money circulating in the neighborhood, creates more local jobs, and tends to reduce the racial wealth gap if it gives more opportunity to businesses owned by people of color.

On the other hand, listing local hire as specifically a cost-saving measure also raises questions. Why is it cheaper? Does it have to do with paying lower wages? After all, the question of whether affordable housing developers should pay prevailing wages has been a long-standing debate. People who earn a living wage don't need help paying for housing (in most markets), after all.

The issue is not clear cut.

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The Hidden Threat of Tax Cuts to Equitable Economic Development

Posted by Marjorie Kelly on March 30, 2017

Although the Trump administration’s recent budget proposal offers only a look at expenses, with no numbers on revenue, it won’t be long before massive cuts to corporate taxes are on the agenda, as Trump has promised. Before the noise machine ramps up on that issue, it’s an apt time to stop and consider the unintended consequences such tax breaks could have. The hidden danger in broad cuts to the corporate tax rate is this: these cuts would blunt the effectiveness of key policies designed to support communities and an inclusive economy.

Consider the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). It was created under Ronald Reagan, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has called it “the most important resource for creating affordable housing” in the U.S. today. The program generates nearly $8 billion annually in much-needed affordable housing across the country, without direct government expenditure. Instead, tax credits are allocated to developers building housing for lower-income Americans, and these credits are passed on to investors who provide billions of dollars for inclusive housing development. What happens when the corporate tax rate is slashed? The value of those credits evaporates. Why should investors chase credits to reduce their tax bill when Trump will cut it for them? An article in Next City indicated that affordable housing developers are already feeling the pinch, with LIHTC credit values falling even as the tax cuts remain vague proposals.

Other key programs will face similar fates. The New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) uses a similar mechanism to move billions of dollars of investment into struggling communities—generating, according to the Treasury’s CDFI Fund, $8 of private investment for every $1 supplied by the government. There is a bipartisan effort underway to make the NMTC permanent; but even if that effort succeeds, the program will be hobbled by the reduction in value of the credits, as a result of tax cuts.

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How About Walkable “Small Town-ism?”

Posted by David Holtzman on March 29, 2017

Forgive me if, after living in a small town for seven years, I have forgotten exactly what “walkable urbanism” means.

I walk every day on the sidewalks in my town of 1,500 people. Sometimes I’m just walking for recreation, and other times I want to get to the convenience store, post office, or one of several restaurants. It’s more of a bicycle trip to reach the grocery or drug store one mile away, but these destinations are also walkable.

But being a 40-minutes drive from the nearest city and an hour from the state capital, my small town surely doesn’t qualify as “urban.” Not by the definition used in the recent Urban Land Institute report, Housing in the Evolving American Suburb, which assumes walkable urbanism takes place mainly in or near the downtown of a major city.

The report further asserts that the dream of walkable urbanism can only be achieved by living in a tiny house or an apartment, given the high price of land and housing in these areas. If a young person or couple wants an affordable single-family home with a yard, they will have to settle for living in a fringe suburban setting, removed from commercial and civic amenities, and even access to sidewalks.

“... 'Walkable urbanism' has become somewhat of a luxury good that many households will not be able to afford … for many households the opportunity to walk to stores and restaurants will probably lose out to even higher priorities,” the report states.

I have observed walkable urbanism created out of nothing recently in some semi-rural areas here in Virginia such as Old Trail, a development west of Charlottesville, a metro of about 150,000 people; or in Spotsylvania Courthouse, 12 miles from the city of Fredericksburg. But these new neighborhoods are not really affordable to average working people. I suppose their developers are able to include walkability and a mix of commercial uses because there is significant demand in those locations from middle-class buyers.

But if true affordability can’t be achieved in these from-scratch places, why not build more around towns like mine? Many people who live in my town commute to Charlottesville or Richmond for work and specialty shopping, but their basic needs can still be fulfilled within a very short drive, or even by foot or pedal.

Well, there are at least two big problems with my proposal.

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¡El Caño Vive, La Lucha Sigue! Community-Controlled Land in Puerto Rico

Posted by Caroline Nagy on March 27, 2017

In the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. elections, communities throughout the United States began experiencing a new wave of civic participation, organizing, and activism. Much attention is focused on federal politics, yet many of the same challenges persist in our neighborhoods and cities: gentrification and displacement, skyrocketing housing costs, and a general feeling of powerlessness among community members in the face of rapid neighborhood change. As a result, many of us in the housing advocacy and community development movement are asking: how can we build power to fight against displacement as well as heightened political insecurity and instability? How can we continue to dream big in the face of long odds that may be getting longer?

An answer can be found close by in Puerto Rico, where the communities of the World Habitat award-winning Caño Martín Peña project have succeeded in building community power and gaining control of their land by pioneering the first application of the community land trust model to an informally owned settlement. To accomplish this feat, the people who live on the settlement have developed strong community roots and political clout, leading to the establishment of several new local institutions, a broad network of support both within Puerto Rico and globally, and an impressive string of political victories. But such successes have not occurred overnight, nor are they the result of technical solutions imposed from above by experts—they are the result of over 15 years of deep community organizing and empowerment. 

In February, I visited Caño Martín Peña with a dozen housing and community advocates from Europe and the Americas as part of a peer-housing exchange organized by BSFH, the British NGO that awards the World Habitat prize each year. About 26,000 people live in the eight communities surrounding the Martín Peña Channel, a highly polluted waterway running through central San Juan. Many are informal settlements along the river or on infill within its former boundaries. Decades of trash and government-promoted infill has reduced the channel from a navigable waterway to a stagnant, impassible trickle. The channel floods frequently, and because thousands of homes in the area lack sewer systems, with flooding comes widespread exposure to raw sewage and its related health and safety consequences.

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Housing as Infrastucture: A Rural Road Trip Proposal for Ben Carson

Posted by Stephen Sugg on March 24, 2017

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson said that housing is “part of the infrastructure of this country” during a March 20 interview with Fox News’ Neal Cavuto. In the same interview, he defended the administration’s budget—a budget that experts note as being particularly tough on HUD while also gutting funding for rural-focused programs across the government. But let’s give credit where its due: Secretary Carson is right in linking housing and infrastructure, and this is especially true in rural contexts.

We know that decent and affordable housing does great (and cost-effective) things like prevent lead poisoning, improve health outcomes, and boost student achievement in school. Rural affordable housing is an economic driver, and a lack of rural affordable housing is thwarting economic growth and job creation. Thus, HAC and rural partners in 50 states are among the growing number of voices who view housing as infrastructure. One rural small-business developer said it best, calling the intertwined issues of workforce recruitment and housing stock availability the “two biggest challenges that rural areas tend to be worried about.”

Those working in the D.C. metro area and other relatively affluent enclaves are (surely begrudgingly) accustomed to construction cranes hovering lattes the price of a burger and fries in many other places, and paying outrageous rents. But it is different in rural America.

Available housing is often dilapidated, not energy-efficient, and though comparatively cheap, relatively still unaffordable for the working poor or financially vulnerable. An elderly woman might have an $800 heating bill for her Jimmy Carter-era manufactured home.

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Where Do We Go From Here? Toward a New Freedom Budget

Posted by Gordon Mantler and James Tracy on March 23, 2017

Last week, President Donald Trump announced his first budget proposal. If, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, a “budget is a moral document,” then this budget is a reflection of the moralities of the boardroom, the eviction notice, the emergency ward, and the pink slip. What it does not do is take a single step toward alleviating poverty or tackling the structural inequality which fueled the discontent that defined the 2016 elections.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Trump’s budget will slash funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by 13 percent, or $6.2 billion, compared to 2016 levels. When compared to funding levels needed for FY2017, the proposed cuts amount to a 15 percent, or $7.5 billion, reduction. This will result in an immediate threat to the homes of “more than 200,000 seniors and families, and people with disabilities will be at immediate risk of evictions and homelessness.” It also eliminates much of the resources that help low-income people access legal aid to fight evictions.

Trump’s budget reflects one more effort to abandon the democratic reforms of the New Deal and Civil Rights eras. Slashed, to various degrees, are the budgets for the departments of justice, labor, and education, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. The only winners are homeland security and defense. This compounds the damage already made by previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic, who ran away from social progress in the post-NAFTA, pro-austerity years.

This budget is particularly striking when contrasted with others in the last 50 years, from the right or left. It has been compared to Ronald Reagan’s first budget in 1981, which began the shift of “national priorities” back toward extravagant defense spending (with average annual increases of 10 percent through the mid-1980s), lower taxes for wealthy Americans, and massive cuts in discretionary social spending, including Medicaid, food stamps, free and reduced lunch programs, transportation projects, education, and worker training programs. Democrats’ alternative budget that year claimed to do 75 percent of what Reagan’s did—including tax cuts and more defense spending—and failed miserably, as dozens of conservative and moderate Democrats voted for Reagan’s numbers instead. Economic growth followed, as did great inequality (exponentially so for the rest of the decade).

Fifteen years earlier, in 1966, King himself endorsed a budget, one that looked remarkably different than those proposed since.

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Homeownership Equity Depends on Racially Equitable Policy

Posted by Doug Ryan on March 22, 2017

Once again, we hear rumblings that housing finance reform, the wind-down of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the retooling of the mortgage marketplace are coming. A new administration—with allies in Congress and in private industry—may have a remarkable opportunity to reshape what amounts to nearly an eighth of the American economy.

Perhaps the silver lining in all of this is an opportunity to rethink public policy about housing, wealth, access to credit, and more, through the lens of racial equity. We need to take a closer look at racial equity before and since the mortgage crisis, all while being honest about the crisis itself.

To start, there is the false narrative about what caused the crisis—or more accurately, who caused it. The narrative peddled by leading members of Congress in opposition to finance reform blamed “ill-informed borrowers or those unprepared for homeownership,” tricked into the American Dream by Fannie and Freddie. As the argument goes, mortgages went to naïve borrowers who simply could not afford them. Indeed, the Tea Party was birthed in part by rants about the government forcing taxpayers to “subsidize the losers’ mortgages.

What we need to remember, however, are the facts surrounding the mortgage crisis, the fallout from the tightened credit market, and the loss of wealth among borrowers and families of color due to the foreclosure meltdown. We also need to recognize that wealth-stripping practices that have put households of color way behind their white counterparts are far from new.

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Who Counts as a “Homeless” Child? It Matters

Posted by Sharon Astyk on March 17, 2017

Are children in foster care homeless? It might sound like semantics, but it really makes a big difference.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is the primary federal legislation designed to improve the lives of homeless people. One of the major things it does is declare that homeless children can stay enrolled in the same schools, even without proof of residency, providing some consistency for kids who desperately need it. Until recently, this included children in foster care.

Before McKinney-Vento, it was common for kids in care to move schools multiple times each year as they cycled through placements. After McKinney-Vento, regardless of whether a child moved one or 10 times, they could attend the same school in the same community. The community was required to bus them and could not deny them access to school based on lack of records or administrative issues.

Cutting Off Kids in Need
When McKinney-Vento was reauthorized in 2015, the language "children awaiting foster placement" was removed from the act. This change went into effect in December 2016. Since every school change sets kids back academically, socially, and otherwise, this is a big deal.

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