Housing and The “Flyover” Mentality

Posted by Alan Mallach on February 14, 2017

Right around the New Year, an article by Wired’s Emily Dreyfuss popped up on one of my newsfeeds titled, “The Middle Class Can’t Afford to Live In Cities Anymore.” My reaction was skepticism, and that skepticism was confirmed when I read the article, which was yet another piece about the same hot coastal places that everybody keeps writing about–Boston, New York, San Francisco, and so forth. That, in turn, started me thinking about what has been derisively called “flyover country” (everything between the coasts), which seems to have become largely invisible to much of the American media, and how so much of the information we get about so many of the issues that concern us is reflected through a distorted coastal lens.

First, let's get some basic information out of the way. The middle class, by any reasonable definition, can clearly afford to live in most of America’s cities today. Not all, but most. Let’s define "middle class" as families earning 100 to 150 percent of the national median family income, which was $68,260 in 2015. Assuming that a family spends 33 percent of their income for mortgage, taxes, and insurance, they can usually afford a house costing roughly four times their gross income. With Zillow’s help, I created a graph of the median single family house value at the end of 2016 in 200 of the nation’s largest cities, and superimposed the results of my affordability analysis.

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Tenant Protections Are a Cornerstone to Solving the Housing Crisis

Posted by Aimee Inglis on February 13, 2017

I’ve read far too many think pieces, op-eds, and reports that neglect the role of tenant protections as a tool that is vital to solving our local, state, national, and international housing crises. Recently, California’s Housing & Community Development office released a report on our state’s housing crisis, and it failed to even mention “tenant protections,” “rent control,” or “just cause for eviction.” Despite a national Renters’ Day of Action last September where thousands took to the streets, the passage of two rent control laws in California at the ballot, and more of these campaigns in the pipeline, the conventional wisdom on solving the housing crisis remains conformed to the simplistic frame of “supply and demand,” and if we’re lucky, acknowledgement that some of that supply must be affordable units. We must do better.

It is not enough to organize around one particular policy. We must protect people who are in their homes AND increase the number of deeply affordable homes AND work to get to the root of the problem: financial speculation on land and housing. While tenant advocates are often leading fights for improved housing conditions, rent regulations, and eviction protections, we recognize that it’s not good enough to freeze things as they are. While we know we must fight for new homes that are deeply affordable and for greater community control of land and housing, we don’t feel that same recognition on the importance of tenant protections from most politicians and the “supply” community.

In a recent video, in which Assembly Democrats in California said they would stand up with our communities against President Trump’s proposed policies, Assemblyman David Chiu declared the importance of “affordable housing,” but no one said anything about tenants’ rights and displacement protections.

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Three Dangers and an Opportunity

Posted by Michael Bodaken and Ellen Lurie Hoffman on February 10, 2017

If it seems like we're approaching a domestic policy pivot point, it might be because we are. Since November 9, we’ve been thinking about the near- and long-term implications of the election results, and while the future cannot be predicted, we do know that it could have severe consequences for low income communities.

Now that Donald J. Trump has been inaugurated as President and the 115th Congress has begun, in the coming months and years, a number of high stakes policy decisions will pose significant threats to core affordable housing and community development programs, while others could create opportunities to expand much-needed resources. A few specific policy debates on the horizon include:

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New Bills Would Enforce Ignorance on State of Housing Opportunity

Posted by Debby Goldberg on February 9, 2017

The 115th Congress has just gotten underway and already several of its members have launched an attack on some fundamental American values: the belief that choices about where to live should not be limited by the color of one's skin or the country of their ancestry, and that everyone who works hard and plays by the rules should have an equal shot at access to opportunity. 

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have introduced bills in their respective chambers to dismantle the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulation that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) adopted in 2015. 

These bills would set back efforts to overcome the harm caused by housing discrimination and segregation, created in large part over many decades by government policies and practices. They would take away new tools designed to help communities better connect their residents to opportunity and fuel economic prosperity. And they would limit public access to a potentially wide array of government data on which public officials, policymakers, researchers, and citizens rely to understand and improve conditions in their communities.

The “Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017,” (H.R. 482 in the House and S. 103 in the Senate) has just a few provisions.

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Not All Asian Elderly Are Well Off

Posted by Kelley Lou on February 8, 2017

Video of Fox News personality Jesse Watters disrespecting Chinese people on the streets of New York’s Chinatown went viral last October. In the segment on the network's "The O'Reilly Factor", Watters mockingly interviews an elderly woman who apparently can’t understand him. As she stands there in silence, the piece cuts to a clip of Madeline Kahn from the movie “Young Frankenstein,” shrieking, “Speak! Speak! Why don’t you speak!” 

The clip was viewed over 2 million times, and people voiced outrage over how Watters treated the elderly Chinese woman and generally mocked Chinatown residents. For me, the video highlighted how little mainstream Americans understand Asian Americans and its older population. It also sheds light on how our communities are often disparagingly treated like the older woman in the clip by both media and policymakers—who often assume that we remain placatingly silent to injustice.

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Houston, It’s Time to Stop Accommodating Segregation

Posted by John Henneberger on February 7, 2017

Overall, Houston, Texas, is one of the most statistically diverse cities in the country. But at the neighborhood level, it is severely racially segregated.

This is no accident.

Segregation in our nation’s fourth-largest city, the Southern city with the largest African-American population, is mostly due to decades of intentional government action—especially decisions to restrict government-subsidized housing exclusively to high-poverty neighborhoods of color. Last month, the federal government ruled that the practices of city-sponsored housing segregation were unlawful.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) ruled that the City of Houston is in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, based on the results of a sweeping fair housing investigation. If Houston’s leaders do not take corrective action, the city risks law enforcement action by the Department of Justice.

Incredibly, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is vowing to defy the ruling. In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of many of his predecessors. For decades, Houston’s elected leaders have practiced racial segregation in the administration of federally funded subsidized housing programs without legal consequences.

Some worry that the incoming Trump administration will somehow reverse this ruling. But Civil Rights Act investigations are not political—they are thorough documentations carried out and enforced by the career federal staff tasked with upholding our nation’s most fundamental rights. John Trasviña, the former HUD assistant secretary for fair housing, told the Houston Chronicle that investigations of this kind are resolved by staff, not by political appointees.

Nevertheless, Houston leaders are vowing to use politics to continue their practices of segregation. Mayor Turner has declared that he will "utilize all possible avenues" to overturn the integration order. In doing so, he continues to misunderstand the meaning of fair housing.

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Nonprofits—Yes You Can Advocate. And Now’s The Time

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on February 2, 2017

Amidst the chaos of the past couple weeks there has been at least one positive change—a lot more people are starting to stand up and speak out about issues that concern them. I have personally had people seek out my advice for their first-ever calls to legislators and spoken to many first-time protestors. Many, many, more individuals have dramatically stepped up their commitments (myself included) to call, write, show up, and be a visible presence for justice in the world. 

The nonprofit sector needs to make a similar shift, organizationally. For a long time, many of us left the advocacy to the 501(c)4s, to our national organizations, to the organizing groups.

We know there are some political restrictions (which are really very narrow) on 501(c)3s, but most of us don't know exactly what they are, and tend to err on the side of caution, of not rocking the boat, and of not risking our funding. And when we do speak up, it's often very carefully limited to our wheelhouse—advocating to keep the programs that fund us alive and funded, or for rule changes that let us do our jobs better.

We can't afford to do that any longer. 

In the community development world, our constituents are overwhelmingly low income, and include people of all races, colors, and creeds. Our very reason for being is to support everyone in growing healthy communities where people can achieve their full potential. We have worked in untold communities that have been brought to life again by refugees and immigrants. We battle every day to heal the scars left by generations of legalized segregation, discrimination, and hateful violence. Even when our particular missions are specific, technical, and "not political," they still embody a desire for justice, fairness, opportunity, and compassion.

This means that not only do we need to stand up against disastrous and inhumane funding cuts, we can not stand idly by and be silent on the bigger picture moral crises facing our country right now, as well as the danger to its democracy.

As nonprofit organizations, we have an additional moral authority to bring to bear when we advocate as compared to people acting alone. Many of us have relationships with and access to policymakers in our official capacities that individuals do not. We have the ability to gather and share stories from our constituents to underscore the points that need making. We cannot make every cause our own, but neither can we keep our heads down and not speak on anything beyond our doors.

So in that spirit, I gave myself a refresher course on what 501(c)3s can and can't do, so I could share it with all of you. I suggest you read this piece from the American Bar Association and check out the Alliance for Justice's Bolder Advocacy site. But here's a quick version.

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Fair Housing is NOT War on the Suburbs

Posted by Jason Reece, PhD on February 1, 2017

The Obama administration’s revised Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule has recently come under fire—again—by the new administration. Attacks on the rule have been debated here on Rooflines, but what is lost in this debate is that AFFH has been successfully piloted, and this experience should be informing our policy debate.

The AFFH rule was revised in 2015 to produce a more robust assessment tool of fair housing for entitlement communities, in response to criticisms of lackluster assessments conducted under the previous model. The revised AFFH rule documents a detailed planning process, providing significant data resources to support assessment efforts. Although the new rule is not perfect, reform was sorely needed, and it presents a significant opportunity to assure HUD’s grantees are working to further fair housing in their respective communities.

President Trump’s reputation and hostility to fair housing is well documented. His selection for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has long resisted civil rights efforts, and his choice for HUD secretary, Ben Carson, has referred to the rule as federal “social engineering.” These positions represent a long standing resistance to the new rule from many in the Republican party, particularly Tea Party supporters. In May 2016, Republicans in Congress attempted to eliminate AFFH, but their efforts were rebuked. Conservative publications such as Breitbart News Network have referred to AFFH as a “war on the suburbs,” and the rule has been a focal point for some of Trump’s alt-right or white nationalist supporters. Most recently, legislation was proposed to eliminate the rule and to not allow HUD to produce geospatial data on racial segregation.

A pilot of the AFFH rule
As the debate on the future of AFFH continues, it has focused on the theoretical impacts of the proposed rule. But, lost in this debate is the fact that a pilot of the new rule was tested on more than 70 grantees of the Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) across the nation.

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Not Your Average Community Garden

Posted by Ashley Milton, PhD. on January 31, 2017

[Foreword: The 11th Street Bridge Park, a project of the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River at Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC), is working to transform an old freeway into a new civic space across the Anacostia River. In the summer of 2016, 11th Street Bridge Park staff and the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) began working in partnership with faith-based communities on both sides of the river to revitalize underutilized spaces with urban gardens. The project's goals include providing access to fresh food in a recognized food desert, piloting design concepts for urban agriculture in the future park, health and nutrition education, and creating peaceful respites for congregants and the community. These urban garden projects were supported by funds from The Kresge Foundation.]

Located east of the Anacostia River, Wayne Place is a transitional housing facility for young adults who grew up in the foster care system. In the spring of 2016, Wayne Place residents and staff from the 11th Street Bridge Park project and the UDC began work on a community garden in an underused area adjacent to the apartments with goals of offering residents the opportunity to participate in growing their own food, saving money on produce, building social capital, expressing their creativity, and providing horticulture therapy (the attempted remediation of health conditions through the act of gardening).

We first had to determine—for this location—the design and programming best suited for building a socially and economically empowering urban food hub. Urban food hubs are high efficiency food production sites that utilize bio-intensive, aquaponic, and hydroponic food production methods. Co-located within these urban food production sites are commercial kitchens that serve as business incubators and training facilities for food processing and nutritional health-related activities, and a mobile food truck focused on food equity and distribution of healthy food and education. Given their location in urban neighborhoods, hubs also focus on waste reduction and reuse through composting, water management, and related approaches to minimizing pressure on urban land and infrastructure systems. As such, the partnering organizations facilitated three on-site planning meetings with the Wayne Place community. This was a critical step to getting the project off the ground and establishing buy-in for the garden’s maintenance. Input was gathered on the garden’s design, the types of food to grow and its distribution, and how the space would be used as a peaceful respite to residents’ busy lives.

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A Community Planning Process—Even A Good One—Is Not Enough

Posted by Jessica Wolin and Brett Cook on January 26, 2017

What does it mean to value a public housing community that has been neglected for decades and now experiences high rates of violence, degraded housing, limited infrastructure, and a frayed social fabric? For many developers, city officials, and others, it means tearing all that down and replacing it with new mixed-income housing. What this redevelopment method often overlooks, however, is the experience of residents who bear witness to the physical destruction of their homes and the elimination of familiar street corners, basketball courts, green space, and all the other private and public signposts of community and lived history.

Simply inviting residents to participate in design charrettes and an official community planning process does not mitigate the significant loss of home that reverberates across generations. Just the inherent language of community “transformation” signals that what has come before is not worth holding on to, and renders the history of these public housing sites insignificant. Knowing this, our challenge is not to envision “transformed” communities, but an evolution that carries with it visible markers of what has come before and illuminates the history of the place and the people who have lived in these places for decades. What is needed is a radical act of longevity.

In San Francisco, a far-reaching process is taking place to replace and rehabilitate thousands of units of public housing. Called the HOPE SF initiative, four of the largest and most debilitated public housing communities will be entirely rebuilt, including new streets, parks, bus stops, community spaces, and housing.  The intent is to keep residents in place and living in their communities without moving them out of San Francisco, never to return. Even with this commitment and the promise of safer, healthier housing, honoring community history has taken on increasing importance as residents have voiced their grief as the place they have called home is entirely demolished. “Once they tear it down, you're tearing down the history of what makes Potrero Hill. Whether you call us a ghetto or a project ... there's a lot of history here and a lot of stuff has happened here.” Furthermore, community residents believe that historical recognition is needed to solidify their sense of belonging in the newly developed mixed-income housing that will be created through the HOPE SF initiative.

In response, HOPE SF has partnered with San Francisco State University (SFSU) to see how art can play a role in visually and experientially carrying forward individual and community history, culture, and connections as part of this neighborhood change effort.

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