Posts by Author: Emily Nonko

What Cities Are Doing About the ‘Shocking’ Loss of Urban Forests

Pittsburgh and the surrounding county lost 10,148 acres of tree cover between 2010 and 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

In Pittsburgh, a vacant five-acre plot along the Allegheny River will soon be helping to build cities once more.

The land — which sits directly under the 62nd Street Bridge — is the former location of the Tippins, Inc. steel mill. After the company declared bankruptcy in 2009, going the way of many former steel companies in the area, the land sat empty.

But today, that land is on its way to becoming a key venue for renewed efforts to restore and maintain urban forests across the U.S. Construction is moving ahead at the site on a low-slung glassy building designed to achieve LEED Platinum and net-zero energy certifications. Nearby will be two nurseries large enough to accommodate 100,000 seedlings. It will open this summer as the riverfront campus and education center for Tree Pittsburgh, a nonprofit founded in 2006 out of citizen concern for the health of the city’s urban forest.

Earlier this year, Tree Pittsburgh released a study that found Allegheny County experienced a tree canopy loss of 10,148 acres between 2010 and 2015.

“We had some guesses — we knew there would be some decline,” says Danielle Crumrine, Tree Pittsburgh executive director. “But we were pretty shocked when we actually saw the results.”

The team expected some reasons for tree loss, such as insect invaders like the emerald ash borer or diseases such as oak wilt. But those factors accounted for only 1 percent of loss, Crumrine says. The greatest impact actually came from housing, road, utility and rail expansion, as well as gas drilling and pipeline development.

Cities across the country are facing similar losses in urban tree cover. This month, a study by the Forest Service found that tree cover in urban areas has declined at a rate of around 175,000 acres per year from 2009 to 2014 — corresponding roughly to 36 million trees lost per year — while an estimated 40 percent of new impervious surfaces (mostly roads and buildings) replaced areas where trees used to grow.

Trees are essential to the health of any city, explains David Nowak, co-author of the study. “People understand the tangible benefits — aesthetics, wildlife, and air temperatures,” he says. Not only do trees cool the temperature of cities, they mitigate rainfall runoff and combat climate change by taking carbon out of the atmosphere. The study estimates the loss of these benefits — including carbon storage, pollution reduction and altered energy use in buildings — at $96 million a year.

“If we go down the trend of having all development and no trees, there’s a huge cost associated with that,” says Nowak. “Each community has to … realize they’re losing canopy cover and decide what they want to do about that.”

In Pittsburgh, that means a multi-pronged approach that includes outreach between different municipalities to devise planting plans, technical support to aid “community watchdogs for trees,” Crumrine says, and outreach like tree-tender trainings and free tree distribution events.

In New York City, the Natural Areas Conservancy and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation unveiled a comprehensive plan to bolster and protect the city’s urban forests.

New York City boasts 43 types of forests over 7,300 acres. Nowak notes that cities often have more diverse forests than actual forests, because “we have a natural seed source from the forests originally there, then we bring plants in from Europe, Asia, and we plant other trees.”

The comprehensive plan process found NYC forests in surprisingly good condition, with 85 percent dominated by healthy native trees. But the next generation are less healthy, particularly due to challenges from invasive species. Development is less of a threat, says Sarah Charlop-Powers, executive director and co-founder of the Natural Areas Conservancy, because “the land use patterns as it relates to open space are somewhat set.”

The plan calls for a combined public and private commitment of $385 million over 25 years to fund forest monitoring, restoration, planting, management and long-term maintenance. Some of the proposed funding would go to nonprofits, such as the Prospect Park Alliance, in Brooklyn, and the Forest Park Trust, in Queens, for forest enhancement efforts.

Prospect Park boasts 250 acres of woodlands the park began restoring in the 1990s. “A focus on the transformation of the park was focusing on the woodlands and getting people back into the woodlands,” says Susan Donoghue, the alliance’s president. “People didn’t feel comfortable really going into the inner part of the park in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.”

Today it’s a well-trafficked space; the Natural Areas Conservancy found that “about 60 percent of [New Yorkers] we interviewed reported spending time in natural forests,” says Charlop-Powers.

Prospect Park Alliance continues to focus on outreach, hosting large-scale volunteer planting days. “That early stewardship is one of the best ways, especially in an urban environment, to have a real association with trees,” Donoghue says.

Tallahassee is another city taking a proactive approach to its urban tree canopy. Last year the city allocated $125,000 for an urban forestry master plan which is now in the works.

“This is a growing city, with more development pressure, so maintaining the tree canopy while the city was developing became more and more important,” says Mindy Mohrman, of the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department.

The master plan will measure the current state of Tallahassee’s urban forests, which the city previously hadn’t monitored closely. By getting that data, Mohrman says, the city will be able to understand how to best maintain and grow its forests, from targeting invasive species to planting more wind and storm-resistant trees.

Luckily, Mohrman says, the master plan won’t be needed to convince people of the benefit of trees — Tallahassee has a longstanding designation as a Tree City USA from the Arbor Day Foundation. “People here really appreciate the trees,” she says. “Their fear is that developers don’t, and the city needs to make sure they’re required to preserve and replant.”

This article is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.

 

Why This Real Estate Investor Is in It for the Long Run

The typical residential street in Philadelphia is lined with rowhouses. (Photo by Ian Freimuth via flickr)

Tawan Davis doesn’t like to call himself a landlord. “I hate that word,” says the chief executive of real estate firm Steinbridge Group. Never mind that he’s the one behind a $60-million investment to buy up to 600 single-family homes in Philadelphia, with plans to rent them out to working-class residents.

Davis’ New York-based Steinbridge Group has profited off of investments from office properties to multi-family apartment buildings. When Davis took the helm in 2016, he pushed Steinbridge toward long-term investments in the rental market. In doing so, he singled out the type of renter getting squeezed out of many American cities: working-class individuals and families who don’t necessarily qualify for subsidized affordable housing but cannot afford the onslaught of new, luxury developments.

Fully renovated homes — upgraded facades, roofs, interiors — will rent between $800 and $1,500 a month, according to Davis, aiming for families making between $45,000 and $65,000 annually. “The largest tenant base we’ve found are nurses,” he says. “There are only so many people that can pay $3,000 a month in rent … In all this, no one is addressing the average working person.”

There is an understandable concern about an outside investor firm swooping in to buy up single-family properties. Over the past few years, large investor firms have earned a poor reputation in cities across the country for buying up distressed single family homes in bulk, foreclosing on owners and flipping them or renting them out for hefty profits. Big firms haven’t been the greatest landlords, either — a 2016 study from the Atlanta Federal Reserve found that large corporate landlords in the Atlanta area were more likely than smaller landlords to evict tenants, with some corporate landlords filing evictions for a third of their properties in one year.

“That is not our business,” Davis says. “Because we’re not coming in and doing that, we’re not displacing families, we’ve been more well received … I like to think of us as members of the community. And there’s a couple ways we differentiate ourselves.”

To start with, Steinbridge purchases its homes one at a time; the firm has accumulated around a hundred so far in Philadelphia.

Davis is also strategic about earning the city’s trust. “You move to a new city, and you don’t know everything,” he says. “We do not believe we are a panacea … we’re in the process of learning.”

So far, Steinbridge has partnered with Philadelphia Community Corps to integrate job training with its renovation effort, as well as West Philadelphia’s Catalyst Church for community outreach. The firm is starting a summer internship program for local students interested in real estate and property management. Steinbridge also chose a local property manager, TCS Management, to maintain its building stock.

Tawan Davis. (Photo by Kate Devlin)

Another differentiating factor: Davis himself, raised by a single mother in Portland, Ore., who put himself through Georgetown University, followed by a stint at Goldman Sachs. That was followed by master’s degrees in sociology and economics at Oxford, before finishing with an MBA from Harvard Business School. He now lives in Philadelphia.

His real estate career includes a mix of private and public sector jobs, one of which being the vice president of real estate for the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “I could have stayed in politics,” Davis notes. But ultimately, he determined the lack of affordable housing in cities to be “a market failure by economic definition.”

“There is demand, and there’s plenty of land and resources to build affordable housing,” Davis says. “So the inability of the market to respond to that demand is a market failure.”

City, state and federal intervention can only go so far, Davis believes. “It’s very easy to exhaust the public sector. There’s only so much cash to go around and only so many tax incentives the city can bear,” he says. “There must be a private market solution.”

Steinbridge Group’s investment in Philadelphia’s single-family housing is just the first step to such a solution. The firm announced last November, it would be investing $425 million in the acquisition and refurbishment of single-family and small multi-family residences for rental housing in transitioning neighborhoods. Though the initiative starts in Philly, the firm plans to expand the model to Northern New Jersey, New York’s outer boroughs, Baltimore, Chicago, Washington, DC and Boston.

Philadelphia has ideal housing stock to get the work started. The city famously has a robust inventory of attached single-family housing (rowhouses), a legacy of the local real estate industry’s emphasis on homeownership. Due in large part to historical denial of credit, especially to working class borrowers of color, much of that single-family housing stock has been poorly maintained, abandoned or foreclosed upon. (The city has recently been expanding subsidized home repair loan programs for homeowners.)

To Davis, the investment makes good economic sense in Philadelphia and beyond. He’s quick to offer figures like the increase, from 2.2 to 6.6 years, in which couples rent after marriage. In Philly, he also points to the disparity in new housing development, with 4,000 higher-priced apartments hitting the market or under construction, and only 1,500 absorbed a year.

Davis knows the strategy will vary as Steinbridge expands to new communities, but he’s certain the business plan checks out — both economically and, to Davis, morally. “I consider it my calling,” he says. “And we have found people want to help us because this particular sector of the real estate market is broken.”

“These communities see flippers come in and out, in and out, over nine months,” Davis says. “And they’ve seen that we haven’t sold a single house. We’re in it for the long run.”

 

The Importance of Beauty in Affordable Housing

At buildings like the Schermerhorn, large ground-floor windows, active use, and proper lighting help a building contribute to the feeling of a safer street. (Credit: Ennead Architects)

In downtown Brooklyn, The Schermerhorn apartment building boasts a facade of five translucent glass “towers,” fabricated with post-consumer waste glass and environmentally-efficient glazing, designed by Ennead Architects. On the ground floor, retail and lobby spaces open to the sidewalk, while a multipurpose room provides space for tenant activities, and also serves as home to a local ballet company. All of it was constructed on a cantilever, directly over subway tunnels carrying three subway lines.

And above? More than a hundred housing units for formerly homeless individuals and people living with HIV/AIDS, plus 107 more housing units affordable for households up to 60 percent of area median income or $56,430 for a family of three — in a zip code where the median income is $109,472.

“Great design is part of our philosophy,” says Brenda Rosen, president and CEO of Breaking Ground, the 28-year old supportive housing nonprofit that developed the Schermerhorn. “Having a beautiful place to live creates a sense of pride and helps residents regain their stability and dignity.”

One of Breaking Ground’s biggest tasks, she says, is to break down the stigma attached to housing for formerly homeless people. “Too often, the vision is something institutional and chaotic,” Rosen says. “What we build is the exact opposite of that.”

Offering communities examples of good, contextual design, she says, is also crucial for gaining support to develop supportive housing in neighborhoods. “We design so that you walk down the block and don’t know if you’re walking by a market-rate building or a Breaking Ground building,” Rosen says. “That’s our goal, to seamlessly fit into the neighborhood we’re building in.”

Last night at the Center for Architecture, city planners, architects, developers, and housing advocates sat down to discuss designing affordable housing in New York City. The Schermerhorn was on the agenda, as one of the seven case studies in “Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing,” a new report co-produced by the NYC Public Design Commission, the AIA New York Housing Committee, and The Fine Arts Federation of New York. The 96-page report breaks down guiding principles for design considerations in affordable housing, from massing to open space.

Five out of seven case study projects are defined by the city as 100 percent affordable, with most units affordable for households up to 60 percent of area median income. Some projects included supportive housing, some included housing reserved for formerly homeless individuals, for people living with HIV/AIDS, or reserved for households on the waiting list for public or Section 8 housing. Six of the seven case studies featured public dollars, either grants or subsidized loans. Only one project included any market-rate housing.

The impetus to set best design practices came largely after Mayor Bill de Blasio increased his Housing New York goal to preserve or create affordable housing, from 200,000 units to 300,000 units by 2024. In 2016, New York City Council also approved a range of zoning changes collectively called “Zoning for Quality and Affordability,” to modernize outdated zoning rules the city felt had not kept pace with best practices for design and construction.

“[Zoning for Quality and Affordability] laid the groundwork,” says Justin Garrett Moore, executive director of the Public Design Commission. “This current effort really gets to a different level of design detail and scope that affects the quality of housing.”

The changing role of the Public Design Commission also led to the report. While privately-developed affordable housing has historically been built on land the city sells or transfers to developers, the city has increasingly decided to retain ownership of sites and offer developers long-term ground leases instead. And so the Public Design Commission, established by city charter to review all projects on city-owned land, gained a larger role reviewing new affordable housing.

“The Design Commission doesn’t really have a long track record of reviewing affordable housing design,” says Garrett Moore, noting that in the past the Public Design Commission reviewed parks, libraries, and other community spaces. “This research and effort was to make sure our commission has good resources and references for what we want to achieve, and for different city agencies to have a reference for what can be built on these public sites.”

The commission also collaborated with the Department of City Planning, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and the NYC Economic Development Corporation to create a more streamlined review process to review projects for affordable housing on city-owned sites — also laid out in the new report. One project, on a former youth detention center, is currently making its way through the new streamlined process.

“We’ve had to tackle the process from a number of places to build understanding that we are very aggressive about the number of [affordable] units, but it doesn’t mean we’re okay building boxes that are not sitting well with the community,” says Claudia Herasme, director of urban design for the Department of City Planning.

To come up with “guiding principles” for the report, the authors looked at examples of affordable development around the world. Last night’s event coincided with a Center for Architecture exhibit on innovative social housing across Europe. “We brought this exhibition over so we could use the change with the Public Design Commission as an opportunity to broaden the discussion of affordable housing design,” says Ben Prosky, executive director of the Center for Architecture and AIA New York.

In New York, urban designers have moved away from the “monoculture of isolated, standalone housing complex,” says Dan Kaplan, senior partner for FXCollaborative. The architecture firm was highlighted in the report for its work on Navy Green, in Brooklyn, a block-long development where different housing prototypes are knit together by a common green space. “The work we’re doing in housing is about economic diversity and ownership typology all intertwined and connected back into the city,” Kaplan adds.

The design principles covered in the report touch on early stages of development (site planning and massing), exterior elements (materiality, facade, windows and doors), the ground floor condition of buildings, and living conditions (circulation and open space).

Karen Kubey, an urbanist specializing in housing and health who co-authored of the report, says these principles are intended not just for designers, but for communities. “It gives them the tools to demand excellent design,” she says. “It’s something you can literally hold in your hand.”

 

The Most Important Small Business Lending Program You Never Heard Of

(Photo by Clem Onojeghuo)

When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012, businesses of all stripes were forced to shutter. Small businesses — many without immediate resources or funding to rebuild — faced particularly daunting challenges.

In Manhattan, Baseline Design, a woman-owned business founded in 1999, lost three weeks of business that left its founder struggling. In Breezy Point, Queens, Kennedy’s Restaurant — a historic eatery in operation for more than a century — shut down in the face of total devastation. Its rebuilding process would take two years.

Both businesses would benefit from a timely federal pilot program. In 2012, an infusion of federal dollars from the program allowed New York state to provide a boost to loan loss reserves, a key protection for lenders making small business loans to borrowers considered “high-risk” — including low-income borrowers, borrowers with poor credit history or no credit history, borrowers with little to no collateral, or borrowers whose businesses were recovering from a natural disaster.

That federal pilot program was known as the State Small Business Credit Initiative, created as part of the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010. The pilot program awarded one-time cash infusions totaling $1.5 billion to 47 states, the District of Columbia, five U.S. Territories, and municipalities in three states. As a credit program, not a grant program, all of the funding was deployed in ways that recycled the dollars for future use — such as loan guarantees, loan participations, or loan loss reserves.

Because of its structure, the State Small Business Credit Initiative supported eight dollars in total small business lending or investment for every dollar of federal funding. But the funding agreements under the State Small Business Credit Initiative expired in March 2017, leaving it up to each state or municipal government to decide whether to continue using those federal dollars to support small business lending, or to gradually re-allocate them to some other purpose.

For Renaissance Economic Development Corporation, a community development financial institution founded in New York City to provide small business loans to immigrant businesses, the program was transformational, says Jessie Lee, managing director.

To illustrate that, Lee goes back to when Renaissance harnessed public funding for emergency lending after the September 11th terrorist attacks and the 2006 Queens blackout. In each of those instances, the impact of public funding was blunted. The problem?

“The lending capital we were getting [did not include] loan loss reserves,” says Lee. “We had to figure out how to raise it on our own … and with so-called riskier loans, we need to put in more loan loss reserves than traditional banking institutions.”

Loan loss reserves can run as high as 15 percent of the value of a loan, Lee says. Having to raise those funds on their own kept her team from issuing as many emergency small business loans as they might have after September 11th or the 2006 Queens blackout.

Things were different after Superstorm Sandy. Federal funding from the State Small Business Credit Initiative allowed Empire State Development, New York state’s economic development agency, to resurrect its capital access program, which provides matching dollars for loan loss reserves to lenders like Renaissance. So instead of needing to raise a full 15 percent of the value of each loan for a loan loss reserve, for example, Renaissance would only need to raise half that amount.

“It was a turning point for Renaissance,” says Lee. With risk mitigation in place, the organization could lend more frequently and deploy capital more quickly even in Superstorm Sandy’s aftermath. The deeper loan loss reserve pool also let nonprofit lenders like Renaissance raise private capital from banks, foundations and other sources, often at interest rates that would have been higher if they didn’t have such a deep loan loss reserve — and Renaissance could pass those savings onto borrowers.

New York isn’t the only state that used funding from State Small Business Credit Initiative to boost small business loan loss reserves. Others included Michigan, North Carolina, Illinois, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and California.

In California, through the end of 2017, Opportunity Fund used that state’s program for small business loan loss reserves to cover 8,754 loans to underserved small businesses that ranged from tamale makers to a towing company.

“We were able to increase our lending fivefold [as a result of the program],” says Gwendy Brown, vice president of research and policy at Opportunity Fund.

Nationwide, from 2012 to 2015, the State Small Business Credit Initiative supported 16,919 small business loans and investments, 42 percent of which went to small businesses located in low- or moderate-income census tracts, and 80 percent to businesses with 10 or fewer employees. Two thirds of those transactions fell under loan loss reserve programs, with the rest falling under other eligible program types.

Since the State Small Business Credit Initiative sunset last year, federal rules dictating how the recycled funds were used no longer apply, and states are beginning to make changes that may limit the continued impact of the programs those dollars formerly boosted.

In New York, Empire State Development has renewed its capital access program until 2021, the agency says. Extending the program beyond that would depend on potential federal or state funding. Previously, however, while the federal program was in place the agency allowed lenders to keep 100 percent of the state’s matching funds in their loan loss reserve after a loan was repaid. Now, the agency says, once a covered loan is repaid, lenders must return 75 percent of their matching contributions from the state, explaining that the change provides more flexibility in terms of future programs. (The agency also says it’s still accepting new lenders into its capital access program.)

In California, there’s more concern. Without new funding, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute, the state is now recapturing 100 percent of the matching loan loss reserve funds on covered loans that are repaid. That, among other changes the report cites, is “reducing the growth of the reserve and limiting the program’s utility.”

With the sunset of federal support for California’s loan loss reserve program, “our interpretation is that [the state] is [now] making it slightly harder to get access to the money and perhaps slow down the utilization,” Brown says.

Help may be on the way. Opportunity Fund has thrown its support behind SB 551, a state bill that seeks several reforms to protect the program. One big measure in the bill, Brown says, is moving the small business loan loss reserve program to the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, which the bill’s supporters believe would be better positioned to access new state funding. Existing state law had established the small business loan loss reserve program under the purview of the California Pollution Control Financing Authority.

While SB 551 does not include new funding for California’s small business loan loss reserve program, it would allow lenders to continue enrolling loans even if the federal money runs out — using state funds originally set aside for the program in California’s 2010 state budget. “Whether it’s a short or long-term funding shortfall, the idea is to allow lenders to keep enrolling loans,” Brown says.

 

The Most Important Small Business Lending Program You’ve Never Heard Of

(Photo by Clem Onojeghuo)

When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012, businesses of all stripes were forced to shutter. Small businesses — many without immediate resources or funding to rebuild — faced particularly daunting challenges.

In Manhattan, Baseline Design, a woman-owned business founded in 1999, lost three weeks of business that left its founder struggling. In Breezy Point, Queens, Kennedy’s Restaurant — a historic eatery in operation for more than a century — shut down in the face of total devastation. Its rebuilding process would take two years.

Both businesses would benefit from a timely federal pilot program. In 2012, an infusion of federal dollars from the program allowed New York state to provide a boost to loan loss reserves, a key protection for lenders making small business loans to borrowers considered “high-risk” — including low-income borrowers, borrowers with poor credit history or no credit history, borrowers with little to no collateral, or borrowers whose businesses were recovering from a natural disaster.

That federal pilot program was known as the State Small Business Credit Initiative, created as part of the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010. The pilot program awarded one-time cash infusions totaling $1.5 billion to 47 states, the District of Columbia, five U.S. Territories, and municipalities in three states. As a credit program, not a grant program, all of the funding was deployed in ways that recycled the dollars for future use — such as loan guarantees, loan participations, or loan loss reserves.

Because of its structure, the State Small Business Credit Initiative supported eight dollars in total small business lending or investment for every dollar of federal funding. But the funding agreements under the State Small Business Credit Initiative expired in March 2017, leaving it up to each state or municipal government to decide whether to continue using those federal dollars to support small business lending, or to gradually re-allocate them to some other purpose.

For Renaissance Economic Development Corporation, a community development financial institution founded in New York City to provide small business loans to immigrant businesses, the program was transformational, says Jessie Lee, managing director.

To illustrate that, Lee goes back to when Renaissance harnessed public funding for emergency lending after the September 11th terrorist attacks and the 2006 Queens blackout. In each of those instances, the impact of public funding was blunted. The problem?

“The lending capital we were getting [did not include] loan loss reserves,” says Lee. “We had to figure out how to raise it on our own … and with so-called riskier loans, we need to put in more loan loss reserves than traditional banking institutions.”

Loan loss reserves can run as high as 15 percent of the value of a loan, Lee says. Having to raise those funds on their own kept her team from issuing as many emergency small business loans as they might have after September 11th or the 2006 Queens blackout.

Things were different after Superstorm Sandy. Federal funding from the State Small Business Credit Initiative allowed Empire State Development, New York state’s economic development agency, to resurrect its capital access program, which provides matching dollars for loan loss reserves to lenders like Renaissance. So instead of needing to raise a full 15 percent of the value of each loan for a loan loss reserve, for example, Renaissance would only need to raise half that amount.

“It was a turning point for Renaissance,” says Lee. With risk mitigation in place, the organization could lend more frequently and deploy capital more quickly even in Superstorm Sandy’s aftermath. The deeper loan loss reserve pool also let nonprofit lenders like Renaissance raise private capital from banks, foundations and other sources, often at interest rates that would have been higher if they didn’t have such a deep loan loss reserve — and Renaissance could pass those savings onto borrowers.

New York isn’t the only state that used funding from State Small Business Credit Initiative to boost small business loan loss reserves. Others included Michigan, North Carolina, Illinois, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and California.

In California, through the end of 2017, Opportunity Fund used that state’s program for small business loan loss reserves to cover 8,754 loans to underserved small businesses that ranged from tamale makers to a towing company.

“We were able to increase our lending fivefold [as a result of the program],” says Gwendy Brown, vice president of research and policy at Opportunity Fund.

Nationwide, from 2012 to 2015, the State Small Business Credit Initiative supported 16,919 small business loans and investments, 42 percent of which went to small businesses located in low- or moderate-income census tracts, and 80 percent to businesses with 10 or fewer employees. Two thirds of those transactions fell under loan loss reserve programs, with the rest falling under other eligible program types.

Since the State Small Business Credit Initiative sunset last year, federal rules dictating how the recycled funds were used no longer apply, and states are beginning to make changes that may limit the continued impact of the programs those dollars formerly boosted.

In New York, Empire State Development has renewed its capital access program until 2021, the agency says. Extending the program beyond that would depend on potential federal or state funding. Previously, however, while the federal program was in place the agency allowed lenders to keep 100 percent of the state’s matching funds in their loan loss reserve after a loan was repaid. Now, the agency says, once a covered loan is repaid, lenders must return 75 percent of their matching contributions from the state, explaining that the change provides more flexibility in terms of future programs. (The agency also says it’s still accepting new lenders into its capital access program.)

In California, there’s more concern. Without new funding, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute, the state is now recapturing 100 percent of the matching loan loss reserve funds on covered loans that are repaid. That, among other changes the report cites, is “reducing the growth of the reserve and limiting the program’s utility.”

With the sunset of federal support for California’s loan loss reserve program, “our interpretation is that [the state] is [now] making it slightly harder to get access to the money and perhaps slow down the utilization,” Brown says.

Help may be on the way. Opportunity Fund has thrown its support behind SB 551, a state bill that seeks several reforms to protect the program. One big measure in the bill, Brown says, is moving the small business loan loss reserve program to the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, which the bill’s supporters believe would be better positioned to access new state funding. Existing state law had established the small business loan loss reserve program under the purview of the California Pollution Control Financing Authority.

While SB 551 does not include new funding for California’s small business loan loss reserve program, it would allow lenders to continue enrolling loans even if the federal money runs out — using state funds originally set aside for the program in California’s 2010 state budget. “Whether it’s a short or long-term funding shortfall, the idea is to allow lenders to keep enrolling loans,” Brown says.

 

Why This Historic San Antonio Credit Union Got a Makeover

The newly renovated Select Federal Credit Union headquarters. (Photo by Patrick Wong, courtesy of KAI Design & Build)

Located on San Antonio’s Eastside, Select Federal Credit Union can trace its roots back to the city’s past as a railroad hub. It was originally chartered as a San Antonio railroad federal credit union in 1939 to serve employees of the Southern Pacific S.A. Division.

The Eastside was first settled by freed slaves during Reconstruction. It was one of the few areas where San Antonio’s African American residents could buy a home, and they faced harsh segregation reinforced by the arrival of the railroad, whose right-of-way further solidified the division between the Eastside and other parts of the city (a pattern reinforced yet again when interstate highways eventually carved their way across the city).

Is change now coming to the Eastside? The area garnered a 2014 designation by President Barack Obama as one of the first five “Promise Zones,” which the former administration established to fight poverty through “holistic community-based approaches.” At the time of the Promise Zone designation, the Eastside had a 35.2 percent poverty rate and an unemployment rate over 11 percent.

Concern over the lack of investment on the Eastside encouraged years of community advocacy, which eventually secured millions of dollars in grants for housing and education even before the Promise Zone designation arrived. (Promise Zone designations did not actually come with federal funding, only staff support.)

Select Federal Credit Union had been working on its own to adapt to changes in the Eastside community. Several years ago, the credit union got federally certified as a community development financial institution (CDFI), “to better serve low- and moderate-income families,” says John Garcia, who handles business development and marketing at the credit union. CDFI designation provides access to federal and other resources allowing the credit union to offer no-fee accounts and work with members with credit challenges to secure loans.

“It makes things more affordable for our membership and community,” Garcia says.

After gaining CDFI designation, Select Federal Credit Union acknowledged another hurdle ahead: many community members didn’t know it existed. “For being around for over 70 years, you still had a big part of the community who wasn’t familiar with Select Federal Credit Union,” Garcia says.

The credit union looked to increase its presence within the Eastside just as the area gained its Promise Zone designation. Though the credit union is not inside the offical borders of the Eastside Promise Zone, community leaders had a vested interest in including the credit union in their larger vision of the area’s revitalization.

“Thirty percent of residents in the Eastside are considered not bankable,” says Dr. Mike Etienne, director of the Promise Zone initiative for the city of San Antonio. He adds that payday loan lenders had proliferated in the area, serving residents unable to secure low-interest loans.

Another challenge, adds community organizer, Juan Garcia, was that “a lot of people within the community do not trust banks … It’s a big challenge just to bring people through the door.”

With support from the Promise Zone staff, Select Federal Credit Union invested in a full renovation of its headquarters, led by the firm KAI Design & Build. “The building had not seen a major transformation in 30 years,” says Darren Jones, president of KAI Texas. “The goal was to create a statement piece so the public knows [they’re] here,” he says. The renovations were completed in November 2017.

KAI added a community meeting room in the design, which the credit union could open to Eastside residents. It is now used by local nonprofits for meetings and meet-and-greets. “We encourage residents who come to sign up at the credit union,” Dr. Etienne says. “Visibility and accessibility was the goal.”

On top of the renovation of its headquarters, Select Federal Credit Union spearheaded outreach with neighborhood associations and opened a mini-branch in the nearby Ella Austin Community Center to increase its local presence. Garcia calls it a rebranding that was “introducing ourselves to the community as an option.”

Garcia says the credit union’s membership has grown, and the neighborhood has, too — although gentrification has crept into the area, causing property values to rise.

This year, Credit Human — one of San Antonio’s largest credit unions — will move its headquarters into the Eastside Promise Zone proper, renovating a previously abandoned structure into a 10-story LEED-certified building that will house 435 employees. Dr. Etienne says that Promise Zone representatives assisted the financial institution with site selection, as well as $8.8 million of city and council incentives offered for the move.

The addition of a second credit union to the community is welcome, Dr. Etienne says. “The perception of the Promise Zone being a high-poverty, unbankable community is changing,” he says. “The presence [of credit unions] says that the Promise Zone is now open for business.”

 

Why It Matters Who Gets to Shape a City’s Economy

Louisville, Ky. (Credit: AP)

Good things happen when conversations about shaping a city’s economy are more representative of those who live in cities, according to a new study from the Urban Institute, released today.

The Columbus Partnership launched in 2002, bringing together over 60 CEOs in the Ohio capital to engage with projects and organizations from the city that typically struggle with capacity and funding. Together they strategized about how to work toward sustained economic growth and community development. Today the partnership continues to work with city government, anchor institutions like the Ohio State University, and philanthropic groups on projects focused on economic and racial inclusion.

In 2003, Louisville, Ky., merged with surrounding Jefferson County. At the outset of the city-county merger discussions, there was a fear that African Americans would be under-represented in the new combined political structures, having previously been the majority in the city’s governing body. Pressure from the NAACP and other civil rights organizations resulted in an agreement to redraw council district lines after the merger, creating majority African American districts in the city.

Going back to a wave of southeast Asian immigrants in the 1980s, Lowell, Mass., supported the development of a Southeast Asian Water Festival in 1997, which went on to spur economic activity by attracting tourists to the area. More recently the city, prompted by the Cambodian community, invested in establishing a “Little Cambodia” district as a place for both small business development and food tourism.

According to the new Urban Institute study, between 1980 and 2013, each of these three cities experienced an economic recovery in which they also improved on both economic and racial inclusion relative to other cities in the research sample.

The nonprofit research organization collected data on 274 of the largest US cities, ranking each on economic, racial, and overall inclusion over the last four decades. They focused on periods of economic recovery to see if cities could harness economic growth to improve inclusion. The short answer is yes, they can, even if cities don’t explicitly realize they’re doing it.

“A few times, we heard people were surprised they were being highlighted as improving on inclusion,” says Christina Plerhoples Stacy, who co-authored the study. “We found some of the cities that came to the forefront as more or less inclusive might not fit the narrative you hear.”

The study is the result of a partnership with the Kresge Foundation. The team took a step back from an earlier plan to write a guidebook for urban inclusion. Instead, the study looks at what inclusiveness means in cities, how it’s measured, and where it was best manifested in times of economic recovery. “We wanted to figure out who had done it well, then try to learn from them to help others do it in the future,” says Plerhoples Stacy.

The first step was to distinguish economic inclusion from racial inclusion. Economic inclusion measured how all community members are able to share in, and contribute to, economic growth through income segregation, housing affordability, the share of working poor residents, and the high school dropout rate. Racial inclusion measured whether people of color also participated in that economic growth by tracking segregation, racial gaps in homeownership, poverty, and educational attainment and the population share comprised of people of color.

That was set against each city’s economic health, looking at employment growth, unemployment rate, housing vacancy rate, and median family income. The goal was to hone in on cities with “inclusive recovery,” a term that “has not been a focus of prior literature.” The report offers this definition for inclusive recovery: “when a place overcomes economic distress in a way that provides the opportunity for all residents — especially historically excluded populations — to benefit from and contribute to economic prosperity.”

The report found that on average, economically healthy cities tend to be more inclusive than distressed ones, but an economic recovery does not guarantee gains in inclusion. In fact, more than half the cities that experienced an economic recovery lost ground on either racial or economic inclusion during their recovery. One example is New York City, which in 2013 ranked 197 out of 274 cities on overall inclusion, 208 on economic inclusion, and 162 on racial inclusion. From 2000 to 2013, New York’s economic health rank increased from 187 to 131 — but the city became less inclusive, falling from 194 to 197 in the overall inclusion rankings.

The report found that smaller cities tend to be more inclusive than larger ones. “Smaller cities are often understudied in these types of things,” says Plerhoples Stacy. “And they did tend to fair better in inclusion.” The causal relationship isn’t clear, but it pushed the researchers to take a deeper look into which of these cities “were able to move the dial of inclusion,” as Plerhoples Stacy puts it. That led to the focus on Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; Lowell, Mass.; and also Midland, Texas.

Plerhoples Stacy points to Louisville as an example of “thinking and acting regionally,” as well as “building voice and power,” while Lowell provided a good blueprint by embracing its community of Southeast Asian immigrants who arrived in the 1980s.

The report also points to Midland’s adoption of education policies and programs that support inclusion. The city offers a college attainment program in which any student graduating from Midland Independent School District receives free tuition at Midland College and at University of Texas Permian Basin. As the study states, the effort is supported by the city’s foundations, which reinvest money from the city’s oil boom toward the area’s human capital development. The city also focuses on progressive housing policy — with erratic availability and pricing due to the volatility of the oil market, Midland works to insulate its lowest-income residents with a combination of local programs, state and federal assistance.

(Credit: Urban Institute)

As the study acknowledges, many factors affect inclusion that are outside the control of city stakeholders. And unsurprisingly, the study couldn’t present a “single model for success.” Instead, Urban Institute identified eight common elements that emerged in a two-day summit with public and private sector representatives from the four featured cities: adopting a shared vision; inspiring and sustaining bold public leadership; recruiting partners from across sectors; building voice and power; leveraging assets and intrinsic advantages; thinking and acting regionally; reframing racial and economic inclusion as integral to growth; and finally, adopting policies and programs to support inclusion.

While the study wasn’t quite the guidebook first envisioned, Plerhoples Stacy believes it can be used “as a platform to continue thinking about becoming more inclusive, monitor these things over time, and make inclusion a core focus of their day to day work.”

The next steps? “We hope it’s taken further, with more [dis]aggregation by race as well as other groups who face barriers to opportunity,” she says.

 

Restoring a Healthy Local Food Economy on the Gulf Coast

A community garden in Africatown. (Credit: Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution)

From the surface it appears the community of Africatown, Alabama, fits the profile of a food desert. Many of its commercial buildings sit vacant, the once-bustling downtown has all but disappeared. And so, too, have grocery stores — residents now drive to the nearby cities of Mobile and Prichard for food shopping.

But look deeper, and you’ll find a long history of community gardening here. Decades ago, the Alabama Power Company gave residents permission to plant on its vacant plots. They began harvesting acres of crops to eat, sell, or give away to neighbors.

“When we were small, my father grew collards, turnips, mustard greens, peas, butter beans, okra, sweet potatoes, corn,” says lifelong Africatown resident Ruth Ballard, now 82. “He also kept animals: hogs, cows, goats, chickens, geese, guineas.” Community farming, she says, continues on those same plots today.

A recent $50,000 grant from Alabama Governor Kay Ivey will bolster Africatown’s strong ties to community gardening and make it more accessible to the overall community. The money, granted to the Africatown Community Development Corporation, will go toward constructing an open-air market adjacent to the 4.4 acre Jakes Lane Community Garden. According to executive director Donna Mitchell, the market will offer perishables like milk, butter and eggs, plus fresh fruit and vegetables, some of it sourced right from Jakes Lane.

Residents of Africatown can trace their history to July of 1860, when 110 men, women and children were captured in West Africa and brought to Mobile on a slave slip. The international slave trade became illegal in the United States in 1808, but Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Alabama businessman, had made a bet that he could evade authorities. Meaher secretly transferred the slaves to a riverboat and burned his ship. He was later arrested for the act, but never convicted. It marked the last known illegal shipment of slaves to the U.S.

At the end of the Civil War, formerly enslaved West Africans around Mobile, including those brought on the riverboat, founded “African Town” in an isolated area along the Mobile River. It was the earliest known town established and controlled by recent African immigrants in the United States.

The community established a governmental system based on African law and retained much of their West African culture. “They were a tight-knit community known for sharing and helping one another but reportedly had tense relations with both whites and African Americans and so largely kept to themselves,” according to a neighborhood history.

Africatown built itself into a self-sustaining community with a school, church and local businesses. That was threatened by incoming industry, which now surrounds Africatown, and development of a primary road system designed for through-traffic and access to industrial areas. The reconstruction of the Cochrane Bridge and Bay Bridge Road in the 1980s created a pronounced physical division between two Africatown neighborhoods. As for the surrounding industrial plants, a group of about 1,200 launched a lawsuit this year against a now-shuttered paper plant they say spewed hazardous chemicals into the air and local environment.

After the encroachment of roads and industry, residents say, Africatown’s population dropped, businesses left and the building stock became blighted.

Africatown Community Development Corporation was formed about 20 years ago to help revitalize the area. In 2016 the organization worked with the City of Mobile on an Africatown Community Plan, which addresses everything from affordable housing needs to attracting new business. The plan identified community gardening as an asset, with the goal of “expansion of community gardening in Africatown, a seasonal farmer’s market, and truck-based mobile markets [that] all can help increase access to affordable, fresh and healthy food especially for residents with limited transportation means.”

With that goal in mind, Mitchell spearheaded the application for this first-time grant program, made possible by the Alabama Healthy Food Financing Act passed in 2015. (Governor Ivey was a staunch supporter of the bipartisan legislation when it was passed, but funding didn’t come through until she became governor last year.) In total, the state allocated $300,000 to reduce the number of food deserts in Alabama.

Of 20 total applications, seven organizations were selected, according to Shabbir Olia, chief of Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs’ Community and Economic Development Division. The application process included a visit to Africatown by state officials. “We were very, very impressed with the community garden, how large it was,” Olia says.

The state worked with Africatown Community Development Corporation to secure a 10-year lease with Alabama Power to run the outdoor market adjacent to Jakes Lane. Mitchell aims to open the market four days a week beginning this July. Eventually, she’d like to install arts and crafts as well as a cultural component, modeled after the French Market in New Orleans.

“We want to provide all those things that have been missing from the daily diet,” Mitchell says. “And we hope the market, and other revitalization we’re doing, will help attract families back to the community.” The organization also secured $3.58 million to establish a new welcome center and develop a tourism program. And the organization is looking to blighted lots where they could establish more community gardens, Mitchell says.

Ballard says that Africatown’s limited access to fresh food “has made a huge impact on the community… anyone who doesn’t have transportation has had to depend on someone else to get to the grocery store.” She plans to begin shopping at the open-air market this summer, with memories of her father farming the adjacent land. “It’s where our dad taught us how to pick peas and get potatoes after he dug them up,” she says. “We did so much there as a family.”

 

Bringing Solar Power to Affordable Housing in Brooklyn

A rendering of Brooklyn SolarWorks' fire-code compliant rooftop solar array for NYC apartment buildings. (Credit: Brooklyn SolarWorks)

Three years ago, TR Ludwig and Gaelen McKee founded Brooklyn SolarWorks in Brooklyn, New York, and were soon making frequent trips out of the city — to surrounding suburbs, upstate, and New Jersey — to install solar panels on homes.

“We all lived in Brooklyn and when you drive through Brooklyn, you just don’t see much solar,” says Ludwig. “We asked, ‘why aren’t we focused on getting solar here?’”

They found a number of hurdles that have kept solar installation from flourishing in New York City. But the past year has brought promising changes, as well as a new initiative spearheading Brooklyn’s first large-scale solar project for privately-owned affordable housing.

Fifth Avenue Committee, a nonprofit providing affordable housing in Brooklyn since 1978, has enlisted Brooklyn SolarWorks and Gowanus Grid & Electric, LLC to introduce a model for bringing solar power to New York’s privately-owned low- and moderate-income housing stock. The group was inspired by the community solar model, in which open spaces and industrial rooftops are utilized to develop large community solar projects to which anyone can “subscribe”, reducing their electricity bills. In one common setup, subscribers receive a credit on their electric bills for a share of the energy produced by a shared solar installation and sent back into the grid.

Despite the promise of the model, there have been major barriers in bringing solar to New York City, especially to benefit multi-family housing, says Noah Ginsburg, director of Here Comes Solar, a program that looks to spur the adoption of solar within New York’s underserved markets.

Off the bat, Ginsburg says, “we have complicated building stock.” New York’s multifamily buildings are mostly topped by flat roofs, meaning extra complications and regulations solar installations to comply with NYC fire code. The upfront cost is another barrier. Co-ops with low cash reserves are often hesitant to take out a loan to fund an installation, he points out. Finally, New York City renters can not take advantage of federal and state incentives offered to homeowners.

Fifth Avenue Committee’s executive director, Michelle de la Uz, already considering solar for newly-constructed affordable housing, started talking with Kedin Kilgore, founder of Gowanus Grid & Electric, about potential solar benefits for the nonprofit’s existing building stock, which includes 43 affordable buildings, housing over 5,000 people across Brooklyn.

“Issues of environmental justice are always top-of-mind for us,” de la Uz says.

As for Kilgore, he founded Gowanus Grid & Electric “specifically… to make multi-family solar work for families who can’t pay for solar with tax credits and upfront payments,” he says via email.

Fifth Avenue Committee and Gowanus Grid & Electric received grants last year from Citi Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy to explore solar capabilities for smaller multifamily buildings. “We needed to figure out if it was feasible and cost effective for us to put solar on relatively small roofs,” de la Uz says. “We realized it can be done.”

Their work resulted in a request for proposals seeking a company for building and installation. One of the applicants was Brooklyn SolarWorks. The company developed a solar canopy specifically for the flat rooftops of New York City, meeting all fire code requirements. This innovation, plus a commitment to hiring and training local workforce, made their proposal a clear winner, according to de la Uz.

Solar installation wasn’t feasible on all 45 roofs within Fifth Avenue Committee’s portfolio. Instead, the team will install solar panels on 21 buildings — four of which are newly constructed — in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope, Gowanus and Prospect Heights, and Jamaica, Queens. Brooklyn SolarWorks will design canopies for some of the existing buildings, the four new developments, and also the nonprofit’s headquarters in Gowanus.

Financing for installation is not set in stone, according to de la Uz. “Our goal is to finance this with new and evolving programs coming about for solar on multi-family properties,” she says.

Once financing is in place and installation complete, Fifth Avenue Committee expects solar power to initially cover 20 to 30 percent of costs powering common areas of the buildings. “The hope is to go 100 percent,” de la Uz says. “As costs go down and new financing opportunities emerge, we can hopefully expand solar to additional roofs.”

Fifth Avenue Committee also started collecting utility bills from its tenants to better understand their energy usage. A later goal of the program, based off the community solar concept, is for the nonprofit to share its cost savings with tenants and engage residents on broader renewable energy efforts. Cost sharing, de la Uz says, is “the next level of feasibility we need to do.”

She’s hopeful for new solar possibilities emerging in New York, noting that the city’s public housing provider, NYCHA, set a goal to install 25 megawatts of solar capacity on its properties by 2025. That includes work already started at a massive public housing complex in the Rockaways. The agency is expected to release a request for proposals for system-wide installation soon.

“It’s moving from the realm of idea to reality,” de la Uz says. “It’s all happening in real time.”

 

Rolling Out a Red Carpet for Community Development Finance

Indiana University's flagship campus, in Bloomington, Ind. (Photo by Poren Chiang via Flickr)

Twenty-five years ago, in Washington, D.C., two dozen community development leaders gathered in a church basement to discuss widespread discrimination in commercial bank lending throughout the city. The meeting led to City First Enterprises, a nonprofit that opened the city’s first community development bank and has increased economic access and opportunity for D.C.’s low-income communities.

One of those community development leaders, John Hamilton, would find himself in a similar type of meeting in November 2017 in a very different city: his hometown of Bloomington, Ind., where, after serving as president of City First Enterprises for a decade, he was elected mayor in 2016.

Compared to working in community development in a bigger city, especially one full of policy wonks and current or former financial sector players, he faced a very different landscape in Bloomington, a smaller midwestern city without a framework to support community development financial institutions, or CDFIs. And so last November, he once again gathered a group — this time with CDFI and community bank representatives, as well as local community members — to figure out what could be done.

Four months later, Bloomington has introduced itself as the first ever “CDFI Friendly City,” in hopes of establishing a new model to bring national financing to local community development.

“That [November] meeting was an opportunity to think of what components could make a CDFI friendly city,” Hamilton says. “Our announcement is to start articulating what it means, in hopes that this will lead to Bloomington becoming a market where CDFIs can be active.”

CDFIs, which serve neighborhoods or groups the financial sector has historically neglected, have expanded in recent years but still aren’t reaching many American cities. “More than a quarter of counties in the U.S. have had no CDFI lending in the five years between 2011 and 2015,” says Brett Theodos, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute who studies on CDFIs.

In December 2017, the Urban Institute released a report breaking down the types of state and local policy that are important for CDFIs to enter a market. There are significant challenges for smaller communities and more rural areas, according to Theodos.

“CDFIs still rely on human interface … many have not become fully automated online lenders,” he notes. This becomes a challenge for communities outside of big cities, where CDFIs don’t often have a physical presence.

Despite CDFIs being largely non-profit lenders, “they’re still lenders trying to recoup a good part of their expenses from their lending activity,” Theodos says. Margins can be lower outside of big cities, where deals are smaller and real estate values are lower.

Given the hurdles, “if CDFIs are going to get to new communities, those communities are going to have to help,” Theodos says.

That was the thinking behind establishing Bloomington as a CDFI friendly city, Hamilton says. To help with the city’s brainstorm, he called Mark Pinsky, an old contact from the CDFI industry who now runs the advisory firm Five/Four Advisors.

Pinksy knew many existing CDFIs had an appetite to expand into new communities—“but the economics of that are hard,” he says. His idea: “First, you had to hang out a banner and say that you’d like CDFIs to come. Then what followed was a process, with the people of Bloomington, to figure out how a CDFI could work for them.”

Explaining the creative financing opportunities available through CDFIs to local community members — many of whom were unaware of how CDFIs worked — established the initial framework.

It was also crucial to secure local partnership. The Community Foundation of Bloomington provided seed funding for the process (along with the Bloomington Urban Enterprise Association and PNC Bank); the community foundation will also serve as the temporary fiscal sponsor for the effort.

The community foundation’s role goes beyond funding, according to president Tina Peterson. “We’ve been working on getting a better understanding of what this community needs in the way of creative financing, and introducing the idea to the broader community,” she says.

In the future, she says, “the goal is establish a new entity to manage the whole concept of a CDFI friendly city.”

As part of the initial framework, the working group identified opportunities in funding affordable housing projects currently in the planning process, facilities like child care centers, and community-oriented businesses. They also identified the need for a designated person, independent of local government, to serve as a liaison between these local investment opportunities and the CDFI investors operating outside of Bloomington.

Hamilton has requested $2 million of local public funding be dedicated to attract outside financing—$1.5 million for affordable housing support that will be available to leverage CDFIs willing to invest in the community, and $500,000 earmarked for CDFIs willing to support local and nontraditional small business growth.

“It’s a lot easier for a city to set its funding priorities if there’s some local money, [some] skin in the game,” Pinsky says. “It makes the city an at-risk player in what gets done.”

After building up this framework — which Pinksy documented in a white paper — a number of CDFIs courted by the mayor have expressed interest in moving forward with financing.

“We’ve been able to help the CDFI sector see this new approach, and we’ve invited them to pursue it with us,” Hamilton says.

 



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