Posts by Author: Emily Nonko

Kansas City’s Quest For a Real Housing Policy

(Photo by Pam Broviak)

This summer, the Kansas City, Mo., City Council worked out an agreement with a developer proposing to build a luxury residential tower downtown. To secure tax credits to build it, the developer would add 100 affordable units in another downtown building it owns. Still, there was a problem: the city had no definition for affordable housing.

The luxury tower proposal hit a nerve with Kansas City Council Member Quinton Lucas. “For decades, the city has been entering into these types of development agreements with no real type of affordable housing measures,” he says.

Later in summer, the council passed an ordinance defining affordable rents at 30 percent of the city’s median income. Spearheading the efforts was Lucas, a young city council member who experienced homelessness growing up and has made affordable housing a priority in office. It was just the first step in getting Kansas City’s housing policy back on track after years of turmoil and frustration.

A 2004 scandal regarding lack of financial accountability and oversight resulted in the city losing administrative control and management oversight of over 1,100 loans and 360 parcels of land when a judge placed the assets of the corporation into receivership. For the next decade under the court-ordered arrangement, the city used an outside agency, the Housing and Economic Development Finance Corporation, as a middle man to divvy up federal housing and community development dollars and handle housing programs.

After eight years in receivership, the city was able to fully retrieve retrieve its assets and management control in 2013. But in the meantime, any vision for forward-thinking housing policy fell by the wayside.

“In 2010 through 2012, we were making reports to City Council on what the city was doing to get out of the receivership,” says John Wood, director of the Kansas City’s Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department. “I was asked, ‘Mr. Wood, what’s the city’s housing policy?’ And I said, ‘Well, we really don’t have one.’ We were caught up in dealing with the receivership.”

There was also a challenge at state level. In late 2017, under former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens — who resigned over a sexual harassment scandal — the Missouri Housing Development Commission voted to cut all funding for state low-income housing tax credits. The future of those tax credits is still up in the air.

“The freezing of the state tax credit obviously makes the city think that they better figure things out themselves,” says Jeff Smith, executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association. Though he adds with a new governor in place, “we’re very hopeful we can get the state credit program back up and running next year.”

Wood sees opportunity on the Horizon for the agency to “think bold.”

As for Council Member Lucas, “We’re trying to say, what is the next generation of housing policy in our country? We’re trying to distort the housing market, and distort what we’ve been doing for years.”

This fall the department unrolled a five-year proposal with seven ambitious resolutions and ordinances. It includes the creation or preservation of 5,000 single or multifamily units, a $75 million housing development trust fund and $15 million rehabilitation loan fund, and the potential of inclusionary zoning.

City Council pushed for the policy, tasking the Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department to formulate a five-year vision at the end of 2017.

“We have to change the way we’re doing business in Kansas City,” says Gloria Ortiz-Fisher, executive director of nonprofit Westside Housing Organization. “We give away incentives to developers and we’re creating an arena where our downtown can only be afforded by the affluent.”

The Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department spent much of this year interviewing council members, developers and nonprofit housing groups. They also held public meetings, gathering feedback from 250 people, according to the department.

A range of issues emerged, as an estimated 24,000 low-income Kansas City families are in need of affordable housing. There’s also a need for transit-oriented affordable housing, according to Ortiz-Fisher. “The big jobs are outside of town, where people in the urban core can’t get to easily,” she says.

The Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department and City Council are getting creative with potential funding sources. Wood is looking into partnerships with the private and philanthropic sectors, trying to partner with banks, for example, for the $15 million loan fund.

And while the city hasn’t determined funding for the $75 million housing trust, an ordinance prepared by Lucas would fund it initially by increasing the city’s business use tax on out-of-state purchases of more than $2,000. Lucas also believes a sales tax for development in the city’s core could be utilized.

Lucas also wants to address zoning, a tool previously used for housing segregation in Kansas City, to support more affordable development. “We’re looking at removing some of the zoning barriers we have, such as setbacks on yards and required lot sizes, meaning you have to have bigger houses that only certain people can afford,” he says.

One push toward a more progressive housing policy came from voters this August, who voted in favor of the Healthy Homes ordinance, allowing the Kansas City Health Department to conduct random inspections and respond to complaints of dangerous or unhealthy conditions in rental apartments in the city. It will be funded through a $20 per unit fee for landlords.

Still, Lucas says, proposals have faced resistance from some Kansas City residents and landlords. The city plans to hold five community meetings “to allow people to give feedback, but also show the seriousness of it,” he says.

“This won’t just be some resolution to support affordability,” Lucas says. “Let’s be truly transformative … we can be an example for the mid-size city on how you can do it right.”

 

Harnessing the Sun to Power Equitable Development in NYC

A rooftop is covered with solar panels at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. The Manhattan skyline is at top. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Along the peninsula of the South Bronx, a concentration of warehouses are responsible for billions of dollars of industry. The waterfront is home to manufacturing, waste treatment, food distribution. “And all that activity surrounds an impoverished residential core,” says Toby Sheppard Bloch, chief venture officer for the HOPE Program, a workforce development nonprofit.

Members of the HOPE Program look at the industrial spread — which contributes to some of the worst health outcomes in the nation for South Bronx residents — and see a glimmer of possibility. “All that economic activity is happening exclusively in one-story, flat-roof buildings,” Sheppard Bloch says. “That’s millions of square feet of really prime rooftops.”

The organization is now developing a local workforce to install solar panels on such rooftops. The panels are increasingly utilized for community solar, a solar power array whose electricity is shared by more than one household.

“It’s a way to offset the negative environmental impact of those warehouses,” Sheppard Bloch says. “It’s a climate justice issue.”

The Bronx has become a hub for the growing effort not only to increase solar use across New York City, but make it equitable.

“Urban solar is tough — and there are very few places in the world that are urban as New York City,” says Sean Garren, northeast director of Vote Solar, an organization working to make solar affordable and accessible to more Americans.

For solar advocates to organize in multi-family apartment buildings, it takes time to educate and reach a building-wide consensus. In lower-income neighborhoods, the cost of installation can be an immediate turn-off.

But there’s political support for renewable energy at both the city and state level, with a mandate by Governor Andrew Cuomo for half of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2030.

Advocates want more solar in that future. This summer, the Million Solar Strong New York campaign urged Governor Cuomo to set a goal of powering one million homes by solar by 2023, including 100,000 low-income households.

“We need to set a higher bar for what success in solar looks like,” Garren says. “And we need to do that in an equity sense.”

In the city, a coalition of for-profit and nonprofit organizations are increasingly taking equity into account. OnForce Solar, a for-profit company headquartered in the Bronx, opened the largest community solar project in the borough this fall.

OnForce considers community solar a sustainable business moving forward, using a model in which users subscribe for a set period of time, with guaranteed discounts on energy bills. It’s open to anyone in New York City who pays an electric bill, from renters, homeowners, small businesses to houses of worship, says Dustin Kirkpatrick, who handles commercial sales.

The company has sought open space and large rooftops for community solar across the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Roughly 20 percent of each project is reserved for lower and medium income New Yorkers, according to Kirkpatrick.

OnForce also finds local partners, like the HOPE Program, for workforce development and community outreach. “Outreach and consumer education is always one of the toughest parts of any new initiative,” says Kirkpatrick. “The local partnerships are crucial.”

Solar One, a New York nonprofit, is forging its own partnerships to increase access. The focus on solar installation for single-family homeowners who can afford the down payment has shifted thanks to energy efficiency incentives and loans, according to Solar One program manager Anika Wistar-Jones.

Solar One recently launched the “Co-ops Go Solar” campaign in partnership with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a nonprofit that supports residents to form and maintain co-op buildings. The campaign provides free technical assistance, cost estimates, roof inspections, financial incentives and funding options to install solar panels on limited-equity cooperatives — a particular form of co-op subsidized by the city to make homeownership available for low-income households. Co-ops that sign-on join a purchasing group to negotiate for lower prices.

“A [cooperative] board has to decide they all want solar, and they want solar over other building priorities,” Wistar-Jones says. “We are holding lots of workshops, presentations for [co-op] shareholder meetings, and presenting options for how solar may work for their building.”

Solar One also extended solar education to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. “We have long-standing relationships with many [apartment] buildings, but don’t necessarily know a lot about solar power,” says Clara Weinstein, who worked with the campaign.

Back in the Bronx, the Point Community Development Corporation considered opportunities in renewable energy after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. Solar emerged as an appealing investment. “The [South Bronx] housing stock is old and energy inefficient, so residents often pay a higher utility bill,” says Angela Tovar, director of community development. “Many people in the community also voiced their interest, and how it could a job generator.”

The Point became a vocal contributor, alongside organizations like the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, to the city’s Hunts Point Resiliency Plan, with $45 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funding to study flood risk reduction and energy efficiency on the Hunts Point Peninsula.

The organization and their team of technical advisors are in the research phase of building a community solar model which will include ownership of the infrastructure by community members. “In our minds, this is an opportunity to build something that serves the community and — if we can do it right — will support ownership from within,” says Tovar.

The Point hopes to secure investors for a community solar ownership model by the end of next year. “If we’re giving ownership back to the community, then it’s more than just community solar,” Tovar says. “It gives people the discount, and creates opportunities for work, training, wealth generation and long-term ownership.”

 

This Nonprofit Is Calling Out Racism In Unexpected Places

Brown Hope's Reparations Power Hour, June 2018. (Photo courtesy of Brown Hope)

Cameron Whitten describes himself as a “queer, low-income, black person in Portland.” In living here for the past nine years, he says, “I’ve gained a really acute awareness around racism and white supremacy.”

Whitten left Northern Virginia at 18 and landed in Oregon as an accident, he says, residing in a homeless youth shelter and transitional housing. His experience of racism dates to his arrival, when a friend’s father wouldn’t let him stay at their house outside of Portland. “He was uncomfortable to have a black man at his house,” Whitten says. “It was the first time in my consciousness that someone looked at me, and had the power to deny something from me.”

Since settling in Portland, Whitten became a vocal activist with Occupy Portland and eventually ran for mayor. For two years he served as executive director of a local nonprofit, Know Your City, and worked as an advocate for the East Portland Action Plan.

While researching Oregon’s history as he ran for public office, Whitten became aware of the state’s historic racism: the exclusion of “negros, mulattos, and chinamen” from what was then the Oregon Territory, in 1844; the destruction of land and natural resources stewarded by indigenous people; the heavy influence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1900s; and mass displacement and discrimination targeting minorities.

To this day, Portland remains the whitest large city in the United States. And it’s strikingly unequal: a 2014 report by Portland State University and the non-profit Coalition of Communities of Color found that black families lag far behind whites in the Portland region in employment, health outcomes and high-school graduation rates. They also lag behind black families nationally.

Still, the city has a progressive reputation. “The racism is so real, and it’s exhausting every time someone is surprised when they hear about [racist actions],” Whitten says.

He believes that Portland’s lack of diversity often results in “performative allyship … white people who think they are the most uniquely qualified to do racial justice work.”

So earlier this year, after unexpectedly losing his job with the East Portland Action Plan, he decided to find “a community solution for racial justice.” He founded Brown Hope, “as an anti-racist organization that would use anti-racist learning to shape its governance style and programming.”

To help secure resources for the nonprofit, Whitten asked white people to show up. He hosted monthly “action team meetings” where his sentiment was: “Hey white people, if you want to show up for racial justice, show up for this because we need resources, and I need to tell you how we’ll use them.”

The lack of resources for black-led nonprofits was documented in a 2016 study regarding the divide between white- and black-led nonprofits based in Philadelphia. It found that African American‐led organizations have fewer cash reserves and are more dependent on government grants than white‐led organizations. The study also revealed degrees of segregation and isolation between African American‐led and white‐led organizations.

For Brown Hope, Whitten wanted to ensure the support of white people, but strictly use funding and resources to uplift people of color.

“I’m not trying to shame or exclude people,” Whitten says. “But white people should not be profiting off social equity work … while the people who have to live these things suffer.”

Building off the action team meetings, Brown Hope began hosting Reparations Power Hour, an event for black, brown and indigenous people that offers food, drink and $10 for showing up. Every Power Hour includes a local policy discussion for the group to weigh in on.

“Reparations” are donated primarily by white people. “Racially privileged people can support by GIVING reparations,” Brown Hope’s website states. “Instead of physically attending, your presence will be felt through your active financial support for healing, leadership, and community building within Portland’s black, brown, and indigenous community.”

Soon after the first event, the New York Times profiled it with the title ‘Reparations Happy Hour’ Invites White People to Pay for Drinks.

“Folks were only reading the headline and not the context of the article,” says Whitten. “The narrative was taken from me, put on an international stage, and the intention was lost.”

He’s done work to address questions and critiques surrounding the event, adding an FAQ to Brown Hope’s website. “Are people going to be off the hook for slavery because they gave $10?” the FAQ reads.
“No. Brown Hope is elevating the conversation about Reparations, because action is sorely needed on a national and global level. We are taking initiative. While we wait for Congress to do something, we call on folks to imagine what reparations in their own communities could look like.”

Donations for the Power Hour also increased alongside media coverage.

Whitten is still capacity building at Brown Hope; the organization doesn’t have enough funding for him to lead it full-time or hire a staff person. Still, the nonprofit started a vegan pop-up bakery, with the goal of ensuring living wages for black employees, and hopes to launch the Brown Hope Prize to uplift and invest in marginalized Portland neighborhoods.

Whitten continues to call out inequities in the nonprofit field. He points to a recent $1,000 grant, offering technical assistance for minority-led organizations working on racial justice. “It was the most restrictive, exhausting application ever,” he says.

“We express grave concern about the professional and emotional labor expected out of this process — ranging from writing, admin, transportation to a conference, pitching, engaging in live feedback, and networking,” Whitten wrote to the organization. “[A] $1,000 grant is not enough to cover the preparation of this entire package of funding obligations, which adds burden to an already overburdened, under-resourced effort that’s focused on some of our most marginalized communities.”

In response to the letter, Brown Hope was awarded half of the grant. “The only grant we’ve ever applied for, we’ve gotten the money,” he says. “I think people are really craving to invest into this work, and make it move forward.”

 

How Alabama Plans to Take Advantage of Opportunity Zones

Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/David Tulis)

Alex Flachsbart credits his founding of Opportunity Alabama, a first-of-its-kind nonprofit dedicated to maximize the impact of the state’s Opportunity Zones, to “being a nerd.”

Last November, he used Ctrl-F to search the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 for the term “low income.” In his search, he says, “I stumbled upon the Opportunity Zone program.”

“Opportunity Zones,” passed as part of the $1.5 trillion tax overhaul, were devised to attract capital to urban, suburban and rural areas where investment lagged after the Great Recession. It allows investors to avoid some taxes when they fund projects in designated zones.

This past Friday, the Treasury Department outlined new rules with the intent of giving investors confidence to pour billions of dollars into these economically distressed areas. It’s estimated within community-development circles that these tax incentives could prompt $30 billion of investment across the country. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told The Hill he thinks it will draw $100 billion of investment into economically distressed areas.

It’s the type of program that Flachsbart, an attorney, felt like Alabama had missed out on in the past.

“Alabama is utterly underserved when it comes to programs targeted toward low-income communities,” he says. Flachsbart rattles off a list: the state has perennially found itself on the “underserved states list” for the New Markets Tax Credit program; only one organization received designation to apply to the New Markets Tax Credit program in the past decade; up until recently there were no strong statewide CDFIs (community development financial institutions) operating across Alabama.

He founded Opportunity Alabama to help build the state’s “underdeveloped” community financing infrastructure, focusing on Opportunity Zones. “We saw this program as an opportunity to get something fundamentally right,” Flachsbart says. “This could finally be our answer to how we can create sustainable funding mechanisms for our low-income communities — if done right.”

Doing things right will be crucial so that Opportunity Zones truly benefit low-income areas. So far the program lacks clear “guard rails,” which would help ensure that existing communities benefit from influxes of capital and are protected against displacement.

Analysts, like those at nonpartisan Urban Institute, have expressed concern that tax incentives could draw investors to finance projects with little benefit to existing residents, like luxury condos or hotels.

Flachsbart says that Opportunity Alabama will serve as an intermediary to facilitate investor access to all potential projects in Alabama’s 158 opportunity zones. “We’re working with every project that comes through the door, whether that be a five-star hotel or a community facility providing daycare services in a super rural area,” he says.

After introducing “projects to investors and investors to projects,” as Flachsbart says, the nonprofit will step back from negotiations and take on the role of independent data tracker. Opportunity Alabama is developing a system — which Flachsbart wants paired with every project in an opportunity zone — so the nonprofit can track its impact and, more broadly, the impact of the program on all of Alabama’s low-income communities.

He also sees Opportunity Alabama’s role as engaging incoming investors in community development strategies, whether that be hiring practices or partnerships with local organizations. Each zone, he knows, will have unique needs. While there’s concern of gentrification and displacement spurred by Opportunity Zones, he points to rural areas of Alabama where the need for jobs is more urgent. “The key will be to engage all the right stakeholders of each community from the beginning,” he says.

Given the state’s lack of a framework for community development financing, much of the nonprofit’s early work has gone to education and awareness around the program. The next step, according to Flachsbart, is working with communities to develop project promotion strategies, build a pipeline of investable projects across the state, and finally cultivate local and national funding networks.

“By the end of the year, I hope Alabama is the first state in the country with a real depth of knowledge in every county, how this works and how to harness this incentive to facilitate community development,” Flachsbart says.

He’s found a willing partner in Birmingham, a city with 24 opportunity zones. The city’s government is creating the Birmingham Inclusive Growth Fund with the intent to attract investments in areas like the Innovation District, Civil Rights District and Fourth Avenue Business District.

While Opportunity Alabama will begin as an intermediary, Flachsbart envisions the nonprofit eventually raising its own capital to build a portfolio of impactful projects across the state.

For now, “we’re building this plane while we’re flying it,” he says. “We’re the only bespoke opportunity zone 501(c)(3) organization in the country. Anyone who wants to pattern this model is welcome to come steal from us.”

 

Boston Wants to Build Inclusion into Its Construction Boom

Boston's construction boom has been going on for a few years now. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

In the nearly 400-year history of Boston, the city is undergoing its largest recorded building boom. According to the Boston Planning and Development Agency, there have been roughly 50 million square feet constructed since 2014, with another 50 million square feet permitted by the city in that same timeframe.

In the midst of that growth, however, one big concern has emerged.

“There’s big money being invested and big money being made, but it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, being shared equitably by the people of Boston,” says Brian Golden, director of the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

Golden points to the “extraordinary disparity” that divides Bostonians. In 2014, the city was found to be the most income-unequal big city in America. A 2017 study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found the median net worth for Boston’s white households was $247,500, while the median net worth of an African American household was just $8.

In recent years there’s been a realization within the planning department, Golden says, “that it is incumbent upon us to develop tools that help us move real estate development in Boston in a more equitable direction.”

This month the city announced a new set of criteria to better promote diversity and inclusion, as well as prevent displacement, in Requests for Proposals released for public land within the city. All developers proposing to develop city-owned parcels must now include a “Diversity and Inclusion Plan,” aimed at creating increased opportunities for people of color and women in the fields of construction, design, development, financing, operations and ownership.

The initiative comes as city politicians have become increasingly vocal about the city’s inequality as it rapidly develops.

Last year, Council Members Michelle Wu and Ayanna Pressley spearheaded an ordinance calling for similar diversity plans on city contracts and construction projects. The pair will soon receive data on the city’s past contracts and funding, “to understand what percentage of our dollars are going to businesses owned by people of color and women,” says Council Member Wu.

“We know it’s going to be disappointing to see those numbers. There’s a lot of work to do,” she says. “Across the board, city government is talking about how to reduce income inequality.”

Inequality was an early priority for Mayor Marty Walsh, who released a comprehensive housing plan at the start of his mayoral tenure and set goals to develop more income-restricted housing as Boston’s population increases. In 2015, a city-owned downtown parking garage — where redevelopment proposals had failed to materialize — became a testing ground to address inequality through new development.

“It was clear this project had to work for many Bostonians… [the city] wasn’t as specific on how to do things, but they were clear this project needed to address issues of economic inclusion and economic justice,” says Joe Larkin, a principal of MP Boston, the developer selected by the city to develop the parcel into a multi-use skyscraper in 2016.

MP Boston set percentages in hiring people of color, employing women- and minority-owned businesses for construction, design and building operation, and borrowing from minority-owned banks.

Setting such goals meant the firm had to come to terms with the lack of diversity in the industry.

“Everyone on our team has a history of being really good at what they do, and so we’ve asked them to come back and do it again,” Larkin says. “It’s an easier thing to do rather than realize there are lots of people who never got the start in the first place.”

MP Boston looked for specific ways to address inclusion in each industry that contributes to building development. In architecture, for example, Handel Architects, an established New York City-based firm, and DREAM Collaborative, a local, minority-owned firm, were selected to collaborate for the building design.

In construction, MP Boston worked with an electrician union to better promote and expand its apprenticeship program in minority communities. “In this year’s apprenticeship class, [the union] saw the highest number of applications from people of color, which has been turned into the highest class of people of color,” Larkin says. He views these early efforts as contributing to “a growing established infrastructure of minority-owned companies.”

MP Boston’s efforts encouraged the planning department to set more specific goals for developers moving forward. “They articulated a really constructive package that looked at the development deal holistically,” says Golden. “So we’ve begun to seek replication of those goals.”

He looks at the planning agency’s diversity and inclusion criteria for public land as a space for developers “to be creative and compelling” in changing up business-as-usual. “We want developers reaching out to neighborhood groups, academics, contractors, figuring out how to put their best foot forward,” Golden says.

Golden notes that there are hundreds of city-owned parcels, varying in size, that will now require a diversity and inclusion plan under the new criteria. A number of those parcels are the result of Boston’s aggressive urban renewal policies starting in the 1950s. “By embedding the diversity and inclusion plan, we can develop these parcels in a way that benefits a whole lot of Bostonians who otherwise would be left behind,” he says.

“Will this policy get us to the promise land, a totally equitable society we seek?” Golden asks. “No, not this policy alone. But it’s a meaningful step in that direction.”

 

Bringing Arts and Culture into the Work of Public Safety and Criminal Justice

Besides supporting free expungement clinics, fellows with The People's Paper Co-op organized a mother's day welcoming party for women bailed out on Mother's Day earlier this year, followed a few days later by a march and press conference at Philadelphia City Hall to celebrate the freedom of those recently bailed out and to publically call for an end to cash bail. (Credit: Mark Strandquist)

At free legal clinics across Philadelphia, the first thing that The People’s Paper Co-op and Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity ask participants to do is something out of the ordinary.

Attendees are there to begin a process with lawyers to clear or clean up their criminal records. But first, they’re asked to print out these records, tear them up, and put them in blenders to create new, blank sheets of handmade paper.

The People’s Paper Co-op then asks each participant to respond to a prompt: “Without these records I am…”

Their written responses, along with a “Polaroid” photo called their “reverse mug shot”, are embedded into the new paper comprised of their shredded records. In an ongoing initiative, People’s Paper Co-op has taken each page to sew into a giant paper quilt.

It’s a powerful arts-based initiative that completely transforms an otherwise stressful, sterile legal clinic, organizers say. The work is one of four initiatives highlighted in a recent report by the Urban Institute looking at the ways arts and culture can strengthen community safety programming and criminal justice in cities across the country.

“We’ve started thinking about public safety more expansively — beyond making crime go down, or keeping people out of trouble,” says Mark Treskon, one of the authors of the report. “Sometimes the more easily-identified metrics, like dropping recidivism rates or dropping crime rates, can miss what’s going on.”

Besides the work of People’s Paper Co-op, the study also looks at a community festival and pop-up marketplace organized by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in California; a clubhouse in Brownsville, Brooklyn that young people helped design and program; and an effort in Milwaukee to transform an unused rail corridor into an inclusive space for disparate communities. The study takes a case-based approach to analyze how these initiatives utilize art to change the emotional experience within public safety and criminal justice spaces.

“We see that art can be a way for people to let their guard down, and approach themselves outside all the baggage from society,” says Treskon.

In 2014, as the People’s Paper Co-op was beginning, artists and activists Courtney Bowles and Mark Strandquist began working with community members at the Village of Arts and Humanities to discuss the causes, impacts, and potential solutions “to the collateral consequences of criminal records,” says Strandquist.

In Philadelphia, an estimated one in five people has some type of criminal record. And within Pennsylvania, criminal charges — including charges that did not result in convictions — are publicly available online.

The artists knew of lawyers leading free expungement clinics around the city. It offered the groundwork to “start re-imagining what a legal clinic could be,” Strandquist says.

Bringing art into a clinic environment transforms the space, says Seth Lyons, an attorney with the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. “The clinic model is creating the most efficient way to see as many clients as possible, in a short amount of time with little resources,” he says. “It’s a legal process that can ignore the significance of what’s happening for that person.”

Shredding the record and presenting participants with a blank slate, he says, “creates a space to see the power of this record, this piece of paper that holds people back but doesn’t have to define who they are.” He adds that the art component helps “break down power structures,” making the process more collaborative between lawyers, law students, artists and clients.

Another aspect that distinguishes the effort is the leadership of formerly incarcerated individuals. “People’s Paper Co-op is really participatory, following a bigger push we’ve seen to listen to people with lived experience and take their input seriously,” says Sino Esthappan, another author of the Urban Institute report. “Then they take it a step forward, and provide those people a seat at the decision table.”

At expungement clinics, participants are greeted by co-op fellows who went through the expungement process and were hired to develop skills in paper-making, public speaking, community organizing and journalism. “They act as a translator for law-speak,” says Courtney Bowles, the co-director with Strandquist.

Co-op fellows have also interviewed over 1,200 Philadelphians with criminal records to hear their thoughts on reducing recidivism rates. The responses, according to Bowles and Strandquist, will be used to create the city’s first “re-entry bill of rights,” titled “A Blueprint for Keeping Us Free.”

“Through our partnerships, we are able to connect the voices, dreams, stories and demands of folks in our programs with those in power,” Strandquist says.

Art has come to shape most all of the anti-recidivism work done by People’s Paper Co-op — and by creating artwork, their initiatives can readily be exhibited to the public. The paper quilt made from the expungement clinics, for example, has been exhibited across Philadelphia in museums, galleries, city hall, church basements, legal clinics, city streets, detention centers and more.

“Art allows us to trespass into spaces that have strategically and systematically silenced and excluded the voices of those impacted by the criminal justice system,” Strandquist says. “It provides counter-narratives of people’s lives, dreams and potential.”

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

 

Can Zoning Actually Save Manufacturing Space in San Francisco?

A rendering of the new Manufacturing Foundry at 150 Hooper. (Courtesy of PlaceMade)

Kate Sofis characterizes her childhood taking place in “a kind of dying rust belt city, Buffalo, New York, in the ‘70s.” Growing up, she witnessed unemployment rise within her family as the city’s main employers, General Motors and Bethlehem Steel, closed up shop. “I had this sort of PTSD seeing that as a kid,” Sofis says. “You would have thought it would have driven me as far away from manufacturing as possible.”

It didn’t. Sofis is the founding executive director of SFMade, a non-profit launched in 2010 to support local manufacturing in San Francisco. Despite commercial rent control being prohibited by California law, she has spearheaded an initiative to build affordable commercial space in San Francisco by borrowing from the affordable housing playbook.

As a result of her efforts — a complex, several-year process to change zoning and secure funding — this week SFMade will officially open the Manufacturing Foundry at 150 Hooper, a 50,000-square-foot multi-tenant, manufacturing space owned by the non-profit.

Sofis left a career in the computer manufacturing industry in the midst of the dotcom recession, wanting to figure out “how to remove barriers to growth for native manufacturers.” At the time, she says, “people thought manufacturing in the U.S. was done.”

Working with SFMade’s first board chair Mark Dwight and founding chief program officer Janet Lees, the team assembled a small group of manufacturers left in San Francisco, from a garment manufacturer to a brewery. By the end of 2010, the organization had engaged 105 manufacturers, providing brand assistance, educational workshops and advising services.

By 2012, SFMade noticed two things: finding manufacturing space in San Francisco was becoming more difficult, and manufacturers were increasingly competing with each other to secure it. The industry was growing as the city became more expensive, with industrial space increasingly converted to residential use.

The city had passed the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan in 2009 to protect industrial zones in the east side of the city. In 2013, SFMade began discussions with city government to see how it might be able to build more.

The result was an innovative zoning Sofis calls “inclusionary industrial zoning.” She says, “It takes from the playbook of affordable housing, building market rate to help pay for below market.”

The zoning identified around a dozen vacant industrial parcels close to downtown San Francisco in which a developer could build office space — not previously allowed on industrial sites — if they agreed to include industrial space, with plans to keep it affordable.

“It was the number one reason we could develop the first of those parcels,” Sofis says in regards to 150 Hooper.

150 Hooper is part of a larger campus called 100 Hooper, built by for-profit developer Kilroy Realty Corporation. An agreement with the developer transferred ownership of 150 Hooper to SFMade.

Because there’s no easy metric to qualify companies for affordable space, like area median income does for affordable housing, the role of a non-profit is crucial. “By having a non-profit control the industrial parcel, we can choose to suppress the rent,” Solis explains. It’s an industrial real estate model reminiscent of the Brooklyn Navy Yard or Greenpoint Manufacturing & Design Center in New York City, or the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago.

To fund its development, SFMade secured a $23.4 million New Markets Tax Credit allocation from the San Francisco Community Investment Fund. Jamie Querubin, chief operating officer for the fund, calls it a “historic” investment, as their typical allocation ranges between $10 and $15 million. “We felt it would really be a catalyst for economic development in that neighborhood,” Querubin says.

SFMade has already signed leases with a variety of tenants, including screen printers, an apparel company and medical device makers. Humanmade, a non-profit that will provide affordable access to industrial equipment alongside classes, job placement services and business development training, will be the building’s largest tenant.

“The idea is to expand the network and community to people who otherwise wouldn’t have the means,” says Humanmade founder Ryan Spurlock. “By subsidizing access, it’ll allow for a much more diverse community.”

All those who are a part of 150 Hooper stressed the importance of affordable manufacturing space in a city, even one in a housing crisis. “These are companies that support living wages in San Francisco,” Spurlock says.

“We need a more robust dialogue at the city level and beyond, that [affordable housing and manufacturing] are inextricably connected,” says Sofis. “You can’t promote one and not think about the other.”

“My top priority is to build more housing so that low and middle-income San Franciscans can continue to live in this city,” Mayor London Breed told Next City in an email. But she notes that “as we do this, we must also create and protect spaces for the manufacturing industry and the small businesses that make the very goods we consume and use, every day.”

With traction in San Francisco, SFMade is looking to the rest of the Bay Area to promote manufacturers and help them secure affordable space. The organization started a subsidiary, PlaceMade, to focus on the real estate holdings in the area, Sofis says.

“Increasingly we are finding developers across the region who are excited about including manufacturing as part of their projects,” Sofis says.

Funding will continue to be a challenge, she notes, particularly for nonprofits to own manufacturing property and control the rents. “We have to look at cities creating some sort of affordable industrial trust, similar to the way we have trusts for housing,” Sofis says. “It will give organizations somewhere to start, with some equity to bring into the deal.”

Because as cities scramble to develop housing, she notes, “it would be a big mistake to redevelop all our industrial land to housing. Because when you redevelop industrial space, you don’t get it back.”

 

That Undeveloped Land Could Be Protecting Your City From the Next Flood

Restoring a portion of the coastal prairie habitat at Houston's Rice University and integrating it as part of the college campus. (Credit: Jaime González/The Nature Conservancy)

Humans first visited the Katy Prairie around 10,000 years ago. The prairie lies in what is now known as the Texas Coastal Plain, bound by the Brazos River on the southwest, pine forest on the north, and the city of Houston on the east.

Over those thousands of years, the land was used increasingly for hunting and farming by Native Americans, pioneers, cattle ranchers and rice farmers. Beginning in the 1980s, a new group arrived: suburbanites. As Houston grew, developers started constructing master-planned communities on what remained of the undeveloped portions of the Katy Prairie. From 1978 to 1983, 100,000 acres of Katy Prairie were converted to urban use.

The formation of the Katy Prairie Conservancy in 1992 helped protect the land, 200,000 acres of which were undeveloped at the time.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which hit in August of last year, some Houston conservationists are urging that the city consider prairies as a tool for a more resilient city in an era when climate change is fueling more powerful and more frequent major storms.

Prairies are the kind of land that soaks up rain, a “super-effective urban sponge,” as Laura Huffman, regional director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas, puts it.

The benefit of such land in an urban context has long been understood, according to MaryAnne Piacentini, president and chief executive officer of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, “but it only has begun to be heard,” she says.

Piacentini and Huffman point to Houston’s “Memorial Day Flood” in 2015, the “Tax Day Flood” in 2016, and finally Harvey as contributing to the urgency surrounding resiliency. “In order to keep people safe, in order to keep properties preserved, we have to start thinking differently,” says Huffman.

Post Harvey, it was widely pointed out that Houston’s growth — dependant on policies that encouraged development in flood-prone areas while reducing the region’s natural defenses to flooding — exacerbated the storm’s devastation.

The area around Katy Prairie was a case in point. Developments overlapped or abutted floodplains, and local officials hadn’t done enough to preserve the native grasses, set aside open spaces or improve drainage. Damage around Katy, according to the New York Times, was not restricted to floodplains identified by FEMA.

Prairie proponents are looking at different ways the land could be integrated into the city’s resiliency plan.

Advocacy has risen for urban “pocket” prairies, which have increasingly popped up around Houston in places like hospitals and high schools. This spring, students at Rice University spearheaded a plan in partnership with the Nature Conservancy and Katy Prairie Conservancy to restore a portion of the coastal prairie habitat and integrate it as part of the college campus.

There’s another major opportunity in the form of the $2.5 billion flood bond approved by 85 percent of Houston voters this August. It allows the Harris County Flood Control District to build at least 230 resilience-centered projects over the next 10 to 15 years.

“There are a lot of projects that show a willingness for border preservation — figuring out how much land on either side of our creeks and bayous ought to be protected — as well as buyouts, to take people out of harm’s way and permanently protect that land as open space,” says Piacentini.

To better advocate for green infrastructure, Katy Prairie Conservancy has worked with partners, including Rice University, to study how prairies and wetlands can absorb and slow down floodwaters. The Nature Conservancy, too, is conducting research across the country to determine how nature can help reduce the impact of flooding.

“It’s very hopeful that in the work we’re doing … we can bring science behind us and show the cumulative value that we provide,” Piacentini says.

At Harris County Flood Control, there’s more reservation with regard to urban prairies. A study conducted by the Harris County Flood Control District between 2013 and 2016 revealed that native prairies were unable to absorb 100 percent of runoff in smaller storm events, though they performed better than developed land.

“Can we rely on this landscape as a flood reduction tool?” asks Stephen Benigno, an ecological restoration practitioner with the Harris County Flood Control District. “Not 100 percent, which is not to say we shouldn’t. But there’s still a limit to how much water the soil can hold.”

Prairies aren’t the only green infrastructure the Harris County Flood Control District is studying in regards to flood reduction, Benigno notes. The county is also looking into the potential of bioswales, native vegetation and floodplain preservation.

Still, there are challenges ahead. Benigno points to the difficulty of acquiring the land that green infrastructure requires. “On any given year there’s a budget we have to stick to — we can’t go out and buy every piece of floodplain in one year,” he says.

Despite challenges, awareness around green infrastructure is on the rise. “We are trying to normalize the concept,” says Huffman. “It’s the ability to get projects on the ground and cultivate the science, to squeeze out the risk of these strategies for when the public sector is ready to invest.”

She points to a recent study in which scientist found that native wetlands prevented $625 million in property damage from flooding during Hurricane Sandy and that restoring natural elements like wetlands and reefs could help avert more than 45 percent of the climate risk over a 20-year period, saving more than $50 billion in flood damages.

Huffman believes that intuitively, “people know that if you don’t have a parking lot, but you have a prairie, you’ll get two different outcomes.” Integrating that into real policy remains an uphill battle, she and Piacentini admit.

“Understanding it at an intuitive level is different than incorporating it into an actual capital improvement program, where you’re making hard choices about where pipes go, and where prairies go,” says Huffman. “We’re moving toward showing people how practically, it can be incorporated post-Harvey.”

 

Elevating the Role of Architects as Advocates for Equitable Housing

A model of Colville Estates, a publicly-owned, half public housing, half market-rate development in London. (Credit: Karakusevic Carson Architects)

In the early 2000s, urbanist Karen Kubey began thinking about harnessing architecture for social equity.

“We were sort of fringe characters,” she says of the urbanists, architects and planners who believed architecture could serve as an important piece of more equitable cities. “A lot of [that work] was small-scale, a lot of it was pro-bono.”

In ensuing years, as the world moved toward urbanization and a global housing crisis has emerged, she witnessed a change. “I’m interested in how some of that thinking has become a part of the way major firms are working and how profitable work is happening,” she says. “The field of architecture is paying much more attention to housing.”

It’s with that in mind Kubey served as guest editor for the latest issue of Architectural Design, titled Housing as Intervention: Architecture Towards Social Equity. The issue includes 17 essays tackling how housing projects and their design processes could serve as interventions towards greater social equity in cities, and how that work could potentially reposition the architectural profession at large.

“Despite its potential for impact in residents’ lives – and though it was Modernism’s central project – ‘housing’ is often considered separate from ‘architecture,’” Kubey writes in her introduction. She points out that regulatory constraints, profits for banks and developers, NIMBYism and supply-chain challenges often take center stage in discussions around housing. Architects, Kubey believes, can be powerful voices in the complex housing challenges increasingly dominating cities.

Each essay offers a unique perspective taking up that challenge. Matthew Gordon Lasner’s essay, “Architecture’s Progressive Imperative: Housing Betterment in the 19th and 20th centuries,” presents a historical look in architect’s roles for social change.

“In many respects, architects have limited control, especially in such a diffuse arena as housing,” Lasner writes. “Policymakers, developers and lenders tend to shape the larger contours of the system.”

He believes architects are still critical in catalyzing progressive housing policy: their importance, he writes, “lies equally in their ability to engender public support for housing intervention by translating social concerns, especially about the negative effects of modernity on family life and public health, into new physical forms that capture the public and political imaginations.”

Take, for example, the early history of the multi-family apartment building, a common housing type for centuries in Scotland but virtually unknown in England and the United States. In the 1840s, British architects promoted the idea of the multi-family building as a solution to the high cost of urban housing; a parallel campaign in the United States, led by architects like Calvert Vaux, emerged after the Civil War.

Other writers offer modern-day examples of architects serving as equitable housing advocates.

Kaja Kühl and Julie Behrens highlight the work of architects in Berlin in their essay, “Spaces of Migration: Architecture for Refugees.” In a 2014 housing plan, Berlin called for 100,000 housing units over the next 10 years to meet the city’s need for affordable housing. But by 2017 the estimate was considered insufficient — without including the arrival of an estimated 65,000 refugees under the federal government’s resettlement program.

Local architects rejected the concept of emergency, dormitory-style shelters for refugees and instead advocated for units with private kitchens and bathrooms that could be converted into permanent affordable housing. In further collaboration, they challenged the mindset of “architecture for refugees” to instead design “architecture for all.”

The authors add that these times of crisis, in both housing and resettlement, offer opportunities “for architects and their clients to leverage this publicly funded effort as long-term contributions to the city.”

In the Brooklyn, N.Y. neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, architects pushed for a better resiliency prototype post-Hurricane Sandy. Cynthia Barton, former housing recovery program manager at the New York City Emergency Management Department, and architects Deborah Gans and Rosamund Palmer of GANS studio, wrote of their collaboration around effective models of modular design and community engagement after a storm devastates a community.

The challenge to house people quickly — without relegating them to emergency shelter — resulted in a prototype that demonstrated how “purportedly short-term housing can offer aspects of permanence after disaster and become a long-term asset that is integrated into the community,” the team writes in their essay, “Beyond Temporary: Prototypes for Resilient Communities.”

In London, where city government has re-invested in its public housing stock, the role of architect as advocate has never been more important, argues Paul Karakusevic in his essay, “A New Era of Social Housing: Architecture as the Basis for Change.”

He cautions against a “one-size-fits-all approach” to build or rehabilitate public housing and pushes architects to forge close relationships with residents’ associations and local authorities and use it as the basis for their work.

Karakusevic’s firm, Karakusevic Carson Architects, worked to rehabilitate a public housing project with “a community left disillusioned and disengaged after 18 years of stalled schemes,” he writes. “In 2000, approximately half of the estate was demolished, leaving behind a rubble-filled wasteland.”

The firm kicked off its design process in 2013 with the resident’s association at the center. He writes that “through regular steering-group meetings and public-consultation events, the residents were heavily engaged throughout; from the site planning of new streets right through to the internal specifications.”

Kubey hopes that by presenting a wide range of examples of housing and architecture for the common good, it’ll inspire further change within the profession. The editing process of Housing as Intervention began in 2015, she notes, and the need for architectural advocacy has only grown.

“The housing crisis is not going away — it’s only getting worse,” she says. “This material has felt more and more urgent for me, and I’m heartened that the field is paying more attention.”

 

How Baltimore City Started Listening to Its Residents about Food Policy

A vacant cornerstore in East Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

When Holly Freishtat started her position as the food policy director for Baltimore City eight years ago, she was thinking about numbers. “I was thinking how important it was to be able to say this number of people live in food deserts, and these are their big concerns and issues,” she says.

That led quickly to a partnership with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, an academic center within the university’s school of public health. By 2012, the Center for a Livable Future and the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, an inter-agency city initiative led by Freishtat, had jointly released a food environment map that outlined the city’s food deserts, alongside a methodology brief.

It was just the beginning. Not only have they published subsequent Baltimore City Food Environment Reports in 2015 and this year, those early observations, alongside the data crunching and mapping, became a launching-off point for what has since become a resident-centered process to improve food policy in the city. Working with local residents and politicians, the partnership has pushed for innovative policy and initiatives around food access, and begun to change the very terminology of how the city of Baltimore talks about food deserts.

According to Feeding America, a national network of local food banks, roughly 23 percent of Baltimoreans — or 144,300 people, including more than 30,000 children — experience some type of food insecurity.

Addressing that challenge in a resident-centric way had to start with language. The term “food desert” often arises in discussions around food insecurity, referring to the lack of healthy food options in lower-income, often communities of color in cities.

“We had been hearing from advocates and residents that ‘food desert’ assumes it’s naturally occurring when it’s not, it’s a social condition,” she says. “It was time to listen [to residents and advocates] and change the name.”

In the 2018 food environment report, “food desert” was replaced with “Healthy Food Priority Areas” to “better characterize what is being measured, and recognizing that there is a suite of structural elements shaping Baltimore’s food system,” according to the report.

It’s one of many evolutions of the work since 2012.

“The idea has always been translating research and food environment mapping into resident and community engagement, and also driving policy,” Freishtat says.

Caitlin Misiaszek, a program officer in food communities and public health for Center for a Livable Future, calls the mapping and data analysis “the research backbone… then the city takes the information to inform their strategies.”

Center for a Livable Future and Baltimore Food Policy Initiative collaborated with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative as the backdrop. Under the prior administration, Freishtat says, “there was a big movement toward food policy councils, food mapping, and healthy fresh food financing initiatives.”

The partnership’s 2015 report looked at the city’s food retail environment, while also prioritizing areas for healthy food policy and offering strategies to address access. Baltimore Food Policy Initiative used its findings to create food environment briefs specific to council districts. They then engaged with council members on food justice issues facing their constituents.

Building off that work, those council members were asked to recommend local residents to serve as “resident food equity advisors” for the 2018 report. “It’s a new model, and we’re trying to figure out how to have a resident-driven, equitable food policy process,” Freishtat says.

As part of the model, 14 residents were engaged to look at the corner and convenience stores in their communities.

“What we learned from the 2018 map is that we have over 700 corner and convenience stores in our city with low healthy food availability scores,” Freishtat says. “We wanted to develop a strategic set of recommendations addressing that.”

Over seven meetings, resident food equity advisors were briefed on food access issues — from city zoning to health codes — then consulted on recommendations for bringing healthy food to their local corner stores. As well as using that feedback for the 2018 report, their four key goals were presented to Mayor Catherine Pugh and will soon be released to the public.

Baltimore Food Policy Initiative is launching the next cohort of resident equity advisors this November. Through the following year they will work on the implementation of actual policies, Freishtat says.

“We’re always building off the data,” Freishtat notes, pointing out that it’s crucial for Center for a Livable Future and Baltimore Food Policy to continue its partnership in mapping to improve food access within the city.

“If we’re going to drive policy, we need to know what the landscape looks like,” she says. “And if we do our work really well, the methodology only changes to get better.”

 



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