Posts by Author: Emily Nonko

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.”

 

Florida Community Land Trust Makes Affordable Housing Part of Hurricane Recovery

The affordable Keys Cottages are elevated 12 feet. (Credit: Florida Keys Community Land Trust)

Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition, remembers the exact moment in September 2017 that she connected with Maggie Whitcomb, who was soon to become the founder of the Florida Keys Community Land Trust.

Hurricane Irma’s 140 mph winds and 5-foot storm surge had just destroyed 25 percent of the homes in the Florida Keys.

“I’m driving in my car — you know how you remember where you are when something big happens?” says Ross, recalling when Whitcomb reached her on her cell phone to describe the damage in the Keys. Irma destroyed 473 homes and damaged 1,538 on the island of Big Pine Key alone.

“She’s so distraught over what’s happened in the Keys, and I’m wondering why she’s called me,” Ross says. “Then she asks if I can help her start a community land trust, so we can get some housing for people in the Keys.”

The two have coordinated since last fall to establish a new community land trust (CLT) for middle- and low-income renters in the Keys. (A land trust is an increasingly popular solution in cities where home prices and rents are out of reach for many residents. A nonprofit develops and manages permanently affordable housing for rental or ownership). The new Florida Keys CLT, started with $1 million, has already finished one of nine planned affordable “Keys Cottages.”

Whitcomb, who is a part-time Keys resident, wasn’t associated with any housing or relief organization when she called Whitcomb. In fact, she had no background in either. She is a self-described “tennis player and mom to four kids.” However, she was willing to spend her own money to get the land trust started. Maggie and her husband, Rich Whitcomb, own a bait and tackle shop in the Keys.

Whitcomb, in her telling, felt moved to action as soon as Irma’s devastation became clear. The hurricane struck while she was in New York attending the U.S. Open, and she found herself on a two-way radio phone app “with 15 to 20 strangers formulating a vigilante disaster relief team,” she says.

In ensuing weeks, Whitcomb realized the Florida Keys didn’t have adequate resources to rebuild in an equitable way. The string of islands is popular with vacationers and second homeowners — not the ideal ingredients for sufficient affordable housing for year-round, middle- and low-income residents. The islands stretch roughly 120 miles off the southern tip of Florida, making a nearly impossible commute for those who work there but can’t afford to live there.

After Hurricane Irma, many Keys residents lived in tents. Whitcomb notes that many remain in them, a year after the storm. As part of her impromptu recovery work, “I was scouring the internet looking for solutions in affordable housing,” Whitcomb says. She eventually stumbled upon the concept of a community land trust: “It made so much sense to me.”

That’s when Whitcomb made the call to Ross with a proposition: She would kick-start funding for a community land trust, if Ross would help her to build it.

“You can’t help but be a little skeptical,” Ross says. “But there’s nothing to be skeptical about with Maggie.” Eleven months later, they were both celebrating the ribbon-cutting of the first Keys Cottage. All the cottages will be deed-restricted affordable rental homes under stewardship of the Florida Keys Community Land Trust.

Ross has significant experience with land trusts. The Florida Housing Coalition launched the Florida Community Land Trust Institute in 2000. The model isn’t touted as a radical alternative to traditional homeownership, says Ross, given Florida’s conservative-leaning government. “The people in Florida tend to look at it as a fiscally conservative way of producing much-needed workforce housing,” she says.

In the Florida Keys, the newly formed trust had a difficult time selling the idea to local homeowners and politicians. “People didn’t feel like it would make a difference,” Ross says.

But she recognized the potential of a land trust’s formation post hurricane. “Whenever land becomes available, community land trusts need to be there,” Ross says. “Speculative investors have been doing this for years, buying after disasters or in recessions, and it’s not for the public good. We see an opportunity for community good.”

Though the Florida Keys CLT originally envisioned the traditional homeownership model, in which a homeowner leases the land from the trust, Monroe County government felt there was a higher need for affordable rentals.

The trust and Monroe County also came to a unique agreement to get the project started after Whitcomb purchased the land under the trust. In Spring 2018, county commissioners approved the trust’s request for the county to purchase the trust’s first four lots at $99,999 each, in order to put nearly $400,000 toward construction of cottages.

The county is leasing back the parcels to the trust for a 99-year period, with the requirement that units go to households that derive at least 70 percent of their income from employment within the county. Renters cannot make more than 80 percent of the area median income, and will not be charged more than 30 percent of their overall household income on rent.

The Keys Cottages are elevated 12 feet, a foot above the required base flood elevation, and can withstand 200 mph winds. They were designed by Marianne Cusato, who led a similar building project after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “The cottage concept is an alternative to the FEMA trailer — looking at how you can build for temporary and long-term, using the same resources you would for the trailers,” Cusato says. “It’s looking at disaster housing as a long-term investment.”

Building the Keys Cottages required a balancing act of “speed, budget, look and feel,” according to Cusato. The homes range from 760 to 1,094 square feet. “We designed something affordable to maintain, and something that people will want to live in,” she says.

Four cottages are expected to wrap construction this fall, with another five finished by early 2019. Whitcomb sees the land trust as a long-term investment for the community, and has started seeking additional funding to continue its work.

“People can’t believe how much we’ve done in 11 months,” Whitcomb says. “Well, it’s still not fast enough for me.”

 

The Struggle Continues in 50th Anniversary Year of Fair Housing Act

An empty home on blocks is shown on a hilltop in Vallejo, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

For Caroline Peattie to talk about the state of foreclosed homes in minority neighborhoods of Northern California, she has to get into the history of U.S. housing segregation.

Peattie, the executive director of Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, draws a line from from early- to mid-twentieth century policies that enforced residential segregation by race and resulted in a persistent wealth divide, to the lead-up to the 2009 housing crash, in which minorities were targeted for subprime mortgages and then to the aftermath in which those minority neighborhoods were disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis.

In the decade since the crash, she’s seen housing inequality persist in a new way. Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California is one of 19 fair housing organizations, led by the Washington-based National Fair Housing Alliance, filing suit this summer against Bank of America alleging the bank intentionally failed to maintain foreclosed homes in minority neighborhoods, while it consistently maintained similar bank-owned homes in comparable white neighborhoods.

Fair housing organizations consider such disparate treatment of foreclosed homes to be reminiscent of redlining — the practice of denying bank loans and other forms of non-predatory lending to certain people or neighborhoods based on race. Both practices result in the gradual decay of housing stock in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

Peattie rattles off statistics for Vallejo, a city where the group studied 24 homes owned by Bank of America. Two were located in Latino neighborhoods, 16 in predominantly non-white neighborhoods, and six in predominantly white neighborhoods.

“When you look at the data,” Peattie says, “Two of these properties in neighborhoods of color had 10 or more marketing and maintenance deficiencies — one even had 15 — while none of the properties in the white neighborhoods had 10 or more of those deficiencies.” Issues like unsecured or boarded doors, damaged roofs, and peeling paint were documented in minority neighborhoods, she adds, but nearly non-existent in Vallejo’s predominantly white communities.

As a result, it’s not only property values and therefore wealth creation that suffer disproportionately in minority neighborhoods — physical and mental health suffer, too.

Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California’s efforts to document this modern-day redlining are a part of a much larger investigation, kicked off in the wake of the housing crisis in 2010 by the National Fair Housing Alliance.

“Owners of foreclosed homes are responsible for maintaining and marketing them,” says Morgan Williams, general counsel with the National Fair Housing Alliance. “In the course of the investigation, [the Alliance] identified the primary 39 factors used by industry players to evaluate the work [owners] were obligated to perform.”

Those guidelines dictated research done in white and non-white neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates. Between April 2012 and December 2013, NFHA staff and local housing organizations visited over 2,400 properties owned by a total of 11 banks, as well as the Federal Housing Administration and Fannie Mae, scattered across 29 metropolitan areas in 22 states.

Each property was evaluated with a checklist including factors like curb appeal, structure, paint and siding, gutters, water damage and utilities. Evaluators have taken over 35,000 photos documenting home exteriors. A 2014 report released by the National Fair Housing Alliance uncovered significant disparities between the white and non-white neighborhoods studied.

These findings have played out differently with the banks or other entities responsible for maintenance.

The National Fair Housing Alliance reached an agreement out of court with Wells Fargo, in which they invested $27 million in predominantly African American and Latinx communities, in partnership with fair housing groups across the country.

With other banks and entities, the alliance moved ahead with legal action after they found discriminatory practices continuing despite meetings, warnings and complaints with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In 2016, the alliance filed suit with 20 housing organizations against Fannie Mae.

Earlier this year, the Alliance and 19 civil rights groups filed a civil suit against Deutsche Bank, Ocwen Financial, and Altisource. The Bank of America suit was filed in Maryland this June, with two homeowners joining as co-plaintiffs because of the bank’s failure to maintain homes next to theirs.

In a statement to Next City, a Bank of America spokesperson says that “the allegations are without merit.” The statement continues, “We apply uniform practices to the management and marketing of vacant bank-owned properties across the U.S., regardless of their location.”

“The findings speak for themselves, and are documented in thousands of images,” Williams says on behalf of the alliance. “We would be hopeful that we can work with the bank to address these issues, but we’re prepared to push forward with enforcement.”

Previous settlement dollars have allowed some fair housing groups to deepen their work around the foreclosure crisis. When Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California hired an investigator in 2013 to look at how banks were marketing and maintaining their foreclosed properties, that work was partly funded from the foreclosure settlement secured for California in 2012 by then-attorney general Kamala Harris.

In Louisiana, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center has worked with the National Fair Housing Alliance for the past decade analyzing foreclosures, and is also a co-plaintiff in the Bank of America suit. The Action Center also received money from the $27 million settlement agreement with Wells Fargo.

“We’re talking about some of the wealthiest institutions in the world, with more assets than many countries,” says Maxwell Ciardullo, the Action Center’s director of policy and communications. “And they’re making decisions that certain neighborhoods aren’t worth minor investments to do things like keep rats out of a vacant home, or prevent fire hazards.”

The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center set aside a $1.4 million fund from Wells Fargo to partner with churches and small nonprofits in Baton Rouge to continue its work around foreclosures, like offering foreclosure prevention counseling. Ciardullo, like Peattie, sees the work as a continuation of the long struggle for more equitable housing.

“It’s the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act,” he notes, “But if you look at these neighborhoods that are most affected, in many cases you’re looking at the same neighborhoods that were redlined. These are neighborhoods still suffering from the impacts of lending practices from nearly a century ago.”

 

Resetting The Atlanta BeltLine’s Focus on Equitable Development

A section of the Atlanta BeltLine. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

If one figure has come to loom large surrounding the development of the Atlanta BeltLine, it’s 5,600. That’s the number of affordable housing units promised at the beginning of the ambitious revitalization of former railroad rights-of-way encircling the core of the city.

Atlanta BeltLine Partnership formed in 2005 to oversee a transit proposal that grew to include trails, parks, public art, economic development, environmental sustainability, historic preservation and affordable housing.

But in 2016, the BeltLine’s original visionary resigned from the partnership’s board, citing concerns about equitable development. Last year, a report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia News Lab found only 785 of the 5,600 units had been funded, reporting that the “mission of keeping black families and middle and low-income residents from being pushed from their neighborhoods became an afterthought to building parks and trails.”

Atlanta BeltLine Inc., the agency responsible for enabling affordable housing development within Atlanta’s BeltLine tax allocation district, now finds itself in significant transition under interim CEO Clyde Higgs. (This summer, Brian McGowan, who served as CEO for less than a year, announced he’d be leaving his post.) But the agency hopes to emerge with a renewed focus on affordable housing. As a first step, they released a final report from a working group including public, private, and nonprofit voices on how the agency can hit — and hopefully surpass — its goal of 5,600 affordable units.

“From a high-level perspective, this is absolutely the focus for the organization,” says Higgs. The working group kicked off roughly six months ago with a diverse membership including Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority; real estate firm Columbia Residential; and Wells Fargo.

“We wanted to look at how our organization could be more nimble in how it could respond to opportunities,” Higgs says.

One thing the report is quick to point out: that Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. “is neither a housing provider nor a development authority.” Moving forward, it notes, the agency will rely on “strategic partners” to hit its goal of 5,600 affordable units.

Partnerships will be necessary for funding new housing, the report states. The Atlanta BeltLine Redevelopment Plan initially projected that funding through seven bond issuances from a tax allocation district set up in 2005 would raise $240 million for affordable housing by 2030. Also commonly known as tax increment financing in other cities, Atlanta’s tax allocation districts capture additional property tax revenues generated as a result of rising property values related to planned development projects, such as the BeltLine. The captured revenues are typically used to repay bonds issued to raise capital for projects within the tax allocation district.

Unfortunately for the BeltLine, the economy tanked a few years after the creation of its tax allocation district, and to date, only two bonds have been issued, raising $25 million — just 10.4 percent of the anticipated affordable housing funding.

Yet another challenge is diminished federal, state and city funding, alongside rising construction and land costs. “The effect of these two realities means affordable housing development requires more subsidy per unit than originally projected a decade ago in the Redevelopment Plan,” says the report.

While the city also set up an affordable housing trust fund for the BeltLine, the money can only be spent within the tax allocation district. Atlanta BeltLine Inc. also established a “planning area,” including all land within one-half mile on either side of the BeltLine, where the agency will rely on outside funding. The BeltLine tax allocation district covers only parts of the planning area.

One key recommendation from the working group is to expand the affordable housing count to include all units in the tax allocation district as well as the planning area, regardless of funding source. Counting units in both areas was a controversial move under former BeltLine CEO Paul Morris, who resigned in the wake of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation. But the report envisions that in widening the development scope and spearheading a new capital strategy that better leverages public, private and philanthropic funds, the agency can ultimately surpass 5,600 units.

There’s a belief within Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. that the agency must also do a better job in explaining the nuance of the tax allocation district to the public, and how it informs where the agency can pursue housing development.

“The [tax allocation district] is not something the BeltLine created, it’s a funding mechanism that was created to jumpstart everything,” says Dwayne Vaughn, appointed this year to the newly-created position of vice president of housing policy and development. “But it’s not an exclusive or exclusionary kind of tool, and that’s why we have the broader planning area. Education is key in getting that across.”

The report recommends the agency better chart its progress to the public, as well as create a public template for periodic reporting in regards to affordable housing goals. Better communication, they hope, will also translate to greater advocacy for increased funding.

“We want to make sure people are aware we need funding, and quite frankly a lot of that pressure has to come from the community,” says Twanna Harris, also appointed this year to the new position of vice president of brand, content and strategic initiatives.

Beyond engaging the community and local politicians for funding, Atlanta BeltLine Inc. intends to focus its attention on existing residents at risk of displacement. The report identifies the importance of helping families within 30 to 60 percent of the area median to remain within the BeltLine planning area.

According to Vaughn, Atlanta BeltLine Inc. is considering spearheading a displacement study and setting up a displacement hotline. “There needs be some mechanism so we can understand, before someone moves, the economic pressures that may cause that,” he says.

Vaughn adds that the agency is reaching out to neighborhood associations to increase communication about property values surrounding the BeltLine.

To date, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. and its partners have either developed or preserved 1,600 units within the tax allocation district and 1,042 units within the broader planning area. The report outlines that specifically within the tax allocation district, the agency plans to create or preserve 250 units annually through 2020, 320 units annually between 2021 and 2025, and 380 units annually between 2026 and 2030 to hit its 5,600-unit goal.

Such a goal now holds significant weight, given past controversy. But the new team feels optimistic after making affordable housing a clear priority.

“Before I transitioned into this role, I talked to [Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms] and she drove it home — affordable housing should be at the forefront of my activity,” Higgs says. “I have my marching orders to focus on the BeltLine’s affordability piece.”

 

Tenant Organizing is Picking up Steam in Rochester

(Photo by Doug Kerr)

This past February, Elizabeth McGriff, a resident of Rochester, New York, moved back into her home at 618 Cedarwood Terrace. It was no small act, following a foreclosure local housing activists deemed unjust, prompting more than five years of bank negotiations, eviction blockades, rallies, acts of civil disobedience, prayer services, lockouts and a “live-in,” in which McGriff and others moved back into the house after sheriff’s deputies removed her belongings.

The actions were led by Take Back the Land Rochester, a housing organization aiming to take bank-controlled land and return it to the community in the form of community land trusts — specialized nonprofit organizations that take ownership of land on behalf of a community, often with the purpose of making it available for affordable housing or commercial space.

After the successful protest surrounding McGriff’s home, which MidFirst Bank ultimately sold back to her, she transferred ownership to the City Roots Community Land Trust.

City Roots Community Land Trust was founded in 2016 to permanently preserve housing affordability in Rochester through a model for community owned and managed land. At 618 Cedarwood Terrace, McGriff maintains homeownership and rents the land from the trust, which in turn ensures the home will remain at an affordable price when it is sold.

The work of the trust is a sign of shifting tides around housing advocacy in Rochester, according to Joe Di Fiore, board president of City Roots. A postindustrial city along the southern shore of Lake Ontario, Rochester ranks as the fifth-poorest city among the top 75 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. In 2017, housing court issued 3,510 eviction warrants in Rochester. And with roughly 65 percent of residents renting, more than 50 percent of Rochester residents pay more than 30 percent of their take-home income on housing.

Since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Rochester has seen a dramatic uptick in housing advocacy. Take Back the Land led a number of eviction blockades — like the one for McGriff’s home — and last year, organizers launched a citywide tenants’ union, a homeless union and a union of senior citizens in subsidized housing.

Di Fiore has witnessed public sentiment change around the work. “When the eviction blockades first started happening, it was looked down upon,” he says. “Then, as more and more people were touched by the housing crash and foreclosure crisis … people started getting more sympathetic on and on-board with the cause. It’s empowered a lot of people.”

The formation of the land trust is part of a what Di Fiore calls a “multi-pronged effort for housing justice and advocacy.”

City Roots’ first year was dedicated to education and outreach among Rochester residents regarding the model. “The land trust is a new concept for people in general, but especially in Rochester,” Di Fiore notes, adding that only one community land trust was established prior in the 1990s and quickly went defunct.

Taking over the deed at McGriff’s home was considered their first major victory. Now, City Roots is determining how to move forward. They formed a partnership with Genesee Co-op Federal Credit Union, whose chief executive, Melissa Marquez, serves on the land trust’s board.

“We are exploring how we can provide permanent financing, mortgages, to homeowners who purchase a house where the land is owned by the land trust,” Marquez says.

With its high rent-burdened population, Rochester is part of a rising homelessness crisis across the state, especially in cities where residents do not have the same tenant protections offered in New York City. “We are not just thinking about affordable homeownership,” says Di Fiore. “We want to show the versatility of the model.”

In that vein, City Roots is working with a tenants union to buy out a rental complex and form a limited equity co-op, offering residents the opportunity to buy their apartments at an affordable price.

The trust also partnered with Saint Joseph’s House of Hospitality, a Catholic Worker community with a history of supporting Rochester’s homeless population. Over the last decade Saint Joseph’s House offered support to an encampment in the city as it faced several displacements, says James Murphy, a member of the Catholic Worker community.

This April, after an attempted removal of the encampment, “people mobilized,” says Murphy. “They formed a blockade with locked arms … there was a kind of showdown.” He believes the effort prompted the city to consider a more permanent location for the encampment.

Last month Rochester’s City Council approved a measure to convert a vacant lot into a designated encampment. If all goes according to plan, the land will ultimately turn over to the City Roots Community Land Trust, with Saint Joseph’s House continuing to provide support and services to the residents.

Trees will be planted on the site; the city also agreed to provide refuse pickup and allow pallets to set up tents. Murphy says they modeled the encampment off a sanctioned tent city in Seattle, though he added the involvement of a community land trust is unique. Approval by the City Council, he says, “gives a nod to the community land trust from the city, that they’re willing to transfer the land to them and they trust them.”

Besides the encampment, City Roots has three properties pending to be transferred into the trust and hopes to get funding this summer to purchase nine more over the next two years. An angel investor, Di Fiore adds, plans to loan the trust another $100,000 for additional properties.

“I feel really optimistic about how it will all turn out,” Di Fiore says of the encampment, but the sentiment also applies to what’s ahead. “We’ve used [the land trust] to stave off a home foreclosure, we’ve used it to set up a homeless encampment, we’re working with a tenants union,” he says. “It’s not just about fixing up or building a house.”

 

Tacoma Churches Don’t Just Pray for More Affordable Housing

Old City Hall, now a historic landmark building in downtown Tacoma's historic district. (Photo by Joe Mabel)

This July, the Tacoma City Council received a report with four recommendations for the city’s in-progress strategic affordable housing plan. The list would ring familiar to any housing advocate or policymaker: to develop housing for individuals earning up to 30 percent of the area median income; preserve existing affordable housing while enacting tenant protections; expand mandatory inclusionary zoning; and create an affordable housing trust fund.

But printed at the bottom of the first page, there’s something a little less familiar. It’s Bible verse Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

The report, titled Housing Hope, was issued by Associated Ministries of Tacoma Pierce County, a faith-based coalition founded 49 years ago. This year the organization added its voice to a conversation underway around establishing the city’s first comprehensive affordable housing policy, expected to be submitted to the Tacoma City Council this fall.

Mike Yoder, executive director of Associated Ministries, explains that for many years the organization served as “a social services incubator for the faith community,” from facilitating food banks to establishing one of the first faith-based AIDS service organizations in the country. Over the last decade it’s grown into its own social service organization; today Associated Ministries partners with the county’s human services department running its homeless response system, acting as a rapid re-housing referral agency, and running the landlord liaison program.

“We’ve become a key player in the homeless system in this community,” says Yoder. He realized, however, “it’s great we show up, volunteer, serve and support, but we also can go upstream … we can advocate for policies that help bring an end to homelessness.”

Associated Ministries was further prompted by the Tacoma Housing Division, which decided in late 2017 to think more strategically about its affordable housing strategy. The agency spent this year in outreach and community listening sessions to better inform their effort. “We can do the technical and research side, but our efforts were largely focused on issues the community is experiencing — seeing what’s really happening out there,” says Daniel Murillo, the housing division manager.

The housing agency reached out to Associated Ministries given its experience in homeless services. From there, Associated Ministries formed its Moral Voice Initiative, a faith-based group intended to advocate for affordable housing policy.

Before determining the four policy recommendations, Yoder, with 25 others, kicked off a process of research, education and organizing training. The group engaged city staff, city council members, and housing policy analysts, “and [we] thought about what we heard that really stood out,” Yoder says. They also trained with a community organizer with experience mobilizing faith-based communities.

Members of the group come from diverse backgrounds: Greg Walker is a licensed minister who moved to Tacoma 18 months ago with the desire to start “a new missional community,” he says; Patricia Roundy is longtime member of a local church; Christal Chiu moved to the city a year ago and works for the Tacoma Rescue Mission.

Some, like Chiu, were familiar with housing policy before starting this work. Others had different paths — Walker speaks of a journey from, “being very traditional, conservative, preached the mantra of pulling myself up from my own bootstraps … and in the last 10 years I’ve recognized there’s a lot of inequity I wasn’t cognizant of.”

All three spoke of a moral obligation to advocate for the most vulnerable in their community. Roundy asks, “What does it look like to imagine a world that is inclusive, equitable, sustainable, and what can we do in small and large steps to make that happen? The faith community can play a role, in listening to neighbors and having a vision of what could be. It matters that we act.”

The Moral Voice Initiative presented its policy recommendations to Council Member Chris Beale, a city planner who represents South Tacoma, before presenting to City Council last month. “[Beale’s] awareness of this was key,” Yoder says. “He’s been supportive of our efforts to convene faith communities to be a more activated group to address the homeless situation.”

Still, Yoder notes, there was some surprise at the City Council meeting to hear from a faith-based group, not a typical voice in affordable housing policy conversations. Now, Yoder’s task is to bring more faith leaders in.

“It’s a little complicated,” he says. “It’s a lot of extra explaining and legwork … talking about mandatory inclusionary zoning, no pastor has any idea what that means!”

A faith leader talking policy to their congregation, Yoder adds, can also bring up issues: “They’re not sure they’re enough of an expert to say to the church they support mandatory inclusionary zoning,” he says. “They’re wondering, ‘what are the implications if my congregation includes housing developers?’”

Walker, the ordained minister, explains his advocacy role is made easier because “I’m not preaching to generate an income to feed my family, which a lot of pastors are.” He continues, “A lot of times if you say things that are unpopular — even if they’re accurate — people could stop donating because you’ve offended them. Pastors are in this goofy place.”

But Walker believes “the Bible is very clear what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Yoder agrees and believes this policy effort will prompt more from Associated Ministries.

“I think this will be an effort we can point to and say: see how this can work and how our voice is appreciated,” he says. “In the future, we may need to call on pastors across the community to pack out City Council chambers and represents a real justice issue that might be controversial,” he says. “We want to be able to show up, in that way, in the future.”

 

Demystifying the Real Estate Development World for Minority Youth

Bronx youth get a one-day sample of Project Destined's real estate development coursework. (Credit: Project Destined)

When Cedric Bobo and Fred Greene think back on their most meaningful moments since founding Project Destined, a nonprofit whose goal is to help minority youth become real estate stakeholders in their communities, they both tell the same story.

The pair launched the nonprofit in 2016 in Detroit. Early into the program, they took students on walking tours of downtown with an African American developer who owned several buildings in the area. “We’re on the walking tour with 30 to 40 students,” says Greene. “The developer pointed out the building he purchased and what he planned to do there. And one of the scholars pulls me aside, to tell us he had no idea that people owned buildings.”

For Greene, “that moment resonated with me…there’s a whole community of people who think owning buildings is out of reach.”

For Bobo, he knew “we can help [students] see their city in an entirely different way.”

Prior to founding Project Destined, Bobo worked over 20 years as an investor and investment banker. Greene, the son of a developer, followed his father into the real estate business. In the industry, Greene notes, the racial disparity is “very clear.” That’s primarily because it’s an apprenticeship-based business not taught in schools, according to Greene. “It’s not a talent gap, it’s an information gap,” he says. “It boils down to access to information and access to capital.”

Greene and Bobo wanted to develop a framework to bring real estate education and mentorship to minority youth, while also offering real-life opportunities for them to become stakeholders. The cities where they’ve brought their program — Detroit, Memphis, and the Bronx — are all home to tight-knit minority communities that have seen significant change brought on by gentrification.

“So many urban communities are changing rapidly,” says Bobo. “The students see the product of it, but don’t know how to participate. We’re giving them tools so they aren’t afraid of gentrification, but are finding ways to participate in progress.”

As Greene puts it, “these neighborhoods deserve a good quality of life. The goal is, how do you reward the people who have been there and give them the tools to stay?”

That reward, Greene says, is making sure historically disadvantaged communities who typically rent can economically benefit from neighborhood change. It’s a significant challenge, given that gentrification often hinges on the displacement of minority residents and businesses for wealthier, whiter homeowners and investors.

Greene and Bobo believe teaching young people about real estate and ownership, and also giving them tools to invest, is the first step in creating a new narrative of gentrification.

The pair recruits at local high schools before they start a program in a new city. Interested students go through a “scavenger hunt exposure experience,” as Bobo calls it, to decide if they want to commit. From there, Project Destined works with a group of roughly 50 in a six-month training program.

Students learn everything from real estate basics — the difference between a multi-family and commercial asset, for example — alongside intensive sections on architecture, design, construction, property operations, legal regulations and financing.

Greene and Bobo have found students who struggle in traditional classroom settings often thrive in the training program, where classes take place at construction sites, architecture firms, banks and law firms. They also bring improv actors to teach students how to network.

In their final exercise, students formulate a deal to present to the group. A group of private investors, led by Greene and Bobo, then consider investing. A recent Detroit program culminated with the acquisition of two duplex properties in Bagley and New Center, with 20 percent of the residual cash flow and investor profits allocated to the students as scholarship money. The current Detroit program is based on our acquisition of a downtown hotel.

Project Destined most recently partnered with HERE to HERE, a Bronx-based career pathways nonprofit, to kick off its latest iteration. This June, students participated in a day-long “ideas challenge” for a chance to join Project Destined’s full program in the fall.

One participating student is Vanyely Liriano, who is coming into her senior year. Her plan is to become a doctor; she says Greene and Bobo introduced real estate to her as “a side hustle… something to support me as I get my doctoral degree.”

For this summer’s ideas challenge, she and a group of students analyzed a property in Times Square, Manhattan and made recommendations to the owner. (They suggested filling a vacant commercial space with an arcade or aquarium.) “It gave me a little taste of what it’s like to be in the business world,” Liriano says.

In her hometown of the South Bronx, an area that’s seen its share of gentrification, “I would like to see the youth more involved,” Liriano says. “We’re in this new generation, where I think the input of the youth will be very important to make the community better.”

 

Expanding the Horizon for Homeownership in the Twin Cities

Minneapolis from above. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

A decade ago, Hunde Takele arrived from Ethiopia to the Twin Cities as a “lucky winner” of the U.S. green card lottery. “It was really hard to win,” he says, not just because millions of people apply to the lottery every year, but winning meant he’d move to a new place he had no connections to. “I didn’t know much about North America,” he says, “I had no family or friends here to call and ask. There was no internet to do any research.”

He decided to move to Minnesota because he remembered studying the Mississippi River in school. Once there, he adjusted to the cold weather, the new city, and found work. He met his future wife at church, moving in with her and her two children. They had another child together, and his wife was soon pregnant with another. As Takele built his life — and worked to accommodate his growing family in a one-bedroom apartment — his desire grew to own a home. “That motivation to live the American dream was in my heart as soon as I won the lottery,” he says.

Takele, however, had no idea the difficulty ahead. He had limited credit and worked multiple jobs; his income couldn’t secure a loan high enough to buy a house. He visited over 100 banks, where one loan officer told him to “go work more” and come back when his annual income hit $80,000. “Years of hunting for a house, I found disrespect in every bank,” he says.

On a whim, Takele visited the office of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanities and was surprised to find the organization could potentially help him. In 2017, Twin Cities Habitat launched its Open Market Program as part of a four-year plan to more than double the number of families it partners with to buy homes.

The initiative to expand its clientele, particularly to reduce Minnesota’s racial gap in homeownership, got started about three years ago, says Pamela Wheelock, chief operating officer of Twin Cities Habitat.

The race gap in Twin Cities homeownership has gotten worse, with 23 percent black homeownership in 2015, down from 29 percent a decade ago and far below the national average of 42 percent for black households, and even further behind the national 72 percent homeownership rate among non-Hispanic white households.

Twin Cities Habitat recognized a “gap in the marketplace of the availability of a lending product,” Wheelock says, for families making up to 80 percent of the area median income.

“Habitat would continue to work with the lowest income families,” Wheelock says. But, noting the organization builds up to 50 homes a year, he explains, “We had to think strategically about penetrating that 50 to 80 percent [of area median income], where families should be able to find homes in the open market if they had a lending product accessible to them and supportive of moving them into homeownership.”

Most Habitat for Humanity chapters around the country build homes, offer homebuyer education, and serve as mortgage lender. The Twin Cities builds on that with a partnership with a local bank to support an Open Market Program, says Robyn Bipes-Timm, who leads Habitat’s mortgage lending and is president of Habitat’s wholly-owned nonprofit lending subsidiary, TCHFH Lending, Inc.

Last year Bremer Bank — which is owned by a foundation, giving it more flexibility for community-focused lending — agreed to purchase up to 500 below-market Habitat mortgages over the next four years.

“[Selling the loans to a bank] gives us a source of capital to originate more loans, and it was instrumental to our growth,” says Bipes-Timm. In the first year of Open Market implementation, Twin Cities Habitat closed on 92 homes, the highest number in its 30-year history.

The offering with Bremer Bank, a 30-year mortgage at three percent interest, addresses common barriers to homeownership like Takele face. As a lender, Habitat is flexible with credit scores and works with lower-income clients, many of whom work several jobs and don’t have the employment history required for a traditional mortgage. The loan does not require mortgage insurance, which can add thousands of dollars to the cost of homeownership. Habitat also uses grants to provides down payment assistance to make sure the family isn’t paying more than $3,000 at the closing table, according to Bipes-Timm.

Before his purchase, Takele spent several months working with Model Cities, a Twin Cities Habitat partner, in homebuyer education, working to raise his credit score and reduce his debt to income ratio. That was followed by homeownership classes through Habitat. When he was approved for a loan up to $256,000, he says, “I almost passed out because of joy.”

Even though Habitat developed a mortgage that worked well with a wide range of buyers, the organization faced another challenge: the hot, fast-paced housing market in the Twin Cities.

Habitat partnered with local real estate agents to help homebuyers navigate the competitive marketplace. The Open Market Program, by design, allows buyers to expand their search beyond Habitat’s existing footprint in the Twin Cities, into cheaper markets outside the city. Roughly 70 percent of purchasers in the first year bought in suburban areas, according to Wheelock. “It’s helped our scatter diagram of where Habitat homes exist,” she says.

In February, Takele moved into a four-bedroom home in the Lakeville suburb. His second child was born soon after. “We are comfortable now,” he says.

Twin Cities Habitat’s goal is to close over 100 homes in its second year, an effort coupled with strategic outreach to potential homebuyers. The organization, for example, is reaching out to major employers with diverse workforces within the 60 to 80 percent area median income.

“A lot of these families don’t think of Habitat, and aren’t aware they can buy homes on the open market,” says Wheelock. “They think of homes we build for lower-income families. We’re increasing awareness there’s a new opportunity available to families that may not have thought of us previously.”

 

Fort Worth’s Public Housing Authority is Overhauling Itself

Butler Place in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by renelibrary)

On a two-acre park-and-ride lot and bus stop, in the South Main Village area Fort Worth, Texas, plans are underway to build the city’s first transit-oriented development. The $94.3 million project, to include apartments, retail and potentially a boutique hotel, will have direct access to the Trinity Railway Express and the 27-mile TEXRail line to the Dallas-Fort Worth international airport, set to open later this year.

The apartment building will hold market-rate and rent-restricted housing, including apartments reserved for residents being relocated from Butler Place, the city’s largest public housing complex, which is slated for a complete overhaul into a mixed-use, potentially mixed-income development.

Located about a mile away, Butler Place is one of 52 public housing complexes built as part of the former Works Progress Administration’s work-relief program in the 1930s-40s. The low-slung brick buildings, surrounded by a maze of highways, have long fallen into disrepair. The relocation of its residents is part of a major undertaking by Fort Worth Housing Solutions, the city’s public housing authority, to convert its portfolio of public housing under the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, a voluntary program of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), authorized by Congress in 2012.

Under RAD, all of the nearly 1,000 residents living in Butler Place will be relocated to newer, mixed-use and mixed-income developments like the one planned in South Main Village. After the Butler Place overhaul, under the RAD program rules, previous residents will have first dibs on apartments in the overhauled complex.

The city’s public housing agency has taken the RAD program as an opportunity to overhaul itself — established in 1938 as the Housing Authority of the City of Fort Worth — not just in terms of its name, but the type of affordable housing it oversees.

“We were an early adopter [of RAD],” says Mary-Margaret Lemons, president of Fort Worth Housing Solutions. “It’s the model we’re using to deconcentrate poverty, so we won’t have large concentrations of public housing like we do today.”

The RAD program works by transferring public housing units into private sector management under long-term, project-based Section 8 contracts. Tenants pay the same 30 percent of their monthly income in rent that they pay under public housing. Local public housing authorities maintain the ability to place tenants through their lottery systems and waiting lists, while private developers receive rental income (based on a locally-based fair-market calculation by HUD). The partnership between developers and housing authorities allows access to a broader range of subsidies and financing to rehabilitate and manage affordable housing.

A number of housing authorities across the country have come to see RAD as necessary given Congress’s refusal to adequately fund public housing and billions of dollars needed for backlogged repairs.

“There’s been a lot of interest by housing authorities, in large part because there are few other options to preserve public housing properties,” says Jessica Cassella, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project.

Under RAD, some cities, like NYC or San Francisco, have chosen to preserve the buildings they have, converting them wholesale into project-based Section 8 properties in partnership with developers. Out of concern for potential displacement of residents, San Francisco chose to work only with nonprofit developers like the Mission Economic Development Agency. NYC is using its RAD program as a boost for local jobs and local minority and women contractors.

In this changing landscape, Fort Worth’s housing authority is moving from an owned-and-operated property model to an asset management and property development business model with the help of private entities, facilitated by RAD. According to Fort Worth Housing Solutions, it’s the largest public housing authority in Texas to convert its entire portfolio under the program.

The need for affordable housing has only increased over the years in Fort Worth, according to Lemons. In the early years of RAD, the agency took a hard look at areas across the city it could build more, alongside the nonprofit Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. The Butler Place complex, which spans 42 acres near downtown Fort Worth, stood out.

“We were pouring over maps, looking for parcels downtown where it made sense to pursue affordable housing,” says Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. “It struck us that [Fort Worth Housing Solutions] owned 42 acres adjacent to downtown, so we started paying attention to ways we could use that land more effectively. That led to RAD, and rethinking the fate of Butler Place.”

But before the city turns to the redevelopment of Butler Place — likely to be a mixed-use project with market-rate apartments alongside Section 8 units — Fort Worth Housing Solutions made it “our first priority to get our residents relocated,” says Lemons. Fifteen families moved this December to Stallion Pointe, a new 264-unit mixed-income development. The goal, according to Lemons, is to relocate everyone from Butler Place by the end of 2020.

The RAD relocation process has emerged as a major concern to housing advocates, according to Cassella. “The program is very complicated and has a lot of moving parts,” she says. “The extent that the housing authority is able to engage tenants early, and often, is really critical to the success of the conversion.”

Cassella points to cities, like Baltimore and Richmond, Virginia, where rights of public housing tenants have been violated under RAD. (After the failure of HUD’s previous conversion plan, known as Hope VI, tenants under RAD are ensured the right to remain or return to their original locations after conversion and rights to a grievance procedure against the new property owner.)

Housing advocates have called for greater oversight by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as more agencies turn to RAD. “The implementation of those rights and the enforcement by HUD and others to make sure those right are being protected has been lacking,” says Cassella.

In Fort Worth, the agency worked with a consultant to develop a “relocation tracker,” a database to track every decision and option residents are given in the relocation process. Fort Worth Housing Solutions has also holds regular meetings with Butler Place residents regarding RAD.

“Our staff are also hosting smaller meetings to prepare residents who will be moving soon into a new home of their choice at one of our affordable properties,” Lemons adds. “Residents are our first priority in the RAD program.”

Another change under RAD is the very ownership structure — bringing with it concern that public housing agencies can transition all their properties to private developers.

For most of its projects, Fort Worth Housing Solutions keeps a stake as builder, at least partial-owner, and building manager, in partnership with private developers. “There may be a few select projects where we may not be in the ownership position,” Lemons says, “But we are heavily involved to ensure residents are protected.”

Ultimately, it’s the partnership with private developers, and utilizing low-income housing tax credits, that allows Fort Worth Housing Solutions to leverage funding that it couldn’t before. “Our public housing buildings were built in the 1940s and 1950s, and there’s a backlog of capital needs to get them to modern-day standards,” says Lemons.

So far the authority has closed seven RAD transactions, with seven more expected to close by the end of the year. The vast majority of the housing authority’s portfolio is already beyond public housing.

“We have almost 5,000 [privately-developed] units in our portfolio right now, and over 1,600 units we are in the works to develop,” Lemons says.

 



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