Posts by Author: Emily Nonko

Can NYC’s Affordable Housing Co-Ops Survive the Next Big Storm?

Storm damage on the Lower East Side following Hurricane Sandy took many forms, indoors and outdoors. (AP Photo/ John Minchillo, File)

The brick apartment building at 414 East 10th Street, in the East Village of Manhattan, is in Ana Ruiz’s blood. Her family moved there in the 1950s. In 1998, she helped convert the building into an HDFC cooperative, creating affordable homeownership opportunities for the building’s tenants. As part of the conversion, she personally oversaw a two-year renovation process, which required each existing tenant to take turns vacating their apartments, then ensured they had the opportunity to buy into the converted co-op, at just $250 per unit. She remains a shareholder and serves as property manager.

Still, nothing prepared Ruiz for what happened during Hurricane Sandy, whose six-year anniversary is this fall. Just two blocks from the East River, the building’s basement was flooded to the ceiling, the boiler damaged, the electricity out. “It never occurred to us that we would get water,” she says. “Nobody told us that could actually happen.”

Now Ruiz lives with the knowledge that “there’s gonna be another Sandy.” So on an early morning this June, she guided a team through her building to conduct a “resiliency audit” — essentially a building check-up to analyze everything that may be affected by New York’s next major storm. “We need suggestions,” she says. “I see some people sitting back, but I know we need to prepare this building.”

These resiliency audits are the product of FloodHelpNY, a post-Sandy project of the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, funded through the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and New York Rising, another state program. It’s the first step for buildings to put resilience measures in place, potentially lowering their flood insurance premiums, says Rachel Stein, deputy director of sustainability and resiliency for the Center for New York City Neighborhoods.

Free audits, led by the national affordable housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, bring a small team of building professionals — including engineers and surveyors — to tour multifamily building basements, roofs, and public spaces. At 414 East 10th, the audit team noted everything from boiler damage during Sandy to cracks in the surrounding pavement. The team is preparing a report that will break down the ways Ruiz and her fellow shareholders can make their building more resilient, to be explained in full during a counseling session.

“It’s both a reactive and proactive response to climate risk,” says David Downs, senior program officer for neighborhood impact programs in Enterprise’s New York office.

Enterprise has audited buildings for storm resiliency in a number of neighborhoods across New York City, but the Lower East Side and East Village neighborhoods hold unique challenges, Downs notes. Ruiz’s is one of many cooperatives, tightly packed into blocks all the way up to the East River. The buildings were originally constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of those buildings were rundown, burnt out or dilapidated in the 1970s-80s, according to Alex Lee, a housing organizer and weatherization project coordinator with Cooper Square Committee, an organization founded in the area in 1959.

In the late 1970s, as buildings fell into disrepair across New York, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development created the HDFC program to allow tenants of abandoned and foreclosed buildings to buy their apartments from the city for a minimal price. For many years, buying into converted cooperatives under the program cost $250; today it costs $2,500. To keep units affordable, income ceilings were imposed on future buyers, alongside flip-tax provisions to deter anyone from making a quick profit. Tax subsidies were put in place to keep ongoing costs low.

The program took off in the Lower East Side, Lee says, with many residents contributing sweat equity before buying their home. Today the area boasts one of the highest concentrations of HDFC co-ops in the city, according to Lee. But HDFCs operate under varying degrees of financial health. At least 27 percent are in a stage of physical or financial trouble, according to a report by DNAinfo.

With their many lower- to middle-income shareholders, it’s difficult for to collectively set aside enough cash for maintenance and modernization of their buildings — especially as the cost of living has dramatically increased in New York. These pre-war buildings can require significant, oftentimes costly maintenance. Proactive resiliency efforts can fall by the wayside.

Sandy proved how vulnerable these older Lower East Side buildings are to flooding. Dense blocks of housing leave little room for landscaping measures, which could help reduce water damage. Basements full of mechanical equipment, often outdated, easily flooded. Walk-ups and buildings with older elevators caused safety concerns; many co-ops did not have evacuation plans in place. Prior to Sandy, Ruiz says, residents didn’t realize a hurricane could cause that type of damage to their home.

Cash isn’t the only limitation for these affordable housing cooperatives. Unlike other affordable housing developed today in New York, owned by nonprofits and real estate firms and professionally managed, HDFCs like Ruiz’s co-op are run by shareholder boards who may not all be on the same page when it comes to property management, Downs explains. Outreach and community organizing is “instrumental” to resiliency work in the area, he says.

On outreach, Enterprise partners with Cooper Square Committee, which has gone door-to-door to enlist buildings in the FloodHelpNY program, and hosted a number of community meetings around the topic of resiliency.

“[Co-op] board members won’t necessarily know what a flood elevation certificate is, nor does their building necessarily have flood insurance,” says Lee. “When they become informed of this program and how it can benefit them, they’re fascinated.”

Cooper Square Committee’s resiliency outreach meetings have attracted crowds of HDFC shareholders, says Lee. “There is a lot of concern in the building [about future flood damage],” says Ruiz, who was approached in person by Lee about the program. “I believe it’s one of the most important things for us to do.”

Ruiz says she and her fellow shareholders are prepared to tap into the building’s cash reserves to fund resiliency measures presented by Enterprise. Cost remains a major concern for HDFCs following the audit, specifically the challenge of keeping a healthy reserve fund and avoiding debt as much as possible.

Though audits are funded, there is no clear funding source for HDFCs to tap into funding the suggested renovations. That challenge often comes up in Enterprise’s counseling sessions, Downs says. For buildings with fewer resources to leverage, he notes, “we help them think about creative ways to leverage small grant programs and other opportunities.”

Cooper Square Committee is establishing long-term relationships with HDFCs that participate in FloodHelpNY, ensuring their path toward resiliency doesn’t end with the audit. “The next step is up to them — how do they want to remain proactive?” asks Lee. “With HDFCs, there is no cookie-cutter approach.”

Lee plans to continue outreach and host resiliency meetings, looking at everything from immediate funding opportunities to more long-term projects, like solar panel installation.

“You have to be patient,” says Lee. “You have to think toward the future but not get ahead of yourself, or else you overwhelm people in the building and they’ll lose focus.”

 

Refugees Helping to Bring More Fresh Food to the Far North

Anchorage Community Land Trust is transforming a two-acre lot in Anchorage's Mountain View neighborhood into an urban farm. (Credit: Anchorage Community Land Trust)

Mahdi Akal is a refugee from Somalia who arrived in Anchorage, Ala., four years ago with his family. The relocation from East Africa to North America was overwhelming, to say the least, from the language to the climate to the culture. But Akal moved into a home across the street from a plot of land that felt familiar — a two-acre lot now being transformed into a farm.

The Akals had a long history of farming in Somalia. Here in Alaska, he found, his family’s skills are paving the way for economic opportunity at the plot across the street.

Akal lives in Mountain View, a neighborhood of northeast Anchorage. The area has suffered from disinvestment and high unemployment, and as a result, transient and short-term tenancy, according to the Anchorage Community Land Trust, which has focused on the area. Mountain View is also considered a “point of entry” for refugees coming into Alaska from places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Cuba, Iran, and Bhutan, due to affordable home prices and proximity to refugee services. Of all incoming refugees to Alaska, says the land trust, over 90 percent live in Mountain View first.

Local organizations working to revitalize the area have made sure to include refugees in the process, providing the framework in which they could build their new lives in Mountain View. These organizations, like the Anchorage Community Land Trust and Catholic Social Services, have found long-term tenancy has increased in Mountain View, which was once ranked the most diverse census tract in America.

One example of revitalization is Grow North Farm, in the plot across from Akal’s home. The land held an RV park before it was acquired by Anchorage Community Land Trust over a decade ago.

“We got the land up to speed, then spent a lot of time listening to what residents wanted, and needed, from the space,” says Emily Cohn, director of communications and development at the land trust.

Three summers ago, Anchorage Community Land Trust opened a seasonal food and craft market on part of the plot, with many stalls operated by refugees. The land trust is now planting the seeds — literally — that will transform the plot into a year-round farm where refugees, working alongside other Mountain View residents, can gain an income, practice English and make community connections.

The market effort was a partnership with Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services of Catholic Social Services, also known as RAIS.

Alaska’s only refugee resettlement agency, RAIS also runs a social enterprise program known as Fresh International Gardens, which provides opportunities for recently-resettled refugees to rebuild their lives by learning small business skills and selling vegetables they grow at local farmers’ markets. Since 2007, 110 gardeners from 11 countries have graduated the program.

“At RAIS, our number one objective is self-sufficiency,” says Issa Spatrisano, incoming program director. “For many of our families, we hear about agriculture skills — many of our clients come from refugee camps, where they may have been running their own market stand for many years. They have innate business skills, and we look for ways to put it into practice.”

RAIS was getting demand for more space to grow and set up market stands from clients of Fresh International Gardens, leading to the partnership with Anchorage Community Land Trust to form Grow North Farms. The organizations held a successful “farm-raiser” earlier this year to support the effort.

Akal’s mother, a farmer in Somalia, participated in the Fresh International Gardens program and sold her produce at the market that preceded Grow North Farm. (She will also plant and sell through Grow North Farm.) Last season, Akal was hired as the market manager; he’s now developing on-the-job training partnerships and expanding job-training programming for RAIS.

“It’s obviously a blessing to have a farm here in Alaska,” Akal says. As market manager, he was integral to ensuring EBT/SNAP benefits could be offered at the market and spread the word to local residents. The effort increased sales at the market by 300 percent, according to Anchorage Community Land Trust.

All the money earned from the garden, market and the occasional pop-up restaurant goes to clients, says Jesse Richardville, the refugee agricultural partnership program coordinator for Catholic Social Services. Over the summer of 2017, 26 clients from seven countries earned more than $13,000 — the program’s largest take yet — while logging approximately 1,660 hours. It works out to a pay rate of about $8 per hour today, almost double what clients used to earn when the program launched.

As farming continues through the summer, vendors sell vegetables and produce at a weekly market still at the site. They’re offering something of a rarity for Alaskans: fresh, locally-grown food. “Around 95 percent of our food in Alaska is imported,” says Richardville. “It’s ever-more important to support local food and grow as much as we can organically, here in the community.”

With the entrepreneurial framework provided by Fresh International Gardens, Grow North Farm tackles issues of both food stability and economic security for its refugee population. Through participation in the program, RAIS says, refugee clients gain farming, customer service, and small business skills while earning supplemental income.

“We know that if clients have economic stability, and they’re connected to their communities, a lot of the other wellbeing and mental health issues come together,” says Spatrisano. “If they’re economically stable, we see our clients are successful in lots of other ways.”

 

New Greenway Will Surface St. Louis History Instead of Paving over It

A rendering of St. Louis looking eastward, highlighting the future Chouteau Greenway. (Credit: Stoss Landscape Urbanism)

De Nichols, an artist, activist, and social impact design strategist for the firm Civic Creatives, had hesitations before adding another role to her resume last year. Nichols was being recruited by several design and urban planning firms forming teams to submit proposals for the Chouteau Greenway, a roughly five-mile connector that will join two major attractions in St. Louis.

In the western part of the city is Forest Park, a 1,371-acre green space and civic center. Starting there, the planned greenway will extend east to the Gateway Arch, St. Louis’ most recognizable public space. Along the way, the Chouteau Greenway would cut through historically segregated neighborhoods of the city — a fact keeping Nichols at bay.

“I used to live on the north side, in the Academy neighborhood,” Nichols says, referring to a majority African-American community undergoing gentrification. “I have heard so many stories of pain, of families moving their cultural legacies because homes have been torn down.”

In projects prior to Chouteau Greenway, she adds, “People of color have been left out of the process, left out of having access to these spaces. It is a harmful cycle that continues to traumatize people who look like me.”

One design team, however, caught her interest. It was led by Boston-based Stoss Landscape Urbanism, recruiting a group that came to include Marlon Blackwell Architects, the artist and architect Amanda Williams, local artist Damon Davis, urban planner Toni Griffin, and others.

“Something about talking to [Stoss] solidified my decision to join,” says Nichols. “They envisioned how I could play a role using design and the arts in public space in order to unearth conversations about hard topics.”

This May, Stoss’ team was selected as the winner of the design competition initiated by Great Rivers Greenway. Great Rivers was formed in 2000, after voters in St. Louis City, St. Louis County and St. Charles County approved the creation of a sales tax to invest in a network of greenways connecting the region. Since then, the organization has identified 45 potential greenways totaling 600 miles, and, alongside partners and community members, is actively working on building out 16, with 121 miles finished to date.

Chouteau Greenway is Great Rivers’ most ambitious initiative yet. “The idea was to do something bold and transformational,” says Susan Trautman, the organization’s CEO. But, she says, “We had to address equity. How do you take a greenway, in the dividing line of segregation, and make it common ground? That was the essence of our vision.”

St. Louis is a divided city, with roads and highways enforcing segregation, further hindered by a lack of public transit. To the south of the so-called “Delmar Divide,” referring to Delmar Boulevard, is the wealthier, mostly white part of the region; to the north is the historically black, economically oppressed part of the region.

The city has used green space to bridge some of those divides. This July, the city will celebrate the completion of renovations at the Gateway Arch Park, long cut-off from downtown by a freeway. The new cap over I-44 is already in place. One priority of the $380 million makeover was creating plentiful pedestrian and bicycle connections into the city; the Chouteau Greenway promises to build off those connections and push them deeper into St. Louis.

For the Chouteau Greenway design competition, Great Rivers Greenway did extensive community outreach to establish design and community goals, which cover everything from safety to economic access.

“We didn’t just want a vision for the Chouteau Greenway,” says Don Stastny, the design competition manager. “We wanted to know how a city could be reborn by putting a backbone through it, something you could attach flesh and muscle to as it develops.”

Stoss’ proposal, dubbed “the Loop and the Stitch,” is a pair of perpendicular loops, running east to west, parallel with the I-64 highway. The “Stitch” then stretches north to south, with trails that reach into neighborhoods traditionally divided from one another. Beyond designing green space, says Chris Reed, founding director of Stoss, the team looked to “use the alignments on city streets or rail rights-of-way to connect resources and people to each other, to provide access and mobility to jobs, and create amazing experiences within the city.”

An art piece along the route will address one of Nichols’ “hard topics”: the displacement of Mill Creek Valley, an African American community eradicated by the construction of I-64 in the 1950s. “This history was eye-opening to all of us,” Nichols says. In response, an installation by Damon Davis will “excavate” the footprints of those lost homes, for passers-by to experience as they walk the greenway.

Reed says the winning proposal was a matter of “developing a roadmap” for the greenway; the team plans to kickoff extensive public engagement to refine their concept.

Nichols believes the stage has been set for great things to happen. One idea, she says, is a block-long dinner party along the greenway, “that can create a visual language between parts of our city that have been divided by so long.”

“We did not apologize for these bold views,” says Nichols. “To see the jury and Great Rivers Greenway also welcoming that boldness, we were blown away. Now, our excitement extends to the fact that, we get to do this now.”

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

 

The Bumpy Road for Modular Construction in NYC

Housing modules under assembly at the former Capsys Corp. modular housing facility. (Credit: Capsys Corp.)

Several years ago, in Brooklyn, a vacant, boarded-up building was replaced with affordable housing in a mere 12 days. The site owners, the nonprofit Concern for Independent Living, chose to build the structure using modular construction, in which 84 housing modules were constructed off-site, then stacked six stories tall with a large hydraulic crane.​

Getting to that point, unfortunately, didn’t go smoothly. The modules were ready to be “stacked” about four months before the site was ready to hold them, according to Ralph Fasano, executive director of Concern for Independent Living. The nonprofit stuck with 84 modules, “all ready to go, with nowhere to put them,” Fasano says.

The cost of finding storage for the modules, plus security, eliminated the cost savings the nonprofit anticipated from using modular construction. The delay also diminished hopes for a quick construction timeline, despite the fast pace of stacking.

When the building opened in 2012 after the lightning-fast stacking process, it held 65 studio apartments rented to low-income individuals recovering from mental illness. It marked the first single-site supportive housing program in New York State to utilize modular building techniques.

Despite some additional bumps along the road since then, the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development still believes there’s promise in modular construction. In May, the affordable housing agency released a request for proposals for an affordable housing project in Brooklyn, that, for the first time, explicitly required modular construction.

“At the beginning of [Mayor Bill de Blasio’s] administration, we set really ambitious goals for housing production,” says Leila Bozorg, the affordable housing agency’s deputy commissioner of neighborhood strategies. Now, she says, the administration hopes to finance over 25,000 affordable homes every year — “in an environment of rising land costs and rising construction costs.”

Investing in modular, Bozorg says, “is an attempt to find ways to lower costs and bring units online faster … [the agency] needs to take a leadership role in demonstrating the value proposition, and setting up the conditions for the value proposition to be exercised.”

Modular construction requires the involvement of several city agencies, from the Department of Buildings approving permits to the Department of Transportation allowing modules to be transported on city streets before they’re stacked.

The active engagement of city government is crucial to get modular off the ground, says Roger Krulak, CEO of FullStack Modular, New York City’s only modular manufacturer.

Krulak points to London, where last year Mayor Sadiq Khan announced the city would spend $32 million on at least 1,059 compactly-sized, affordably-priced modular apartments by 2021. In Singapore, Krulak adds, the city-state requires developments on government land to use modular construction techniques.

“When modular is pushed at the government level,” Krulak says, “You see people jumping into the business.”

New York City’s highest-profile modular project, an affordable tower that opened in Brooklyn in 2016, also made headlines for delays that extended construction to four years. The developer of another high-profile modular development, Carmel Place, has declined to pursue another modular project after the building opened in 2016.

Given New York City’s bumpy experience so far in modular production and construction, the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development is looking outside the city to kickstart its own path. “It’s going to be important for us look broadly, given that there’s only one [modular manufacturer] in New York right now,” says Bozorg. “We hope that in time, that will change.”

In 2015, the city’s main modular housing manufacturer, Capsys Corp., closed up shop at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The company was ultimately acquired by Whitley Manufacturing and now manufactures out of Pennsylvania.

There’s been at least some success with modular single-family housing development through Build it Back, the city program to rebuild housing damaged by Hurricane Sandy. 100 homes are now being rebuilt through modular construction in Staten Island and Queens, according to a program spokesperson.

“After a thorough review of the technology involved with modular construction, we felt the homes produced would meet our program’s structural and architectural requirements,” says Lou Mendes, chief operating officer with the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations. “Modular construction has advanced significantly and proven to be more logistically efficient which provides a more precise schedule for our recovery program.”

At the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, however, the agency will focus on multi-family development and specific sites that can accommodate modular construction — for example, sites need extra space to facilitate “staging” of the modules before they’re stacked.

“We’re seeking sites the city has jurisdiction over, in appropriate neighborhoods in terms of a medium-density project, and with the site conditions necessary to help with staging issues,” Bozorg says. The “sweet spot” for the agency, Bozorg believes, are modular projects between eight and ten stories high.

The renewed push for modular construction comes at a time many city agencies are creatively responding to the mayor’s push for affordable housing.

The NYC Public Design Commission plans to include modular development in that agency’s next round of example projects for its affordable housing design guide, says Justin Garrett Moore, executive director of the NYC Public Design Commission. In May the agency presented its first case study of seven projects that demonstrate excellence of design in affordable housing.

“We really want to include modular… because it’s a leading, open question for what quality design for this construction type looks like,” says Moore. “We’ve set broad objectives for what makes a good housing project. We want to understand how modular construction can fit into that.”

 

What Alabama Can Teach You about Storm Resilience

Leaning back in an office chair, in a nondescript meeting room of the Schneider Insurance Agency, in Mobile, Alabama, Carl Schneider tells me one of his many stories of family members, neighbors, and clients surviving a hurricane. His family has run the business since 1959. As an Alabama born-and-bred insurance agent, Schneider may seem the least likely spokesperson for a grassroots movement in building resiliency.

Just over the state line, in Biloxi, Mississippi, Schneider tells me, a cousin of his decided to stick out Hurricane Katrina at his property, five miles inland. The cousin and his Labrador were nearly trapped on top of the kitchen counter inside the house as the whole thing came crashing down. An ice chest full of beer floated by, and they latched on to that escape raft, according to Schneider.

When Schneider visited his cousin’s destroyed home the following day, he had a realization: “If I would have been their insurance agent I would have failed them,” he says. “Why? Because I would have never expected the wind or water to get that high, and as a professional I would have never really told them they needed to buy insurance … Because I was given bad information from the federal government, and I didn’t know the true risk was here.”

Since 1968, the federally-backed National Flood Insurance Program has been the nation’s flood insurance provider, formed after the government realized it was too difficult for private companies to insure flood risk at rates homeowners could afford. Flood insurance is required for any federally-backed mortgage in a flood zone — and the government maps those zones.

The government’s mapping, Schneider believes, underestimates “worst case” devastation from hurricanes, which not only bring flooding, but storm surge and wind. It leaves homeowners such as Schneider’s cousin believing they are not at risk.

It has also become painfully clear the National Flood Insurance Program wasn’t calibrated for this era of superstorms. In the wake of Katrina and Sandy, the program fell into billions of dollars of debt, with premiums hiked up to get it out of the red. (After the devastating storms of 2017, the Trump administration forgave $16 billion of the NFIP’s debt, and made some needed changes to the program, like loosening restrictions on insurance companies that want to offer their own flood coverage.)

Private insurers cover everything beyond flooding, but policies vary across states and carriers and things only get complicated after a hurricane. In some coastal areas, wind is excluded and must be insured separately. Some policies include a clause that when a covered and non-covered event happen at the same time, neither is covered—an issue after a storm like Katrina, which included both winds and flooding. And insurers many not cover the full cost of rebuilding a home as it was before the storm or to higher code standards.

In Alabama after Katrina, private insurers hiked up homeowner’s insurance rates, or left the area altogether. Schneider says that thousands of people lost coverage. Insurance companies across the country also began charging a “hurricane deductible” for when a hurricane does occur, allowing insurers to offload thousands of dollars of damage costs onto consumers.

Schneider draws a through line from that day after Katrina to his leadership role in resilience today. “At that point in time, my life changed,” he states. “That’s when I went from being an insurance agent selling policies to an advocate that’s there to protect the community.”

Over the next decade, Schneider came together with others in his community, his state, and his industry to retool the home building and homeowner insurance markets in coastal Alabama, only this time with modern-day standards for weather resilience.

“It took five years just to learn how to spell resilience,” says Schneider. “Then another five years to understand what did it mean to build to these standards.”

Toward More Resilient Building Codes

How to make a community resilient is a tough question following any major environmental devastation. As climate change promises more frequent and intense hurricanes, alongside sharply rising recovery costs, the question has never been more pertinent.

In coastal Alabama, specifically in Mobile and Baldwin counties, communities acknowledged the need to determine what resilience means to them, then set out on the long, complicated and ongoing road to achieve it. A 2011 white paper on resilience, written by the Coastal Recovery Commission of Alabama, begins with 14 pages of names — more than 600 people — who served on the commission.

As the insurance industry in coastal Alabama reacted in fear of another hurricane, and rapidly rising insurance costs gobsmacked homeowners, Schneider realized something was missing. There weren’t incentives — or even a framework — for insurers and homeowners to rebuild homes to higher code standards for the next storm. It’s a problem that’s played out from Alabama to New York.

After Katrina, the problem crystallized for Schneider: “This is why we failed, this is why we had so many deaths, so much property damage. We were building to a lower standard that was [the] acceptable standard at that time.” The next question, he says, is “how should we be rebuilding?”

He’s not just talking about Alabama. “How should Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Virgin Islands, Key West build back?” says Schneider. “Should we build back cheap, and let it blow away again, or should we build it up, or not build back at all?”

Schneider believes it’s a decision every community should make for itself. To that end, in 2009, he founded a nonprofit, Smart Home Alabama, with some of his own money and a grant from the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, a federal/state partnership. He wanted to introduce a framework for a community who “couldn’t spell resilience” to eventually embrace it.

Schneider wanted insurance agents and local builders to start talking. If builders constructed resilient buildings that could withstand more damage, and insurance companies agreed to reduce premiums for more weather-resilient homes, it would incentivize resiliency for homeowners. Code officials had to be part of the conversation too, because new building standards only work if they’re enforced. Homeowners would need education on rebuilding differently, given that, as Schneider puts it, “their daddy and grandaddy built the same way for a hundred years.” And for residents who couldn’t afford to build a new resilient home, resources were necessary to retrofit the homes they had.

The political climate was tricky to navigate. Federal funding for hurricane recovery, Schneider felt, came with too much red tape, stipulations, and delays. As for rebuilding standards, the U.S. has no mandatory national building code, so each state and locality adopted its own. Alabama, however, has declined to set a statewide building code. And because the state has a relatively small coastal population, Baldwin and Mobile counties discovered they didn’t have enough political clout to enact building-code changes at the state level.

“There was a realization that if we couldn’t get it done at the state level, we’d have to get it done at the local level,” says Lannie Smith, a building inspector who, with Schneider, asked state legislature to consider a coastal code-building supplement. “They were not interested in that,” Smith says, “at all.”

Coastal counties had long ago enacted their own building codes in the absence of a statewide code, but after Katrina it was clear those codes did not produce buildings that could sufficiently withstand the flooding, wind and storm surge of “worst case” hurricanes. The purpose of Smart Home Alabama was to push for rebuilding at a higher standard. For that, Schneider and Smith turned to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

Inside the Natural-Disaster Laboratory

Chester County, S.C., is home to a hulking concrete test facility on 90 acres of land. Inside the test facility’s cavernous warehouse space sits a modest but life-sized ranch home, complete with trash bins and outdoor patio set, in the middle of a circle painted on the concrete floor. In a seemingly post-apocalyptic scene, the empty house is waiting to be engulfed in flames, hit by a windstorm, or pelted with hail.

The test chamber, six stories tall and roughly the size of four and a half basketball courts, was designed to recreate a variety of natural disasters. An enormous wall of 105 fans — each nearly six feet in diameter — can simulate Category 1, 2, and 3 hurricanes (with winds up to 130 mph), extra-tropical windstorms, wind-driven rain conditions and straight-line windstorms.

This IBHS video details some of the building improvements that reflect Fortified standards, as a safeguard against wind-related storm damage.

This facility, owned and operated by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, is the only lab in the world that tests full-scale buildings in controlled and repeatable environmental disasters. Nearby, in a smaller lab, individual components of construction materials are studied using additional disaster-replicating experiments.

The lab is part of a major post-Katrina investment by the institute, founded in 1978 as an independent, nonprofit research organization funded by property insurance and reinsurance companies. Research conducted at the lab eventually resulted in a building standards program, dubbed Fortified, coupled with a third-party certification process.

Fortified standards come in three designations: bronze, which focuses on reinforcement of the roof, seen as the first line of defense against a storm; silver, which incorporates the same roof improvements and adds enhanced window and door protections; and finally gold, which includes “augmented structural protections” from the roof to the walls, to the foundation. In addition to guiding homeowners, builders, engineers and architects, the designations offer insurance companies benchmarks from which to assess risk.

“It’s in the best interest of the insurance industry to provide guidance on how to build safer and stronger homes,” says Julie Rochman, the institute’s outgoing chief executive. And because it’s funded by the industry, she adds, it’s hard for insurers to ignore their science.

The work done at the lab marks serious progress for the insurance industry’s challenge in measuring environmental risk. The research, Rochman notes, measure the effect of specific environmental disasters alongside the specific ways buildings perform under various conditions. Passing along the research is akin to “handing communities a road map” to build better buildings, she says.

Alabama’s coastal counties wanted that road map — sparking a first-of-its-kind local partnership for the institute. “I read [the institute’s] research and engineering documents and realized this was really what we were looking for,” says Smith.

A Fortified Coalition Comes Together

Strong Home Alabama finally gained some traction at the state level — between 2009 and 2014, the Alabama state legislature and the state Department of Insurance implemented measures mandating that insurance carriers provide homeowner insurance premium discounts of as much as 50 percent to residents who build homes to Fortified standards.

With insurance incentives in place, Strong Home Alabama still had to convince residents of Fortified’s building potential. Anticipating the higher cost of resilient construction would be a major concern, the organization decided to build its first Fortified-standard homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Under a pilot program funded by the Allstate Foundation, Smart Home Alabama brought together Habitat for Humanity’s local chapter and the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. In addition to building the weather-resilient homes, the pilot program also had the goal of teaching local insurance agents about Fortified-standard construction methods through volunteering on rebuilding homes with Habitat. Volunteers received an interactive tour of a Fortified-standard home under construction to understand how the method is put into practice. They were put to work installing hurricane straps and caulking seams for energy efficiency. Open houses were offered at completed projects to show off the finished homes.

The greatest benefit, of course, was with the eventual homeowner. “For low-income people who are more vulnerable than most, it was a no-brainer to improve construction in a way that could reduce their insurance rates,” says Alex Cary, formerly with Habitat for Humanity and now manager of fortified coastal programs at the Insurance Institute. And, “we showed that if we can do it with Habitat, anybody can do it,” she says.

At a Habitat for Humanity event in Mobile, Alabama, a volunteer reinforces a roof with metal brackets to keep it anchored to the main structure — one of the key structural improvements that reinforces a home to Fortified standards. (Credit: Smart Home America)

The state got more active in 2015, founding the Alabama Center for Insurance Information and Research to “make good information available and to address the problem of price increases in insurance,” says Director Lawrence Powell. Paying extra to retrofit or rebuilt homes can be a hard sell to homeowners. “It’s not something you can see, like granite countertops,” says Powell. To combat this mindset, the center threw itself into data analysis.

“We were able to estimate how the Fortified designation affects the resale value of a home,” Powell says, adding that Fortified-standard homes sell for approximately a seven percent premium. “There’s psychology in that, that people make decisions and want to see an instant effect.”

Still, proponents of Fortified faced significant pushback. Homeowners and builders were resistant to change and raised construction costs, even though insurance analysts say it adds no more than three percent to a home’s price tag. Plywood, a typical material used in the area for storm-proofing, isn’t allowed by Fortified. “It was the cheapest way, and the method of choice,” says Smith. “But we had to go and say plywood wasn’t good enough.”

Fortified’s third-party enforcement requirement also “scared people to death,” says Smith, as it added an extra step, and therefore another cost, to construction.

“People weren’t getting [homes] certified because they wouldn’t spend the money on the third-party inspector,” says Smith, who oversees code in the town of Orange Beach, in Baldwin County. The solution, once again, was incentives. In Orange Beach, Smith says, when a homeowner receives a Fortified designation, they became eligible for a rebate program that paid back 25 percent of their building permit fees.

Incentives were coupled with what Hank Hodde, a resilience outreach specialist with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, calls “persistent engagement” — a term you hear often from Fortified advocates. The consortium has done research and outreach around the Gulf Coast since 1972. The group worked with Smart Home Alabama and the Insurance Institute to educate local officials, homeowners, builders, realtors and insurance agents, often in town hall-type settings. “This conversation sparks them in different ways, and we gain their interest in different talking points and solutions,” Hodde says.

Resilience efforts are often siloed, Hodde notes, and meetings with different parties in the room “knocked down those barriers.” Hodde calls it “resilience based on community.” He says, “it’s enabled us to connect the dots, get the right people in the room, and build trust.”

Another major need advocates identified in this process: reaching lower-income homeowners. Smart Home Alabama again worked with the state Department of Insurance, this time to increase licensing fees for state insurers — creating a dedicated funding stream for a grant program known as Strengthen Alabama Homes. More funding came from the Alabama Insurance Underwriters Association, which donated $2 million per year over two years.

Open to Mobile and Baldwin County residents, regardless of income or insurer, Strengthen Alabama Homes provided grants up to $10,000, estimated as the average cost for weather resilience improvements. The one requirement: homeowners must upgrade their existing home to a Fortified standard.

To reach low-income residents across the coast, Strengthen Alabama Homes Director Brian Powell forged two partnerships: one in Africatown, a community outside Mobile that can trace its history to the last illegal slave ship to arrive in the United States, and another with the Baldwin County Chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

In Africatown, the Africatown Community Development Corporation formed roughly 20 years ago in response to economic distress in the area, and has since spearheaded everything from a tourism center to an open-air market. Strengthen Alabama Homes provided the group a grant to develop a retrofitting program to make resilience improvements to the area’s housing stock, which mostly consists of modest shotgun houses built before 1965, although some date back to the early 20th century. The partnership with Africatown Community Development Corporation helped foster relationships with residents who were skeptical of government assistance.

With Habitat for Humanity, the organization had already integrated Fortified in new construction projects. The grant from Strengthen Alabama Homes, however, went to retrofit roofs on existing Habitat homes so that they met Fortified standards.

“In order to be a part of this program, you have to carry insurance,” says Lori Mader, finance director for Baldwin Habitat. “So now, not only are they getting a new roof or retrofitting to sustain these storms, they’re carrying insurance when before they couldn’t afford to carry it.”

After a hurricane, Mader notes, insurance can be the difference between being able to afford to rebuild a house or being wiped out with nowhere to go.

Starting from what Schneider calls a “little bitty seed of an idea,” the combined efforts of Strong Home Alabama, the Insurance Institute, Habitat for Humanity and the various Alabama state agencies stands as the only such collective in the country to systematically implement Fortified standards into local building markets and practices. Alabama remains the only state in the country to hinge Fortified construction on a required discount from insurance companies.

As of this April, according to Cary, there are 8,270 Fortified-standard homes in the U.S. As a result of Alabama’s collective efforts, 7,000 of those homes are located within the state.

Getting the Word out, in Alabama and beyond

Early this year, on a warm day in mid-January, construction was underway on a plot of land facing the waterfront. A succession of docks extended out atop the shimmery blue waters of Mobile Bay. The appeal of the Gulf Coast was on full display.

The site’s home builder, Mike Henriksen, previously worked as an insurance adjuster and saw his own home damaged by Ivan and destroyed by Katrina. “The flood work I’ve done in the past hit home, because I’ve suffered,” he says. “In writing insurance claims for a few thousand homes, it was quite evident the homes were damaged because they weren’t high enough or built substantially enough to withstand wind and flood.”

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Alabama coast with sustained hurricane-force winds and a storm surge of 10 to 15 feet around Mobile County. At the time, building codes did not sufficiently strengthen area structures against the flood and wind damage caused by hurricanes. (Photo by Mel Silvers via Flickr)

He began speaking with engineers, he says, “to try and come up with a better way to build a home.” He then worked closely with an engineer to rebuild his own home. In 2006, he received his home builders license, and soon after met Schneider.

Today, Henriksen builds to Fortified standards on every project. To do so, he works closely with an engineer, insurance agent and home designer. Conversations with clients, he says, start early. “We meet each client as a team, all four of us, so we can explain how we build, and the insurance guy can explain that even though the cost of building a home is higher, the insurance is less expensive,” says Henriksen.

Henriksen says that when he first adopted Fortified, he spent an extraordinary amount of time explaining it to potential homeowners. Now, he says, “I still sometimes do that, but the public seems to be getting more and more educated.” And as more clients realize the construction strength, waterfront stretches where people kept vacation homes now attract more full-time residents.

The home under construction sat atop 30-foot-tall pilings (roughly 20 of those feet are underground); the appearance of a house on stilts belied the structure’s incredible strength. Henriksen knew this construction process like the back of his hand, from testing soil to determine how deep to install the pilings, to the strength of the steel beam structure, to the use of impact glass, which nicely framed waterfront views.

Construction recently wrapped, and it’s a home insurance agencies will compete to cover, says Schneider. “Build it right and they will come,” is his attitude, and he’s seen that local insurance companies want to cover Fortified homes. That, to Schneider, is a sign of success in a coastal area that many insurance companies fled after Katrina.

On either side of the newly-built house on stilts sit two modest homes only elevated a few feet above the ground. Henriksen mentions it may not be until the next major flood that the owners look to rebuild more resiliently.

It shows there’s still work to be done, from rebuilding along the coast to retrofitting homes further inland. Last year, Strengthen Alabama Homes had to suspend its grant program because of overwhelming demand; the program officially launched in September 2016, and by January 2017 they had amassed nearly 9,000 applications, says Powell. “We’ve exceeded our annual funding, based on the applications that have come in, for about another year,” he says.

The program has set a goal of raising $500 million over the next 20 years and plans to continue tapping into local, private funding sources. A fundraising team is expanding from the insurance industry to local employers, like the large manufacturers and ports in the area, to “buy into” the program, according to Powell. “If [those companies] can help fund and get their employees’ homes mitigated, it helps them to stay in place after the storm and go back to work much quicker,” he says.

“If we can mitigate between 30,000 and 50,000 homes in Mobile and Baldwin County,” says Powell, “That would be sufficient to start changing the structure of the economy when we start looking at the price of insurance and effects of resiliency.”

Smart Home Alabama ultimately believes its model can be replicated. The organization has since changed its name to Smart Home America and now operates in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Rhode Island. This past November, Smart Home America announced the Allstate Foundation would continue to fund its Habitat for Humanity and Fortified pilot program in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Smart Home America’s current chief executive, Julie Shiyou-Woodard, has spent much of this year organizing in communities struggling to recover from last year’s storms. In Coastal Texas — which also lacks a statewide building code — similar debates have cropped up in which officials and residents are calling for better building standards, while others fear such requirements would financially burden homeowners.

At least one Texas city, Rockport, is considering widely rolling out the Fortified program in hopes to rebuild stronger and create more insurance options for homeowners.

“Alabama has really been the leader,” says Rochman. “We’re holding them up as the proof point that Fortified homes are a solid investment.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

 

Stopping One Incinerator Wasn’t Enough for Baltimore Students

(Photo by Dokaspar)

In 2010, the city of Baltimore approved a plan to build the Fairfield Renewable Energy Project, a trash incinerator that would have been the largest of its kind in the nation. Its developer, Energy Answers International, planned to spend nearly $1 billion to build a plant to burn municipal waste, tire chips, auto parts and demolition debris for fuel. By law, the incinerator could emit up to 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead into the air per year.

The project was never completed. And today, the student-led effort that stopped what could have been has evolved into a new opportunity for more students to learn how they can use science to advocate for and improve their community.

The Baltimore neighborhoods of Curtis Bay and Brooklyn are separated from downtown by the Patapsco River. The area has suffered from disinvestment and displacement to make way for industry; as a result the neighborhoods have ranked among the most polluted zip codes in Maryland and the country.

Benjamin Franklin High School sits within a mile of the proposed incinerator site in Curtis Bay. It was there a group of students began speaking out and raising concerns around the proposal for the incinerator. To galvanize her fellow students, during her senior year at Ben Franklin High, Destiny Watford co-founded Free Your Voice, a student-run social justice organization.

By May of 2014, Free Your Voice had urged Baltimore City Public Schools and other local government agencies and nonprofits to divest from the project. The following February, the city backed out of its contract with Energy Answers International. A few months later, as Free Your Voice continued to speak out against the incinerator’s potential effects, all stakeholders had divested and construction came to a halt.

“We fought this thing together that no one believed could be stopped,” says Watford, who graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in 2013 and continued her advocacy from Towson University, where she graduated this May.

“Often times, people gather to fight one thing, and when it feels like it’s the end, people peter off,” says Watford. With that in mind, she helped forge a different path for Benjamin Franklin High School. Working with local organization United Workers, as well as educators at the high school and Towson University, Free Your Voice has evolved to include a formal curriculum in which high school students are given tools to advocate for changes within their community.

“We’re told education is so important, but we’re not taught about the issues that surround us,” Watford says. “We’re in history class learning about dead, white poets who lived in England … not the fact that we live in a neighborhood with 517 vacant buildings.”

That was one of the findings students recently presented to their community, at an event attended by about 50 people that included local residents and city officials.

Coursework to guide the students emerged last year as the brainchild of local advocates and educators. Watford worked closely with United Workers organizer Greg Sawtell, as well as Dr. Nicole Fabricant, an associate anthropology professor at Towson. Fabricant enlisted college students to provide support for the program. Albina Joy, a science teacher at Benjamin Franklin, integrated the class into her curriculum.

Free Your Voice’s roots in environmental justice made this a good addition to a traditional science curriculum, according to Joy. “We wanted to bring the soft side of science, and an inquiry and investigation into environmental issues and environmental justice, into the classroom,” she says.

Joy and Fabricant tweaked the course to address demands of scheduling and the traditional science curriculum, and “to figure out how to work as a collective,” as Fabricant puts it. Both educators are quick to point out the course is, first and foremost, student led.

“We just needed to give them some direction,” says Joy. “We’re asking students, what makes a community healthy, and do we think our school community would be considered healthy?”

Students ultimately narrowed down a few local issues to focus on: housing, trash, public safety, food access and pollution.

“Students are encouraged to talk about their experiences everyday, like living next to vacant homes, and the class validates those concerns,” says Sawtell. “As that culture begins to build in the classroom, we can then say: what do we want to do about this? It’s organizing work in the classroom.”

Students pursued research and field visits to address the history of each issue. From there, they collaborated on reports addressing ways to advocate for change.

In one video, “Trash and Pollution in Baltimore,” students analyze where the area’s trash comes from and where it goes once thrown away. (Their answer: a trash incinerator in Southwest Baltimore, the city’s largest single source of air pollution.) The findings encouraged students to start a recycling program in the cafeteria.

Can We Do Development Without Displacement,” another video, looks at a block of 10 homes devastated by a fire last year and still sitting vacant. From there, students became involved with a local Community Land Trust, called the Greater Baybrook Community Land Trust, working to replace the stretch with affordable housing.

The study “Who Owns Vacants?” maps all 517 vacant buildings in the area and tracks each to its owner, many of whom are out-of-state. By tackling vacancies, Sawtell says, “it quickly cut through the idea that ‘this is the way it has to be’ … [the students] were willing to suspend all the reasons they think change is impossible and actually talk about a bold vision for the neighborhood.”

There have been hurdles along the way. “This model of education is very different than the rote learning and standardized tests these kids are used to,” says Fabricant. “It’s not easy to teach kids to think critically, when a curriculum is very standardized today.”

Still, it’s offered students a new way to engage with their education, including some who have struggled in traditional classroom settings. “We have students who have been off-the-charts brilliant, but not necessarily performing in the classroom,” Fabricant says.

Joy echoes the sentiment: “Students that haven’t had a college-bound path set out before them, are feeling that if this is what college is like, they can handle it.”

The collaborators are now working to grow the class into an independent study course that will offer students three college credits.

“A lot of work we do in the neighborhood is more challenging than a college course.” says Watford, who has gone from being student to mentor. “Having an integrated class at Ben Franklin that explores issues in our neighborhood is something that’s not done, not in a Baltimore City school or a neighborhood like ours. To dedicate an entire class to it? It shows the values of this community.”

 

Addressing Homelessness and the Affordable Housing Crisis Holistically

Reaching New Heights Residence and Apartments at Landing Road. (Credit: BRC)

Brenda ButlerWord is starting to feel settled in her studio apartment, on the third floor of a new Bronx development that overlooks the Harlem River. Colorful pillows decorate her bed. Plants line the windowsill; the fruit bowl is filled with apples and bananas. Though these may seem like small signs of apartment living, it’s a significant transition for Butler-Ward. “I’m taking everything in,” she says, “And starting to feel comfortable.”

Before moving to her new apartment this spring, ButlerWord resided in a Brooklyn homeless shelter. She moved from Chicago to New York City after life changes that prompted her to “take a big chance,” she says. “I ended up at the airport, not sure what to do, and so I just prayed.” She sought assistance from the Bowery Residents Committee, or BRC as it’s known, a New York City nonprofit that helped her settle in a women’s shelter and, “get the toehold I needed,” she says.

At ButlerWord’s new apartment, she’s able to decorate, cook, visit the laundry room, and, most importantly, “get back on my feet.” She pays $470 a month in rent for a studio furnished with a bed, dresser, table and chairs.

ButlerWord’s new residence, Reaching New Heights Residence and Apartments at Landing Road, represents a new chapter as well for BRC, and for the NYC Department of Homeless Services. For the first time since it was founded by marginalized New Yorkers in 1971, BRC is serving as landlord. And, for the first time, the department’s funding for the 200-bed shelter for homeless men on the first two floors of the building also subsidizes the seven floors and 135 units of affordable housing above.

“Landing Road is the future of the shelter system,” NYC Homeless Services Commissioner Steven Banks says.

From 1994 to 2014, homelessness in New York has increased 115 percent, and rents have gone up around 19 percent, while household income declined 6.3 percent. On top of that, the city has lost roughly 150,000 rent-stabilized apartments. The city’s shelter population now regularly tops 60,000 on a nightly basis.

The changes in the city have fueled two separate crises, intimately tied together: a lack of affordable housing, which Mayor de Blasio and the city’s housing agency are addressing through a 10-year plan, and another in homelessness, addressed by the NYC Department of Homeless Services.

But having each crisis handled by separate agencies has kept the city from thinking holistically about homelessness and affordable housing, according to Rosenblatt. In fact, he says, the current system contributes what he calls a “vicious cycle,” where many become homeless because they can’t find an affordable home and then stay homeless due to shelters that don’t deliver adequate services to get people back on their feet.

Adding to this challenge, New York’s shelter system was developed “in a very haphazard way beginning almost 40 years ago,” says Banks.

The 1979 lawsuit Callahan vs. Carey paved the way for further legal victories that ensured the right to shelter for homeless New Yorkers. But rather than the NYC Department of Homeless Services developing a city-owned shelter system, shelters typically operate in buildings owned by private landlords. Those developers rent shelter space at market rates to nonprofits like BRC, who then ask the city to reimburse its costs. It’s become a cash cow for those landlords — the city is now spending over a billion dollars a year just to rent space for shelters.

“We wanted to figure out how we could move from being renters to being owners,” says Rosenblatt. With the government reimbursing BRC for its rent, he explains, the nonprofit breaks even and the private landlord makes a profit. “We said, let us be the landlord, let us pay ourselves rent, and use that surplus income, which would be landlord’s profit, to reinvest in affordable housing,” says Rosenblatt.

The cross-subsidy formula works in that BRC uses surplus income generated by the city shelter contract to subsidize rents above, which go between $470 and $1,000 a month. The majority of affordable apartments are reserved for people transitioning out of homelessness. Low rent, plus workforce development opportunities offered within the building by BRC, help keep residents out of homelessness.

The idea took hold at BRC in 2013, Rosenblatt says, as data revealed greater lengths of stay in shelters and higher rates of recidivism among BRC clients. But there was a challenge: according to Rosenblatt, the NYC Department of Homeless Services initially balked at the idea of their funds being used to subsidize permanent housing. The agency didn’t view permanent housing subsidies as their job. Instead, Rosenblatt says, the NYC Department of Homeless Services believed permanent housing belonged to the city’s housing development agency or the public housing authority.

As homelessness and need for affordable housing increased, it became glaringly obvious business-as-usual wasn’t working. Rosenblatt says it took getting the NYC Department of Homeless Services and the city’s housing development agency in a room together finally, “to challenge bureaucratic thinking.” Still under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, BRC finally got the go ahead to, “run the numbers, find a site, and do it.”

By the time BRC found a site and got its proposal ready, Mayor de Blasio had come into office. The city remained open to the idea. The nonprofit purchased the Bronx site in 2014, and construction began in 2015. The shelter opened at the end of January 2018, and the apartments at the beginning of April.

The building is attractive from the exterior and well-maintained inside, with outdoor spaces (a luxury not found in most New York City shelters), meeting rooms and artwork lining the walls. (The work comes from participants of an art therapy course offered by BRC.) Upstairs, apartments are as nice as any market-rate building. Downstairs, dormitories, which hold no more than 25 individuals, provide each shelter resident with a personal space holding a twin bed and locker.

Rosenblatt believes the building is the proof-of-concept the city needed, “to know if this concept was pie-in-the-sky, or if it could really happen.” Earlier this year, he notes, BRC paid back its construction lenders, “on a project that had never been tried before.”

The city is paying attention. Last year, the NYC Department of Homeless Services released a comprehensive plan known as Turning the Tide, with the goal of reducing the footprint of the city’s shelter system and driving down the population of homeless New Yorkers relying on shelters.

The department also announced the ending of nearly half of the so-called “cluster” units managed by private landlords, with the goal of squashing the system by 2021. These are whole apartments the city rents for homeless families, which have become known for their notoriously poor conditions. The plan promises to offset the cluster closures by opening 90 new shelters and expanding 30 existing ones.

“Nonprofits like BRC are critical in replacing the haphazard system of the past with a new approach,” says Banks. “For many years, the city had under-invested in, and disinvested from, the not-for-profit sector.”

Banks says a recent $236 million investment by DHS will better focus on ways “of empowering and strengthening not-for-profit providers to help transform the shelter system from how it was created nearly 40 years ago to a new vision, that places people first.”

BRC has also begun the Way Home Fund, a goal to raise $7 million as a revolving fund to kick off a pipeline of projects similar to Landing Road. The organization believes that amount is sufficient to have a new building like Landing Road open every 18 to 24 months, if the implementation hinges on capital recovered from the previous building.

The result, Rosenblatt says, is transforming the “vicious” cycle into a virtuous one. The virtuous cycle is one where affordable housing increases, shelter demand shrinks, funding for shelter decreases, the outcome of shelter improves, and there’s more shelter residents moving into affordable housing, and less recidivism.

“We’re encouraging BRC to continue with this creative model, and encouraging others to take a page from Muzzy’s playbook,” says Banks. “It’s time to raise the bar for the delivery of services, and the development of innovative models like Landing Road.”

 

Local Artists Will Point the Way to Portland’s Newest Park

Portland's new Thomas Cully Park, atop a former landfill, is slated to open this June. (Credit: Verde)

Alex Vallé is a 22-year-old DACA recipient who grew up in Portland’s Cully neighborhood with his mother and sister. Since he was a kid, he’s worked with Verde, a nonprofit in the neighborhood, participating in their homework club. Today he is a self-taught artist.

“For a while, the neighborhood wasn’t known for anything nice,” Vallé says. “That classification of our community has been changing.”

For decades, a 25-acre parcel in Cully was off-limits to residents. The site, once mined for sand and gravel, then filled with garbage until the 1990s. Portland Parks and Recreation purchased the parcel in 2000. Though the parks agency designated it as parkland, plans to actually build a park lagged due to lack of funding. The former landfill sat empty for another 12 years.

Finally in 2012, the Portland City Council approved a public-private partnership between Verde and Portland Parks and Recreation to move ahead with transforming the former landfill into parkland. Over the last several years, the land has been cleaned and restored to hold a community garden, off‐leash dog park, trails, fitness course, picnic areas, a soccer field, and more. It’s slated to open this June.

Vallé is one of three local artists who will be participating in a project to create a new wayfinding system in the neighborhood, to help residents find the new park. “It’s a chance to put my art out there,” he says. “They’re giving us a blank canvas to make something happen with the community.”

Given the site’s history, it isn’t easy to find. The future Thomas Cully Park is sandwiched between two major roadways, just south of the Portland International Airport sprawl.

“We’re in an industrial corridor,” says Anna Gordon, a community programs manager with Verde. “Since this was a former landfill, tucked back behind an industrial area, there are a lot of people who don’t know where this 25-acre park will be.”

In a city known for parks, Cully is considered a “park-deprived neighborhood.” Until the opening of Khunamokwst Park, in 2015, there were no developed parks in the area.

Cully is a diverse, majority low-income neighborhood located in the most northeastern corner of Portland. Urban planners point out stark disparities that exist between here and the rest of the city, so much so that Cully’s come to symbolize neglectful city policies and staggering inequalities for Portland’s non-white population, including a lack of access to green space. The green space disparity has been on Verde’s mind since the organization began its work in 2005 with the goal to bring new environmental investments to Cully.

In 2014, Verde hosted a series of “Living Cully Walks” (named after the Living Cully collaborative of which Verde is a member). The walks gathered a diverse array of residents to identify what the neighborhood lacked. In 21 different Living Cully Walks, neighbors recorded potholes, gravel streets, sidewalk gaps and streets without street lights. One major barrier identified: people wanted to know where local green spaces were located, and how to get there safely. Gordon notes that only 34 percent of Cully streets have sidewalks, and bike lanes are scarce.

The group envisioned a wayfinding system that would reflect the diversity of the neighborhood. Verde held workshops on potential locations for wayfinding markers and developed temporary designs to “get signs up where the community wanted them on a low budget,” Gordon says. With the “do-it-yourself version” in place, as Gordon calls it, Verde led a number of tours with community members and city officials to garner more feedback. Big requests: bigger and brighter signs, with clear visibility.

This May, Verde received a $25,000 grant from Oregon Metro, the only directly elected regional government and planning organization in the United States, to help bring a permanent wayfinding system to the neighborhood — with the participation of Vallé and the other local artists of color.

The power of art in urban planning is the focus of Oregon Metro’s Placemaking Grant program, now in its second year. For its 2018 award cycle, the planning agency received 59 grant applications requesting more than $1.1 million in funding. Verde was one of nine groups selected for grants totaling $168,465.

“Metro has been shifting in its commitment to bring in voices that have been left out of conversations in urban planning,” says Elissa Gertler, Oregon Metro’s director of planning and development. “This [grant program] came out of our innovation shop. We wanted to try something out of our comfort zone.”

Dana Lucero, a senior planner who works on the placemaking grant program, adds that the grants offer “solutions that have a lot of similarity with the planning work we’ve traditionally done, but when you involve art you guarantee you’re doing it in a different way.”

Verde’s application stood out for offering solutions in a neighborhood with “very serious urban mobility issues,” Lucero says. “They’ve put a lot of pieces in place to make this wayfinding project happen with or without an artist component. But the grant will help give people a sense of ownership, and an expression of the community that lives there.”

The planned wayfinding system includes directional signs mapping out an “urban trail system,” expected to go up in June, while five community kiosks will be added to existing electrical boxes this fall. The kiosks will include information about the wayfinding system, a large map, and artwork “that represents folks in the neighborhood and what they want to express about their community,” Gordon says.

Vallé is weighing what his artistic contribution might be — including a style with “a holographic 3D effect.” But first, he says, he’ll confer with other community members, including a group of 6th and 7th graders with whom he plans to develop the design.

“I feel like it would be biased if I just give my own opinion, and not take into account what others had to say, especially with the kind of project this is, which is based on the community,” Vallé says.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tawan Davis. (Photo by Kate Devlin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



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