Posts by Author: Emily Nonko

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.


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.”


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