Posts by Author: Emily Nonko

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.”

 

The Importance of Beauty in Affordable Housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

(Photo by Clem Onojeghuo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Most Important Small Business Lending Program You Never Heard Of

(Photo by Clem Onojeghuo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why This Historic San Antonio Credit Union Got a Makeover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Louisville, Ky. (Credit: AP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Credit: Urban Institute)

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

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

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

 



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