Posts by Author: Jared Brey

Creating Space for the Next Generation of Baltimore’s Community Leaders

Sylvester Pridget, looks out of a barbershop window with his 14-month-old daughter, Shanetta, watching a march to City Hall in Baltimore on Saturday, May 2, 2015, the day after charges were announced against the police officers involved in Freddie Gray's death. The events surrounding Gray's death eventually led to the creation of the new Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, which recently made its first round of grants. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

By one count, there are close to 1,700 young people in Baltimore who are homeless: Under the age of 25, not in the custody of a parent or guardian, and without a regular place to sleep at night.

On a normal day, between 40 and 50 of them stop by the Youth Empowered Society Drop-In Center, according to executive director Blair Franklin. They come to the center, which is partially run by formerly homeless youth, for food or a change of clothes, Franklin says. Or bus tokens. Or a shower. Or a place to do laundry, charge a phone, or take a nap. Or get health services in the van that parks out back every week. Some come to find a therapist, or a lawyer who can help with expunging criminal records.

“First and foremost we’re like a safe space,” Franklin says. “Young people tell us what they need and want and we work toward fulfilling that.”

In addition to providing basic services to its visitors, the YES Drop-In Center tries to invest in leadership capacity-building among the homeless youth that use its services, Franklin says.

“We live in a world that does not pay attention to young people and often sees them as without agency and without choice and value,” Franklin says. “[But] we see folks kill it when they are given the space to say what should happen and then participate in that change.”

It’s organizations like the YES Drop-In Center that are among the first grantees of the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, created by the Baltimore City Council in defiance of a veto by former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

As Colorlines reported in August, the fund was pushed into existence in the wake of the protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, with City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young leading the charge. The goal of the fund was to not just support programs that help young people in Baltimore, but to upend the way grants for community-serving goals are distributed.

In its first round of awards, 84 grantees split $10.8 million in funds.

“I would argue it’s probably the most diverse portfolio of any grantmaking organization in the city,” says Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the Baltimore-based Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, “a grassroots think-tank which advances the public policy interest of Black people.”

The group’s co-founder, Adam Jackson, was co-chair of a task force appointed in 2017 to develop the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund’s grantmaking structure, built around the values of racial equity, intergenerational leadership, community ownership, and collective decision-making.

Love says that Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle wanted to upend the typical grantmaking process. Too often, he says, highly professionalized, white-led nonprofits are positioned to get grants meant to address problems in disadvantaged black and brown communities. Community-based organizations often don’t have the connections to get access to those same resources, Love says.

“And it undermines the ability for black-led organizations in our communities to do the work,” Love says. “Really, the purpose of our role was to try to structure the youth fund in a way to flip that dynamic so that grassroots organizations could compete on an even playing field with traditional nonprofit organizations, but also do so in a way that could elevate [community-based] organizations.”

With its $230,000 grant from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, the YES Drop-In Center will be able to hire a dedicated youth leadership advocacy coordinator, Franklin says, and put more resources into direct assistance for homeless youth in the former of flexible housing assistance and eviction prevention, among other services.

Aside from the YES Drop-In Center, grantees include the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the Baltimore Child First Authority, Wide Angle Youth Media, and the United Workers SB7 Youth Corps — which plans to build on an organizing program that helped stop a trash incineration from being built, as Next City has covered.

City Council President Young, who was not available for an interview, had been pushing to create more funding for youth programs for years before the death of Freddie Gray helped galvanize support for the fund, according to the report in Colorlines.

“Part of it is that a lot of young people just don’t have things to do,” says Love. “There’s been a disinvestment over the past 20 to 25 years or so in funding related to programming for youth and, at the same time, an increase in funding for things like police and public safety and corrections.”

The task force wanted to support programs in the city that would give black and brown youth opportunities to envision futures that are rarely depicted in popular media, Love says. And it wanted to support a range of community organizations with small and large grants that would help them build organizational capacity, in addition to supporting the youth-oriented work they were proposing. That required creating an atypical grantmaking process. To sift through the $75 million in grant requests from 487 applicants, a “Grant Proposal Review Panel” was convened with community representatives and not just professional grant reviewers, Love says.

“What that does is it makes sure that it’s not just relationships driving who gets dollars,” Love says. “It’s a very honest assessment of the program that’s before them.”

 

What if Cities Stopped Giving Away School Dollars to Finance Development

Students at Amqui Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn., watch a broadcast of President Barack Obama delivering a speech on the importance of education in 2009. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The explosive growth of Nashville over the last half-decade has lately been tempered by a few tough challenges.

Like most American cities, Nashville is facing a critical shortage of affordable housing. Unlike most cities, its former mayor, Megan Barry, resigned under a scandal in March. Then in May, voters overwhelmingly rejected a $5.4 billion transit plan that proponents hoped would transform the Nashville metro area for the better, reducing congestion and creating better mobility options for pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus and train commuters. The same month, the new mayor, David Briley, released a budget that included no cost-of-living increases for Nashville’s public school employees.

Partially in response to the budget shortfall, Nashville Metropolitan Council Member Bob Mendes proposed a solution: Leave the school district’s revenue out of tax increment financing (TIF) deals that the city makes with developers.

A typical TIF deal in Nashville freezes property taxes at a certain level on a parcel that’s set for development and allows the developer to divert the appreciating portion of the tax assessment to pay back construction loans. That means the school district, which collects about 40 percent of property tax revenue in the city, ends up with less money than it would have under an unsubsidized deal. Last year, the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA), the city agency that administers Nashville’s TIF deals, diverted almost $10 million of would-be revenue away from the school district, according to a report in The Tennessean.

Mendes, who has served on the council for three years, says he believes he had the votes to pass the bill last week, but he agreed to hold off bringing the legislation up for a vote. In exchange, the city and MDHA agreed to make no new TIF deals until at least next summer, when a committee is expected to wrap up a comprehensive study of Nashville’s TIF program and make recommendations for its improvement. Mendes also sponsored the legislation to create the committee.

“My feeling is that there’s an important place for tax increment financing in how we run the city, but yet almost everybody hates it,” Mendes says. “My opinion is if we put more sunlight on exactly what deals are being done and why, then people would have a better opinion of it, and we’d have a more nuanced approach.”

Mendes says the MDHA and TIF deals are largely insulated from the political process in its day-to-day administration. Deals are made between MDHA officials and developers and then brought to the council for approval.

Officials with MDHA and the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development did not respond to interview requests. Both bodies have two appointees each on the seven-member TIF study committee, with city council appointing the other three.

“So far, the people who’ve been appointed hit a spectrum of development people, city finance people, and I’m assuming the council is going to pick some community advocate people, and it will be balanced,” Mendes says.

Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, which tracks economic-development subsidies, says cities everywhere should consider keeping schools’ portion of property-tax revenue whole when making TIF deals.

“Education is the best way out of poverty, and therefore, good schools are necessary for equitable economic development,” LeRoy says. “You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you’re under-funding your schools in the name of economic development.”

Beyond that, LeRoy says, employers are attracted to places with good public schools, because that’s usually the first consideration for young employees when they’re considering where to move.

“To us, shielding school funding goes hand in glove with good economic development because K-12 education is the cornerstone of our nation’s workforce development system, and because it’s critical if you expect to attract good employers,” LeRoy says.

Last month, the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy released a report called Improving Tax Increment Financing for Economic Development looking at a number of studies on the impact of TIF programs in various cities. It notes that, while TIF districts are only meant to capture the increased tax assessment that wouldn’t have existed without the development, in practice they capture value that would have appreciated in the normal course of time. It recommends that states allow school districts to opt out of TIF deals, and that local governments should make more information about TIF deals publicly available.

Mendes also helped pass TIF-related legislation in 2016 in response to reports that the MDHA was ending up with some tax revenue that should have been going to the city’s general fund, according to The Tennessean.

“I think there’s a pretty widespread feeling, even among people who are hardcore, downtown business-type folks, that some of what we’ve done with TIF over the last 10 years when the city has been booming is maybe not the ideal usage,” Mendes says.

 

Thinking Bigger about How to ‘Keep Austin Affordable’

A city hall rally held by the Keep Austin Affordable coalition in June 2018. (Credit: Keep Austin Affordable)

It started with a more modest proposal.

In 2016, recognizing both the city’s strong financial position and a litany of critical investment needs, the Austin City Council appointed a Bond Election Advisory Task Force to develop a list of projects worthy of funding. Affordable housing was a priority, along with work related to flooding, transit, parks, libraries, and mobility. Katy Zamesnik and Carla Steffen, the two city staffers charged with helping the Task Force develop its proposal, say the total needs assessment ran to about $3 billion. As a starting point for discussion, they whittled that down to around $640 million, with around $85 million dedicated for housing.

Over months of discussion and a series of community meetings, the proposal grew. In the spring, the task force made a bond recommendation to the city council that included $161 million for affordable housing. But by that point, a bigger movement had taken hold.

“We went all in on $300 million,” says Madeline Detelich, a co-chair of the housing committee for the Austin Democratic Socialists of America, which joined a range of advocacy groups to push for the biggest housing bond in the history of the city. They made buttons and stickers reading “300 or Bust,” Detelich says. “It really raised the limits of what people thought was possible.”

Eventually, the city council settled on a proposal that would dedicate $250 million for affordable housing as part of a larger $925 million bond referendum that voters will face in November. The housing proposal — Proposal A — is the largest investment voters will see on the ballot. If approved, most of the money would be split between land acquisition for future affordable housing development and a rental assistance program, with $28 million each for affordable homeownership and home repair programs.

The proposal follows on previous housing bonds in 2006 and 2013 worth $55 million and $65 million, respectively. The success of those earlier bonds, plus the continued tightening of the housing market due to the city’s growth, has created an opportunity to ask voters for a much bigger investment, advocates say.

“In the past, the city has succeeded in getting voter approval for 50- and 60-odd-million-dollar housing bonds and those have done extremely powerful work, but not at a great enough scale to address our affordable housing deficit, our segregation issues, and the displacement that’s occurring in our communities,” says City Council Member Gregorio Casar, who helped lead the push for a bigger housing bond in 2018.

Austin is hoping to create 135,000 new housing units in the next ten years, according to a Blueprint written by the city’s Department of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development. The city is currently facing a shortage of 45,000 units for residents earning less than 60 percent of median family income, according to the Blueprint. Casar says the lack of affordable housing is a threat to economic diversity in Austin, which is the very thing he says so many Austinites value most about the city.

“If we don’t step up and fight for our community, then we’d be taking that for granted,” Casar says. “We know that the path we’re on is a scary path, where we could become a city just for the wealthiest among us.”

While the city has been developing the bond proposal, another task force has been charged with creating a set of anti-displacement recommendations aimed at chipping away at racial segregation in the city, as Next City has reported. If it’s approved, the largest portion of the housing bond — $100 million — will be dedicated to acquiring land for future affordable housing development. Those acquisitions will be targeted in areas that are likely to face gentrification in the near future, says Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

“We find that if you wait too long, then the price of land goes up and providing long-term affordability and mixed-income housing becomes really expensive,” Adler says. “You have to get out in front of gentrification.”

Adler admits that even a $250 million bond won’t match the full scale of the affordable housing need in Austin. But he and other proponents note that cities in Texas aren’t able to rely on help from the state or federal governments to address many of their challenges.

“If we had no bond at all it would be catastrophic,” says Nora Linares-Moeller, executive director of HousingWorks Austin, a nonprofit advocacy group became the “steward” of the Keep Austin Affordable bond slogan in between the 2013 and 2018 elections. “We are moving in the right direction. Everyone is talking about it.”

Detelich acknowledges there are limits to the bond solution, especially when compared to a more radical vision of fully public housing that many of her fellow party members hold dear. But she’s especially excited about the land acquisition portion of the proposal. And in door-to-door campaigning, members have found renters to be especially receptive to supporting the bond, because the problem it’s trying to solve is so obvious.

“It looks like it’s going to pass, and we’re hopeful that when it does, it doesn’t just pass but it passes with 70 percent or 80 percent support,” Detelich says. “We’re just really excited to get those results in and see what we can do with that. If everything goes according to plan, and this bond ends up being really popular, we’re hoping we can take that back to the city and say, ‘This is an issue that people are really concerned about and willing to put real money toward. So let’s keep going with this.’”

 

The Student Voice is Back Where It Belongs in Philadelphia

Despite losing official representation in their school system's governance seventeen years ago, Philly students never stopped speaking out. Here, about a dozen students lock arms outside Philadelphia's school administration building Wednesday, April 17, 2002, forming a human chain and refusing to allow anyone inside. The Philadelphia School Reform Commission, at the time set to announce which companies and nonprofit groups will be given control of some 75 schools in the district, decided to postpone the meeting for two hours and move it to another building several blocks away rather than make a forced entry. (AP Photo/Brad C. Bower)

Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter makes it perfectly clear: “There shall also be a non-voting student advisory member of the Board of Education and alternate appointed by the Board from among the students enrolled in the Philadelphia public schools.”

And yet for the last seventeen years, while Philadelphia’s public schools were governed by the state-controlled School Reform Commission, students have had no formal representation in the school system’s governance. With the restoration of local control, that’s about to change. Philadelphia’s nine-member Board of Education held its first post-School Reform Commission meeting in July. And in September, it introduced its two new student members: Julia Frank and Alfredo Praticò, both 17-year-old high school seniors selected from more than 50 applicants.

Though they won’t have a vote on official Board of Education business, the students say it’s their goal to keep the Board’s work grounded in the interests and concerns of the student body.

“The perspective of the student is, we see what works and we see what doesn’t work,” says Praticò. “And we’re there to advocate for the things that do work.”

Praticò, who says he plans to study economics or political science in college, and Frank, who is considering biochemistry, intend to act as intermediaries between students and the board. They say they’re developing a schedule of in-person meetings with students at various schools, and working to establish online forums for students to air grievances and share ideas.

“The general plan is to hear ideas from students and think about the best way we can serve them and implement them,” Frank says.

“It’s still kind of in the draft phase,” says Praticò.

Philadelphia School Board President Joyce Wilkerson says that under the School Reform Commission — of which she was also a member — students were able to testify at public meetings, which gave them some voice in the process. But having student representatives on the board will enable board members to “penetrate deeper and get a broader view of what their concerns are.”

“It’s going to be interesting to see,” Wilkerson says. “I think they’ll probably be using media in a way that we don’t, because we’re old fuddy-duddies. I’m excited about it. We’re not trying to micromanage them.”

Wilkerson says the applicants were screened by a panel that included students, the Mayor’s Office of Education, the Superintendent’s office, and others. To be eligible to apply, students had to be in their junior or senior year of high school, maintain at least a 2.5 GPA, and provide recommendations from a teacher or principal, among other qualifications, Wilkerson says. She believes the restoration of student voices to the District’s governing body is part of a broader push to establish public trust.

“I think one of the huge downsides of the School Reform Commission was that the district became so isolated form the constituents it served,” Wilkerson says. “People became very focused on their child — if they could get their child in an advantageous situation. There wasn’t that broader community of concern for public education in Philadelphia. I see this as another step to reconnecting with the community that we serve.”

In 2014, SoundOut, a nonprofit group focused on student involvement in school affairs, released a report showing that 25 states allow student representatives on district school boards, while 14 states specifically ban their involvement. Adam Fletcher, the founding director of SoundOut, says that young people benefit from being involved on school boards, and so do the organizations they’re serving.

“In turn, adults get a sense of effectiveness and a real sense of camaraderie and partnership with young people when they’re involved in decision-making,” Fletcher says. “So school boards basically become better for having these roles.”

Student representation on school boards falls on a spectrum of effectiveness, Fletcher says. Students are sometimes included for mere tokenism purposes, or they play the role of informants or consultants to the board, or in some cases, they have had actual voting positions.

Lately, school boards have been trending toward including more student voice in their work, Fletcher says.

“What’s happening in Philly right now is super awesome,” he says. “[But] what Philly’s doing is actually catching up.”

The key question is whether student involvement actually helps school districts achieve better educational outcomes. Fletcher says there’s no concrete evidence that it does or does not. But the prospect of improving the educational environment — giving more students a better chance to achieve what they want to achieve — is the reason Frank and Praticò are willing to invest their time in their new roles.

“If we see that there are better ways that the School District could achieve that task, no doubt we are going to be talking about it,” Praticò says. “We are going to be bringing it up in meetings.”

Frank and Praticò say they’ll encourage students to continue attending public board meetings and testifying about their concerns. And they hope their presence on the board will help integrate those concerns more deeply into the district’s work.

“It’s kind of counterintuitive to have the people who make the policies not be in communication with the people who are affected by the policies,” says Frank. “Regardless of specifics, just having communication is going to always be beneficial.”

 

The Complex Realities of Private Dollars for Public Spaces

(Photo by Tony Webster)

Earlier this month, the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law released a report reflecting three years of research into business improvement districts (BIDs) in California, entities that collect assessments from business owners or property owners in a defined area to pay for special services.

The conclusions were damning. The report, titled “Homeless Exclusion Districts,” suggests that BIDs “use their power and resources to advocate for anti-homeless policies and to support policing practices that exclude or drive out homeless people,” as the clinic put it in a press release. The growth of BIDs “correlates strongly” with the increase of laws like those that ban sitting or lying down on the sidewalk during certain times of day, the report says. It tracks instances of individual BIDs policing homeless people or coordinating with police to confront people living on the street. And it found in a survey that more than 80 percent of BIDs identified “panhandling and loitering” as an important safety and security concern.

“There’s a fundamental philosophical issue [with BIDs], which is that the presence of homeless people is an issue in the neighborhood,” says Shelby Nacino, a 2018 Berkeley Law grad who helped write the report.

The researchers began working on the report after the Western Regional Advocacy Group, a coalition focused on homelessness and poverty issues on the west coast, reported that homeless people in its orbit said they were being affected by the presence of BIDs, Nacino says. In addition to the survey, researchers conducted interviews with BID representatives and people living on the street, and they filed public records requests seeking information on BIDs’ advocacy work around homelessness.

The report is critical of how some BIDs access public money to engage in policy advocacy work. BIDs are quasi-public entities, but they are typically funded privately, collecting assessments from property owners or business owners who must vote to approve the creation of the BID. In some cases, though, BID assessments apply to municipal or public buildings, thereby accessing taxpayer money. The report found that public buildings accounted for an average of 16.8 percent of the total assessment in eleven case-study BIDs in Berkeley, Chico, Sacramento, Chico, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

“I think if business people and property owners want to take over our neighborhoods, they should do it on their own dime,” says Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project. “I don’t believe that public space is best controlled by private enterprise. I don’t believe that the only role of cities is to earn money for corporate America.”

In San Francisco, BIDs are authorized under two laws from 1989 and 1994. Both allow for the creation of special services districts, but the 1989 law allows assessments only on business owners, while the 1994 law allows assessments on all property owners in a certain area, with the money to be used for a broader array of services. Some newer BIDs are called “Community Benefits Districts,” or CBDs, though they are authorized under the same laws.

Some BID representatives reject the characterization of their work presented in the report.

“We all understand that this population that lives on the street are our neighbors as well,” says Andrew Robinson, executive director of The East Cut CBD in San Francisco. “They live in the community and we are not in the business of wanting to move somebody who needs service somewhere else.”

Robinson says the East Cut CBD doesn’t experience an “antagonistic relationship” with people living on the street the way the report describes. And he says the group doesn’t engage in policy advocacy. In fact, Robinson says, the report unfairly conflates most BIDs’ work with the Union Square BID in San Francisco, even though that group is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, and most BIDs are 501(c)(3) nonprofits, restricted from political lobbying.

The Union Square BID also boasts on its website of addressing some 20,000 sit/lie law violations and 1,700 cases of “aggressive panhandling in 2017. Robinson says The East Cut CBD only calls the police when it feels like someone is a threat to others.

“The reality of the situation on the ground, I think, is something much more nuanced, complex and not captured at all in that report,” says Fernando Pujals, director of communications for the Tenderloin Community Benefit District in San Francisco. “I think the report, from what I’ve seen, is trying to make a leap to causation where there’s correlation.”

Both Robinson and Pujals say that they want to improve their neighborhoods for the people living on the street as much as for the property owners who pay the assessments. Many BIDs say they hire people living on the street for certain jobs and try to help others find services.

“At the end of the day what CBDs offer is really a lot of connectivity in the public space,” Pujals says.

But for Boden, of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, most BIDs are just paying lip service to helping the homeless, when they really just want them out of sight. Boden thinks BIDs only exist to tidy up downtowns and create more wealth for a select few. The groups that do engage in policy advocacy work should spend less time worrying about street-level quality-of-life issues and more time pressing for investment in permanent, affordable housing for the homeless. Simply referring a homeless person to a shelter is an empty gesture, for example, he says.

“Homeless people know where the fuckin’ shelter is,” Boden says. “The shelter waitlist is over 1,200 names long.”

 

Save Two Legacies and Start Your Own by Buying This Church Building

Deacon Lloyd Butler leading a tour of the 19th Street Baptist Church sanctuary. (Photo by Jared Brey)

It would be simple enough for 19th Street Baptist Church to cut and run.

The congregation has spent the better part of the last decade in triage mode, barely maintaining its historic sanctuary building, which was designed by the architecture firm of Furness & Hewitt and built in the 1870s. Holes in the sanctuary roof were covered with corrugated sheet metal as part of an emergency maintenance intervention performed with preservationists from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. The serpentine stone facade is crumbling, with the sidewalk in front of the church fenced off. The congregation has dealt with various leaks and termite damage. And occasional efforts to raise funds for a more comprehensive renovation have not gotten off the ground.

“We were trying to restore, but what happened was, we received two estimates to restore the walls, and they were close to $300,000, and that’s when reality set in,” says Reverend Wilbur Winborne, the church’s pastor.

Now the congregation, which took over the building in the 1940s and has shrunk by about two thirds from its peak of 300 members a few decades ago, is planning to find a new home by the beginning of next year. And while it would have no trouble selling the property in the gentrifying Point Breeze neighborhood it’s called home for the last seventy years, the church is hoping to find a particular type of buyer: One who won’t tear the building down. The church is working with the group Partners for Sacred Places to find a “preservation-minded buyer” in hopes of keeping the structure from falling to the wrecking ball, as more than two dozen historic churches have since 2011, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts and recent news reports.

When it comes to 19th Street Baptist, “you’ve got two legacies,” as Winborne says. There’s the building itself, which was listed on the city’s Register of Historic Places in 1984 for its unique architecture and association with the famed architect Frank Furness. And then there’s the legacy of the 19th Street Baptist ministry, which became a community institution. Its former pastor, Charles Walker, was a “phenomenal, godly communicator,” Winborne says, who was known throughout the neighborhood. For both of those legacies, the congregation hopes someone will take over and stabilize the building.

There’s no official estimate for how much it would cost to fully restore the building, or what kind of adaptive reuse might be best for the site, says Rachel Hildebrandt, senior program manager for Partners for Sacred Places.

“There have been different estimates completed at different times, but nothing is really up to date,” Hildebrandt says. “They’ve been handling issues as they’ve come up, but just looking at the building, you can tell that it needs something a little more comprehensive.”

The effort is unique, Hildebrandt says, because most transactions for out-of-shape church properties like 19th Street Baptist are underway before preservationists can get involved. Most recently, as Next City has covered, the Christian Street Baptist Church in South Philadelphia was demolished for townhomes despite last-minute efforts to have the building preserved.

“For the most part, what happens is, developers make offers directly to these congregations, and they change hands before a building ever goes on the market,” Hildebrandt says.

19th Street Baptist Church is already designated historic, meaning a developer would have to prove that a “hardship” would keep him or her from using the property as-is before demolishing it. The effort by the congregation to find a buyer who won’t try to go that route could be a test not only of whether this particular building has a future but the degree to which there is a market in Philadelphia for historic properties with maintenance issues. For the last year and a half, a mayoral task force has been at work on recommendations for updating the city’s preservation ordinance and other changes to the city’s approach to its historic assets. The task force has discussed the possibility of creating financial incentives for preservation, an idea which both preservationists and developers support, but it has not yet released its final recommendations.

The 19th Street Baptist Church. (Photo by Jared Brey)

On Tuesday, Lloyd Butler, a deacon for 19th Street Baptist Church, and Vincent Smith, an associate minister, showed a small gathering of reporters around the dilapidated sanctuary, which the congregation stopped using around 2008. The congregation now meets in a smaller room on the second floor of the building’s south side. Butler did much of the carpentry and woodwork for the emergency repairs and other maintenance over the last few years. The corrugated metal is still exposed in the old sanctuary, which is lined with stained glass. The congregation has been working with various preservation groups in recent years to raise money for more repairs, but so far the progress has been incremental.

“Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk — but nobody was able to step up to the plate and say, ‘We can do this,’” Smith said.

The congregation has lately seen some modest growth, says Winborne, and it wants to move to a new location where it can expand its ministry. Winborne says he understands the building may be worth less with the church on it than it might be as raw land. He hopes a buyer will come along who can make a commitment to saving the building while offering a fair price to the congregation.

“It’s really a jewel of a church,” Winborne says.

 

The ‘Capital of Silicon Valley’ Wants to Borrow $450 Million for Housing

Downtown San Jose as seen from San Jose City Hall. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

If you live in a major American city, chances are your housing market has increasingly limited options for affordable living, and your elected officials are starting to acknowledge it as a problem — maybe even a crisis. If you live in San Jose, the biggest city in the San Francisco Bay Area and the self-proclaimed “Capital of Silicon Valley,” a shortage of affordable housing has been your reality for a long time.

“We’ve always had a challenge in the South Bay, especially in Silicon Valley, because we have been over-producing jobs and under-producing housing,” says Leslye Corsiglia, executive director of the housing advocacy group SV@Home and a former director of housing for the City of San Jose. “It’s gotten worse along the way, but it’s always been a problem. I would say it’s been a problem for the last 20 years.”

The explosive growth of the tech industry was never accompanied by proper planning for new housing, Corsiglia says.

“So as a result, we’ve just seen longer and longer commutes, overcrowding, overpayment, a lot of 50-somethings who are having to get roommates — things that people didn’t expect to be doing,” she says.

This fall, San Jose voters will be asked to open a new front in the fight for affordable housing with one of the biggest local housing bond initiatives in recent memory. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and the city council finalized the terms of a $450 million bond referendum that would direct money to affordable housing production and preservation at three different income levels, promising to create up to 3,550 units of new affordable housing in the city. The bond follows on the heels of a $900 million bond approved by Santa Clara County voters in 2016 to address homelessness. It will require approval by two-thirds of voters on the November ballot.

“Like every large city on the west coast, we’re facing a housing crisis that’s reaching into every household and every neighborhood,” Liccardo says. “While we have much to celebrate in our economic success in Silicon Valley, our city has more than 4,000 residents who sleep on the street or under a bridge every night. For them and for the thousands of teachers, nurses, and working families, this bond will be an important step forward.”

San Jose has been ranked as the most unaffordable metro area in the United States, and the fifth-most unaffordable city in the world. According to the city’s Housing Department, 20 percent of residents are severely cost-burdened — paying more than half of their income for housing — and it requires roughly four-and-a-half minimum-wage jobs to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment in the area.

Last October, Liccardo released a 15-point housing plan with the goal of creating 25,000 new homes in San Jose over the next five years, of which 10,000 would be affordable units. The plan focuses on transit-oriented development in the downtown area and North San Jose, mixed-use development in “struggling business districts,” creating housing for the “missing middle” income level, and generating new funds for affordable housing. In June, the Housing Department released a new Affordable Housing Investment Plan suggesting that, accounting for all the existing sources of housing funds, the city would need an addition $548 million to meet the city’s goals.

The $450 million bond that voters will be asked to approve would be allocated in a few ways. At least $150 million would be used to serve residents earning less than 30 percent of area median income (AMI). Another $75 million would be set aside for the “missing middle” residents earning between 80 and 120 percent of AMI. The remaining $225 million could be spent flexibly on affordable housing for any income level up to 120 percent of AMI. The ballot question explicitly mentions housing for “working families, veterans, seniors, teachers, nurses, paramedics, and other workers.” The money would be spent on land acquisition, new construction, and acquiring existing housing for preservation.

“It is a necessary but not sufficient tool that will enable thousands of homeless residents to get off the street and thousands more working families to afford stable housing,” Liccardo says. “We know we’re going to need many more tools and we’re working fervently with many partners on our expanding our toolbox.”

Specifically, Liccardo says the city is working with philanthropic foundations and private partners to create a “missing middle” fund. The fund would have a goal of attracting low-return but safe investment in housing for middle-income earners, with a minimal subsidy from the city. No outside money has been committed for that effort yet.

Also, last week, the city council came as close as it’s come to date to approving a commercial linkage fee, which would extract money from new commercial developments for housing. Most other cities in the area already have a linkage fee, says Corsiglia. The proposal could be considered again next month. Meanwhile, in November, voters across California will be asked to approve a $4 billion bond for statewide affordable housing efforts.

An increase in property taxes would repay the San Jose bond. The city estimates that approving the bond would raise taxes on San Jose property owners by 8 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or around $24 a year for a $300,000 house.

How will Liccardo and other advocates make a pitch for the $450 million San Jose measure?

“Loudly,” Liccardo says. “Our focus is on reaching the many homeowners who may be undecided because they already have their piece of the American dream, and what we’re finding is that, even among those more satisfied and affluent residents, they have concerns about the ability for their children to be able to afford to live here when they’re grown.”

 

Early Results of Philly Soda Tax Show Mixed Impact on Buying Habits

A sweetened beverage tax sign is posted by sweetened beverages at a supermarket in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia, Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Philadelphia's tax on soda and other sweetened drinks was upheld that month when the state's highest court rejected a challenge to the law by merchants and the beverage industry. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

It’s been more than a year and a half since Philadelphia’s tax on sugar-sweetened beverages went into effect, and the parade of studies measuring its impacts shows no signs of slowing.

Revenues from the first year of the tax didn’t quite match the city’s projections, according to a story in Billy Penn. A decline in soda sales hadn’t hurt overall business at chain stores in the city as of last year, according to an ongoing study by researchers at Harvard, Penn, and Johns Hopkins. As of April of this year, a Drexel University study suggested that Philadelphians were 40 percent less likely to drink sugary beverages and 58 percent more likely to drink bottled water than their peers in other cities.

Now, a pair of working papers released this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, report a new set of findings.

The burden of the tax has been fully passed on to consumers, according to a study released last week, with prices rising more in high-poverty neighborhoods and less near the city’s borders.

A second working paper released by the same researchers this week measures impacts on beverage consumption. Shoppers have purchased fewer sugary beverages inside the city and more sugary beverages outside the city since the tax went into effect, the study suggests. Children overall haven’t consumed substantially less sugar from beverages after the tax, it concludes. But children who were drinking roughly one 20-ounce bottle of soda a day before the tax have reduced their sugar intake by 22 percent, and African-American children have consumed an average of eight fewer grams per day of added sugar from beverages.

“I think particularly in terms of the children’s results, these [findings] are really novel,” says David Jones, a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, who co-authored both studies. “We’re the only group to be able to look at children so far.”

Philadelphia adopted its 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and diet drinks in 2016, during the first year of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration. Former Mayor Michael Nutter had tried twice to pass a soda tax but was rebuffed both times by the city council. But whereas Nutter had pitched the soda tax as a public-health initiative, Kenney sold it as a way to help pay for a package of major civic investments, including expanded Pre-K and a $500 million effort to rehab the city’s parks, libraries, and recreation centers. But the city is still claiming the reduced consumption of soda as a victory for public health.

“This means Philadelphia residents are responding to the pass-through of the beverage tax in the healthiest way, by switching from sweetened drinks to water,” says Mike Dunn, a spokesman for Kenney, in an email responding to findings from the two latest reports. “This added health benefit would mean a decrease in the number of Philadelphians affected by diabetes and heart disease. Philadelphia has the highest proportion of residents with diabetes of any big city in America.”

Those benefits are in addition to growth in Pre-K, new community schools, and additional impending borrowings for the Rebuild initiative made possible by the tax, Dunn says.

The findings of the first study are based on data the researchers collected around the price of sugar-sweetened beverages and diet drinks in comparable stores in Philadelphia and surrounding Pennsylvania counties. The second study is based on interviews with customers at stores in Philadelphia and surrounding counties, plus a longitudinal study of the drink-consumption habits of a set of consumers the researchers identified before the tax went into effect. In both studies, the researchers matched stores based on the type (corner store vs. grocery, for example) as well as the demographics of the communities they’re located in.

The second study also looked at the frequency of cross-border shopping, concluding that Philadelphians were not substantially more likely to shop outside of the city after the tax, but that when they did shop outside the city, they were more likely to purchased drinks covered by the Philadelphia beverage tax.

Jones says that repeating the study in five or ten years would be even more revealing. People tend to form their consumption habits as children, he says, and it’s possible that children growing up in Philadelphia after the beverage tax will form different habits from earlier generations.

“This study is the longest-term study so far on consumption, but it’s still pretty short-term,” Jones says.

The two papers are part of a larger multi-city study that Jones and his fellow researchers are completing which will also focus on the impact of a soda tax adopted in Oakland, California, in 2016, among other cities. There are important differences between Philadelphia’s beverage tax and those in other cities, Jones says. For one thing, Philadelphia’s tax covers not just sugar-sweetened beverages but diet drinks, unlike most others. And Philadelphia is the largest city with a soda tax in the U.S., meaning fewer residents have an opportunity to easily skip across the border to avoid it than in other places.

“Location does really matter,” Jones says. “If there isn’t too great of a cost, people tend to seek out alternatives, whether it means drinking water, or whether it means going to an untaxed store.”

 

Philly’s ‘Good Faith’ Back-Up Plan for More Affordable Housing Funds

(Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In the end, the mayor didn’t even have to veto the bill.

In the hours before Philadelphia City Council was scheduled to start its fall session last week, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council officials announced that they had reached a compromise deal on adding money to the city’s affordable housing trust fund, abandoning a plan to impose a one-percent tax on new construction projects in the city.

As Next City reported in June, the construction tax proposal grew out of years of discussions about bolstering the housing trust fund and was supported by a narrow majority of city councilmembers in a 9-8 vote on the last day of the spring session.

Kenney held off on signing the bill all summer, leading many to believe he would veto it. Instead, city council sponsors agreed to recall the legislation last week, after the administration committed to allocating at least an additional $53 million to the housing trust fund over the next five years. The funding is expected to come through annual appropriations from the general fund of revenue that’s newly collected from properties that are coming off of Philadelphia’s contentious citywide ten-year property tax abatement.

In a statement, Kenney said that councilmembers and advocates had negotiated the compromise in “good faith” over the summer.

“All of us share the same goal — ensuring that residents have access to housing options no matter what their financial situation,” Kenney said in the statement. “This new revenue will be a reliable way to achieve that goal.”

In addition to the $53 million committed by the administration, City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez plans to amend an inclusionary zoning policy she had previously introduced, raising the fees on developers seeking height and density bonuses. That amendment could generate an additional $18 million over five years, bringing the total to $71 million in new housing trust fund dollars over that period, though administration officials warned that $18 million was the most optimistic projection for developer participation in the bonus program.

“I hope that the increased fees don’t discourage people, but I’m very optimistic,” Sánchez told reporters after the meeting last week.

Sánchez and housing advocates have been pushing for the administration to add at least $20 million a year to the housing trust fund. While the deal falls short of that goal, Sánchez said she’s going to continue pushing to get $100 million added to the fund over the next five years.

Beth McConnell, policy director for the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, had been urging Kenney to sign the construction tax bill most of the summer. But she said she’s encouraged by the deal that the administration struck with city council, and will continue to push for more dedicated funds over time. According to McConnell, the deal is evidence that an equitable development campaign, which the association has helped spearhead since releasing a policy platform during the 2015 mayoral and council elections, is bearing fruit.

“We launched a campaign four years ago to double the housing trust fund,” McConnell says. “We’re on the verge of doing that today. We launched a campaign a year ago to get inclusionary zoning. We’re on the verge of a voluntary density bonus program that we hope is going to be really attractive. So I feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”

The mayor and all members of city council will face voters again in a primary election next spring. In the four years since the last election, concerns about affordable housing in the city have only grown. Later this month, the Kenney administration is expected to release its first-ever comprehensive housing plan, as PlanPhilly has reported. Expanding the housing trust fund, which helps pay for affordable housing construction and preservation as well as home repairs and homelessness prevention programs, has been a priority for advocates.

Advocates in other cities have been fighting for infusions to their local housing trust funds as well. In November, voters will decide whether to approve a $50 million bond referendum supporting the housing trust fund in Charlotte. A group of activists in Baltimore recently secured a $20 million commitment from Mayor Catherine Pugh for an affordable housing trust fund that was created via a ballot measure two years ago. The city of Alexandria, Virginia, is planning to raise the local tax on restaurant meals and steer the proceeds to its housing trust fund. In Oregon, a number of cities have been adopting construction excise taxes and allocating the revenue to affordable housing efforts.

But the construction tax proposal in Philadelphia never had a veto-proof majority of councilmembers behind it. Advocates say they’ll take the commitment from the mayor as a win and keep fighting for more resources.

“I think this is a real commitment by both the mayor and city council that we’re going to make this a priority in the city,” Sánchez said.

 

California Wants Everyone to Be Able to Afford Clean Energy Cars

Overlooking the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Californians who buy new zero-emissions vehicles are already eligible for a rebate of up to $7,000 through the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project, which boasts of helping to bring more than 200,000 clean vehicles to the road over the last eight years. But as with all rebates, there’s a catch: You have to be able to afford the car up front in the first place.

Now, the California Air Resources Board is trying to make clean vehicles accessible to more people with a $5 million pilot grant for a Clean Vehicle Assistance Program. The program provides grants of up to $5,000 for Californians whose income is less than 400 percent of the poverty level and who are seeking to purchase a hybrid or electric vehicle. The program, run by the Oakland-based Beneficial State Foundation, has active since June, but was just announced in a press release from the California Air Resources Board last week.

“Cars and light trucks are the state’s largest source of climate-changing gas emissions,” says Melanie Turner, public information officer for the Air Resources Board, in an email to Next City. “In order to meet California’s health-based air quality standards and greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, the cars we drive and the fuel we use must be transformed away from petroleum. By making clean cars more affordable, the Clean Vehicle Assistance Program is getting us closer to meeting California’s important air quality and climate goals.”

In the last few months, Beneficial State Foundation has received more than 1,000 applications and made 31 grants, says Jhana Valentine, the Clean Vehicle Assistance Program director. It takes applicants anywhere from six days to four weeks to complete the application process, she says. Beneficial State estimates it will be able to give around 800 grants with the current round of funding—but it is seeking to expand the program beyond the pilot.

“We’ve seen that clean-energy vehicles are seen as not a feasible option for many people,” Valentine says. “Partly that’s because of misinformation about the technology; partly that’s the cost barrier; partly that’s the charging barrier. So we’ve designed a program to address these barriers.”

Grants are available at the rate of $2,500 for hybrids or $5,000 for plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles. They are available for new cars or used cars younger than eight years with fewer than 75,000 miles. The grants are paid directly to car dealers to lower the cost for buyers, according to the program website. Certain applicants can also have charging stations installed in their homes. Turner says the California Air Resources Board will track the impact of the program by monitoring the number, size, and location of the grants and loans administered by Beneficial State Foundation. It also plans to survey grantees to measure the impact of the program, Turner says.

The funding for the pilot comes from California Climate Investments, which directs money from the state’s cap-and-trade program toward efforts that improve public health and the environment. The clean vehicle program is meant to reduce emissions while serving communities that haven’t traditionally had access to clean-energy vehicles, Turner says.

“It increases access to, and awareness of, clean vehicles to low-income consumers, and helps make clean cars affordable,” Turner says. “Clean cars also mean lower fuel costs when compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, lower maintenance costs, and more reliable transportation because it enables consumers to get into newer, cleaner vehicles. The program helps people in disadvantaged communities, or those most impacted by pollution.”

Turner and Valentine say the program is being marketed statewide, but with a special emphasis on disadvantaged communities in urban and rural areas. Those communities are identified using CalEnviroScreen, a tool that tracks areas that are disproportionately impacted by multiple sources of pollution. (Read previous Next City coverage related to CalEnviroScreen here.)

Beneficial State Foundation also owns Beneficial State Bank, founded in 2007 “to transform the banking industry for good,” says Valentine. So in addition to grants, applicants can also access low-interest auto loans through the bank.

All of the bank’s profits go to the foundation, which uses the funds to support community goals. “The belief is that the banking industry today doesn’t really uphold communities in the ways that it should,” Valentine says. “It really puts profit before people.”

The income limits for the program were determined through a public process as part of the California Air Resources Board’s annual funding plan, according to Turner. And they’re designed to make the program accessible to people with little or no credit history, she says.

“We see it as a way to really increase access to the cost benefits of clean vehicles for individuals and families, and then collectively address the air quality for California by improving it through reducing tailpipe emissions,” Valentine says.

 



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