Posts by Author: Jared Brey

How Marginalized Communities Are Getting Control over Development

The first home sold as part of the new Maggie Walker Community Land Trust in Richmond, Va. (Credit: Maggie Walker Community Land Trust)

Last December, the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust in Richmond, Va., completed and sold its first home. It’s a two-story, 1,680-square-foot house on a formerly vacant lot that looks pretty much like the other houses on the block. The land trust now has 38 more projects in the pipeline, and in the next five years, it expects to develop between 125-150 homes. By keeping the land in the ownership of the trust and selling only the houses to residents, the trust can make homeownership more affordable for families with low to moderate incomes, who then split the equity 50-50 with the trust when they move out.

The land trust was named for Maggie Walker, a black woman born in Richmond who was the first woman to create a bank in the United States. It’s gotten support from a number of local anchor institutions, including the Bon Secours Health System, which had been working on community development projects in the neighborhood for years before property values started going up, says Bob Adams, program development manager for the land trust.

“[Bon Secours] really embraced the idea of the community land trust, because they could see that a lot of the community development work that had happened in the East End of Richmond over the last ten years was really starting to show success,” says Adams, who also founded HD Advisors, a community development consulting firm in Richmond. “We’re now seeing a lot of private capital moving into that community. That’s one of those good news-bad news stories. You work in a community for a long time that has really been disinvested in, and you’re struggling to convince capital to come in there to support good projects, and then eventually you reach a tipping point in that community when suddenly the private sector begins to rush in.”

Maggie Walker Community Land Trust is trying to make sure that there are some homes available for people in Richmond whose incomes aren’t growing at the same rate as housing costs. It’s one of a handful of efforts highlighted in a new report from the Democracy Collaborative called “Community Control of Land & Housing: Exploring strategies for combating displacement, expanding ownership, and building community wealth.”

The report is an effort to showcase trends and strategies in the U.S. that shift the dynamic of control from private developers to communities as a whole, says Jarrid Green, a senior research associate at the Democracy Collaborative and lead author of the report. The report highlights five strategies: community land trusts, limited-equity cooperatives, resident-owned communities, community benefits agreements, and land banks.

But the report begins with a sweeping discussion of the history of displacement in the land that became the United States, starting with the arrival of the very first white settlers in the 1600s.

“Even a cursory look at public policy decisions in the United States over the past 200 years reveals that deeply entrenched racism have profoundly shaped and continue to shape our current system of land and home ownership, access, and valuation,” the report says. “It has also enabled elite and corporate interests to obtain ownership of vital assets in the very communities that have suffered from a history of disinvestment, neglect, and public abandonment — often in the name of renewal and revitalization.”

Green says it was important to start the 168-page report with such a deep look at the legacy of displacement because a lot of research into the issues only looks at the last few decades of public policy. Sometimes researchers trace current concerns back to the New Deal, but there’s more to the story.

“A lot of folks feel as though there’s a lot of injustice and inequality that’s rooted in a system that’s much larger than what folks talk about when they talk about affordable housing,” Green says. “Without that sort of longer-term, systemic lens and viewpoint, you sort of lack what we’re trying to actually resolve.”

Among the various strategies outlined, community land trusts currently have a lot of momentum in American cities, Green says. Limited-equity cooperatives are member-run communities, typically small to large multi-family housing complexes, that limit how much homeowners can take out of their homes when they sell them. Similarly, resident-owned communities are cooperatives that own the land in communities of manufactured housing. Community benefits agreements allow residents to extract public benefits from developers when they’re working on market-rate projects. Land banks help cities dispose of public or vacant and tax-delinquent land for community-serving purposes.

The report cites inclusionary zoning and linkage fees as tools that may create some affordable housing, “[but] do nothing to shift the underlying dynamics of developer control in the housing sector in favor of the communities most in need and at risk.” It recommends shifting that dynamic at a larger scale, perhaps using community benefits agreements to form or expand community land trusts, or establishing pipelines between land banks and community land trusts.

Another recommendation is for anchor institutions like hospitals and universities to use place-based investments to help communities get more control over their land, as Bon Secours is doing with the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust in Richmond.

“It’s important to shift the dynamic that we’ve seen, particularly one where a small group of people control land and housing,” Green says. “Our communities have been shaped to benefit folks who are particularly wealthy, and often this happens at the expense of the folks who are the most marginalized.”

 

Door-Knocking Scores a Victory for Affordable Housing in Baltimore

At a public meeting earlier this year with United Workers, where Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman finally committed city funding to the city's affordable housing trust fund. (Credit: United Workers Media Team)

The door-to-door campaign paid off.

Or rather, the campaigns.

Late last Friday, a coalition of affordable housing advocates in Baltimore announced that they had reached an agreement with Mayor Catherine Pugh’s office and members of city council to allocate $20 million a year to the city’s affordable housing trust fund. The trust fund was created in 2016, after a campaign by many in the same coalition to get a question on the ballot establishing the fund. The measure was approved by 83 percent of voters.

A year and a half later, as Next City reported, the fund was still empty. As of March, the advocates — including members of United Workers and the Baltimore Housing Roundtable — had secured a verbal commitment from the city’s housing commissioner to put $2 million into the fund. But they were still going door to door, drumming up public support for an allocation ten times that amount. As the weeks went by with no further commitments from officials, the Baltimore Sun reported, the coalition began working on yet another campaign, this time pushing for a ballot question that would require the city to set aside 0.05 percent of its total property assessment for affordable housing.

Turning up the pressure helped bring the agreement to fruition, says Destiny Watford, a community organizer with United Workers and member of the Baltimore Housing Roundtable. As part of the agreement, the coalition agreed not to push for the property assessment measure on the November ballot.

“We didn’t know what would happen,” Watford says of the most recent ballot campaign. “We were just like, listen, if the city isn’t taking action, if their response to democracy and public outcry, if their response to thousands of voices that say that they want money in an affordable housing trust fund is silence, is to ignore us, to say that they’re with us publicly and then internally never do anything or put skin in the game, then we’re going to take action into our own hands. And we did.”

According to a press release from the campaign, the council is expected to support legislation creating small excise taxes on property transfers and deed recording that could generate around $13 million a year for the affordable housing trust fund. The mayor’s office agreed to allocate the rest, starting with $2 million in fiscal year 2020 and ramping up to $7 million a year by 2023. The agreement will be formalized with a memorandum of understanding and a press conference in the next month, according to the press release. Next City reached out to the mayor’s office for confirmation of the details, which were also reported by the Sun, but has not gotten a response.

Watford says the coalition is excited about the agreement because it’s hoping to build a model for future action in cooperation with city officials. But generations of Baltimoreans still don’t trust the city, she says, and the advocates still have their guard up.

“We’re just grabbing the chair to have a seat at the table …” she says. “We’re going to have to hold the city and ourselves accountable to make sure that this actually happens.”

Beyond cementing the agreement into law, coalition members are still pushing for a more direct allocation of money to a network of community land trusts in the area. Last March, the housing commissioner promised $100,000 to support the land trusts. It was a good start, says Lisa Hodges, project manager for the Westport Community Economic Development Corporation’s community land trust effort. But advocates were asking for $6 million.

Westport, which is also a member organization in the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, is one of three nonprofit development corporations trying to establish a regional land trust, Hodges says. It’s eyeing around 90 vacant properties in the neighborhood — where values are still “low-ish,” according to Hodges — and working on a model of shared equity in which the land trust would own the land and income-qualified residents would own the improvements. It’s targeting residents making between 30 percent and 80 percent of area median income, and Hodges says there are certain longtime residents of public housing who would make good candidates for homeownership under the community land trust model.

The equity share between the land trust and the homeowner after a home is sold is still being worked out, Hodges says. And the coalition is working with the city to acquire the first round of properties, which are vacant and tax-delinquent.

“We are really beating the bushes to get what we can so we can be self-determined in the way that the area is developed,” Hodges says.

The next step is for the city to not only formalize the agreement but to start distributing the money for projects, Hodges says.

“It’s one thing to say that you’ve allocated funds or you have access to funds, but if you can’t move the money quickly, it doesn’t make a difference,” she says. “Affordable housing developers are just like other housing developers: time is money.”

Watford says the only reason the campaigns have been successful so far is that they’ve been entirely rooted in the communities that are suffering the most from a shortage of safe, quality, and affordable housing in Baltimore. Residents have gotten tired of their neighborhoods meeting one of two fates, she says: disinvestment and neglect, or redevelopment for the primary benefit of people who are wealthier than the current residents. The coalition is trying to find new ways for people in Baltimore’s poorest communities to set the terms of their own growth.

“What this comes back to is the power of the grassroots and the power of the people on the ground,” Watford says. “Just internalizing the fact that we are creative, we are strong, we have stories that need to be shared. We have power, and we can wield that.”

 

The Bay Area’s Regional Funding Stream for Ecological Restoration

(Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

The delicate ecology of the San Francisco Bay Area is partially in the hands of elementary schoolers.

Since the early 1990s, a group called STRAW — Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed — has been working on projects that improve wetland habitats all around the region. In that time, according to Point Blue, the conservation science group that coordinates the program, STRAW has enlisted 45,000 students in restoring 36 miles of streams in the region, revegetating stream areas with more than 46,000 plants.

“All the work of STRAW is done by students,” says Melissa Pitkin, the outreach and education group director for Point Blue. The STRAW staff trains local teachers in wetland restoration work, and the teachers in turn train their students. “It’s hands-on,” she says. “It’s not a demonstration project. It’s real wetland habitat restoration.”

In April, the group received a $2.6 million grant to carry out restoration work in the “wetland-upland transition zone” in Sonoma, Solano, Napa, and Marin counties, on the north shore of the bay. The grant was among the first round of awards to come out of Measure AA, a $25-million-a-year, nine-county funding stream meant to improve water quality, protect wildlife habitat, reduce flood risks, and increase public access to waterfronts.

Measure AA was approved in 2016, in the first-ever referendum organized as a joint effort between all nine counties surrounding the bay. It levies a $12 annual tax on every parcel in those counties and is expected to direct around $500 million to restoration projects over the next 20 years.

Part of the $2.6 million for STRAW will go to a bayside neighborhood in the city of Petaluma, where students will “soften the edge” between the wetlands and developed areas with native plants, which can help control flooding during storms and provide critical habitat for wildlife.

“The idea is if we can vegetate those areas and replant them with native plants, it will help to stabilize the marsh and provide places for the habitat to move to,” Pitkin says.

It’s a small sliver of the wetland restoration work that’s happening all around the region, and part of a decades-long effort to protect the ecosystem of the San Francisco Bay, a mission that’s gotten more urgent as the consequences of climate change have become more immediate.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the first Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals were articulated, and in that time, the threats to natural habitats and regional economies from climate change have been brought into sharp relief.

In 2015, the Bay Area Council Economic Institute released a report called Surviving the Storm, an attempt to measure the consequences of a prolonged period of extraordinary rainfall in the Bay Area. Scientific reports have suggested that, because of sea-level rise and land subsidence, between 48 and 166 square miles of land in the region could be endangered by 2100.

“One of the challenges in the Bay Area is it’s a multiple-county place and there really isn’t, like, an easy way to do anything,” says Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business-backed public policy group that helped lead the campaign for Measure AA, along with Save the Bay and Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

Measure AA required enabling legislation at the state level for a nine-county referendum. The funds are channeled through the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, which was created in 2008. Last summer, the Authority put out a request for proposals that would restore or enhance tidal wetland areas, aid in flood protection, or improve public and recreational access around the bay, in line with the program guidelines. The Authority received 22 proposals requesting around $32 million in funding, says Program Manager Matt Gerhart. In April, it awarded around $23 million for nine projects.

“I’d say the majority of what we saw in terms of proposals were things that were well underway,” Gerhart says. “There’s definitely an emphasis on things that can be implemented right away.”

Aside from the STRAW project, grants included $7.4 million for the massive South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, $1.6 million for the 600-acre Montezuma Tidal and Seasonal Wetlands Restoration Project, and a $150,000 planning grant to the Sonoma Land Trust for the Lower Sonoma Creek.

With Measure AA in place, Gerhart says, the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority is gearing up to release another request for proposals for the next round of grants. The program is structured in order to support a mix of projects that meet the various goals of the measure. If in a few years the oversight committee determines that certain priorities are being shortchanged, it can adjust its requests for proposals to balance things out. And because the funding is based on the number of parcels in the region and not tax assessments, it should be relatively stable.

The Bay Area Council is now helping to lead a fundraising effort for resilience projects statewide, related to fires, floods, drought, and heat. The project, called the California Resilience Challenge, is an outgrowth of the Resilient By Design competition funded by the Rockefeller Foundation last year, as Next City has covered. In September, the group plans to release a request for proposals at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, inviting California cities to apply for grants.

“We’re really experiencing the effects, now, of climate change,” says Wunderman. “We’re experiencing the hottest summers, the driest and wettest winters, changes in sea temperatures. Right now, we have the biggest fire in the history of the state burning.”

 

Reactivating Abandoned Buildings through Local Ownership in Smaller Cities

Newburgh Community Land Bank is reactivating vacant properties in the Hudson Valley city. (Credit: Newburgh Community Land Bank)

The funeral home at 13-15 Chambers Street in Newburgh, N.Y., had already died by the time the Newburgh Community Land Bank formed in 2012.

Two commercial spaces on the ground floor and three apartments on the upper levels had been abandoned for long enough that the city had managed to acquire the property through tax foreclosure. Newburgh is a small city of 30,000 people, about 60 miles north of New York City on the western bank of the Hudson River. When the land bank formed, it decided to focus its energy on a portion of the downtown area — a historic district close to the hospital and the community college, walkable to transit, and packed with vacant properties that the city already owned.

“There hadn’t been much development in the neighborhood we were targeting in many, many years,” says Madeline Fletcher, executive director of the Newburgh Community Land Bank. “So we wanted to do a project that showed how these things could really get done.”

The Chambers Street property was one of the Newburgh Community Land Bank’s first acquisitions. After it got the building from the city, it invested $90,000 in asbestos treatment and structural stabilization. It hired an architect to design the renovation and used another $100,000 in federal HOME Funds to renovate the apartments upstairs for affordable rental units. Those units are now rented to tenants earning up to 65 percent of area median income who were already living in the neighborhood, according to Fletcher. And when the renovation was complete, the land bank ended up selling the property to the architect, who lives nearby. The land bank itself moved its offices into the ground floor commercial space.

That project eventually became part of the inspiration for New York State to create its Neighbors for Neighborhoods program, now gaining steam in the state’s other post-industrial cities.

The Neighbors for Neighborhoods program provides financial support for New York residents to renovate abandoned properties in their neighborhoods for affordable rental housing. The Capital Region Land Bank is soliciting proposals for the program in Schenectady; last week, officials in Rochester announced that a local resident had bought the first property to go through the Neighbors for Neighborhoods program in that city, the Democrat & Chronicle reported. A spokeswoman for the City of Rochester says the city expects to be able to complete five rehab projects with properties in its Land Bank under the current round of funding. And back where it all got started, Newburgh Community Land Bank (along with its work on other properties) is working on three small redevelopment projects under Neighbors for Neighborhoods.

Announced two years ago, Neighbors for Neighborhoods is a $4 million program funded out of settlement payments related to the housing and foreclosure crisis of 2008. The program is meant to help individual residents take over and reactivate vacant properties of up to four dwelling units. It requires the owners to put in at least 10 percent equity in the property and to rent the apartments for at least 20 years at rates that are affordable to tenants making up to 80 percent of area median income. Owners must live nearby the properties they’re renovating, and may not already own more than two rental properties, according to the requirements listed in a Rochester sale document.

The Neighbors for Neighborhoods program is administered by Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing nonprofit. The group worked closely with the New York Attorney General’s office to craft the program, according to Elizabeth Zeldin, senior program director at Enterprise Community Partners. The goal of the program was to develop some affordable rental housing in struggling neighborhoods and build local wealth at the same time, Zeldin says.

Enterprise has been working with land banks throughout New York State since 2013, funding them through a variety of settlement payment dollars to reactivate vacant buildings in their communities and further their community development priorities, Zeldin says.

“What we noticed was the majority of the projects that land banks wanted were for homeownership,” Zeldin explains. “Homeownership has really been the traditional stabilization strategy in communities, particularly the low-density ones. We wanted to demonstrate that high-quality rental housing could also be a positive asset to a community.”

Zeldin says the program is meant to help small-time landlords invest in the growth of their communities. She points to research out of Atlanta suggesting that landlords with lots of properties are more likely to file evictions than small-time landlords. The program is meant to help provide stable affordable housing for tenants and a source of equity for committed local owners. In many cases, in the cities where the program is active, Zeldin says, 80 percent area median income is roughly market-rate anyway.

“The landlord generally in most of these neighborhoods is not forgoing rental income now as much as forgoing upside in the case of potential gentrification,” she says. “The goal is to really use this program as a way to mitigate blight in neighborhoods, so we are looking for them to use these projects to turn around blocks and make the visual landscape of a block better.”

The Chambers Street property in Newburgh was cited as an inspiration for the Neighbors for Neighborhoods program in a press release announcing the program in 2016. Fletcher says the Newburgh Community Land Bank is currently eyeing three other rehab projects, including one with a very large unit, after finding that there’s a demand for larger affordable units in the city. Because it’s working at such a small scale for each project, the Land Bank has been able to identify potential projects and investors in the target area it wants to improve one by one.

“We tried to see where there were sort of spiritual matches between the program’s goals and things we knew were in the pipeline,” Fletcher says. “It’s been a little bit organic.”

 

Can a Tax Credit Provide Long-Overdue Relief for Renters?

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris introduced a Senate bill to provide a renter tax credit. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Last week, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), whose home state of California is facing one of the worst crises of affordable housing in a country where nearly 40 percent of renters are considered cost-burdened, introduced a bill intended to give renters some long-overdue help.

The bill, called the Rent Relief Act, is a companion to legislation of the same name introduced in the House last summer by Congressman Joe Crowley (D-NY), of New York. It would create a refundable tax credit for families that spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, with a sliding scale based on income. At the low end, families whose income is less than $25,000 a year could claim a credit for 100 percent of the rent they paid that year, while at the upper end, families earning between $75,000 and $100,000 could claim a credit for 25 percent of their rent. The credit would be capped so that renters could only claim a discount for rents that fall within 150 percent of Fair Market Rent. It would also allow families in subsidized housing to claim a credit for one month’s worth of rent each year. And perhaps most significantly, it would represent a major show of support for struggling renters from the federal government, which typically does much more to help homeowners than renters.

Bracket, for a moment, the fact that the bill has almost no chance of passing under the current political configuration in Congress. Does it make sense as policy? And even without passing, could it create political momentum for a new type of investment in housing at the federal level?

A recent Pew study found that 38 percent of renter households were cost-burdened—paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing—in 2015, a share that had risen nearly 20 percent since 2001. Across the country, 17 percent of those households were paying more than half their income towards rent in 2015, according to the same study. And the figures were even higher—46 percent cost-burdened—for African-American-led renter households.

Moreover, as Harris recently claimed in a statement rated “Mostly True” by Politifact, someone earning the minimum wage in 99 percent of counties in America is unable to afford a typical one-bedroom apartment.

“We are in a growing housing crisis where we have more renters than ever before, but our federal investment in affordable housing and rental assistance have been chronically underfunded,” says Sarah Mickelson, senior director of policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which backs the bill. “And the result is that you have millions of low-income seniors, people with disabilities, families with children and other individuals who are struggling to pay rent and meet their other basic needs. And unfortunately, we haven’t funded other federal programs at the level that’s necessary to serve these folks.”

The proposal in the Rent Relief Act is modeled on a policy paper from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, called “The FAIR Tax Credit.” That paper laid out a number of potential changes to the tax code that could help renters dealing with a diminishing supply of affordable housing, one of which was providing a tax credit to all cost-burdened renters. The Terner Center estimated it would around $76 billion.

“It’s really important to also expand supply, but in lots of markets there’s a real gap between incomes and supply,” says Carolina Reid, a faculty research advisor at the Terner Center and co-author of the FAIR Tax Credit paper. “So to the extent that we actually really care about and value that people have a roof over their heads that they can afford … closing that gap is really important.”

The idea for a renters’ tax credit isn’t new, Reid says. But there’s an increasing recognition that stable housing is a prerequisite for all sorts of other civic goals.

Will Fischer, a senior policy analyst at The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says that pushing a tax credit like the one in the Rent Relief Act is an important show of recognition of the housing crisis at the federal level. But a tax credit isn’t the only way to help renters, he says. The CBPP released a policy paper in February calling for a new type of housing voucher targeted to families with young children. The vouchers would be prioritized for families with a history of housing instability. And if it were phased in, it would cost about $13.5 billion over five years, the CBPP says.

“There are other federal programs that help develop and rehabilitate affordable housing, and that’s part of the solution too,” Fischer says. “But really, the biggest thing is providing rental assistance to help families afford housing.”

Some commentators are arguing that a renters’ tax credit would end up benefiting landlords, by letting them jack up the prices on rent knowing that tenants have additional assistance from the government. And of course there are bound to be controversies about which states are “giving” or “taking” when it comes to the cost of such a federal tax credit. One New Hampshire writer, lamenting that Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan was cosponsoring the Rent Relief Act, even though rent isn’t as burdensome in New Hampshire as it is in California. The state would be a net contributor to the tax credit, that observer wrote, “And what will New Hampshire taxpayers be subsidizing? Solar mandates on the liberal West Coast.”

But some local housing advocates say a tax credit would be harder for landlords to abuse than the Section 8 voucher system. A refundable tax credit would put cash directly in the pocket of renters, rather than going to their landlords, notes Beth McConnell, the policy director for the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. In effect, if it’s refundable even beyond a renter’s yearly tax liability, it could be like giving low-income renters a raise. On the other hand, renters at the lowest end of the income scale would still have a hard time using an annually disbursed tax credit to pay for monthly housing costs, McConnell says. And as with any credit, a lot of work would have to be done to make sure that all eligible taxpayers are claiming it.

Even with a slim chance of passage this year, housing advocates praised the bill. It’s been too long that housing hasn’t been at the top of the Congressional agenda. Harris’s office says it’s working on building support for the measure in Congress, and that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) had recently signed on as a cosponsor. Ultimately, advocates say, it’s not primarily a problem of policy but of political will.

“I think the reason that we see this legislation being introduced now is the increasing recognition that our tax code is skewed toward the wealthy,” says Reid, of the Terner Center. “We need to do something to help lower-income households and renter households.”

 

Workers Gaining Traction Around Country for Fair Scheduling Policies

(Credit: Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment)

Anya Svanoe was an organizer with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment back in 2015 when, at the beginning of that year, the minimum wage in more than twenty states had gone up, and several of them matched or exceeded $9 an hour. But partly as a result of those changes, partly a longer-running trend, many of workers had had their hours cut after minimum-wage hikes or began experiencing wildly unpredictable schedules.​

In Emeryville, Calif., Svanoe supported a group of workers who approached the city council to get some new scheduling policies introduced to require more predictable scheduling from employers. Svanoe says there was some opposition from business groups, and from the California Restaurant Association, though the policies only apply to retail businesses and fast-food places with at least 56 employees globally or 20 employees in Emeryville.

Ultimately the opposition wasn’t strong enough to overcome the campaign, and the legislation ended up passing unanimously. The law went into effect last summer and began with a six-month “soft launch” period in which complaints would be investigated but no fines levied. Full enforcement began at the beginning of 2018.

The Economic Policy Institute recently released a new report assessing the impact to date of a series of state and local policies like Emeryville’s, requiring employers to provide predictable schedules to their employees, or leave enough time to sleep and commute between scheduled shifts, or offer extra hours to current employees before making new hires — collectively referred to as “fair workweek” laws.

“We should have fair workweeks everywhere,” Svanoe says. “We started with the weekend and the 40-hour workweek. We eliminated child labor. This is a basic thing. People need to be able to sleep. People need to have access to a full-time job. People need to have a schedule they can rely on so they can budget their time and budget their money and take care of their kids. This is a basic necessity.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute report, fair workweek policies now cover more than 1.8 million people across the country, in jurisdictions ranging in size from tiny Emeryville, California to New York City.

“This is going to be one of the next big issues in terms of labor policy, particularly at the state and local level,” says David Cooper co-author of the report and senior economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. “When you look at the whole menu of fairly progressive labor policies that are being considered, these fair workweek policies are kind of the tip of the spear. But it seems like that tip is growing.”

Evolving state laws have been a critical factor preceding other national victories, Cooper points out. Not long after the 2015 minimum wage hikes went into effect, Walmart made big news when it announced that it would raise the starting pay in all of its U.S. stores to $9 per hour, above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. In that case, laws that applied to limited jurisdictions ended up influencing a company with tentacles all over America.

According to the report, fair workweek laws are now on the books in six jurisdictions. They apply to 327,000 retail and fast-food workers in New York City, 175,000 in San José, 172,000 in Oregon, 40,000 in Seattle, 23,000 in San Francisco, and 2,500 in Emeryville. In addition, “right to request” laws in Vermont, New Hampshire and San Francisco, which guarantee most private-sector workers a right to request specific accommodations around scheduling, apply to a million more workers.

“Irregular and unpredictable schedules result in a host of serious problems for working people and their families,” the report says. “They create volatile incomes, adding an additional barrier for families trying to manage their budgets and plan for the future. They also make it difficult for workers to explore other job opportunities.”

Philadelphia City Council is currently considering Fair Workweek legislation, as Next City has reported. And Chicago is considering similar policies as well, according to the Economic Policy Institute report.

Meanwhile, Svanoe says, her group is now focused on a campaign in favor of Proposition 10, which would remove some limits on rent control in California cities. Many of the same workers who fought for fair workweek laws are involved in that campaign as well, Svanoe says, because issues of affordable housing and low-wage work tend to overlap.

“It’s absurd to me that we’re just looking at passing policies like this in 2018, but I guess we have to start somewhere,” says Svanoe.

 

How Equitable Development Dies a Death of a Thousand Cuts

Chicago City Council Chambers. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

In 2016, a Chicago developer proposed building a 44-unit apartment building in Edison Park, a predominantly white neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago that consists of mostly single-family homes.

The developer needed a zoning change for the project. So following the normal protocol, the alderman who represented the ward kicked the proposal over to the local Zoning Advisory Council for consideration. Homeowners in the area packed some of the advisory council meetings to oppose the project as a bad fit for the neighborhood, with one neighbor saying, “I’m paying massive taxes to live here, so I want people who are living the same way as me.”

The developer offered to build condos instead of rental units and to lower the number of units to 30. And while Chicago’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance would have mandated that ten percent of the units be rented or sold at a reduced rate, the developer said he would sell one condo at a reduced rate and pay $250,000 in in-lieu fees. Still, the advisory council ultimately rejected the proposal, the alderman didn’t introduce the necessary zoning change, and the project died.

It was just one of the myriad examples of how Chicago’s aldermanic power over development keeps the city segregated, as outlined in a new report from the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. Released last week, “A City Fragmented: How Race, Power and Aldermanic Prerogative Shape Chicago’s Neighborhoods” focuses on aldermanic prerogative, the unwritten rule that gives Chicago aldermen broad power to control development in their wards. The report is a comprehensive review of the tradition, outlining its history, its impact on patterns of residential segregation, and what can be done to overcome it.

The report finds that the practice of aldermanic prerogative locks racial biases in place with respect to housing, allowing predominantly white communities acting through their aldermen to prevent the development of the kinds of housing where Chicago’s low-income families — 93 percent of whom are families of color — are likely to be able to live. As a result, the vast majority of low-income housing for families has been built in overwhelmingly minority communities.

“This has been a known problem in the city of Chicago for some time, but no one has really analyzed it and analyzed it from a race equity lens, so we came together to do that,” says Kate Walz, director of litigation and housing justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and a co-author of the report.

Patricia Fron, executive director of the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, says the report came out of conversations about how to create an anti-NIMBY effort in the city, focused on spreading affordable housing to all of its wards. But in thinking about how to change people’s attitudes toward housing and segregation, advocates realized that aldermanic traditions represented a major barrier.

“It’s not just that there are rich communities and poor communities,” Fron says. “There has been direct public policy that has really determined who has access to what communities.”

As the groups put it in a press release, Chicago’s political structure “supports an undercurrent of powerful racial biases and allows the desire to maintain neighborhood demographics to permeate local housing and community development decision-making.” Aldermanic prerogative means that individual aldermen can make final decisions about development in their wards, often without consideration of citywide goals or concerns.

According to the report, aldermanic prerogative has reduced the amount of space available for multifamily housing. Chicago is divided into 50 wards, but between 1970 and 2016, the 14 wards with majority-white populations have been responsible for more than half of Chicago land down-zoned or landmarked, both of which limit the potential for multifamily or affordable housing.

Over the last 25 years, less than 10 percent of city-approved loans for subsidized housing construction went to majority-white neighborhoods with low poverty, the report also found. And individual aldermen have found ways to get around the Affordable Requirements Ordinance when their communities are opposed to those aspects of new development projects, like in the Edison Park case.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Walz adds. “They just sort of slowly pick away at the project until it really doesn’t have any component of real affordability and of meeting the needs of low-income Chicago residents. And I think that really does violate the spirit of the Affordable Requirements Ordinance.”

Other cities have similar unwritten rules and traditions — in New York City, it’s called “member deference.” Three years ago, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report about councilmanic prerogative in Philadelphia, outlining many of the same practices highlighted in the Chicago report. That report (which included research from this reporter) found that Chicago and Philadelphia were at the head of the pack with respect to the power of officials representing individual districts or wards.

The Chicago report arrives at a time when other groups are taking aim at residential segregation in Chicago as well. Walz sees some momentum toward ending hyperlocal control but knows that ending aldermanic prerogative would require aldermen giving up power, which could be a challenge.

To overcome the worst impacts of aldermanic prerogative, the report recommends creating a citywide comprehensive plan that’s based on racial equity, centralizing the zoning process, removing requirements for local aldermanic approval in certain publicly funded projects, weakening the power of Zoning Advisory Councils, and other legislative and practical changes. Overall, the city needs to commit to building more affordable housing in every ward, Walz says.

“I think if aldermen are truly committed to advancing the city as a great and inclusive city, they have to prioritize that objective over their own source of power,” she says. “Will that be given up voluntarily? I don’t know. That’s really up to them. As a civil rights attorney, I hope they do, but if they don’t, there are other means to get them there.”

 

Philadelphia Says Goodbye to Yet Another Historic Building

Demolition of thie historic Christian Street Baptist Church in Philadelphia began last week.  (Photo by Jared Brey)

It’s a sight that Philadelphians are growing used to seeing — demolition crews peeling the bricks and mortar off of a beloved but taken-for-granted old building in the heart of a changing neighborhood, with the promise of nothing but more of the same expensive housing to take its place.

The former Christian Street Baptist Church, a small church built for a growing community of Italian immigrants in the 1890s and later owned for most of the 20th century by an African-American Baptist congregation. The church had been a flashpoint in the city’s simmering crisis of demolition during a time when officials and advocates are trying to rethink how historic preservation works in the city and make it both stronger and more inclusive, as Next City has covered. But preservationists’ attempts to save the church, which was not listed on the local register of historic places, ultimately failed. The building’s demolition began last week.

“It’s the loss of a neighborhood landmark that’s been there longer than anyone can remember, since the 1890s, and that in another climate would have been a great candidate for adaptive reuse,” says Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, who spent months trying to find a buyer for the church who would save it from demolition. “Losing that really kind of cuts at the heart of the character of that community. So it’s painful to see it go. And in a city that lacks any real incentives for preservation, it’s hard to compete in the housing boom.”

Preservationists first tried to intervene last fall, after the congregation had found a buyer willing to pay $1.5 million for the church, with the expectation that it would be demolished and replaced with housing. The Philadelphia Historical Commission was split over whether to designate the building historic, which would have prevented demolition. The shrinking congregation argued that they couldn’t afford to maintain the building, and listing it on the register would deprive them of the value of the sale. Ultimately not enough commissioners voted in favor of designation.

The saga dragged on for months. The buyer, Ori Feibush, said that he would sign the contract over to anyone who would save the church and pay his cost of $1.5 million, and later said he would sell it for $1 million. But Feibush says that one potential buyer who came in with a last-minute offer couldn’t show proof of funds.

Was the decision to move forward with demolition difficult?

“Yes and no,” Feibush says. “I put the property under contract initially with the expectation of demolition and the church listed it for sale with the expectation of demolition. So in that context, it was the first option and the preferred option when we began the process.”

The problem is that preservation isn’t competitive with demolition and redevelopment in the city, Feibush says. He says he thought he was “doing a good thing” by allowing time for a buyer to come forward. But ultimately he believes preservationists were just trying to buy time until his demolition permits expired. If his company hadn’t bought the property with the intention of demolishing it, he says, half a dozen others would have swept in with a similar plan. It’s convenient to blame the developer, but “the system is broken,” he says: If the city wants to prevent more demolitions like this, it has to create policies that narrow the gulf between what properties are worth with old churches on them and what they’re worth as vacant land.

“It’s a shame,” Feibush says. “Upzoning would help a lot. Substantive incentives would help a lot. People going to church more frequently would help a lot.”

Steinke faults Feibush for not accepting an offer when he had said he would. But he agrees that the problems are systemic.

“We need to expand protections, both through historic districts and individual designations,” Steinke says. “And we need to institute more incentives for preservation, including not allowing the tax abatement to be used on buildings that are on the local or national register. You should not be rewarded by the taxpayers for tearing down historic buildings.”

Some are publicly doubting that the preservation task force appointed by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney will come up with any significant solutions for preservation issues in the city. Steinke says there’s still reason to hope that the group’s recommendations will be meaningful. But the task force process is slow-moving, and the building boom is frantic. And Steinke says that until new policy recommendations are released and enacted, more buildings like Christian Street Baptist Church are threatened.

“Churches are right in the bullseye of desirable sites,” he says. “They usually occupy bigger lots. They often have weak-to-nonexistent congregations. The buildings themselves often suffer from various degrees of neglect. So it’s like moths to a flame: Developers are attracted to them.”

Next City’s coverage of Philadelphia’s changing neighborhoods is made possible with the support of the William Penn Foundation.

 

Seattle Requiring Developers to Engage Communities At Earlier Project Phases

The Seattle Department of Constrution and Inspections sees earlier community engagement by developers as a win-win for all sides. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

For real estate developers, there’s a deep catalog of approaches to take when trying to build community support for a new project. And John Feit, chair of the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council, representing a dense, active stretch of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, has seen them all.

“Seven or eight years ago, applicants would try to divide and conquer [the neighbors],” Feit says. “If you take us all out for coffee, we’ll all say something different. And then they’d use that against us, saying, ‘You don’t really represent anyone.’”

Other times neighbors only find out about a project proposal when the design is more or less set in stone, Feit says, “And we’ll interject ourselves into the discussion rather late, which isn’t the best way, because it’s too late for us to have any meaningful dialogue.”

Still, most of the time developers are sincere in their desire to get communities to buy-in to a design, Feit says. The best scenario — and the rarest; it’s happened only a handful of times — is when the developer invites neighbors to a site before the project is even assigned to an architect, and asks questions about the site characteristics and the surrounding context.

“It’s good to meet onsite,” Feit says. “That’s the most effective thing. And to walk around and for community members to point out what they like and don’t like.”

This month, the City of Seattle is enacting a new set of regulations related to Design Review, an official city process that has allowed community members as well as professional planners and designers to weigh in on new development projects in Seattle since 1994. Among the updates, which were proposed in draft form last summer by the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections and adopted by the city council in the fall, is a measure that allows the department to make rules for community outreach and early design guidance for projects going through Design Review. A new rule for early community outreach, intended to “ensure that applicants provide early notification to the local community that a project is being planned as well as opportunity for the local community to engage in a dialogue with the applicant about the project,” took effect July 1.

In the past, outreach from developers to communities happened informally, says Lisa Rutzick, the Design Review program manager for Seattle.

“The way we’ve designed it with the new requirement is that it will be the very first stage of the process, where the applicant is just submitting their very first paperwork with the city,” Rutzick says.

The requirement is outlined on a new web page, which is publicly accessible for developers and community groups. It calls on developers to submit community outreach plans to the city at an early stage, before the later Design Review meetings. Developers can create plans that include a mix of in-person, digital, and printed strategies laid out in the requirements. The Department of Neighborhoods will let applicants know which neighborhood groups to contact, and post details about new applications on its project blog.

Rutzick says that often during the Design Review process over the years, community members have wanted to talk about other issues, like zoning or building use or maintenance. But the purview of the review meetings, which are conducted by eight Design Review Boards covering different parts of the city, is limited only to design. Encouraging earlier contact with communities could allow some of those other conversations to be more productive, Rutzick says.

Another addition to the outreach requirements is the establishment of “equity areas,” historically underrepresented census tracts that meet two out of three criteria, including having more people of color, low-income residents, or households with limited English proficiency than the city as a whole. In those areas, developers will have to work with the Department of Neighborhoods to develop outreach plans that are tailored to the local community.

The goal, says Danielle Friedman, community outreach and engagement advisor for the Department of Neighborhoods, is to help connect developers to a wider cross-section of those communities, rather than just the usual self-selected participants. Additional outreach in equity areas could include advertising in foreign-language outlets, hosting in-person meetings at certain times and places, or direct-mailing to apartment buildings rather than flyering. The Department of Neighborhoods will work with developers to customize plans for each project in an equity area.

“We have people at the Department of Neighborhoods that work really closely with communities,” Friedman says. The goal of tailored plans is to create “true outreach and engagement so that all voices are heard” before the formal Design Review meetings even begin.

And the city hopes the new process will lead to better outcomes. Christina Ghan, a senior planner at the Seattle Department of Design and Inspections, who helped develop the new guidelines, says that there have been instances where informal early outreach has created better projects. One developer started talking with the community when he was trying to figure out how to arrange the massing of the building on the site. Neighbors had some input about the context, and what they wanted to see in the general form of the building, and those conversations ended up shaping the project, Ghan says. But if they’d happened at the end of the process, it would have been too late for such foundational considerations.

“It ended up being kind of a win-win for that project,” Ghan says. “And if you’ve already gone through your early stages of Design Review, it’s hard and expensive to redo that.”

 

Anaheim Pairs Crackdown on Oversized-Vehicle Parking with Homeless Outreach

(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

People are living everywhere in California, setting up camp amid a statewide housing shortage on sidewalks and in parking lots and even designated Superfund sites.​

Los Angeles has established a “safe parking” program for the more than 12,000 people living in their vehicles in L.A. county. The city is also helping homeowners pay to construct granny flats on their property to house formerly homeless people. Orange County is gearing up to spend $70 million on new homeless shelters.

Anaheim is one of the few cities in Orange County that has not had a ban on parking oversized vehicles on its streets, according to Michael Lyster, chief communications officer for the city. But that’s about to change.

Earlier this year, the city overhauled its residential permit-parking policy to create new parking districts and streamline the permit application process. It also passed ordinances outlawing parking oversized vehicles and cars-for-sale on city streets. This week, the city council is expected to vote on a set of penalties for violations of those ordinances. And the impending crackdown has caused concern among a community of people living in RVs on Anaheim streets, as the Voice of Orange County highlighted in a recent story.

“First and foremost this is about space,” says Lyster. “It’s about a precious commodity … All of it is the same goal, which is to preserve a scarce commodity in our city, which is parking on our streets.”

Lyster notes that much of the city’s housing was built in the middle of the 20th century when households were expected to have exactly one car. As it’s become more common for families to have two or three cars, street parking has become more difficult. Anaheim doesn’t have good access to public transit, he says. And the fact that surrounding cities were already prohibiting RV parking on public streets probably invited some additional oversized vehicles to Anaheim, he says.

The new regulations prohibit vehicles longer than 22 feet or wider or taller than 7 feet. That could include RVs but also commercial trucks, trucks with trailers, moving vans or other large vehicles. Such vehicles can take up as much space as two or three smaller cars. But Lyster says that RV-dwellers aren’t the specific target of the policy change. And, he says, the city has already begun reaching out in certain areas where RVs have congregated to offer homeless services prior to the enforcement measures taking effect.

“When we encounter vehicles on our street where people may be living, that’s where we’re going to use discretion and say, is this a parking issue or is this a larger issue?” Lyster says. “Enforcement is never the answer to chronic homelessness.”

Anaheim partners with a group called City Net, which coordinates social services and faith-based efforts, to help homeless people find shelters or permanent housing. The city’s efforts have helped more than 1,000 people transition out of street homelessness since 2014, according to Lyster.

“We’re hoping that the prospect of enforcement is the thing that gets that person to accept the offer of help,” he says.

Chelsea Bowers, the director of community engagement for City Net, says the group partners with local law enforcement to try to offer help and services to people living in homelessness. City Net works in more than a dozen cities and has partnered with Orange County to help coordinate outreach efforts in a community of homeless people living in a flood control channel near the Los Angeles Angels baseball stadium.

“Anaheim’s project to do outreach to those living in mobile homes was one of the first strategic outreaches that a city initiated that I’m aware of in Orange County,” Bowers says. “So Anaheim has really taken leadership on at least conducting outreach to people that often fall under the radar.”

Bowers and Lyster agree that the only real long-term solution to homelessness is building more affordable housing and more housing in general, not just in Orange County but around the state. The county has also been working with the Association of California Cities - Orange County to develop an Orange County Housing Trust. The association has called for 2,700 new, permanent supportive housing units to be built in cities around Orange County in the next three years, based on point-in-time counts of people living in homelessness.

In the meantime, Bowers says, the city will continue to lean on outside partners to provide services to people living in cars and other homeless individuals in advance of its own enforcement efforts. Enforcement alone just moves the problem around.

“Any time you address a social justice issue like homelessness and it’s done in partnership, you’re going to have a much better result at the end,” Bowers says.

 



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