Posts by Author: Jared Brey

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.


New Data Show Who Grabs the Mic at Public Planning Meetings

Andrew DeFranza has seen it countless times: An affordable housing project proposed in a mostly white, well-off community goes before the zoning board or the planning commission. A vocal minority of homeowners, themselves mostly white and well off, show up to oppose it. The project is killed, shrunk or delayed by litigation for years.

“We hear a lot of, ‘I’m in support of affordable housing, just not here,’” says DeFranza, who’s the executive director of Harborlight Community Partners, a community development corporation in southern Essex County in Greater Boston.

He wasn’t surprised to hear the findings in “Racial Disparities in Housing Politics: Evidence from Administrative Data,” a new paper by Boston University researchers. As the Boston Globe reported last week, the study of public meetings in nearly 100 Greater Boston cities showed that white people accounted for 95 percent of participants. In the same area, white people make up 80 percent of the population. Using an analysis of last names and geographic data from public meetings, the researchers concluded that “whites overwhelmingly dominate zoning and planning board meetings.” (Details on how the BU researchers determined the race of participants are in the “Estimating Race” section of the paper.)

Latinos make up 8 percent of the population in the area they studied, but had 1 percent representation at meetings. The population is 4 percent African-American residents, but just 2 percent of public meeting participants were African-American.

“We find that citizen participants are overwhelmingly white — far more so than the demographics of their communities would indicate,” the authors wrote (emphasis theirs). “Controlling for a variety of important demographic and contextual characteristics, race powerfully predicts public participation in the planning and zoning process. These racial disparities are far worse than they are in other forms of political participation.”

In a separate study released this year, the same authors, Katherine Levine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer and David Glick of BU’s Political Science department, found that men, older residents and homeowners were also overrepresented at public meetings on development issues. Moreover, that study found, public meeting participants tended to be more opposed to new development than the community as a whole. Einstein says the researchers chose to separate out racial identities because they were somewhat trickier to identify than the other characteristics.

She says their analysis confirms the widely held impressions that NIMBYs tend to be older, whiter and wealthier than their typical neighbors. She hopes it provides some empirical evidence for policymakers who are thinking about how to make public participation in development more democratic. But it won’t be easy to simply replicate the study in other metro areas, Einstein says.

“It would be brutal,” she says. “It was a huge data undertaking just to do this for two years of data.”

Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, says the research can be valuable even though it’s not very surprising.

“I think that study does a good job of calling out the fact that the way the system operates, when left to its own devices, has a significant bias in favor of homeowners, the middle class, whites and immediately adjacent property owners,” Kriesberg says.

Kriesberg says that even though the public participation elements of the development process may seem democratic on paper — they give residents a chance to weigh in on projects — they can’t be counted on as an accurate reflection of public attitudes toward new development. Many if not most of the affordable housing projects that Massachusetts CDCs propose — and even market-rate projects proposed by private developers — end up smaller than initially planned because of sustained opposition from what is often a handful of neighbors. That opposition can have major impacts on affordable housing supplies regionwide.

Kriesberg says the BU study is a reminder that advocates for affordable housing need to be careful when they talk about “community control” of development.

“When you just say ‘community control,’ which many do, I think that there’s a risk that the community that will gain control may not be the community you think or want to have gain control,” he says.

DeFranza, of Harborlight Community Partners, says the disparity in public participation reflects a privileged class trying to protect its assets, earned and unearned. A lot of communities in the Boston metro were developed through single-family zoning and implicit or explicit policies that kept out homeowners of color, he says. The fact that white homeowners tend to be so opposed to new development reflects “a residual, common understanding” that those communities are supposed to stay white and wealthy even though racially restrictive covenants and other segregationist policies are no longer legally enforceable, DeFranza says. Even though it may be officially colorblind, the public participation process often still favors the most privileged members of a community.

“Our public policy is structured to give the people who are in possession of the existing status quo power over other people,” DeFranza says.


Charlotte’s Plan to Deal with Its Affordable Housing Shortage

(Credit: AP)

This fall, voters in Charlotte, North Carolina, will be asked to approve a ballot measure directing $50 million in municipal bond proceeds to the city’s housing trust fund in an effort to address a shortage of affordable housing that’s become a pervasive feature of the American urban landscape. And as of last week, they have a much clearer sense of how the money will be spent.

On Aug. 27, the Charlotte City Council voted to approve a new “Framework for Building and Expanding Access to Opportunity through Housing Investments.” The document, which was prepared by the city in partnership with the national affordable housing nonprofit group Enterprise Community Partners, lays out the scope of Charlotte’s housing needs and identifies key strategies for building and preserving affordable units, while focusing on developing “family self-sufficiency” by making housing investments that consider employment and transportation amenities.

“I think that it is the best [plan] we’ve had — ever,” says Ray McKinnon, a pastor, Charlotte Housing Authority Commissioner, and member of the group Leading on Opportunity, which helped lay the groundwork for the affordable housing strategy. “I think it certainly gets us on the right track, and I’m cautiously optimistic that with this beginning we are headed down the right path toward staving off the affordable housing crisis in Charlotte.”

According to the housing framework, Charlotte needs 24,000 more housing units for residents earning 50 percent of Area Median Income or less. The need is driven by the confluence of housing costs rising faster than incomes, a housing market that limits homeownership opportunities for low-income people, and the expectation that the city could add 500,000 residents in the next 12 years, many of them seniors. The framework is meant to guide investments by the city as well as private and nonprofit partners, including the Foundation for the Carolinas, which has already pledged some additional money toward the cause.

The framework says that the city should prioritize its investments in housing for families earning up to 60 percent of Area Median Income, serve families that are at risk of displacement, and use housing investments to expand access to job opportunities. It aims to do so through a variety of strategies, including:

  • Expanding the development of rental housing with programs that support Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) deals,

  • Using federal community development block grant funds to help create mixed-income housing,

  • Creating an acquisition fund to make strategic land purchases,

  • Establishing a fund and tax relief program to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing,

  • And ensuring that publicly-funded developments set aside 20 percent of units for families earning 30 percent of Area Median Income or less.

In addition to the roughly 1,100 annual LIHTC units produced with support from the city’s current Housing Trust Fund, the framework suggests, an additional $50 million could support 4,400 more units built and preserved. It also expects to create an “equity fund” with support from philanthropic foundations and other investors to support LIHTC deals.

“The very low- or extremely low-income level is a priority for the city, and that’s certainly something that is understandable given the shortage,” says Julie Porter, president of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, a nonprofit housing developer. “We’re willing and able and kind of excited to respond to that, because it’s always been really difficult to provide [that type of housing.] That has been really difficult to do, and so having that as a priority means that everybody is going to be expecting to have bigger gaps to fill.”

Pam Wideman, director of housing and neighborhood services for the City of Charlotte, says the framework recognizes that the city can’t simply build its way out of the shortage, which is why it elevates preservation of already existing affordable housing to a priority. And it emphasizes the role of non-city partners in addressing the challenge.

“Affordable Housing is an issue here as it is in many other cities,” Wideman says. “It takes an all-hands-on-deck approach, meaning the local government will never be able to solve it on its own. So we’re really blessed in Charlotte to have our partners come along with us.”

Porter says that if the city can preserve two or three large-scale naturally-occurring affordable housing complexes (at least 200 units each), and help fund hundreds of new very-low-income rental units a year, it will start to make a real dent in the affordable housing shortage. And she, along with other housing advocates in the city, feel confident voters will approve the measure.

“Is it a done deal?” Porter says. “I think people feel very good about it because affordable housing has been identified in almost every sector, even the business sector, as a key need in Charlotte. I do think that there is wide support for the bond. It’s aggressive, but it’s desperately needed.”


What If All Community Development Started with Local Arts and Culture?

The House of Gold before its "gentle demolition." (Photo by Dee Briggs)

Dee Briggs was expecting to do a routine demolition when she bought the vacant house next to her art studio in Wilkinsburg, Pa.

But when Briggs walked inside for the first time, she found a bunch of personal effects left behind by the families that had lived there before it was abandoned. It got her thinking about the long series of lives that had moved through and past the house since it was built in the 1870s, she says, and a normal, quick demolition soon seemed inappropriate.

“It really put me in a position to think about the people who had lived there, their relationships with the people in the neighborhood and my relationships with the people in the neighborhood and what makes up a community,” Briggs says.

So instead of simply tearing the house down, Briggs enlisted a group of neighbors to paint it solid gold and later launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a “gentle demolition,” taking the building apart as carefully as it had been constructed. Now, years later, she’s using some of the former materials from the house to build a new coffee shop across the street. She hopes it will be a place that will bring people together and provide jobs for young people, something that will “add to the economic and social agency of my existing neighbors,” Briggs says.

At the time Briggs created the House of Gold, the term “creative placemaking” wasn’t in her lexicon, and she wasn’t trying to accomplish anything specific, says Briggs, a sculptor, and trained architect.

“It was more of a feeling, a sense of responsibility to the neighborhood, to the property, and to the history of the neighborhood [rather] than having a particular goal or intention,” Briggs says.

But creative placemaking is the label the project earned, according to a new report from the Center for Community Progress and Metris Arts Consulting. The report, “Creative Placemaking on Vacant Properties: Lessons Learned from Four Cities,” highlights creative placemaking work focused on reactivating vacant spaces in Wilkinsburg; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Newburgh, N.Y.; and Macon, Ga. It documents initiatives in each city that used arts and culture as a vehicle to remake vacant properties in ways that also model inclusive community development.

“All the communities we visited want to reduce the negative impacts of vacant property, and a variety of community members, such as artists, community-based organizations, and city staff, see creative placemaking as one tool to help make that happen,” the report says. “The broader aims of each community — economic revitalization, affordable housing, or increased public safety — influence the kinds of creative placemaking activities communities engage in, but communities ultimately want to eliminate entrenched, systemic vacancy.”

In Wilkinsburg, according to the report, around one in five properties is vacant, with nearly 40 percent vacancy in the business district. The town, which borders Pittsburgh, has a population of 16,000 — half what it was in the mid-20th century — and a median household income of $28,000. Two-thirds of its residents are African-American.

“The central core of Wilkinsburg has so many vacant properties it doesn’t look like any place where people would want to live,” says Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation.

Partnering with students from Carnegie Mellon University and the Wilkinsburg Historical Society, Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation helped coordinate a Vacant Home Tour, partly inspired by the story of Briggs’ House of Gold project. The tour highlighted information about property histories and included a workshop where people could learn about acquiring vacant property through city programs. In the second year of the tour, the report says, the experience included recently completed rehabs to give attendees a sense of the possibilities. That tour inspired an upcoming tour of “sacred spaces” in the community.

“I think that activating a space in the short term to help improve the perception and the look of a community, to make it more welcoming, is incredibly important for us,” says Evans.

There’s a lot about the Wilkinsburg community that people want to preserve, Evans says, like the diversity of people and of architecture. But there’s a lot of vacancy, too, she says, “and we don’t want to keep that.”

The creative placemaking report builds on a previous Center for Community Progress report called “Placemaking in Legacy Cities.” Earlier this year, the Center for Community Progress and Metris Arts Consulting hosted a “learning exchange” with the four cities in the new report and those featured in the earlier one, Detroit; Flint, Mich.; and the Twin Cities.

The projects highlighted in the new report emphasize cooperative processes as much as project outcomes, says Rachel Engh, a researcher/planner for Metris Arts Consulting.

“In addition to including the community throughout a project, the community then sees that as a normal practice or an expectation,” Engh says. “So when the community continues to change, as all communities do — and maybe that change includes outside developers wanting to come in — there’s already that expectation on the ground that this is how we do the work.”

Wilkinsburg needs outside investment if it’s going to be improved, Briggs says, and if the creative placemaking work in Wilkinsburg can generate more interest from outside investors, she hopes it comes from investors who reflect its population.

“I’d love to see more real estate developers of color, people nationally who are African-American, to invest in Wilkinsburg,” Briggs says. “I feel that, statistically, we know that black-owned businesses and black-owned real estate companies are more invested in supporting black employees and black renters than white business owners and white landowners and white property owners.”

Danielle Lewinski, vice president and director of Michigan initiatives for the Center for Community Progress, notes that the Center for Community Progress has been working on vacant land issues since its founding in 2010. For its latest research, it turned to creative placemaking as a strategy that helps generate interest among a wide sector of communities, says Lewinski, and can be effective in improving vacant properties.

“What’s particularly exciting to me about the role of creative placemaking is it’s really not just about how to occupy a single property,” says Lewinski, “but also the process of how, and who and what matters.”


Subsidizing Big Firms Doesn’t Really Create Jobs, Research Shows

A Kiva robot drive unit is seen, foreground, before it moves under a stack of merchandise pods, seen on a tour of one of Amazon's distribution centers in Tracy, Calif. This Amazon Fulfillment Center opened in 2013 and was refitted to use new robot technology in the summer of 2014. (AP Photo/Brandon Bailey)

Academic scholars get a lot of flak for being wordy and opaque. But look at this: “Economic development incentives, on average, fail to produce new employment opportunities.”

That’s from the second page of a working paper released this month by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. The paper, called “Striking a Balance: A National Assessment of Economic Development Incentives,” was written by Mary Donegan, an assistant professor-in-residence in the Department of Community and Urban Studies at the University of Connecticut, along with T. William Lester and Nichola Lowe, both associate professors of city and regional planning at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The paper is still being peer-reviewed for publication in a journal that the authors say they can’t disclose yet. But the authors say it’s among the first studies of economic development incentives nationwide that looks at the cause-and-effect relationship between incentives and job growth. The paper compares employment changes at firms that have received incentives from state governments to unsubsidized firms of similar size, age, and industry. It finds that, in the case of small firms, incentives can have some positive impacts on job growth. But in the case of large firms, incentives actually correspond to reductions in overall employment. The paper adds to a growing body of scholarship that undercuts the basic premises of much economic development incentive policy.

“By comparing incentivized establishments to a carefully selected control group, we cast doubt on the biggest claim made by incentive proponents that ‘but for’ the incentive payment, job creation would not occur,” the authors write in the introduction. “This simple but direct finding — that incentives do not create jobs — should prove critical to policymakers. However, we also show how incentives can be more effective by examining the disparate impacts by firm size.”

The study leans on three national databases: the Subsidy Tracker of national incentives maintained by Good Jobs First; the National Establishment Time-Series (NETS) Database, which tracks sales and employment figures for many businesses in the U.S.; and the State Economic Development Expenditure Database from the Council for Community and Economic Research. The research builds on a previous paper that Lester and Lowe co-authored that was focused on incentives in North Carolina.

“There has been a lot of research on incentives, and there’s also been a lot of public discussion around incentives,” says Lester. “Oftentimes, critics charge that incentives are just corporate welfare, but a lot of the research that’s gone on up until now has been focused on one state, or focused on certain deals. There hasn’t been a comprehensive national look at the effectiveness of incentives.”

As far as findings, the research shows that on the whole, incentives have a slightly negative impact on job growth compared to firms that don’t receive incentives. However, the greatest negative impact is found in the largest firms (more than 1,000 employees), with some positive impact on job growth for smaller firms. The authors say these results could suggest that larger firms seek and receive incentives during periods when business is contracting overall, or that they may simply be more likely to “play the incentive game” whether they’re growing or not.

However, in states that “balance” their economic development incentive strategy between trying to attract outside firms and investing in small homegrown ones, the paper shows, the negative impact of incentives disappears, and incentivized firms perform on par with non-incentivized ones. “One possibility may be that states with more balanced economic development budgets employ more careful selection criteria when evaluating potential large firm deals, and as a result, pick only the more promising deals among multiple options to incentivize,” the report says.

Greg Leroy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, says the conclusions of the study are not that surprising. Good Jobs First released a study in 2015 showing that big businesses earned most of the incentives from states’ economic development budgets. Another study the following year showed that 68 percent of economic development spending in Florida, Missouri, and New Mexico went to large firms.

“Despite the fact that state elected officials mouth lots of platitudes about small businesses and mom and apple pie, they don’t really put their money where their mouth is,” Leroy says.

Leroy says that Good Jobs First has heard from dozens of researchers using Subsidy Tracker for various studies. But those haven’t always come to fruition, or they’re still in the academic publishing pipeline. Mary Donegan, one of the study’s co-authors, says there’s always a need for better and cleaner data — a lot of the deals were linked to states, but not necessarily counties or cities within states, for example — but that the Good Jobs First database is the best source available.

In the conclusion, the authors write that if policymakers start redirecting more of their economic development budgets to smaller firms, they should do so with an eye to extracting benefits in terms of job quality like better pay and working conditions. And the risk of wasting money outright is higher with larger firms.

“The big takeaway,” says Lester, “is that by and large, incentives don’t seem to be that effective.”


Finding the Funding Needed To Protect Threatened Coastlines

This aerial photo made during a flight provided by the National Wildlife Federation and Southern Wings shows the Lake Borne storm surge barrier in St. Bernard Parish, La., Monday, Aug. 10, 2015, which was built after Hurricane Katrina, with the skyline of New Orleans in the background. Scientists say Katrina was especially destructive because of the disappearance of buffer land between New Orleans and the Gulf. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Louisiana has a plan to shore up its disappearing coastline. The loss of coastal land threatens areas further inland, all the way to New Orleans, as the lands have historically served as buffers against storm surges — not to mention being an essential asset to the regional economy.

Since 1932, according to the United States Geological Survey, more than 2,000 square miles of Louisiana land have disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico. The loss of wetlands is a result of both sea-level rise and land subsidence, plus reduced sediment flow from the Mississippi River, which used to be strong enough to create new land fast enough to replace wetlands that were being lost, according to While the rate of loss has slowed somewhat in the last few decades, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, nearly 60 square miles of coastal wetland have been lost since 2010, and the state continues to lose land at a rate of one football field every 100 minutes.

As much as $3.6 billion in Louisiana business, residential, and infrastructure assets are at risk due to land loss over the next 50 years if no action is taken to protect or restore the state’s coast, according to researchers from Louisiana State University. The researchers estimate those assets support $7.6 billion in economic activity each year across the nation, not just in Louisiana.

The state, working through the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, developed a master plan to deal with land loss by completing projects that restore wetland areas and protect some of the region’s most vital economic assets.

“The problem is, it’s a $50 billion plan over 50 years, and if you look at things like inflation and if sea-level rise continues, it’s likely to be even more expensive,” says Shannon Cunniff, director of coastal resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund, a 51 year-old nonprofit that combines scientific and policy expertise to create and support solutions to environmental problems.

The state has so far only found between $9 billion and $12 billion to support coastal protection and restoration projects, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. To find the rest of the funding needed, the nonprofit is throwing its support behind a relatively new idea: environmental impact bonds.

“The concept of doing the environmental bond, or for that matter, any bonding, is to get capital sooner and do the work sooner,” Cunniff says, “because the more protection you have now, the less vulnerable you are in the future.”

A new report from the Environmental Defense Fund and D.C.-based advisory firm Quantified Ventures, “Financing resilient communities and coastlines: How environmental impact bonds can accelerate wetland restoration in Louisiana and beyond,” describes a strategy for environmental impact bonding, modeled after social impact bonds, in which governments or authorities sell bonds to finance projects up-front, and investors can earn more financial return if certain performance goals are met or exceeded.

To illustrate the idea, the report lays out an example bond transaction. At a simple level, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority would issue a bond to investors that would be repayable with settlements from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and use the proceeds to complete wetland restoration work. The transaction would contain certain targets for reducing land loss. If those targets are exceeded — meaning less land is lost than required — then “partner-payors” would pay an additional bonus to investors. The partner-payors would include private asset owners in the area where the work is completed. Those partners would benefit from over-performance by having greater flood protection and less risk to their businesses than they would otherwise. And the whole region would benefit from having a more resilient coastline.

The structure is based on social impact bonds, which originated in the United Kingdom around a decade ago, says Carolyn DuPont, director of Quantified Ventures. Social impact bonds have been used in the U.S. in attempts to promote certain public goals like reducing recidivism. While the first social impact bond in the U.S. did not achieve its target program goals, that has not stopped others from continuing to promote and use the tool.

A few years ago, Quantified Ventures helped design the first environmental impact bond in the U.S., issued by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority to fund green infrastructure for stormwater management. In that scenario, if runoff reduction meets certain high targets, DC Water will make additional payments to investors, but if the infrastructure projects underperform in terms of runoff reduction, then investors must make an additional payment to DC Water.

“Resilience is really hard to invest in,” DuPont says. “No one has really entirely cracked this nut, because the benefits you achieve are generally out in the future.”

Environmental impact bonds present an opportunity to raise money for critical projects that benefit communities, investors, and asset owners, she says. The model is starting to spread, as Next City has reported.

For Louisiana, environmental impact bonds would also help keep costs down, Cunniff says. Being able to fund wetland projects now means the authority could avoid inflation costs down the line. And as sea levels rise, the costs will only grow, she says.

Even in the best-case scenario, however, the wetlands will continue to shrink. “Even when we talk about delta restoration, we’re really talking about a smaller delta to be sustainable,” Cunniff says.

Success with the model could help mean a coastline that erodes more slowly, protecting economic and community vitality.

“It’s a new tool,” Cunniff says. “It has promise. We should try it. We should learn from it, and we don’t have time to dither in Louisiana or any of our other coastal communities.”


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.”


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