Posts by Author: Jared Brey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

(Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


California Wants Everyone to Be Able to Afford Clean Energy Cars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.”


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