Posts by Author: Jared Brey

Reactivating Abandoned Buildings through Local Ownership in Smaller Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Workers Gaining Traction Around Country for Fair Scheduling Policies

(Credit: Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How Equitable Development Dies a Death of a Thousand Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Philadelphia Says Goodbye to Yet Another Historic Building

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was the decision to move forward with demolition difficult?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Seattle Requiring Developers to Engage Communities At Earlier Project Phases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Anaheim Pairs Crackdown on Oversized-Vehicle Parking with Homeless Outreach

(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who’s Paying for Public Services in a Changing City?

(Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

Like most American cities, Philadelphia’s recovery from the population losses and economic challenges of the late 20th century has been spotty. Neighborhoods in an around the downtown core have attracted new residents and an explosion of development, while some further-out areas have changed much more slowly.

The disparity is reflected in the city’s property values, with homes in growing neighborhoods selling for much higher prices than elsewhere. But for a long time, it wasn’t reflected in property assessments, which determine how much homeowners pay in annual taxes.

Starting in 2012, the city began pursuing a major overhaul in the way it calculates property taxes, along with a citywide reassessment of values that took place in 2014. But because it had been so long since the city had tried to get the assessments right, some new homeowners found themselves suddenly with much larger tax bills. A property may have doubled in value over the previous decade, but the assessment had stayed flat. The city said the initiative was about fairness: Why should someone who lives in a $400,000 house pay the same taxes as someone who lives in a $200,000 house?

The question of fairness was complicated by the continued availability of a ten-year property tax abatement on new construction and major renovations. Even if the assessments themselves became perfectly accurate, a whole class of residents in brand-new homes would still be able to avoid property taxes for a decade. Critics had been claiming for years, and still are, that the tax abatement privileges developers and well-off residents while depriving the city of revenue that could go to underfunded schools, parks, and other priorities.

Still, many of the people who lived in suddenly high-value areas weren’t newcomers. Doubling their taxes overnight didn’t seem fair either. There were reports in gentrifying neighborhoods like Point Breeze, Graduate Hospital, Pennsport and Fishtown of long-time homeowners being threatened with tax increases so drastic that it threatened to drive them from their homes.

In response, the city council adopted a policy called the Longtime Owner Occupants Program, also known as LOOP, which was intended to soften the blow. Homeowners who had lived in their homes for at least 10 years and earned up to 150 percent of area median income could apply to have their tax increase capped at 300 percent for ten years. So if you lived in a house that had been assessed at $100,000 and was suddenly reassessed at $400,000, you’d only have to pay taxes on a $300,000 assessment.

In April, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia released a report on gentrification in the context of the citywide reassessment of property values, which suggested that the Longtime Owner Occupants Program and other programs had been effective in preventing tax delinquencies and displacement. The same month, the city council adopted a bill that makes the program protections permanent. Now, as long as qualifying homeowners continue to meet the income guidelines, the tax freeze will never expire.

“LOOP was intended to protect long-time homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods from sudden spikes in their property taxes,” says a spokesperson for Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, a primary sponsor of both the original bill and the expansion.

According to Johnson’s office, the average LOOP participant is a senior citizen on a fixed income who bought their house in the 1970s or 1980s.

Johnson was not available for an interview. Mayor Jim Kenney signed the LOOP expansion bill later in April.

But despite the additional protections, there’s a sense in many areas of the city that property assessments are still inaccurate and unfair. When the Office of Property Assessment released the new values for 2019 in April, there were new reports of homes doubling in value or worse in a single year. Members of city council again questioned the accuracy of the assessments as well as the office’s methodology. Councilman David Oh went so far as to recommend a ballot initiative that would allow the city council to effectively refuse to accept new assessments if it believed they were unfair or inaccurate.

“From looking at this and questioning [the Office of Property Assessment] over the past few years and really trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, I just concluded that I don’t have any confidence in their assessment,” Oh says.

The city council expected a round of sharp increases and decreases during the citywide property value reassessment, Oh says, but half a decade later he’s concerned that some property values are still changing drastically from year to year. Oh’s proposal was eventually tabled, partially out of concerns that politicizing the assessment process would create major problems of its own. But Oh maintains that the process is already political, because the Office of Property Assessment is part of the mayor’s administration, and an increase in overall property assessments allowed the mayor to reduce a tax-rate increase he had been seeking as part of the budget process.

“If the assessments are inaccurate, the methodology is inaccurate, and they are greater than they should be, then that truly is a backdoor tax,” Oh says. “It’s not an accurate assessment that happens to be large.”

Oh plans to continue pushing the proposal to let council intervene in the fall, but so far it hasn’t gained momentum. But the council has hired an auditor to review the city’s assessments, with a report expected to be complete in September. Meanwhile, the abatement debate rolls on. The city controller is examining the impact of adjusting or ending Philadelphia’s 10-year property tax abatement on new construction, and city council is expected to debate changes to the program later this year.

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

 

Charlotte City Council Fully Funds Bike Lane Expansion Plan

Charlotte is planning to add more bike lanes. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The citywide bike plan that the Charlotte City Council approved last year represented a careful balance between what advocates expected was a realistic investment and what they wanted to accomplish in terms of impact on the street level.

But despite the work that went into it, getting it through the budget process unharmed was never a sure thing. So this month, when the city council approved an annual budget with the full $4 million that was called for in the bike plan, advocates breathed a sigh of relief.

“We’ve got some strong advocacy and a strong cycling community that did a good job of walking the tightrope,” says Charlotte City Councilman Larken Egleston, who was a major supporter of the bike plan. “Thanking everybody that was supporting and praising the money that was in the draft budget but also putting a little bit of heat on anybody who was trying to come after that money for their own projects. You don’t want to be too aggressive and too negative, but I think that fine line of praise and pressure is pretty effective. And I think most of the folks in the cycling community walked it pretty well.”

Now with the funding in place, advocates are hoping the plan will help the city provide better and safer mobility options for Charlotte’s population — which is reportedly growing by 60 people a day — while making the most of other investments in public transit and street infrastructure. The $4 million allocation is part of the city’s 2018 Transportation Bond, which goes before voters in November.

Adam Raskoskie, chair of the City/County Bicycle Advisory Committee, says the city had been making progress on planning for bicycle infrastructure more than a decade ago, but progress was halted when the 2008 recession hit. It’s only now getting back on track. A Transportation Action Plan approved last year calls for 50 miles of new bike lanes by 2020 and 200 miles by 2040.

“We’re experiencing a tremendous amount of growth, and I think the city realizes that everybody that comes here driving cars by themselves for every single trip is just not sustainable,” Raskoskie says.

The plan itself, called Charlotte BIKES, was informed by a 2016 transportation survey meant to gauge Charlotteans’ desire to drive less if better bike facilities were available, according to Amy Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte Department of Transportation. According to that survey, 62 percent of residents said it was not easy to bike in the city, 63 percent said they would like to drive less often and 51 percent said they would like to ride a bike more often.

The Department of Transportation also held public workshops and pop-up events to hear from residents about transit preferences and worked with the Bicycle Advisory Committee, which was created in 1999, to come up with the recommendations in the plan, according to Mitchell.

The plan frames the prevalence of bicycling as an indicator of urban health, stating, “The bicycle can be a tool to address inequities in Charlotte by providing an affordable, convenient transportation option.” It promotes equity as the overriding value informing the proposed investments. In 2015, a study put Charlotte at the bottom of the list of 50 cities in terms of upward economic mobility for its residents. Raskoskie says that the bike plan was informed by all the various conversations about how to improve that ranking, from jobs to education and housing.

“We’ve been trying very hard to make sure that we are talking about the importance of bike transportation in Charlotte in the context of everything else that’s going on in the city,” he says.

“It’s an environmental justice issue and it’s an equity issue as well,” says Terry Landsell, the brand-new executive director of BikeWalk NC, a statewide advocacy group for cyclists and pedestrians. “You take away the ability for people to advance out of poverty when you demand or require that they have vehicle ownership.”

Landsell says that the state’s 61 transportation systems could all see increased ridership if cities invested more in bicycle infrastructure that connects to transit nodes. Charlotte and other cities also need to codify a “complete streets” paradigm, so that cyclists are considered in all roadway investments.

“Charlotte is gaining momentum and is becoming a leader in planning for funding for bike projects, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Landsell says.

Of the $4 million allocated for the plan, $3.3 million is dedicated to constructing new bike lanes, including protected bike lanes, painted lanes, and shared-use paths. Charlotte built its first protected bike lane in 2017, and according to Raskoskie, it has several more in the works. Those include a protected lane in the central business district that will connect two greenways, Raskoskie says. There’s an appetite for more protected infrastructure in the city, but Raskoskie says that much of the money will go to traditional painted lanes. The money should be used primarily to fill gaps in the existing bike-lane network, he says.

“We fought really hard to get the $4 million,” Raskoskie says. “We weren’t at all certain that we were going to get that … I personally would love for us to do a really good job with this $4 million and use that as a justification for getting more money in the future.”

 

Hard Fought Construction Tax in Philly Takes Unexpected Turn

Affordable housing advocates staged a die-in during a June 7, 2018 Philadelphia City Council meeting. (Photo by Jared Brey)

At a city council meeting on June 7, 2018, two women ran out from behind the rail that separates the audience from the central chamber, carrying a banner. They made it as far as the press table on the opposite side of the chamber before being surrounded by security officers.

The chamber erupted with protestors in every row, holding signs and chanting against a provision tucked into a package of bills that they felt would only further displacement, instead of mitigating it, as was the package’s original intent.

While the security guards were focused on the two women with the banner, half a dozen members of the group Disabled in Action had entered the inner sanctum, lowered themselves off their wheelchairs and laid down on the carpet. They continued chanting: “When poor people are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”

The chanting went on for about 15 minutes. Eventually, protestors who had stayed behind the rail began to leave. Police officers congregated around the group in the middle of the chamber and lifted some of the protestors back into their wheelchairs by the arms, one officer on each side. In the hallway, other members of the group lined up and continued chanting while the cops stood guard by the doors to the chamber.

Last week, at the end of its spring session, the council recorded a rare split decision, voting 9-8 in favor of a controversial bill to create a one-percent tax on new construction — known as the “construction impact tax” — and to direct the proceeds to affordable housing efforts. A second bill, which was the target of the June 7 die-in demonstration, also passed, 13-4.

If signed by Mayor Jim Kenney, the second bill would split the city’s housing trust fund in two, with a new “sub-fund” to be filled with the proceeds of the impact tax and used for downpayment assistance and other programs for homeowners earning up to 120 percent of area median income, or around $105,000 for a family of four.

The wider package of policies, including the construction impact tax and the housing trust sub-fund bill was introduced earlier this spring under the heading Putting Philadelphians First, sponsored primarily by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Council President Darrell Clarke. The package also includes a bill creating new incentives for developers to include affordable units in apartment projects, which passed unanimously.

The debate around the various bills goes deep. And while a slim majority of council members voted for the impact tax, its fate is far from certain.

In a press conference outside his office Thursday afternoon, Mayor Jim Kenney said he would take the summer to review the legislation before deciding whether to sign it. Many advocates expect a veto, which city council would need 12 votes to override. Earlier on Thursday morning, Kenney’s office released a last-minute Finance Department analysis of the impact tax bill, projecting that it would slow the pace of market-rate development and cost the city more than $30 million in lost revenue over five years.

“I’m committed to increasing Philadelphia’s affordable housing stock and to promoting equitable growth, but I have concerns about this particular piece of legislation,” Kenney said through a spokesman shortly after the vote. “Philadelphia is already considered by many to have a pretty onerous tax system and it is certainly not clear that adding another tax is the best way to address our housing crisis.”

The tax is also opposed by the city’s politically influential building trades unions and various chambers of commerce. But the controversy around the package of bills goes beyond the usual pro/anti-tax debate.

The community of affordable housing advocates in the city has been firmly behind the impact tax proposal. But the council’s proposal for how to use the revenue — particularly the sub-fund that could be used to help middle-income homeowners, and not just residents on the lowest end of the income scale — opened new fissures between the groups, with some vocally opposed to the sub-fund and others supporting it. As concerns about housing costs in the city get more pitched, the debate raises questions about what policies housing advocates will coalesce around as the mayor and city council head into a re-election year in 2019.

Support for middle-income homeownership would be a major departure from the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund’s history. The fund was created in 2005, and has collected most of its revenue from recording fees on deeds and mortgages, averaging around $11.5 million a year. Since 2005, according to the fund’s annual reports, it has helped finance the construction or preservation of more than 1,500 homes and complete major repairs on nearly 2,500 more.

But most of the work funded by the program isn’t focused on housing production. Since 2005, the fund has helped more than 10,000 households pay their utility bills, prevented 3,000 households from becoming homeless, and paid for more than 21,000 emergency heater repairs, according to the reports. By law, the Housing Trust Fund can be used to benefit households earning up to 115 percent of area median income. But on a yearly basis, at least half of the money is required to be spent on programs that benefit people making less than 30 percent of area median income, or around $26,000 for a family of four.

In the last two years, according to the most recent report, nearly 90 percent of homes receiving assistance from the Housing Trust Fund earned less than 30 percent area median income. Most were 1- or 2-member households.

Housing advocates began a concentrated push to get more money allocated to the Housing Trust Fund around four years ago, during the run-up to the last mayoral and city council election, in 2015. That year, the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations released a report called “Beyond Gentrification,” a policy platform for equitable development in the city. The report called for the Housing Trust Fund to be doubled to $25 million a year. It also suggested that the city could create a “linkage fee,” collecting some money from new construction to pay for affordable housing programs.

In 2016, a development group made headlines when it tried to wiggle out of the affordable housing requirements of an existing zoning bonus it had claimed for a project on the Delaware River waterfront. The group eventually agreed to pay into the Housing Trust Fund in lieu of building affordable units, but the controversy stirred housing advocates and council members to act. Last spring, before the end of city council’s spring session, Councilwoman Sánchez introduced a bill that would have created a mandatory inclusionary zoning program in the city, in addition to the few voluntary incentives for affordable housing already in the zoning code. Throughout the fall, council committees amended the bill, and those negotiations ended up resulting in a more strongly incentivized, but still voluntary inclusionary policy that passed on Thursday.

“That bill coming out of committee in November or December, as weakened as it was, led to a little bit of a pause,” says Beth McConnell, policy director for the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, a few days before council’s final session. “Like, ‘Hold up, we can get better than this. Let’s look again back at these fee ideas that were recommended.’ So there were a bunch of things that were on the table, but then ultimately [Council] went with the impact fee.”

The Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, along with a broad coalition of dozens of advocacy groups called the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities, were in full support of the construction impact tax. But the proposal to create a sub-fund benefiting homeowners up to 120 percent area median income — and without the same requirement in the original Housing Trust Fund legislation that directs at least half of the money to very-low-income residents — drove a small wedge in the coalition.

Those in the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities who opposed the new sub-fund idea staged the June 7 die-in. Jose de Marco, a North Philly resident and advocate with the group ACT UP, told Next City he was there because access to housing was becoming as big a health issue for people with AIDS as anything else. All the money collected through the construction tax should be going to people earning less than 30 percent area median income, he said.

“The construction impact tax was something that ACT UP and the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities had been working on for years,” says Max Ray-Riek, an organizer with ACT UP. “It was recommended in our reports to City Council several times. So that bill, we knew it was coming and we were excited about it. We heard just under a week before the hearing that there was going to be this additional bill [creating a housing sub-fund.]”

After council finally approved both the construction tax and the sub-fund last week, ACT UP sent out a joint statement with Disabled in Action, Black and Brown Worker’s Cooperative, Decarcerate PA, and Reclaim Philadelphia, saying it would plan to support candidates next year who would prioritize housing funds to support very low-income Philadelphians.

“The original Housing Trust Fund was hard-fought legislation,” Ray-Riek says. “People thought really hard about what would make it fair and good for equitable development across the city.”

The sub-fund would muddy the waters, according to Ray-Riek, a few days before the final vote. It would be better if the impact tax would pass but the sub-fund would fail, but if it didn’t, advocates would work to get new legislation passed in the fall or regulations that would direct at least half the money to very low-income people.

“I understand why they were disappointed and feel strongly that it’s a problem that there isn’t a guarantee in there,” says Nora Lichtash, director of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project and one of the leading forces behind the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities. “But I think, to get roughly $20 million a year [for housing] is an opportunity that would benefit everyone.”

McConnell says that if both bills survive into the fall, advocates would rally for regulations that reserve some of the construction impact tax for people earning less than 30 percent area median income.

“Where I completely, 100-percent agree with the ACT UP and Disabled in Action folks is that we want as much of that money to go to low-income people as possible,” McConnell says. “Why we decided to support the bill wholeheartedly is that we believe we can still win that fight after the bill has passed. I don’t think it’s fair to call it a gentrification amendment. This isn’t about helping wealthy people buy or build $400,000 or $500,000 homes.”

McConnell points out that some amount of the funds will go to support middle-class people and to create more middle-income neighborhoods, and maybe even to prevent gentrification by allowing them to get a home in a neighborhood that’s already facing rising home values instead of being forced down market into more affordable neighborhoods. “These are bus drivers and retail workers and kindergarten teachers,” she says. “This is the income category that we’re talking about, not lawyers and bankers.”

There were more amendments to the Putting Philadelphians First package in the weeks before it passed, including a provision that would exempt the properties that Amazon is said to be considering for its HQ2 project from the construction tax, along with other properties in Keystone Opportunity Zones. But in the end, it may be moot. Kenney has signaled that he isn’t a fan of the tax, and with only nine councilmembers voting in support of it, he’s unlikely to have a veto overturned.

The debate over housing issues may heat up again as the next election gets closer.

A 2016 survey found the number of housing trust funds around the U.S. steadily growing since the mid-1980s, and many cities are seeing efforts to make the funds bigger. Washington, D.C., increased its housing trust fund to $100 million a few years, a fact that both Lichtash and McConnell noted with envy. The mayor of Minneapolis recently announced a plan to put $50 million a year into housing production, and coalitions in Nashville and Baltimore have begun calling for major investments in their own trust funds.

“Up until now, city council has felt that housing advocates will take what they can get and that it’s not a big bread-and-butter issue to Philadelphians,” Max Ray-Riek said. “But this is a city that elected [progressive District Attorney] Larry Krasner and progressive organizations and organizations of working people are organizing around the state. And housing is the biggest issue that’s hurting people in Philadelphia.”

 



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