Posts by Author: Jared Brey

The Future of Transit-Oriented Development Breaks Ground in Seattle

Construction of new light rail lines and stations has left the Seattle region's transit agency to decide what to do with surplus land used as staging or storage areas during construction. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Cathy Hillenbrand used to joke with her neighbors that the mixed-use housing development at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station would be opened by the time she turned seventy.

Community engagement around the development project goes back at least to 2009, but discussions about how to eventually build the station up stretch back to the 1990s says Hillenbrand, a longtime neighborhood business owner. On Tuesday, developers finally broke ground on the project, which includes four separate buildings, a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, a bi-weekly farmers’ market and retail space. It’s expected to open its doors to residents about midway through 2020.

Hillenbrand turns seventy next September. So the joke turns out to have been funny, but maybe not in the way she meant it at first.

“Literally it’s been 20 years,” Hillenbrand says. “You have this dream that you’re going to rebuild the heart of your neighborhood, and then the neighborhood gets built up all around it.”

Built on surplus land surrounding the light rail station, the project is being praised as a harbinger of additional equitable transit-oriented development to come in Seattle. It includes 428 apartments, of which 178 will be rented below market-rate. It will have 30,000 square feet of retail space, community event space and a memorial pathway honoring victims of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s. It’s aiming to be certified LEED Platinum.

“It’s a great example of working hard with the community and with the city and with our development partner to see what we could accomplish,” says Brooke Belman, the land use planning and development director for Sound Transit, the region’s transit authority. “It certainly helped inform [the equitable TOD policy adopted in April.]”

The Capitol Hill station itself was approved in 1996 when voters backed a nearly $4 billion transportation plan that included building light rail from the University District to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It opened in 2016. Building the tunnel and the station was complicated enough, but adding a dense housing project into the mix — requiring coordination between the transit agency, developers of both affordable and market-rate housing, and the community — made the whole thing that much more complex. The community engagement component of the development process lasted for about a decade. But it was instructive, says Sound Transit TOD Planning Manager Sarah Lovell.

“I think this project was really instrumental in thinking through what kinds of things need to happen earlier to try to set up development goals with the opening or near-opening of light rail,” Lovell says.

Hillenbrand is now a board member of Capitol Hill Housing, which is building the affordable-housing component of the project. In 2010, she helped form Capitol Hill Champion, a joint effort between the Capitol Hill Community Council and the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, which advocated for community goals to be incorporated into the planned development. All along, community members were focused on making sure that the light rail station wouldn’t be built without a dense housing component alongside it. There was one group that wanted the entire site to be geared toward LGBTQ-supportive housing, which didn’t end up happening. But the project incorporates the AIDS memorial walkway, and Hillenbrand says that conversations about the Capitol Hill project have sparked other housing efforts for LGBTQ seniors.

The project also includes a maximum parking ratio, which is a step toward cutting down on car ownership on the site, though Hillenbrand says the ratio is still too high. And she wishes it had much more affordable housing.

“That piece of land, everybody wanted so much on it,” Hillenbrand says. “And that one piece or pieces can’t solve everything.”

Sixty-eight units will be reduced rate through mandatory inclusionary zoning in the market-rate housing portion of the project. Another 110 other affordable units at the site will include eight priced for families earning up to 30 percent of area median income, ten priced for families earning up to 50 percent of area median income, and 92 will be priced for families earning up to 60 percent — equivalent to $60,200 for a household of four, according to Ashwin Warrior, senior communications manager for Capitol Hill Housing.

Sound Transit’s new equitable transit-oriented development policy requires any surplus property from here on out to be developed with at least 80 percent affordable housing. Belman says the agency is already working on some projects with 100 percent affordable housing.

“I think that [the Capitol Hill project] also set up a model of how we work with communities,” Belman says. “It’s something that we want to emulate, only stronger, going forward, in setting up that partnership with the local community.”

Hillenbrand says that many community members dedicated years of their lives to help bring the project to bear. And even with all the engagement, there were points when the community felt out of the loop about the project. At certain key moments, like when Sound Transit issued a call for developers and negotiated a development agreement with the city, community members weren’t at the table, Hillenbrand says.

“We knew what Sound Transit had in mind, but we didn’t really know what was going to happen,” Hillenbrand says. “The development agreement was challenging because we were outside of that. It was like a cone of silence, and nobody would talk about it.”

In the end, it came together in a way that satisfied a lot of people. But the process was trying for the community, according to Hillenbrand. And in communities where people have fewer resources and less time to dedicate to negotiating projects like this, it would be tough to emulate, she says.

“This is why community people burn out because that community engagement is not resourced,” Hillenbrand says. “It’s not funded … If you really want equitable development, you really have to resource community engagement.”

 

Workers Making Progress on Fair Scheduling Rights In Cities

Workers, organizers, and councilmembers gathered in Philadelphia City Council Chambers on Thursday to introduce fair workweek legislation. (Photo courtesy of Councilmember Helen Gym)

Symphony Hurst is a proud mother, but she has occasionally found herself withholding that fact from her employers.

Hurst, who grew up in Southwest Philadelphia and now lives in the Overbrook section, has a four-year-old daughter and works in retail — formerly Macy’s, now Starbucks. Like thousands of other retail workers, she’s had to hustle to get enough hours to pay the bills. At Macy’s, when her schedule was light, she would scramble to pick up extra shifts from co-workers — any that were available, often back-to-back with scheduled hours, which varied from week to week. Later, when she worked at the Starbucks at La Salle University (managed by Aramark, a local Philadelphia company), it was much the same: Odd hours, often not enough of them, often posted on the schedule last minute with barely any time to plan ahead.

“If I didn’t have enough money for childcare on a certain day, I couldn’t go to work, which obviously made the problem worse,” Hurst told reporters at press conference in Philadelphia’s city council chambers on Thursday.

Her voice cracked when she said that she had sometimes resorted to avoid telling potential employers she had a child, fearing that they would assume she couldn’t handle a full-time workload.

Hurst now works in the Starbucks at Philadelphia International Airport. It’s a union job, with a schedule and income that’s more predictable than she’s before. She knows from week to week that she’ll be able to buy groceries and pay for childcare.

“It’s my first job ever with steady hours,” Hurst tells Next City after the press conference.

Hurst, a member of the One Pennsylvania coalition, joined other advocates and union leaders at Philadelphia City Hall on Thursday to help announce the introduction of fair workweek legislation. The bill would require chains with at least 250 employees and 20 locations to provide employees with a “good faith” estimate of their weekly workload upon hiring, and two weeks’ advance notice of schedules thereafter. It would also require compensation for last-minute schedule cuts, and prevent employers from cutting workers’ hours in retaliation for calling out for appointments and other obligations. And it would require employers to offer extra shifts to existing employees before bringing in outside applicants.

Around 130,000 hourly workers in the city would benefit from the fair work week protections, according to the bill’s sponsor, Councilmember Helen Gym.

“We’re tired of waiting on benevolence and goodwill,” Gym said at the press conference. “We’re tired of waiting for promises that never seem to happen from those who are most able to give. We are tired of waiting for the state and federal government to recognize our humanity and to recognize common sense business practices. This bill is about standards and dignity.”

The legislation is part of a nationwide trend of fairwork week policies that seek to stabilize work for low-wage and hourly employees. Research has shown that unpredictable work schedules are harmful to employee health and well-being. Recent studies also suggest that businesses actually benefit from providing more stable schedules for their workers.

Cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York have begun advancing legislation requiring advance notice for schedules, predictable weekly workloads, extra pay for on-call shifts or last-minute shift cancellations, and minimum rest times between shifts.

Seattle passed a secure scheduling policy in 2016 that requires advance notice of schedules and compensation for canceled shifts, among other provisions. Seattle Councilmember Lorena González, who helped spearhead the effort, says it took nine months of negotiations between various stakeholders to get the policy passed.

“We had a general sense of what the policy goals were, and what we did in Seattle was set up a process to allow us to engage people, both workers and businesses, to really figure out what the mechanisms would be,” González says.

Initially, González says that she and her colleagues wanted to include all full-service restaurants in the policy. But eventually the council focused on businesses with at least 500 employees, which was where González says they were hearing clear evidence about problems with scheduling.

It’s important for cities considering fair workweek policies to talk with business owners to talk about “operational concerns,” to dedicate resources to help educate both employers and workers about the new policies, and to enforce them, González says. The policy was enacted last summer.

“Here in Seattle, it has not impacted our economy,” González says. “We continue to see dozens of restaurants open a month in our city. We see retail doing very well in our city. And I think it’s because when we treat workers well, businesses reap the benefits of that positive workplace culture.”

Meanwhile in New York City, Councilmember Brad Lander says that he and his colleagues began talking about fair workweek policies around the time that Mayor Bill de Blasio first came into office, in 2013.

In addition to passing bills requiring advance notice for schedules and restricting “clopenings,” a term referring to the practice of scheduling two shifts for an employee fewer than 11 hours apart, New York City passed a law allowing hourly workers to organize nonprofit organizations and dedicate a portion of their payroll to them. The organizations are meant to function sort of like para-unions, enabling fast-food and retail workers to organize and advocate for better policies across the sector even without formally recognized collective-bargaining rights. Organized advocacy by workers made the city council’s work in passing all of the laws easier, Lander says.

“There was meaningful opposition [from the business community], but I think the fact that the case was built well, that workers showed up and talked about why it mattered, and that it is just such a sympathetic issue helped us feel confident throughout the process that we would be able to pass it,” Lander says.

Lander says that New York City was able to learn from both San Francisco and Seattle as his colleagues put its fair workweek bills together. Other cities should be encouraged by policies that are taking effect around the country without causing major problems for businesses, he says.

“It is definitely important to meet with and listen to employers, but I guess I would say, for where those employers push back, fast-food franchises in Seattle and San Francisco and Emeryville [Calif.] and New York City are all complying with this bill with no problems whatsoever,” Lander says. “The sky does not fall. People can get still get their Big Macs and Dunkin’ Donuts. We haven’t seen price increases. We haven’t seen any closures. What we have seen is workers who have stable lives and a path to full-time jobs. So listen, but don’t be cowed by sky-is-falling opposition.”

In Philadelphia, the Chamber of Commerce has already announced its concerns about the fair workweek legislation, calling it “yet another anti-growth out of sync initiative introduced in City Council.” The Chamber says the bill is at odds with the “flexibility” that modern workers and employers want.

Gym responded to the Chamber’s letter with a statement saying that unstable schedules only benefit corporations, not workers, but cited a study suggesting that stable schedules not only benefit workers’ wellbeing but increase profits and reduce turnover.

“We believe Councilwoman Gym is coming from a positive place and wants to help Philadelphia’s workers, many of whom are working at or slightly above minimum wage and relying on these jobs to support their families,” says Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney. “We look forward to working with Councilwoman Gym and other members of Council in the upcoming months to ensure this legislation is given the time and attention required to make sure the input of all parties is considered, and that Philadelphia residents are afforded much-needed protections without negatively impacting our businesses.”

 

Hawaii Gets Explicit About Sea-Level Rise

Condominiums under construction in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Ronen Zilberman)

As chapter director of the Sierra Club of Hawai’i, Marti Townsend sees a need to create a shift that seeks to address climate change as the threat that it is. That shift needs to include everything from the legislative realm to banks that fund development projects and groups that set the value of coastal properties, she says.

“As it is right now, markets acting as they do, it’s seen as really valuable and good to build right on the shoreline,” says Townsend. “And that is wrong. And it’s going to take public policy to counteract the motivations that the market makes, because otherwise people are going to be building themselves into harm’s way.”

On the legislative front, at least, things are moving in that direction, Townsend says. Last week, Hawaii Governor David Ige signed a package of bills including a new requirement that an analysis of sea-level rise be included in all future environmental impact statements for development projects around the state. (The other bills included a pledge to make the state carbon neutral by 2045 and a framework for a new carbon offsets program.)

The new requirement, Ige said in a press release, is “just plain common sense.” But it puts Hawaii near the forefront in terms of incorporating the science around sea-level rise projections into land-use planning practices. In even the most widely accepted worst-case scenario, the state of Hawaii is looking at large-scale inundation from sea-level rise by the end of the century.

More than 25,000 acres of land rendered unusable, a third of it in urban areas. Economic losses from flooded properties adding up to $19 billion — even without accounting for the damage to public infrastructure. Whole public beaches eroded away, 38 miles of chronically flooded roads, 20,000 residents displaced.

And of course, there are worse-case scenarios than that. Those estimates come from the Hawai’i Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation report, released last December. The report is based on a projection that seas will rise 3.2 feet by the year 2100, which itself is based on a “business as usual” scenario for greenhouse gas emissions developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That projection is considered to be the upper end of the “likely” range. But more recent projections suggest that sea levels could rise that much by 2060, the report notes.

“For this reason,” the report says, “it is vital that the magnitude and rate of sea level rise is tracked as new projections emerge, plan for 3.2 feet of sea level rise now, and be ready to adjust that projection upward. It is also important to recognize that global sea level rise will not stop at the year 2100, but will likely continue on for centuries.”

The new bill directs the state environmental council to create rules requiring the best available sea-level rise science to be included in environmental impact statements, which are required before gaining approval for new development. Those rules are currently being written, and could be finished within the next few months, says Scott Glenn, director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.

“I think there’s a lot of consensus that it makes sense that we look at sea-level rise,” Glenn says. “How to do it, when to do it, where to do it is still up for discussion, and people are still building consensus around that.”

Glenn says his office was initially wary of the legislation, thinking that it would require them to start over in their rulemaking process for environmental impact statements, which was already underway. And some felt that the bill would be redundant, since theoretically developers preparing environmental impact statements in Hawaii should have been considering sea-level rise all along.

“It makes explicit something that’s implicit,” Glenn says. “What this bill does is, it says sea-level rise is important, and you’ve got to look at it, and it just kind of puts to bed any kind of discussion with anybody about, ‘Well, maybe we don’t have to think about it.’”

If anything, the change will probably reinforce current development trends, which are heading landward anyway, Glenn says. Hawaiians as a whole, including developers, are more attuned to the realities of climate change than the U.S. as a whole, says Charles Fletcher, associate dean for the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaiʻi and Vice Chair of the City and County of Honolulu Climate Change Commission.

“I don’t think people are going to be against the concept [of the sea-level rise requirement]. I don’t expect in Hawaii to hear, ‘Climate change is a farce.’” says Fletcher, who led the modeling for flooding and erosion in the Vulnerability and Adaptation Report. “I think the pushback will be in, ‘I don’t know what to do’ … When confronted with something that severely disrupts their standard practice, that’s the first reaction of many people: ‘How are we supposed to do this? Is this going to be expensive? I don’t know what to do. So what if there’s going to be high-tide flooding in the urban core of Honolulu? I don’t know how to adapt to that.’”

But Fletcher notes that the state, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have made an abundance of tools and data available to predict which areas are most vulnerable to flooding from sea-level rise in the future. He hopes developers will voluntarily adopt strong adaptation measures on their own. But if requiring them to consider sea-level rise in environmental impact statements doesn’t result in less hazardous development, the state should take further action, he says. Fletcher, for example, would like the state to create a special planning district out of the Sea-Level Rise Exposure Area identified in the report, an area “where there are specific rules and policies that must be met, and if they’re not met, you’re breaking the law.”

“Absolutely [the bill] is significant and very positive,” says Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist at Florida Sea Grant and a lawyer who specializes in property rights and the environment. “Clearly we need to be doing that, because there’s still far too much building going on, both public and private, in what are hazardous areas and what are going to be hazardous areas.”

There’s a growing understanding, Ruppert says, that the public bears the costs for risky private development. And while the impacts of sea-level rise are always local, more states need to be providing leadership to local governments about how they can address the threats, so that small municipalities aren’t left fighting with property owners all on their own.

“You sometimes see developers that are willing to go in, and they know that if they can do their entire project and turn around and get their profit out in three to five years, they leave the owners and the public holding the bill,” Ruppert says. “You get privatization of the benefits and the public pays the bill — socialization of the costs. And until we change that dynamic, we’re in trouble.”

 

How Library Systems Can Help Address Affordable Housing Crises

With more people than ever before with mental health problems and basic needs such as food and shelter, libraries like this one in San Francisco are adding new services to their repertoire. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

When the Mission Bay Branch Library opened in San Francisco, in 2006, there was no other project quite like it.

Part of a neighborhood-wide redevelopment of Mission Bay, a formerly industrial area near the eastern edge of the city, the development was more than just a new library. In addition to the 34,000 items in the branch’s collection, there was retail space, a community meeting hall, a health center, and around 140 housing units for very-low-income seniors, some of whom were transitioning out of the nearby Laguna Honda long-term-care hospital.

Twelve years later, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is wondering, what about the other 27 library branches?

In a meeting last week, the San Francisco Examiner reported, District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who was inaugurated last year, asked acting librarian Michael Lambert whether future library renovations could incorporate an affordable housing component. The amount of public land available for affordable housing is limited, she noted, and branch libraries tend to be low-density construction. Why not build on top of them and address one of the nation’s worst housing crises at the same time? Lambert responded that the library could consider such projects down the line, though it has no plans in the works currently.

The exchange was only an informal one, but it highlights the increasingly catchall public-service role of the American library. In U.S. cities, librarians and library properties already provide crucial services to people experiencing homelessness, job-seekers, and victims of opioid overdoses, as well as the millions of students and readers who make up their traditional constituency. Could they help create housing in competitive urban real estate markets, too?

“We are in an affordability crisis and we need to maximize our existing public land for 100 percent affordable housing,” Supervisor Fewer tells Next City in an email. “It would be a missed opportunity to not pursue adding affordable housing above newly renovated public resources, like our libraries.”

It’s question coming up beyond San Francisco. Across the U.S., there are 9,057 library systems (184 in California alone), with nearly 17,000 locations adding up to more than 209 million square feet (17 million of that in California), according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Chicago broke ground on an affordable housing-library combo earlier this year, and New York City is planning one of its own.

Around the time that the San Francisco Public Library Mission Bay branch was built, the city was in the midst of its Branch Library Improvement Program, funded by a $105.9 million bond initiative that was approved in 2000. That program has since concluded, and the San Francisco Public Library, which just this week was named Library of the Year, doesn’t currently have any big renovations or construction projects in the works.

“The Library is certainly open to such creative strategies for future library capital projects,” said Acting City Librarian Michael Lambert in a statement sent to Next City. “There are no plans currently for new branches and the Library will need to complete a comprehensive facilities master planning process before we’ll be in a position to actualize such an option.”

A library spokeswoman said that no one who was involved in planning the Mission Bay development project is still around to speak about it.

Sharon Christen, a housing developer at Mercy Housing who served as project manager for the development, says that her group was selected to build an affordable housing project in the neighborhood back in 1999 or 2000. The overall redevelopment of the neighborhood was being led by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and Catellus Development Corporation, and involved large-scale market-rate housing and commercial development. Some of the land was given back to the Redevelopment Agency by Catellus and set aside for affordable housing. It was only after Mercy Housing was selected to build senior housing that a new branch library was added to the project.

The idea was that, “You’re building out this new neighborhood, and you need to have these civic uses,” says Christen. There were other amenities either planned or already built in the area, including transit lines and a grocery store, she says. It seemed more efficient to incorporate civic uses in with housing, rather than keeping everything separate. So Mercy Housing was given a construction easement on the property with the expectation that it would revert to city ownership when the project was complete. Land ownership issues were smoothed over by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which was dissolved, along with the 400 other redevelopment agencies in California, in 2012.

“It’s not impossible to do these things without Redevelopment,” Christen says. “Redevelopment just had certain powers that made it easier.”

Christen says it’s far easier to plan a mixed-use project that incorporates housing and civic uses from the outset than it would be to build new housing on top of old library branches. In Mission Bay, there was so much “development potential,” in the form of lot size and allowable height available in the area, that each of the components of the project was able to make the financing work. Those considerations are more tricky on constrained sites, Christen says.

“Once you build a building together, that’s hard, and then you have to live together for the rest of your lives,” Christen says.

But the Mission Creek Senior Housing project now operates smoothly alongside the Mission Bay Branch Library, Christen says. And if the city’s public library system gets more capital funding down the line, or residential development creates demand for another new branch, it has a successful model for a co-located library and housing project to study.

 

Few Winners When Courts Privatize the Collection of Public Debts

People line up outside the Metropolitan Courthouse, which handles traffic citations and other matters, in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Every Wednesday morning, the East Bay Community Law Center runs a walk-in clinic out of its office in Berkeley, Calif.

The clinic is run by the Center’s Clean Slate Practice, which focuses on “the decriminalization of poverty,” according to Brandon Greene, one of its lead attorneys. Some of Greene’s colleagues do post-conviction work, helping to seal arrest records, reduce probation, and help people who’ve been denied employment because of criminal backgrounds. But Greene’s clients are facing a particular set of issues: court-ordered debt related to things like traffic violations and parking tickets.

“For the average person, they think that a parking ticket isn’t really expensive,” says Greene. “But if you don’t pay your parking ticket or can’t afford to pay your parking ticket, eventually that ends up going to the Franchise Tax Board, which is the state agency that can garnish your wages … These things can sort of spiral out of control, particularly for folks who are housing insecure and get a lot of tickets on their vehicles.”

On top of that, courts often outsource debt collection to private agencies, which operate on contracts negotiated county-by-county, and take varying rates of commission on delinquent debt. Clients are often confused about who exactly they’re supposed to pay and when. Greene says he’s had clients with more than $10,000 worth of traffic-related debts, “because they ratchet up so quickly.” He’s also represented clients who’ve had their wages over-garnished by more than $1,000 because of administrative errors.

“If anything short-circuits along that way or people aren’t communicating adequately, people can find themselves in very precarious positions,” Greene says.

Last week, the California Reinvestment Coalition released a study of issues related to court-ordered debt and called on California courts to end their reliance on private contractors — or at least to open up the contract negotiations for public review. The report, called “Unholy Alliance: California Courts’ Use of Private Debt Collectors,” shows that private debt collection practices vary from place to place, disproportionately harm low-income communities and communities of color, and generate vanishingly little revenue for counties.

The coalition report also calls for discharging delinquent debts, bringing collection practices in line with federal regulations that apply to other types of debt, and creating a uniform system of ability-to-pay evaluation that will apply across the state.

“We want to make sure that all types of debt are being collected fairly, if they need to be collected at all,” says Paulina Maqueda Escamilla, a researcher at the California Reinvestment Coalition and graduate student at UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, who led the research for the report.

“Ideally, all debt would be swept away,” added Nehama Rogozen, the group’s strategic communications manager. “But we know that that’s not something that is not necessarily possible, right now, everywhere.”

The report focused on 17 counties in California where adults of color accounted for a greater share of the population than in the state as a whole. Of those, the report found, 15 counties contract with private companies to collect fines, forfeitures, and penalties. Practices that contractors are required to follow vary from county to county, but in no case does the amount of debt collected by private agencies equal as much as half a percent of a county’s total revenue. (Though in some cases the actual dollar amount can be quite large; private collectors in Los Angeles County bring in nearly $70 million a year, according to the report.)

Counties’ contracts with private debt collectors be subject to the federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, the report recommends. The act prevents certain abusive practices for collecting on student loan debt, credit card debt, and other types of debt. It also recommends creating “statewide, uniform and accessible ability-to-pay evaluations and processes, regardless of type of court.” Ability-to-pay evaluations take into account each person’s ability to pay fines and fees before determining the amount to be paid.

The report also recommends discharging all delinquent debt after five years, which the California Reinvestment Coalition says would not only benefit debtors who are unable to pay but also be good for counties that spend money trying to collect debt that’s unlikely to be repaid.

“Nobody wants to not pay their debts,” says Maqueda Escamilla. “I think that that is one of the biggest sticking points that I’ve heard in some opposing views about why debt should be collected: ‘If you do the crime you should pay the fine.’ … But this isn’t about that. It’s about my ability to actually have the funds to be able to pay that right now.”

It’s also noted in the report that certain contracts between the state of California and private collection agencies, which guide counties’ participation in private collection programs, are set to expire at the end of the year. The California Reinvestment Coalition says that it filed right-to-know requests with the state for information about ongoing contract negotiations with those agencies, but they were rejected because negotiations were incomplete. If counties aren’t going to end their partnerships with private debt collectors, which the coaltion believes to be inherently less accountable than governments, then there should at least be a push for more transparency in the negotiating process, the coalition says.

Legal fees for poor defendants can quickly spiral out of control in many cases, as Next City has reported previously. Maqueda Escamilla points to potential progress in San Francisco, where the city’s legislative body is considering an ordinance that would eliminate certain fees related to convictions. And she notes that a state bill that’s currently under consideration would expand some protections that currently apply to consumer debt so that they would also regulate court-ordered debt. But the ultimate goal for the California Reinvestment Coalition and many of the groups that contributed to its report remains ending private collection of court-ordered debt altogether.

“It just creates layers of bureaucracy and confusion,” says Brandon Greene. “There’s also a moral question, in terms of how we are setting up private profiteers to profit mostly off the backs of indigent, minority folks.”

 

Don’t Assume Everyone Wants to Live In a Racially Integrated Neighborhood

A map of the Chicago area showing the racial distribution of households by race. (Credit: University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service)

People and policies have shaped our cities. But how much has anyone thought about how those resulting cities have, in turn, shaped us?

If you’re Indiana University Ph.D. student Samuel H. Kye, you’ve been thinking about housing market preferences for people who have grown up mostly in segregated neighborhoods.

Kye’s research examines a key assumption for those in cities like Chicago or Dallas or Minneapolis or beyond that are seeking ways to counter the racial and economic segregation resulting from racist policies and the racist practices among lenders and real estate agents — the assumption that people today actually want to live in racially and economically integrated neighborhoods.

So far, Kye has found, that assumption is incorrect, at least when it comes to white residents.

In a paper, called “The persistence of white flight in middle-class suburbia,” published in the May issue of the journal Social Science Research, Kye’s findings show that white residents are likely to move out of neighborhoods when black, Hispanic, and Asian residents become a greater share of neighborhood population. Adding class to the equation, Kye found that middle-class white residents are more likely to move out than poor white residents.

“It really takes away the legs of that counterargument, that these are decisions that are largely being driven by socioeconomic differences,” Kye tells Next City. “Where we see white flight today, race still remains a fundamental factor motivating these moves.”

His findings challenge what Kye calls the “racial proxy hypothesis,” which holds that white residents choose to leave neighborhoods not because of their racial makeup but because of conditions related to poverty and instability. Kye’s conclusions suggest the opposite: White flight is actually more common in stable middle-class communities than in poor ones.

To identify communities in which white flight occurred, Kye looked at census tracts that lost at least white residents between 2000 and 2010. Kye determined that white flight occurred in those tracts if the total proportion of white residents also shrunk by at least 25 percent. So a neighborhood that went from 80 percent white to 60 percent white over the course of the decade experienced white flight, but one that went from 75 percent to 60 percent white did not.

Of the suburban tracts that had a significant white presence in 2000, some 3,252 census tracts, around 12 percent experienced white flight, according to Kye’s research. The average “magnitude loss” in those neighborhoods, or decrease in white residents’ share of the overall demographic of a tract, was 40 percent.

“We’re still trying to find the best and most robust ways to identify white flight, but for my research, my goal was to identify over a decade a significant loss of white residents,” Kye says.

Kye then constructed a neighborhood index to show concentrated disadvantage, with characteristics like percent of female-headed households, percent poverty, percent of residents on welfare, percent unemployment, and the percent of residents under 18 years of age. He constructed a second neighborhood index to show high educational and occupational attainment.

Using a regression analysis, Kye found that the growth of non-white residents within a census tract was a stronger predictor of white flight in middle-class neighborhoods (based on his indices) than in poor ones. In other words, white residents were more likely to leave relatively well-off neighborhoods than relatively poor ones when black, Hispanic, and Asian residents began forming a greater share of the population.

While zoning laws that lock segregation in place can be changed to encourage more affordable housing in all areas, Kye says, there currently aren’t policies that can prevent whites from leaving neighborhoods that are diversifying, and it’s hard to imagine what those would look like.

“White flight is something that’s more difficult to address directly with policymakers, because in large part, our policies have worked to ensure that the housing attainment process for minorities is the same as it is for whites,” Kye says. “To a large degree, the government can’t determine where it is that certain groups do or do not move, so this is something that is a little more difficult to directly act upon.”

Kye, who is studying the persistence of white residential enclaves for his doctoral dissertation, says that research on the mobility behavior of whites has shown that younger people are more likely to choose to live in racially diverse communities than older people. But it remains to be seen whether that divide will hold over time.

“Is this something that is indicative of a true sea change, where we’re going to see rising levels of integration?” he says. “Or is it the case that these older millennials, when they have children of their own and start to think about what it means to live in a good neighborhood, are they going to move back into whiter neighborhoods that are more segregated?”

 

Tough Conversations About Climate Change Planning in California

The Pacific ocean pounds the coast line fronting million dollar homes during a storm in Del Mar, Calif. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

The nature of sea-level rise is such that it threatens whole regions at once, with no respect for municipal boundaries. But in most cases, local communities are left to develop their own strategies for addressing the threat. And the decisions they make, based on local concerns about environmental conditions and property rights, have ramifications that spread out to neighboring cities and towns.

The coastal city of Del Mar, California, in San Diego County, is currently facing that challenge. Last week, the Del Mar city council, which represents about 4,300 residents, voted against including the strategy of “managed retreat” in its long-term Sea-Level Rise Adaptation Plan.

Managed retreat refers to a simple concept that can be very complicated in practice: abandoning land and sometimes developed property in coastal areas as the sea rises. It’s considered a last resort for sea-level rise adaptation. While the city had initially included the strategy in its plan last month, the city council ultimately decided to strike it from the documents after residents objected that it would sink the values of their properties overnight.

“Given the financial, legal, and environmental risks that are compounded by doing retreat, it makes no sense at this time,” says David Druker, a Del Mar city councilman who joined his colleagues in voting against the inclusion of the strategy last Monday. “We don’t know what the consequences of sea-level rise will be necessarily, or how much they will affect Del Mar into the future. They could be devastating, they could be not. For us to turn around and say, well, we’ve got to worry about managed retreat today doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

Complicating the decision is the fact that the California Coastal Commission, which regulates land use in coastal areas, has to approve the city’s adaptation plan. The Commission requires that cities show they’ve considered every option for sea-level rise in their plans, according to reports in The San Diego Union-Tribune. The city could lose local control of coastal land-use if the Commission doesn’t approve its plan, according to the Union-Tribune. The plan won’t be finalized until later this year.

“I think the community understands that at some level within our adaptation plan we need to address why we we are not going to be using managing retreat to address sea level rise at this time,” Druker says. “And four of the council members agreed with that position.”

Druker says he’s hoping that the Commission will recognize that Del Mar is in a different position than some other coastal areas. Specifically, it has extremely high-value homes that are very close to sea level, says Druker. Adopting managed retreat as a strategy could hurt property values in the short run, and over the long run, put the city in the position of “battling with its own citizens about whether we have the right to make them leave their houses,” he says.

Instead of managed retreat, the city hopes to pursue replenishing sand on the beaches and dredging the San Dieguito River to mitigate flood risk. Over the long term, Druker says, the city hopes that early-stage technology will mature so that it can create an artificial reef in the ocean, causing waves to break further away from the coastline.

“We’re a little bit on the forefront, because very few cities in California have created a sea-level rise adaptation plan that has been approved by the Coastal Commission at this point,” he added.

In March, the California Ocean Protection Council adopted a new guidance policy that encourages communities to include managed retreat as a strategy for adapting to sea-level rise. The Council lays out its best estimates for sea-level rise in various areas, and encourages communities to adopt plans that take into account their “adaptive capacity,” or ability to evolve in response to the impacts of sea-level rise. The guidance also says that social equity and environmental justice should be prioritized in the development of adaptation plans. It also says that planning should happen at the regional level where possible.

Deborah Halberstadt, executive director of the California Ocean Protection Council and deputy secretary for oceans and coastal policy at the California Natural Resources Agency, says that managed retreat is the most controversial strategy included in its guidance because of the thorny problems it raises related to property rights and property values. But the preferred adaptive capacity approach lets communities pursue every strategy for protecting property on its coastline first, and then consider managed retreat if it’s still experiencing flooding that threatens health and safety, Halberstadt says.

“My hope is that we can collaborate regionally at the city level and at the county level and across counties with the state and federal governments to develop strategies that will protect our coastlines to the extent possible,” she says. “But I think we also have to take into account the reality of sea-level rise. We can’t stop it … We really need to be working together to develop strategies and educate people as to why these types of approaches are part of the conversation. Not as a fear tactic, not to scare people, or to cause plummeting property values. But to be realistic and honest with the people of the state.”

 

Houston Attaches Community Benefit Strings to Public Subsidies

Houston City Hall. (Photo by Ed Schipul)

Last summer, the Texas Organizing Project issued a report card for the City of Houston’s economic development programs, and found what school teachers often euphemistically call “room for improvement.”

Basically, the city was failing miserably at the task of making these programs work for the public, the group said. It gave failing grades in six “subjects,” from job creation to setting and achieving equity goals to workforce development and community engagement. The city’s programs performed slightly better in a seventh subject; the group gave them a “D” for transparency. The report card was part of a larger report called Tax Breaks for What?, which sought to assess the city’s tax abatements and development grants, explore their return on investment, and discuss policies that could improve the situation.

“From a community-based perspective, we argue that if economic development tax breaks are not addressing a community need in the service of advancing equity, then they deserve to be called out for what they really are—a windfall for the private sector and a drain on our city’s cash-strapped budget,” the report said.

Now, Texas Organizing Project and other advocates are celebrating the first fruits of their labor. Last week, Houston’s city council voted 13-2 to raise its standards for development projects that receive money from the city.

Under the new guidelines, applicants for tax abatements will be required to commit to providing community benefits in at least one of eight areas: local job recruitment, public improvements, crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), affordable or workforce housing, job training, participation in re-entry programs, or paid internships for low-income students. In addition, all applicants would be required to meet six other criteria, including making good faith efforts to hire from low-income communities and advertising jobs in the city’s Community Re-Entry Network Program.

Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, says that a coalition of advocacy groups began pushing for more effective and beneficial tax abatement programs and other economic justice initiatives in Houston during the last mayoral election, in 2015. The group endorsed Democrat Sylvester Turner, who ended up winning in a runoff. (Though the Texas Organizing Project is a statewide group, it focuses on city issues.)

“Because we live in the state of Texas, so much of our work is focused on moving the needle at the local level,” Tremillo says.

The group focuses on two things: organizing campaigns around criminal justice, immigration, healthcare and other issues, and supporting elected officials who it believes will move adopt their causes.

“Increasingly, we are able to make progress on our economic and racial justice agenda, so we keep doing those things,” Tremillo says.

More cities are reassessing the ways they incentivize private development, with an eye toward extracting more public benefit in the process. In 2016, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority began requiring developers to outline the “social impact” of their proposals when responding to RFPs for publicly owned land. Detroit began including community benefits provisions in negotiations over big projects in 2015, as Next City reported. Minneapolis is considering requiring an affordable housing component in projects that take advantage of tax increment financing. And the principle behind the proliferation of inclusionary zoning is much the same: If developers are going to receive public financial support, they should provide clear, enforceable benefits for the communities they’re building in.

In Houston, a task force on equity issues appointed by Mayor Turner cited the Texas Organizing Project’s report card in a report that recommended, among other things, wage requirements, local hiring, and apprenticeship programs for companies that receive tax abatements or other subsidies. It also recommended strong reporting requirements and compliance measures for subsidized projects.

The mayor’s development office says that abatement agreements will be monitored for compliance and subject to yearly audits by city staff. The ordinance allows the city to back out of abatements if companies don’t live up to their commitments and recover funds that it has paid out, the city says.

Workers Defense Project, a membership-based group that supports better conditions for low-wage workers in Texas cities, was hoping that the mayor and city council would support a stronger set of regulations. Specifically, says Sasha Legette, the business liaison for Workers Defense Project’s Better Builder program, the regulations should mandate higher wages, workers’ compensation, and better monitoring of worksite safety conditions.

“I’ll say this,” Legette says. “I think we’re pleased that Mayor Turner is willing to take a step in the right direction, and we’re hopeful to continue the conversation, but we definitely intend to push forward for additional standards. We’re happy to see the shift, but we still have so much further to go.”

 

Minneapolis Mayor Unveils Plan to Undo History of Segregation

Color-coded maps like this one of Minneapolis were created by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a former federal agency created in 1933. The maps reflected the existing beliefs of banking and real estate industries that neighborhoods where people of color and immigrants lived were too risky for lending, and thus shaded or outlined in red, giving rise to the term "redlining." The influence of these real estate and lending patterns is still felt in cities today, even 50 years after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made discrimination in the housing market illegal. (Credit: Mapping Inequality)

New Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey acknowledges that much of the city’s housing market is still influenced by intentionally segregationist, racist policies of the past. Market forces and zoning policies continue to bolster those patterns today.

His new office recently proposed a $50 million housing plan to provide housing choices that seeks to undo some of those patterns and create a more racially and economically integrated city.

“I’m fully aware of the political pushback that will inevitably come to bear, but I’m willing to stake my career on this …” says Frey. “I believe we should have affordable housing in every neighborhood of this city, including the wealthy ones.”

Frey put housing at the center of his winning campaign agenda last year. The plan, which was developed by a task force that began working almost as soon as Frey took office, would put those funds toward production and preservation of affordable rental units, down-payment assistance for homeowners and various supports for low-income renters.

“We have an affordable housing crisis in Minneapolis,” says Frey. “Values are going up. Rents are skyrocketing out of control. People are being displaced from the neighborhoods they’ve made wonderful to begin with.”

A 2016 report from the Minnesota Housing Partnership showed that the housing market in Minneapolis was increasingly putting renters at risk of displacement — the risk was especially high in racially diverse neighborhoods. According to the Minneapolis Health Department, there is a high correlation between the concentration of poverty, cost-burdened households and residents of color in the city’s neighborhoods.

The affordable housing task force held a community forum in February, along with a series of roundtables with business leaders and other stakeholders to discuss affordable homeownership, housing stability, and the production and preservation of affordable rental housing. Strategies in the group’s recommendations include increasing funding to support affordable housing production, incentivizing preservation of “naturally-occurring affordable housing” units (those that are currently affordable without any rent-restriction applied to them and usually without any public subsidy), strengthening protection of tenants through just-cause eviction legislation and additional legal representation, providing down-payment assistance for low-income homeowners, and producing an annual report outlining who benefits from the city’s housing investments.

The report also suggests establishing mandatory inclusionary zoning for projects that take advantage of tax increment financing and other city subsidies, an opportunity that the report notes may be fading quickly as the current construction boom reaches its later phases.

Some efforts to address housing affordability are already underway. In April, the city council approved a pilot program called “4d” that reduces property taxes on certain apartment buildings where at least 20 percent of the units are kept affordable for renters earning up to 60 percent of Area Median Income. Frey has come out in support of zoning changes to allow “fourplexes,” or conversions of single-family homes to allow up to four units. The Greater Minnesota Housing Fund has launched a “NOAH Impact Fund” to help preserve naturally occurring affordable housing that’s at risk of becoming more expensive.

The task force recommendations would bolster those efforts with a proposed quadrupling of the city’s current $11 million to $12 million annually invested in affordable housing.

“This feels like a historic moment,” says Anne Mavity, executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership and a co-chair of the mayor’s task force. “Local elected officials and [business] leaders and faith leaders are focusing on affordable housing in a way that I haven’t seen in decades in my career. I think it provides an opportunity to act in ways that will significantly impact and improve our ability to address this affordable housing challenge, and we need to take advantage of this moment.”

Mavity says that her group’s research shows that addressing affordable housing challenges in the Twin Cities region would require an investment of at least $1.1 billion in public funds. Of that, she says, 30 percent is needed for housing preservation and production, and 70 percent is needed for direct subsidies to low-income renters.

“Traditionally, this had been the role that [the federal government] has played, but they have, of late, failed at that role,” Mavity says. “We have spent a lot of time insisting that they do this. Three out of every 4 households that are eligible for these Housing Choice Vouchers do not get them.”

The additional dedicated funding will have to be negotiated with the city council after Frey presents a budget proposal later this year.

“We will be allocating a record amount of funding to affordable housing,” Frey says. “… If we end up with $40 million worth of affordable housing funds, that’s still nearly three times the previous record.”

The task force report acknowledges that housing affordability is a problem for the entire Twin Cities region, and that local funding alone can’t fix it. According to a 2017 report from the Minnesota Housing Partnership, some 42 percent of renters in Minneapolis are cost-burdened. For renters earning less than $20,000 a year, the rate rises to 84 percent. And while development is booming, according to a report last summer in the Star-Tribune, the vacancy rate was just 2.4 percent, with rents rising across the metro area.

“Minneapolis is obviously not unique in these circumstances,” Frey says. “But we want to be on the very forefront of progress.”

 

Detroit’s Expanded Plan to Spread the Wealth to Neighborhoods

Detroit's Strategic Neighborhood Fund is expanding to seven new areas. The Fitzgerald revitalization work was part of the Livernois-McNichols area under the first phase of the Strategic Neighborhood Fund. (Credit: City of Detroit)

Under the leadership of co-founder and managing partner, David Alade, Century Partners has been serving as part of a city-selected team to rehab over a hundred homes and landscape nearly 200 vacant lots in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood, closer to the northern edge of the city than to the downtown and midtown areas that have seen a wave of investment yet to come to the rest of Detroit.

“Detroiters aren’t any different from folks who live in cities across the country,” Alade says.

“They want safe neighborhoods. They want activated homes. They don’t want to walk by or drive by blight. They want to be able to access high-quality retail within walking distance. And they want close-knitted and connected neighborhoods where people know each other.”

Alade says that the RFP process to join the project required intensive community engagement, and that the team has worked closely with Fitzgerald residents and representatives from nearby universities in the time since his firm was selected to do the work. Michelle Bolofer, who has led a nonprofit offshoot of Century Partners called Century Forward since March, says she’s been working to build a network of stakeholders in the project and help create workforce opportunities for Fitzgerald residents.

Detroit now hopes to build on the strengths of that work, announcing $130 million in new investments in neighborhood development and public spaces across Detroit. The funding will expand the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund, which previously invested $42 million in three areas including the Fitzgerald revitalization project, to seven more areas across the city.

The money will come from a combination of philanthropic and corporate donations as well as state, local, and federal funds, the city says. The bulk of the investment — around $100 million — would be split between streetscape improvements on neighborhood commercial corridors and gap financing for commercial and mixed-use development in the same areas. The fund, which the city is calling Strategic Neighborhood Fund 2.0, would also invest $21 million in park improvements, $7 million in rehabbing vacant homes, and $3 million in neighborhood planning efforts.

The announcement comes a little more than three years after Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy, and just days after regaining local control of its finances and government operations for the first time in decades. Earlier this year, the city also announced that it would raise $250 million to invest in developing 2,000 new affordable units and preserving 10,000 more over the next five years.

“Our big vision here is inclusive growth,” says Ryan Friedrichs, chief development officer for the City of Detroit. “What we’re trying to do differently here in Detroit is have an affordable housing strategy in lockstep with the economic growth strategy, so that we’re not having any residents displaced as we grow.”

In the Fitzgerald neighborhood, for example, the Strategic Neighborhood Fund 1.0 invested in a strategy of rehabbing homes, creating a new park, and improving every publicly owned vacant lot in the area. The work is expected to result in a continuous greenway that connects the neighborhood to the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College.

Overall, the new phase of the Strategic Neighborhood Fund lines up with much of the community planning work that’s been done in the past, says Tom Goddeeris, deputy director of Detroit Future City, the group that helped shape a long-range strategic framework for the city’s development. Specifically, the Fund is aimed at drawing the strength of the development market in the downtown core into the outlying neighborhoods, Goddeeris says.

“The strategy is based on the idea that you need substantial upfront investment to reignite the market in these various neighborhoods, and the city is trying to be very explicit about doing development in those neighborhoods in a way that is inclusive and will not displace current residents,” Goddeeris says. “And of course, that’s a challenge if you rely on market-based solutions.”

Friedrichs also says that the Strategic Neighborhood Fund also works in tandem with the Entrepreneurs of Color Fund, a business loan program supported by JP Morgan Chase and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. And some 70 percent of grants from the Motor City Match Program, which helps business owners find real estate, have gone to minority- or women-owned businesses, according to Friedrichs.

The expansion of the Strategic Neighborhood Fund is meant to bring investments in neighborhood commercial corridors and public space to a new scale. As part of the announcement for the expansion, the Kresge Foundation, which has offices in Detroit and Troy, Michigan, said that it would contribute the first $15 million to the philanthropic side. Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation, says the investment is closely aligned with the foundation’s previous work in the city.

In a survey released by Kresge last week, 93 percent of residents who responded said retail districts should be a priority for the city’s investments.

The fundraising goal is ambitious, Rapson says. If the city is going to raise an additional $45 million from other philanthropic foundations in the region, those foundations are going to have to make tough decisions. In some cases, investing in the Strategic Neighborhood Fund may mean smaller foundations have to pull back on other investments they’re in the habit of making.

“It’s a good push,” Rapson says. “I think the mayor is absolutely right to push us on this question.”

Rapson says that the Kresge Foundation is more confident in making large-scale investments now because he believes in the leadership team the mayor has assembled, especially planning director Maurice Cox, housing director James Arthur Jemison, and Jed Howbert, who leads economic development efforts.

“The deepening of neighborhood engagement in the work of neighborhood revitalization has given us a higher level of confidence that the moneys that we will spend are going to be spent in a way that seems consistent both with city priorities and with neighborhood priorities,” says Rapson.

 



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Architect Mahmood Fallahian

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