Posts by Author: Jared Brey

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.


What Taking Aim at Segregation Looks Like In Chicago

The Chicago Theater. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

In the fall of 2016, the entire board and staff of the Field Foundation underwent racial justice training, and the foundation asked nonprofit community groups to review its own grantmaking processes. Founded in 1940, the foundation invests in justice, art, and community leadership in Chicago.

Angelique Power, who became president of the Field Foundation two years ago, says it was “scary and critical” to have that kind of training in the boardroom. The board is “the spine of the organization,” she says, and it was important to bring an understanding of Chicago’s structural racism into the center of the group’s work.

“In Chicago there is a nexus of poverty and trauma and divestment, and it aligns with a designed inequity,” Power says.

A new report challenges the entire region — from governments to corporations, philanthropies, civic organizations, and individuals — to adopt a “racial equity framework” aimed at overturning racial and economic disparities in every sector of society. Released today from the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago think tank, “Our Equitable Future: A Roadmap for the Chicago Region” details around two dozen policy proposals that the city could pursue to promote racial equity in economic development, job access, housing and neighborhoods, education, and criminal justice.

Our Equitable Future is a follow up to “The Cost of Segregation,” a report released last year by the same organization. That report contained many grim facts, like how the Chicago region had the fifth highest level of racial and economic segregation in the U.S. as of 2010. Or, if the level of African American-white segregation in the region could be reduced to the national median, the typical African American resident would earn nearly $3,000 more per year in income; there would have been 229 fewer murders in 2016; and some 83,000 more residents would have bachelor’s degrees.

But there was one particularly grim fact underpinning the whole effort. As Metropolitan Planning Council Vice President Marisa Novara put it, approaching the issue of segregation with a “moral lens” had proven insufficient to addressing the problem. In other words, the fairly broad recognition that communities of color should have the same access to jobs, housing, and public resources as white communities wasn’t doing much to change the fact that, in many cases, communities of color still don’t have equal access.

The first report, Novara says, was an attempt to build “a broader argument about our economic interdependence,” illustrating how segregation is tied to income inequality, violent crime, lost lives, lower property values, and overall regional vitality.

“The remedies and recommendations offered here go far beyond the patterns of where people live,” the new report says. “To disrupt metropolitan Chicago’s legacy of segregation, we focus on the racism and inequity that fueled and continues to fuel it. Fundamentally, segregation and its resulting inequities are by-products of racism — which is why the solutions in this report focus on racial equity and inclusion as the root goal.”

Policy recommendations include:

  • Establishing a graduated real estate transfer tax in the city, which would set a base tax rate of .35 percent for up to $500,000 in taxable value and step up to 3.3 percent for value in excess of $5 million. Under that system, the city could raise more than $100 million in additional revenue while lowering the overall tax liability in some 95 percent of real estate transactions, according to the report.

  • Requiring developers who take advantage of public funding to detail how their proposals will improve public health.

  • Adopting a local earned income tax credit to help working families build wealth.

  • Establishing a capped fare system on transit systems, so that low-income riders who can’t afford the upfront cost of a weekly or monthly pass won’t miss out on the discounts enjoyed by riders who can.

  • Reforming property tax assessments that “has unfairly burdened low-income, minority households via a system that is inaccurate and opaque.”

  • Providing even higher subsidies in Chicago’s Housing Choice Voucher Program to help low-income residents rent properties in more neighborhoods. Chicago’s Housing Choice Voucher Program already provides subsidies based on the local rents within each of the city’s 77 designated neighborhood areas, instead of one average rent across the entire city. The report recommends increasing the maximum rent payment threshold even higher than it is currently.

  • Implementing the recommendations of the Police Accountability Task Force.

Novara says that the recommendations were built on research that began with the economic analyses performed by the Urban Institute in the first report. The research expanded over the last year to include long-form interviews with community leaders in five different neighborhood “typologies.”

The group also took teams of researchers and community stakeholders on trips to Seattle and Atlanta. The Seattle government was a pioneer in focusing on institutional racism, Novara says, while the Atlanta region had dropped 20 places in nationwide segregation rankings during a the period between 1990 and 2010. Chicago could learn from both, Novara says. The project was motivated by questions that the Metropolitan Planning Council didn’t know the answers to — what does segregation cost? what can be done about it? — and the group was “very much in listening mode.”

“I really can’t stress enough the importance of the balance that we tried to strike,” Novara says. “We have a vision for where we’re going with this, but we are incredibly open to what we’re learning along the way.”

The group also tried to make recommendations that balanced potential impact with political feasibility. It left out policy proposals that had high impact potential but little possibility of implementation as well as proposals that would be easy to pass but generate superficial benefits, Novara says.

Still, some of the recommendations could be a heavy lift. Several would require state approval, and one would require Chicago aldermen to give up some control over development in their districts. Under that proposal, aldermen in wards with less than 10 percent affordable housing would be unable to reject or delay certain projects that include at least 10 percent affordable units. The proposal would be a blow to the tradition of aldermanic privilege. But it could help create a smoother path for affordable housing projects, as Novara wrote in a blog post last month.

But the policy proposals alone won’t eradicate segregation even if they’re all adopted, Novara says. She stressed that the most important aspect of the report is its push to put racial equity at the center of the region’s growth.

“We are on that path as an organization,” Novara says of the Metropolitan Planning Council. “We certainly count ourselves as part of the actors in this region that need to shine this light on ourselves and on our own practices and on our own structures.”

Angelique Power.

Since it took aim at racial equity, the Field Foundation has adopted a new model for its grantmaking, which Power explained in a public letter last summer. The new model makes it easier for organizations to apply for grants, and commits the organization to investing 60 percent of its grants in organizations that are, “by, for, and about” serving African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American communities. The group, which grants around $2 million a year, also began talking with other foundations in the region about its new focus.

“I don’t think that it’s radical to ask that organizations put racial equity at the center of their work,” Power says. “I think, unfortunately, it’s still radical to actually do it.”


Go Out to Eat in Alexandria, Help Finance Affordable Housing

A block in Alexandria's historic "Old Town" area. (Photo by Ken Lund via flickr)

First-term Alexandria City Council Member Willie F. Bailey grew up in public housing, later moved to subsidized housing, and was eventually able to buy his own house, but that “mobility escalator” doesn’t work the same way today in the Virginia city.

“I’m a single parent, and I put two kids through college, busting my butt,” says Bailey. “And they can’t afford to come and live in the city that they were raised in.”

Eighteen years ago, the city of Alexandria, Virginia, had a population of around 130,000 people and more than 18,000 market-rate affordable housing units — rental apartments that are affordable for people making 60 percent of area median income without a public subsidy.

Today, according to the Office of Housing, the population has grown to more than 150,000, and the number of market-rate affordable rental units has plummeted to fewer than 2,000. Over that same period, the median income in the area grew by a third, and the cost of rental housing nearly doubled. Not surprisingly, the number of cost-burdened households in the city has jumped over the same period, according to the nonprofit group Housing Virginia. And while concerns about housing affordability are growing around the D.C. metro area, and around the country, the responsibility for finding solutions increasingly falls to local officials.

Last week, Alexandria City Council agreed on a proposal, championed by Bailey, that would raise the local tax on restaurant meals by one percent, directing the proceeds to affordable housing. The new local meals tax would five percent, which, coupled with the 6 percent state meals tax, would bring the total tax on a restaurant meal to 11 percent, or 20 cents more on a $20 meal than the current tax rate.

The city expects the meals tax hike will raise around $4.75 million a year to be dedicated to the preservation or construction of affordable housing, or financial assistance to renters or homeowners. In accord with its Housing Master Plan, the city is hoping to create or preserve 2,000 affordable housing units by 2025.

The proposal won support from a majority of council members despite opposition from local restaurant owners. Bailey says he wanted to keep Alexandria’s meals tax roughly on par with those in Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Richmond. He also notes that some 70 percent of restaurant taxes are paid by patrons who live outside of Alexandria. With the city’s historic “Old Town” being ranked the top affordable tourist destination in the U.S. by Money magazine this year, an additional one-percent tax on restaurant meals will hardly be a deterrent, Bailey says.

Sales and consumption taxes are regressive, notes Richard Auxier, a research associate at the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, because they create more of a burden on people with less income. But restaurant taxes are slightly different, because while everybody eats at restaurants, wealthier people are more likely to eat out, and to spend much more money when they do so.

“Yes, a consumption tax is regressive,” Auxier says. “But if there’s a progressive way to do it, this is it.”

Moreover, because Alexandria’s restaurants draw so many patrons from outside the city, the tax is largely passed off to people visitors who don’t live in the city.

Normally, good budgeting practices call for a strong link between the tax burden and the tax benefit, the way gasoline taxes are paid by drivers who use the roads that those taxes help pay for, Auxier says. But cities with lots of visitors can see their services strained by people who aren’t typically paying for them, and a restaurant tax is a way to pull in additional revenue from visitors. While there’s no natural connection between restaurant tourists and affordable housing, cities that are growing larger and wealthier are looking for ways to pull in more revenue from the people who are benefiting from their growth, Auxier says.

And obviously, raising taxes that primarily fall on visitors is smart politics, Auxier points out. While some will worry that growing tax burdens make a city less attractive relative to nearby places, Auxier says the meals tax in Alexandria would have a lot of room to grow before that becomes a real concern.

Bailey, who is facing reelection this year, says that he has campaigned on issues related to affordability, and now he’s just trying to follow through.

“With development in Alexandria continuing to grow, the need for subsidies to serve lower and moderate income households increases and we will be at a shortfall,” he wrote in an Alexandria Times op-ed in April. “Citizens and advocacy organizations alike have asked once again for a reliable, dedicated source of funding. That’s what I intend to do.”

The city currently asks developers for voluntary contributions to its housing trust fund in exchange for density bonuses. Bailey says that he is considering expanding that program. But the city’s affordable housing efforts need predictable funding, too, he says.

“This is not intended to punish the restaurants,” says Bailey. “I’m hoping they see it as trying to help their employees.”


A Chance to Make Nashville’s Transit Plan More Equitable

Nashville area voters rejected a plan for major transit expansion in the region, but some are hopeful it's a chance to make the plan more equitable. (Credit: AP)

On Thursday, Craig E. Philip was feeling “kind of depressed.”

It was just two days after Nashville voters had turned out in droves to reject a $5.4 billion transit plan that would have established new light rail systems and increased bus service throughout the fast-growing city. Turnout was high. And so was the two-to-one margin of defeat for proponents of the plan, who, maps showed, were clustered downtown, and surrounded by stiff opposition in the outlying neighborhoods.

In an op-ed for The Tennessean the week before the vote, Philip and four other Vanderbilt faculty the week before the vote expressed their confidence that the plan would reduce congestion and provide multiple convenient, affordable transportation options for everyone who needs them. “Expanding the system’s total capacity with light rail corridors will improve the quality of life for current and future residents who desire development that’s also pedestrian-oriented, not auto-centric,” they wrote.

By the time the polls opened, Philip, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Transportation Research, had expected the opposition to win. But not by that much.

“The rural parts of the county certainly were never expected to support it,” Philip says. But the coalition behind the plan had been the same that elected former Mayor Megan Barry, who, just months after unveiling the Let’s Move Nashville plan, resigned amid a scandal over taxpayer-funded personal trips and an extramarital affair.

The coalition had been anchored by progressive voters and strong support in African-American neighborhoods. “And that coalition was completely fractured by the time the [transit] vote was taken,” Philip said.

On Wednesday, The Tennessean ran a post-mortem analysis, outlining six reasons why the referendum had failed. It concluded that, along with poor timing, flawed messaging, and the loss of support in black communities, “There was perhaps no more devastating single event to the pro-transit campaign” than Barry’s scandal and resignation.

“Yes, there were some unfortunate political events that happened, but at the same time, this wasn’t about one mayor’s plan,” says Ron Yearwood, the president of Transit Now Nashville, a nonprofit that has been advocating for transit awareness and infrastructure investments for the last decade.

Like Philip, Yearwood cites both general opposition to all tax increases and specific opposition to a sales-tax increase that would fund the transit plan as some of the reasons why it lost. But he also says that the campaign, which was backed strongly by pro-business groups, somehow failed to connect with larger concerns about the city’s growth.

“There’s a huge population in Nashville that will never take transit, so it was complicated to address how any plan is beneficial to the masses, and not just the people who are riding it,” Yearwood says.

What’s more, a range of progressive advocates seemed to stay out of the campaign, or opposed it altogether, Yearwood says. That included some affordable housing advocates and a group called the People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing, and Employment, which wanted to secure community benefits agreements and anti-displacement guarantees as part of the plan — the Purple Line under construction in the D.C. suburbs, for example, includes a commitment to zero-net loss of affordable housing in areas along its route.

While Let’s Move Nashville advocates argued that transit-oriented development along the proposed light-rail corridors would help the cause of affordable housing, others said it would simply fuel gentrification.

Austin Sauerbrei says that he and other housing advocates aren’t opposed to expanding the transit system. An organizer who worked with both the People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing, and Employment, who also works with a coalition called Welcome Home Nashville that’s calling for a $775 million investment in affordable-housing construction, Sauerbrei says that investment needs to be coupled with policies that help residents deal with rising property values, and money to support new housing supply for low-income people.

“I don’t think there’s a doubt on anybody’s mind, except maybe folks on the rar right wing, that we need a strong transit system and we need better bus service,” Sauerbrei says. “Everyone’s totally in favor of that … But without those [policies] in place, the light rail would spell massive displacement for poor and working class people.”

Tamika Douglas, a member of both the People’s Alliance and a local bus riders’ union, says there were aspects of the plan that she supported, like increased bus service across the city. And she believes transit in Nashville needs a dedicated revenue stream. But the larger, long term investment in light rail wasn’t going to serve certain neighborhoods, she says. Plus, the proposed sales tax hike was regressive, the plan didn’t address housing problems, and despite the community engagement efforts of the broader nMotion transit plan, the campaign seemed to Douglas like a top-down affair. She says she’s “proud” that Nashvillians turned out to defeat the referendum. Still, if a wider coalition of advocates could get together and develop a transit plan that addresses a wider range of issues, she’d be glad to support it.

“I know a lot of people think that because it didn’t pass, it’s over,” Douglas says. “I don’t want to say that it’s over. I think that we can still use this momentum to discuss it, but come up with a plan that’s equitable. That was one of my main turn-offs about this thing. I felt that it was not equitable.”

Erin Hafkenschiel, director of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Sustainability, took Wednesday off after working on the transit referendum nonstop, under two mayors, for the four months leading up to its defeat. She shared a statement from Mayor David Briley, who took over for Barry in March, and said she didn’t have much to add.

“We all can agree that we have to do something about traffic and transportation, but voters didn’t get behind this plan,” Briley’s statement said. “My responsibility as Mayor is to get back to the drawing board and find the common ground to develop consensus on a new way forward. Our transportation problems are not going away; in fact, we know they’re only going to get more challenging as we continue to grow. I’ll get back to work tomorrow on finding a solution for Nashville that we all can agree on.”

Nothing is likely to get off the ground anytime soon. Nashville voters will elect a new mayor at the end of May to finish Barry’s term, and then another one the following year.


Philly Unveils a Plan to Deal with the Eviction Crisis

Philadelphia City Hall established a task force to draft a plan to deal with the eviction crisis. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

With the publication of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond virtually reframed the issue of evictions overnight, from one of the symptoms of urban poverty to one of its causes. In the two years since its publication, Desmond has started a nationwide Eviction Lab, and cities around the U.S. have begun experimenting with a range of solutions for making eviction less common — and less destructive.

Last year in Philadelphia, after hearing from tenants who struggled with unresponsive landlords, substandard housing, and keeping up with rent, the city council secured $500,000 for eviction prevention measures and additional legal aid for tenants. In September, Mayor Jim Kenney appointed a “Task Force on Eviction Prevention and Response,” filled with planning officials, researchers, lawyers, landlords, and tenant advocates, to study the issue. The group released a draft report, outlining 17 recommendations, this month.

“I think one of the reasons Matt Desmond has gotten so much attention is that he found the artery,” says Liz Hersh, director of the Office of Homeless Services and co-chair of the mayor’s task force. “He hit the mother lode with this. It turns out the real barometer with the affordability crisis is eviction.”

In Philadelphia, the number of evictions filed in municipal court has been on the rise since the 1970s, according to the task force’s report. Landlords filed for eviction 24,000 times in 2017, meaning one in every 14 renters in the city faced eviction at some point during the year. As the task force wrote in the introduction to its report, eviction “breaks up communities, hurts prospects for future employment and housing, and increases the need for homeless services.” It also disproportionately harms women of color who have children.

One aspect of the eviction crisis that’s gotten some attention over the last few years is the widespread imbalance of legal representation in eviction proceedings. Tenant organizers last year in New York City won a long-fought victory making the city the first to provide funding to guarantee an attorney for every tenant in housing court who can’t afford one. D.C. and Baltimore are considering doing the same.

In Philadelphia, according to the eviction task force report, tenants and landlords were both represented by attorneys in court in just seven percent of cases in 2016. In 74 percent of cases, landlords had lawyers while tenants did not. And that’s just the filed court cases; the task force estimates that illegal, out-of-court evictions are twice as common as legal ones.

Correcting that imbalance was one of the primary motivations behind the council’s allocation of funds for eviction measures last year.

“The real issue we have is about affordability,” says Council Member Helen Gym, who led the effort last year and had a seat on the mayor’s task force. “There is simply no match between what the market determines to be affordable and what too many of our residents are living with in terms of their earnings. So we are going to have figure something out bigger than the solutions that we currently have.”

The recommendations of the task force are split into four areas: outreach and education, resources and supports, housing standards and enforcement, and legal processes and policies. They include establishing a single portal for tenants to access eviction prevention services, creating a homelessness prevention program similar to Homebase in New York, stepping up enforcement of rental-license requirements and other code regulations, increasing legal aid for tenants, and working to expunge eviction filings and judgments after the fact.

The task force also recommends that city council pass “just cause” legislation, requiring landlords to provide a good reason for evicting tenants — it was the only recommendation that was not unanimous. A bill implementing that requirement was introduced last fall and approved in committee in February, but has yet to come up for a vote by the full council.

“I think there’s kind of an invisibility factor,” says Hersh, who was also director of an organization called Tenants’ Action Group in the 1990s. “When you hear on the news about the housing market, they’re not talking about the renter market. Renters really are viewed kind of as second-class citizens.”

Hersh says that, partly thanks to the work of the task force, the whole spectrum of stakeholders in the city, from tenants to landlords and enforcement agencies, have adopted “a very healthy respect for the magnitude and the complexity of the problem.” The task force has been collecting public comment on the report, with plans for an additional public meeting next week. It plans to deliver its final recommendations to the mayor in June.

Gym says that the city’s $500,000 investment and the work of the task force are steps in the right direction. But eviction is just one piece of a larger complex of housing problems, and the city will have a hard time addressing them on its own.

“We are going to have to figure out how we are going to tap into a bigger pool of resources and establish a commitment to housing as human right,” Gym says. “[Eviction] creates chaos and disruption in people’s lives. It creates enormous chaos in children’s lives. And we really need to keep focused on the fact that this is bigger than just a contract between two people. This is really about the health of the city and our residents.”


The Truth About Affordable Housing in Our Backyards

San Francisco passed an ordinance in 2014 to legalize accessory dwelling units, including backyard cottages and converted garages or basements. (Credit: San Francisco Planning Department)

Despite its place as the proverbial battleground between pro-development YIMBYs and anti-development NIMBYs, the literal backyard is, increasingly, common ground.

For many years, backyard cottages — also known as granny flats, mother-in-law suites or accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — were treated as nuisance uses, outlawed in urban and suburban zoning codes around the country. But as affordable housing becomes ever more scarce, cities are beginning to look at liberalizing rules for building ADUs, as a way of adding cheaper, more diffuse housing supply in tight markets.

San Francisco passed a local ordinance in 2014 that allowed owners to legalize one accessory unit per residential lot. The practice of converting garages or basements into rentable units was already common despite being illegal, the planning department acknowledged at the time. A few years later, the city created a neighborhood pilot program to legalize and streamline the construction of new ADUs — including backyard cottages as well as converted garages or basements. The program later became citywide, and was followed up with statewide laws aimed at achieving the same ends.

This year, San Francisco earned a National Planning Achievement Award for its efforts around ADUs. In the award announcement, the American Planning Association noted that ADUs in San Francisco generally cost less than $150,000 to construct, and typically rent for about a third of the rate of units in other types of new development.

Gina Simi, the communications manager for the San Francisco Planning Department, confirms via email that there are currently around 1,200 ADUs in the construction pipeline. Since they’re permitted in all residential zoning districts, the proposed ADUs are spread around the city and don’t seem to be clustering in any particular neighborhood, Simi says. According to the planning department, 685 permits have been submitted to legalize pre-existing ADUs so far, and 166 units have been legalized.

In order to become legal, accessory units have to meet all the standards of the Building Code, but not some zoning requirements that apply to other new residential construction, like standards related to parking, open space, and density.

There’s no specific or even approximate number of new ADUs that the city is hoping to create or bring into compliance, Simi says, but the city’s overall housing goal is 30,000 new units by 2020, with ADUs considered a helpful addition to achieving that goal.

The efforts overall have support from a range of interest groups, though some advocates say the city’s laws need to be tweaked in various ways. Todd David, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, says there is still a discrepancy between the state and local laws that makes it harder to develop accessory units in detached single-family homes than it is for attached single-family homes. David, whose group advocates for all types of new housing development, says that if ADU construction were “really by right,” the city could see 10,000 new accessory units over the next three years.

Meanwhile, says Jennifer Fieber, political campaign director for the San Francisco Tenants Union, some long-term tenants are being pushed out due to construction work to add units to existing multifamily buildings or bring old units into compliance. Construction work may end up adding units overall, but if it ends up displacing tenants because the work takes too long, it’s kind of a wash, she points out. During the permitting process, Fieber wants the city to review whether work may lead to the eviction of existing tenants.

“I think [ADUs] are a great idea, because they’re generally going to be smaller, they’re in unused spaces, and we’re running out of space to build new buildings,” Fieber says. “I totally support it, but they just need to be careful.”

Statewide, the number of applications for ADUs has spiked since the more permissive laws went into effect as well, as Next City has reported. And other metros are starting to look to California as a model.

In its “Fourth Regional Plan” for the New York City metro area, the Regional Plan Association recommended that municipalities revize zoning laws to incentivize the development of ADUs and the subdivision of single-family homes. If just 10 percent of single- and two-family homes in the region built an accessory unit, the plan estimates, the region would add 300,000 new homes to its supply.

“Building new housing is expensive,” says Moses Gates, director of community planning and design at the RPA. “There’s not a lot of land, construction is expensive, and if you’re going to build enough housing to meet our housing demand, it’s easier and less expensive to utilize the physical environment we already have and the buildings we already have as kind of a little bit of low-hanging fruit.”

For ADUs, Gates says, the real obstacle isn’t available land or financing but zoning rules. And cities in the New York region need to move faster to change their zoning codes to make ADUs easier to build. Gates noted that the city is pursuing a pilot program to encourage new ADUs in East New York, but says that pilot programs are ultimately too timid, and the city should adopt new policies that apply citywide. As it is, even at their maximum potential, ADUs can only address a small part of the housing shortage. Cities and states should be looking to get as much out of them as they can, Gates says.

“The biggest thing California is doing is taking a statewide approach,” Gates says. “What is going to solve the problem is scale, and you don’t reach scale by picking away at a few blocks here and a neighborhood there. The state has to step in with some real muscle to make a solution scalable.”


Dallas Unveils Plan to Meet Fair Housing Obligations

Dallas City Hall. (Photo by dcaloren via flickr)

Early next month, the Dallas city council is expected to vote on a new housing plan that aims to produce 20,000 homes for low- and moderate-income families over the next three years. The plan is intended not only to overcome a shortage of affordable housing in the city, but to chip away at patterns of racial and economic segregation that have developed in the city over the course of decades.

For Dallas, a new approach to housing has been a long time coming, officials say. In 2014, the city entered into a settlement agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development related to complaints that it had distributed federal housing money in ways that reinforced segregation, rather than working against it, as required by the Fair Housing Act. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a case brought against the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs by a Dallas nonprofit group, that policies which create disparate outcomes in housing violate the Fair Housing Act, even if they aren’t driven by intentional discrimination.

“The idea of the Fair Housing Act is to give people access to more upwardly mobile communities,” says Raquel Favela, chief of economic development and neighborhood services for the city. “And that’s exactly what this plan seeks to do.”

The city’s new plan, which was unveiled in March, is the work of a new cohort of housing officials brought on by city manager T.C. Broadnax last year, including Favela. It’s based on a deep dive into the city’s housing data called a Market Value Analysis, as Next City previously reported.

The proposal recommends different types of investments in three target areas identified using the Market Value Analysis: Stabilization Areas, where the housing market is gaining strength and there’s a risk of displacement; Redevelopment Areas, where projects with potential to transform a market are already underway; and Emerging Market Areas, where there is a very weak housing market and problems with public safety and code enforcement. It calls for a mix of public and private investment to help fund 20,000 new homes over the next three years, with slightly more than half of the homes reserved for homeownership and the rest for rental. New affordable housing production would be focused in areas with stronger markets, through zoning for increased density and loans to fill financing gaps.

Map showing the Dallas housing plan target areas layered with the Market Value Analysis areas. (Credit: City of Dallas Department of Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization)

The plan seeks to build on market strengths by helping residents access homes built for market-rate tenancy, rather than subsidizing developers to build low-income housing in low-income areas. In the “emerging market” areas, the city would focus on strengthening neighborhood groups and investing in infrastructure and code enforcement. The idea is to make stronger markets more accessible for low-income residents, rather than providing low-income housing only in the most distressed areas.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to build housing in areas where those things are a big concern,” Favela says of the emerging market areas. “It really isn’t a housing choice if people feel like that’s the only option they have.”

But that aspect of the plan doesn’t sit right with some groups that have been involved in providing affordable housing in Dallas for decades. After the plan was released, representatives of the city’s Community Housing Development Organizations (CHDOs, pronounced “chodos”) complained that they were being left behind by the plan—and so were the parts of the city that were struggling the most.

Annie Evans, executive director of SouthFair Community Development Corporation, a CHDO that works in South Dallas, says groups like hers have been working to provide housing in areas where private developers won’t build for years. The CHDOs are committed to improving the city’s most-distressed areas, Evans says. And she questions the housing plan’s emphasis on areas of market strength.

“Why would you wait 3-5 years to address these type of areas when the need is now?” Evans says. “The CHDOs, we’re working in these areas now.”

Together, the CHDOs were seeking an investment of $50 million to support their low-income housing development work, according to a report in The Dallas Morning News. (Representatives of other CHDOs did not respond to requests for an interview.)

But the CHDOs have been too slow to produce housing, and haven’t shown the financial or organizational capacity to complete projects on a reliable timeline, Favela says. Their opposition to the plan wasn’t a surprise to her.

“The practices that have been in place in Dallas have been in place a long time,” says Favela. “And the only change that’s welcomed is the change that we create, so by virtue of this not being a change that they were initiating, I expected that they would not embrace it.”

Besides, the whole point of the housing plan is to produce affordable housing in a more integrated way than the city has in the past. It’s more effective for the city to do that by serving low-income residents in neighborhoods with stronger markets than it is to try to build mixed-income housing in areas with weak markets, Favela says. Nothing in the plan prevents the city’s CHDOs from continuing to work in their selected areas, but providing incentives to target low-income housing in low-income neighborhoods is the very practice that runs afoul of federal policy, she says.

“The plan is about providing housing choice and mobility, which is at the crux of the Fair Housing Act,” Favela says. “This is about providing mobility for low-to-moderate income families.”

Favela says she plans to present the plan to a city council committee again on May 2, incorporating public comments that her office has gathered over the last few weeks. The council is expected to vote on the plan on May 9. So far, Favela says she’s met one-on-one with all but two city councilmembers to discuss the housing plan. She expects the majority will support it.

Some councilmembers, like Tennell Atkins, who represents the 8th District in South Dallas, have been expressed doubt about approving the plan, at least in its current form, according to news reports. (Atkins’ office did not respond to requests for an interview.) But other councilmembers are openly supportive of the new approach.

“Our housing department and our housing policy has just been such a disaster,” says Lee Kleinman, the 11th District councilman who describes himself as a “fiscal conservative” on Twitter. “I just don’t think that anybody wants to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”


Philadelphia City Council Seeking Sweet Spot for Equitable Development Policy

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Philadelphia City Council is set to consider a handful of bills aimed at improving residents’ access to affordable housing across the city. On Wednesday, members held a press conference at City Hall to announce the program, called Putting Philadelphians First: An Equitable Growth Plan for Our City.

Key components of the proposal include a 1-percent tax on construction costs and a set of new zoning bonuses to encourage developers to include affordable units in their housing projects. Proceeds of the tax — around $22 million a year, according to council estimates — would be directed to the city’s Housing Trust Fund, and set aside to help first-time homebuyers with down payments and closing costs. Density bonuses would be awarded to developers who set aside 10 percent of rental units for households earning up to 60 percent of Area Median Income, or 10 percent of for-sale units for buyers earning up to 80 percent of AMI.

Council President Darrell Clarke said the proposal represented the culmination of a series of conversations in city council about equitable development going back years. Those conversations came to a head over the last year, after City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez introduced legislation to create a mandatory inclusionary housing policy last June. That proposal was staunchly opposed by the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia (BIA), a developers’ group, and ultimately Sánchez agreed to pull it before it went up for a vote.

But on Wednesday, BIA Vice President Leo Addimando was standing with Quiñones-Sánchez and other council members to announce the plan. After the press conference, Addimando said that the zoning bonuses in the amended legislation would be a meaningful enticement for developers to build affordable units. The city’s zoning code currently has limited incentives for inclusionary housing, but they have almost never been used. According to a report in PlanPhilly, the new proposal will allow seven-foot height bonuses and additional units in some low-density multifamily residential and commercial zoning districts. Addimando said that the new incentives came out of conversations his group had had with Sánchez.

“That’s a real needle-mover in those zoning districts,” Addimando said of the proposed bonuses. “The ones that are in the code now are pretty useless, and that is why they’ve only been used once or twice. I think the bonuses here we still want to talk about a little bit, but her amendments have a lot of what we suggested in them with regards to height and density.”

Quiñones-Sánchez is expected to introduce legislation supporting the program today.

The new construction tax would split the city’s Housing Trust Fund, created in 2005, into two separate pots of money. The Construction Tax Sub-Fund would be used to provide loans of up to $10,000 to qualified homebuyers who earn up to 120 percent of Area Median Income. The loans would only be available to households that have lived in the city for at least three years and have not owned a home in the last three years. The loans would be forgiven after 15 years of ownership, but would come due if recipients sold before that time had passed.

A growing number of cities in Oregon have begun adopting small taxes on construction costs to bolster housing trust funds as well, although most of that revenue is being directed toward affordable housing production. In Philadelphia, officials recently raised the real estate transfer tax to generate $100 million for home-repair programs. Council President Clarke said on Wednesday that so far, that revenue had funded basic systems repair work in around 1,000 residential units.

For almost two decades, the city has offered a 10-year tax abatement on virtually all new construction — a program that developers say has been essential to reviving the residential construction market and drawing new residents to the city. But that program, which has always generated controversy, has recently come under additional scrutiny amid growing concerns about housing equity in Philadelphia and around the country. Council members were vague when asked about whether the Putting Philadelphians First program was being proposed in lieu of potential changes to the abatement, or whether changes might be in the works.

Addimando — who acknowledged the need for more affordable housing in the city during his remarks at the press conference — said that his group was more open to some of council’s proposals because of the questions surrounding the abatement.

“If you’re a developer and someone just said your costs went up by one percent, you’re not going to be happy about it,” he said. “But I think in the context of the impending abatement conversation, in the context of the [mandatory version] of the Sánchez bill, this is a fair outcome.”

Quiñones-Sánchez said she was hopeful that enough council members would support the proposal to get it passed by June, when the legislative session ends. Affordable housing advocacy groups have been talking about establishing a construction impact tax for years, she said, but it’s only become more realistic, politically, in the last few months.

“It’s always been on the table,” Sánchez said. “It was just creating a political space where people said, ‘We’ve got to do something,’ because as much as everybody talked about an impact fee, nobody was willing to introduce it.”


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Architect Mahmood Fallahian

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