Posts by Author: Jared Brey

New Mayor Wants to Preserve Homeownership as Displacement Looms

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Just over two months after being sworn in, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is taking steps to fulfill her campaign promise of investing $1 billion of public and private money in affordable housing and anti-displacement measures.

In a press conference last week, Bottoms announced a new $9 million initiative to offer forgivable loans to Atlanta homeowners to make critical upgrades to their houses. The initiative, called the Heritage Owner-Occupant Rehab Program, is meant to help current residents stay in their homes as the city’s property market changes. With loans capped at $30,000 for most households, the program will prioritize repairs targeting health and safety, energy efficiency, and deferred maintenance. It will also prioritize low-income senior, military veteran, and disabled heads of household, as well as residents who have owned their homes for 15 years or more.

“Building a city for everyone means ensuring that those who have roots in our communities can remain in their homes, remain in these communities, and also live with dignity,” Bottoms said at the press conference. “Through this effort we will keep long-term residents from being pushed out of their homes because of rising property taxes and an inability to maintain their homes.”

The initiative is broken into three programs, overseen by Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority.

A $5 million investment from the city, earmarked as part of a $40 million municipal bond approved by the city council last spring, will make loans of up to $30,000. It is available citywide to owners who have lived in their Atlanta homes for at least five years and households earn no more than 60 percent of area median income, or up to $41,820 for a family of four.

A $2 million program, focused on and funded mostly through a tax increment financing district covering historically disinvested areas on the western edge of downtown and beyond to the west, will make loans of up to $60,000 to homeowners earning up to 80 percent of area median income.

Another $2 million program, funded by a federal Choice Neighborhoods grant as well as City of Atlanta and Atlanta Housing Authority funds, will make loans of up $60,000 for homeowners earning up to 80 percent of area median income in the Ashview Heights and Atlanta University Center neighborhoods.

“The mayor has made it very clear to us that she wants us to fight displacement and provide affordable housing options,” says Eloisa Klementich, the president and CEO of Invest Atlanta. “We feel that one of the ways to fight displacement is to allow people to stay in their homes, which becomes very difficult if your roof is leaking or you have lead paint in your house.”

The loan programs will be administered by a handful of independent organizations, including Synergy Real Estate, House Proud, National Property Institute, Executive Realty Solutions, and Meals on Wheels. They were selected through a competitive process, which according to Klementich, involved considering respondents’ existing relationships with contractors who can perform rehab work, including minority and women contractors.

The application period for loans will open for one month, beginning April 4. Once applicants are approved, program managers will perform an inspection of the house, identify all the work that needs to be done, and prioritize the work based on what the greatest need is and the budget that’s available, says Anita Allgood, a mortgage loan specialist at Invest Atlanta. The program managers will then ask contractors to bid on the work.

Loans will be forgiven after ten years, with ten percent of the loan being forgiven each year. If a homeowner sells the house or moves during that time, the remainder of the loan will come due. The city is also offering to help homeowners sort out tangled title issues, in cases where they’ve inherited the house from a relative who has died or other issues where the owner’s name is not on the title.

“We really cannot come into someone’s home and make repairs if it is not that person’s home,” Allgood says.

Other cities have begun to experiment with forgivable home-repair loan programs as well. In Philadelphia, officials set aside $40 million of an expected $100 million bond issue for repair loans to certain low- and middle-income homeowners. Other low-interest and forgivable rehabilitation loans have been made available in parts of Minnesota and Illinois.

“We are clearly in the early days of addressing the housing need in Atlanta,” says George Burgan, senior director for communications and technology at Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, Inc., a nonprofit group that has developed affordable housing and rehabbed vacant homes in the city. “Folks have been working on housing for decades, but once again the need has spiked, and it will spike if we don’t address it.”

In September, Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership released a study showing that for every dollar spent rehabbing homes in Dekalb County, which includes a portion of Atlanta, neighboring home values were lifted by $16. Burgan says that conversations about gentrification in the city were paused during the foreclosure crisis that began a decade ago, but they’ve become urgent again as the city has rebounded.

Even with a multimillion-dollar investment, the home-repair loan programs can only reach so many people. Assuming all three programs loan the max amount to each approved applicant, the effort would fund repairs for just 233 homes. But officials are hopeful that by focusing on affordability from every angle, they can prevent their most deeply rooted residents from being pushed out.

“We think this is the start,” Burgan says.

 

Utah Lawmakers Want to Address Affordable Housing. How Far Will They Get?

As of the end of 2017, Salt Lake City was facing a shortage of nearly 7,500 housing units for people earning $20,000 or less, according to the city's Housing and Neighborhood Development agency. (Photo: Garrett)

Last summer, conditions in the Rio Grande neighborhood near downtown Salt Lake City had deteriorated so much in the eyes of officials that they felt they had to go on the offensive. Homelessness and drug addiction were rampant. A string of violent incidents raised fears about safety in the area. The Utah Speaker of the House commented that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to consider calling in the National Guard.

And while it stopped short of calling in federal troops, the state’s response still had the air of a military campaign. In August, officials launched a police surge aimed at arresting the worst repeat criminal offenders in the area, the first phase of what they were calling Operation Rio Grande. In the second and third phases of the operation, officials said, they’d get people into drug and alcohol recovery and, eventually, find them jobs.

Months later, even after criticism of the approach and reports that the Rio Grande homeless community had begun illegally camping in adjacent neighborhoods, officials claimed that the strategy was starting to work. Violence was down, the number of recovery beds was up, and a handful of people had found employment through the state’s “Dignity of Work” efforts. The whole operation was expected to last two years and cost $67 million.

Some officials, while acknowledging a need for targeted action in Rio Grande, say the operation illustrates the need to address the broader issue of housing affordability.

“When we get these people into [shelters], and they work to deal with their mental illness issues and their drug issues, and then they get out,” says Representative Joel Briscoe, a Salt Lake City delegate to the Utah House of Representatives, “where do they go?”

This week, the Utah legislature is considering a series of proposals aimed at addressing the housing affordability issue. Two bills from Republican members of the Utah House of Representatives would establish a statewide Commission on Housing Affordability and require cities to create and publicize plans to meet moderate-income housing development goals. A third, sponsored by Briscoe, a Democrat, would dedicate $100 million in bond proceeds to affordable housing construction. The bond measure made it through a key House committee last week, but as of press time, sources said the fate of the proposal—whether it would pass in both the state House and Senate, and at what size—was uncertain. (Update: Utah’s legislative session ended at midnight Thursday. News reports suggest the housing bond measure did not pass. We will update this story when more information is available.)

Still, housing advocates say the legislature’s efforts are an encouraging sign that the state is beginning to bring more urgency to affordability issues in Utah cities, where housing for extremely low-income renters is particularly tight. According to data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the state has a shortage of 47,000 housing units that would be affordable for families earning up to 30 percent of Area Median Income. Only 31 affordable units are available for every 100 extremely low-income families, according to the group.

“I see there’s a much better understanding than in years past,” says Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition. “The whole homelessness piece and the opioid crisis has really blended to have the conversation open up in a broader way.”

The population is growing, too. Rep. Briscoe cited a recent report showing the state’s population growing even without counting in-migrants. And Rollins noted that the governor’s recently announced plan to create 25,000 jobs in rural Utah has been met with some questions about where those workers would live.

“I think that has opened up a conversation in the rural areas, for rural legislators …” Rollins says. “People are starting to put a face on that 47,000. It’s not people that aren’t willing to work. These are service workers. We depend on tourism.”

For Rollins and Briscoe, the bond issue, which would put money into a housing trust fund for the development of affordable units, is the most critical piece of the puzzle. But Briscoe says that it’s been a tough sell in the House, because the state has a big budget surplus this year and it’s been tough to convince other legislators that bonding for anything is a good idea. He doesn’t expect his colleagues to pass a general-fund allocation at that scale either.

“We would take cash, but I don’t think they’re gonna drop $100 million cash on it,” Briscoe says.

Another bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Steve Eliason, would have generated money for new homeless shelters by imposing a fee on cities that had less than the state average of affordable housing. Late in the week, the bill was altered in the Senate, removing the fee and simply allocating money for homeless shelters in the general fund. Eliason did not respond to requests for an interview.

But whatever ends up happening with the bond, Rollins says that the measures to create a statewide housing commission and compel cities to make housing plans will codify the focus on affordability and help smooth the way for more solutions down the line. Rollins says the Utah Housing Coalition has been pushing to have the commission formalized for a long time. And she thinks that the state governor’s office needs to dedicate more attention specifically to housing. Currently, the state’s work on housing falls under the Department of Workforce Services, which Rollins says responds to certain housing issues, but doesn’t put forward a vision for how to improve the state’s housing situation.

“It needs to be looked at in a different way,” Rollins says. “That to me is the next step. The political will could have been here a long time ago if we had somebody who was talking about housing. We need to have housing at the table of the governor, and that’s not what’s happening. We have talented staff, but we need leadership.”

 

New Nashville Coalition Fights for Affordable Housing

Nashville's first female mayor Megan Barry is sworn in in this Sept. 25, 2015 file photo. Since taking office, Barry has promised $25 million in bond proceeds and committed an additional $10 million a year to The Barnes Fund, the city’s housing trust fund, which makes grants to nonprofit affordable housing developers. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

According to official estimates, the booming city of Nashville will need to create or preserve 31,000 units of affordable rental housing in the next seven years if its current residents are going to continue to be able to live there. And a new coalition of housing advocates, unions, business groups, and political organizations say the city isn’t moving fast enough.

Earlier this week, around three dozen groups announced that they were joining forces to draw more focused attention to the city’s housing needs, and to push for a handful of specific solutions. The new Welcome Home coalition will focus on four primary goals: dramatically increasing the city’s dedicated funding for affordable housing construction and preservation, establishing a citywide community land trust, creating a municipal land bank, and getting the city to issue a quarterly scorecard tallying the number of affordable units lost, gained, and saved. Organizers say the campaign is an effort to hold the administration of Mayor Megan Barry accountable to commitments she made as a candidate and since taking office.

“We’ve been getting promise after promise from the city, and we’ve received very little results in terms of actually moving the needle on affordable housing,” says Austin Sauerbrei, an organizer with the tenant advocacy group Homes For All who is helping to coordinate the campaign. “So let’s get as many groups in the room as we can that have been pushing in the same direction … Let’s get a policy platform together and push for some very specific policies.”

The coalition, which began forming about five months ago, has drawn a fairly broad array of interest groups into the fold, including churches and faith-based nonprofits, unions and labor organizations, and even one for-profit business.

“This is something that, if you live in Nashville, it’s just a part of our daily lives,” says Katharine Heriges, president of the Davidson County Young Democrats, which has joined the Welcome Home campaign. “We talk about it all the time.”

Nashville’s explosive growth and resulting shortage of affordable housing is well documented. According to some news reports, the average monthly rent increased by more than 50 percent between 2011 and 2016—from $897 to $1,372—while average income only increased by 8 percent. Around a quarter of homeowners and almost half of the city’s renters are cost-burdened, according to a housing report from the Mayor’s Office. Property values and land costs are spiking, and a widely cited figure puts the Nashville metro area’s growth at around 100 people per day.

The city has sought to address the housing shortage in various ways. Since taking office, Barry has promised $25 million in bond proceeds and committed an additional $10 million a year to The Barnes Fund, the city’s housing trust fund, which makes grants to nonprofit affordable housing developers. The administration announced last year that it would, in fact, pursue a community land trust, which would be able to hold land indefinitely and maintain affordable housing or other community uses. It also enacted a modest inclusionary zoning program meant to incentivize developers to build affordable units alongside market-rate housing.

But recent reports indicate that neither the inclusionary zoning policy nor a companion fund meant to encourage private developers to build workforce housing has produced a single unit of new affordable housing since last June, when the policies went into effect. The inclusionary zoning policy has faced legal challenges as well. The Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank based in Nashville, sued the city over its inclusionary zoning program, arguing that it is in fact a mandatory rather than voluntary policy, and therefore violates state law. Braden Boucek, a lawyer for the Beacon Center, says the litigation is still pending.

Boucek adds that his group believes inclusionary zoning just marginally drives up the cost of housing for everyone without providing enough new units to make a difference. The Beacon Center thinks the private sector could solve affordable housing shortages across the country if cities would just adopt more permissive land-use codes.

“When you talk about something like affordable housing, to make any kind of a meaningful impact, you have to affect supply and demand,” Boucek says.

The Welcome Home coalition, on the other hand, says the city needs to step up its efforts and put real resources into construction. The coalition is calling for the city council to pass a funding resolution dedicating at least $775 million in general obligation bond proceeds to affordable and low-income housing construction. That amount is about 15 percent of the $5.2 billion that the administration is hoping to dedicate to a transit plan that will go before voters in May. Sauerbrei says the money would be used to provide a line of credit to affordable housing developers for land acquisition, construction, and rehab of existing low-income housing. The municipal land bank, a tool that cities began adopting in the earlier part of the decade, would help the city direct the land it already owns toward uses that serve affordability goals. And a quarterly scorecard would lock in a measure of accountability for progress toward those goals.

Heriges, of the Young Democrats, says her group has a responsibility not only to the national party, which has not necessarily made urban housing issues a priority, but also to young people in Nashville. Many people coming out of college can’t afford to live in the city anymore without support from their families, and many don’t come from families that can offer that kind of support. Groups like hers can help build pressure behind these types of issues, she says.

“I don’t think that partisan organizations should take the lead,” Heriges says. “I think they should be a part of the conversation, and I think they should listen to the experts and lend a helping hand.”

The Tennessee Latin American Chamber of Commerce has also signed onto the campaign. Marcela Gomez, president and chairwoman of the board, says that even with the vast growth the city is experiencing, there are a lot of job openings in fields like construction and landscaping that employ people in immigrant communities. And those jobs stay open because immigrants can’t afford to live in the city, she says.

“I’m all for progress and I’m all for growth, but you have to consider all the aspects,” says Gomez. “You have to consider the people who make the city work.”

For Kennetha Patterson, an organizer who works with Sauerbrei at Homes For All, the issue is personal. Patterson says she was forced out of the apartment she’d been living in with her family after the building was sold to out-of-town developers. She says she got hooked up with Homes for All at a city council hearing when she showed up to talk about her experience of being unable to continue living in the city where she grew up. She hopes that a growing coalition focused on affordable housing can prevent more people from having to leave.

“While I was going through what I went through, there wasn’t a voice,” Patterson says. “There wasn’t any unity.”

 

To Fund Affordable Housing, Oregon Cities Turn to Construction Excise Tax

Since 2016, at least eight Oregon cities have adopted construction excise taxes to fund affordable housing.

Housing is so tight in the city of Medford, Oregon, that the municipal government sometimes has trouble recruiting employees.

Residential vacancy is low, says Matt Brinkley, planning director for the city of 80,000, which is nestled along Interstate 5 about halfway between Portland and Sacramento. Local construction industry reports put the rate somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, he says. There’s just not that much room for people to live, let alone at rates that civil servants can afford.

So last week, Medford did what a growing number of Oregon cities have been doing over the last two years: It adopted an excise tax on new construction to help fund new affordable housing. In Medford, the tax will be equal to one third of 1 percent of building permit fees on major residential, commercial, and industrial development projects. Brinkley says the city estimates it could generate around $500,000 a year to be reinvested in affordable housing.

In 2016, the Oregon state legislature passed a series of bills aimed at chipping away at the affordable housing crunch that has engulfed much of the west coast. At the time, the biggest headline item was a provision that lifted a state ban on inclusionary zoning, which cities use to mandate or incentivize the inclusion of affordable units in new housing construction. But in the same law, the state also lifted a ban on construction excise taxes (CETs) that had been in place since 2007. Since then, CETs have been adopted in at least eight cities and are under consideration in a number of other municipalities.

The excise tax in Medford is modeled after one that Bend has been using for the last dozen years. (Because it was adopted before the state ban, the Bend tax was grandfathered in.) Lynne McConnell, the affordable housing manager for Bend, says that the tax has generated around $7 million since it was adopted. That money is then reinvested in nonprofit and for-profit affordable housing development through a competitive RFP process. The excise tax has leveraged nearly $80 million in additional funding since its adoption, and helped create 770 units of new affordable housing, according to McConnell. It’s also helped the city, which is growing about as fast as any in the United States, keep building during economic downturns. During the recession, McConnell says, the city’s affordable housing fund, which operates on the proceeds from the excise tax, was among the biggest construction lenders in the area.

“It’s all about how to bring in small developers, mom-and-pop type shops, who aren’t building a ton of units every year but are increasing the supply overall,” McConnell says. “If we can help them pull just a couple of units into the affordable realm, that’s a win-win for everybody.”

Portland was among the first cities to pass both a construction excise tax and a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy after the state legislature lifted the ban. There, the tax is 1 percent of building permit valuations, the highest amount allowed by state law. It applies only to projects valued at more than $100,000. It’s used to pay for affordable housing for families earning less than 60 percent of the median income and incentives for the city’s inclusionary zoning policy.

One-percent taxes were also adopted in Hood River City, Cannon Beach, and Corvallis. Eugene, the third-biggest city in Oregon, is considering adopting a tax as well.

“This is absolutely a statewide problem and local jurisdictions are looking for tools to solve that problem,” says Alison McIntosh, deputy director for policy and communications at Neighborhood Partnerships, a nonprofit that coordinates the 80-member Oregon Housing Alliance.

The Oregon Housing Alliance has advocated for both construction excise taxes and inclusionary zoning, among a range of other affordable housing policies. McIntosh says that at the moment, the CET is one of the only tools that Oregon cities have to generate dedicated funds to support affordable housing construction. (They could also consider selling bonds or allocating general funds to the cause, she noted.) But the Alliance doesn’t have any prescriptive solutions for cities that are considering adopting excise taxes, preferring instead to let local communities negotiate the policy.

Lynne McConnell, of Bend, says that other cities shouldn’t necessarily copy what someone else has done either. The political debate is bound to be different in a city like Portland than smaller cities in more rural parts of the state.

“Frankly, to be strong, it has to be a compromise solution that a lot of different people buy into, and that’s why ours has stayed in play for as long as it has,” McConnell says.

Matt Brinkley says that in Medford, a one-percent tax might have raised between $1 million and $2 million a year. But a tax at that rate couldn’t gain the necessary political support to pass. And inclusionary zoning doesn’t seem to be feasible there either, he says. But $500,000 a year is a start, and Brinkley says the city is open to the funds being used for anything that helps create more available housing at more affordable rates. It plans to put out an annual call to developers, who will then pitch the city on what they plan to do with the funds, from investing in infrastructure to offsetting Systems Development Charges, fees developers pay in Oregon to cover homes’ impact on sewer systems, parks infrastructure and more. Brinkley says he’d also like to create a program that encourages homeowners to develop accessory dwelling units, to increase the supply of low-cost housing.

“We want to implement this program as flexibly as possible,” Brinkley says.

 

Las Vegas Isn’t Clearing its Homeless Encampment—It’s Making it Permanent

(Lasvegaslover/Wikimedia Commons)

The slow-burning affordable housing crisis in American cities has been punctuated over the last few years by headlines describing raids on encampments set up by people with nowhere else to live.

Just this week, officials in Orange County, California, announced a plan to clear out a homeless encampment on the Santa Ana river and provide temporary housing in motels for up to 400 people. Last month, Baltimore said it would clear an encampment under an interstate overpass downtown and provide temporary dormitory housing for its residents. Philadelphia officials began cleaning up a notorious railroad encampment used by people experiencing opioid addiction last summer. San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure authorizing the city to clear sidewalk tents in 2016. After clearing a highway underpass camp, Seattle officials actually installed bike racks on the site to keep people from coming back. The list goes on.

In Las Vegas, the city is testing out a different approach. In recent years, people experiencing homelessness have been camping along a stretch of Foremaster Lane, just north of downtown Las Vegas, in the vicinity of a Salvation Army and a Catholic Charities, according to Kathi Thomas-Gibson, the city’s manager of community resources. Rather than breaking up the congregation, Las Vegas has bought up some of the land and is seeking to make it permanent.

As part of a broader strategy to address its growing homelessness problem, the city is building an open-air courtyard where homeless people can legally camp. The courtyard would include bathrooms, structures for shade, storage, and sleeping mats, according to reports. Some social services are already operating in the area, but the city plans to bring even more, from essentials like showers to housing, employment, and mental health services.

“It is a service center,” Thomas-Gibson says. “One of the services might be that you need someplace to be overnight, but the intention is that homeless individuals get connected to the services that can help break the barriers to ending their homelessness.”

Las Vegas has the eighth largest homeless population in the U.S., based on the annual point-in-time survey from last January. It is the smallest city in the top ten for homelessness nationwide, according to a report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. And, according to another Review-Journal report, the number of homeless people living outside of shelters is at a four-year high.

Las Vegas officials were inspired to create a “Corridor of Hope” along Foremaster Lane by a similar facility in San Antonio. There, a retired oil executive helped establish the “Haven for Hope,” a place for homeless San Antonians to sleep—either in an open-air courtyard, or, for those who make certain commitments to stay drug and alcohol free, in a dormitory. The facility, which has been operational since 2010, covers 23 acres and includes medical, dental, and mental health services.

Las Vegas officials took a trip to the Haven for Hope in San Antonio early last year. By May, the city council had approved the concept for the Corridor of Hope and allocated $5.9 million for construction. The city has acquired land, and is now in the process of demolishing some of the buildings that were standing there, according to Thomas-Gibson. It plans to have 24-hour services adjacent to the courtyard up and running by May of this year, Thomas-Gibson says. A second phase, starting this summer, will result in a permanent mental health clinic, she says.

(Courtesy City of Las Vegas)

The land the city was well-placed for the city to acquire, Thomas-Gibson says, because with some traditional homeless shelters already operating nearby, commercial and retail operators weren’t likely to locate there. Initially there was some skepticism from nearby businesses and social service operators, and on city council. But Thomas-Gibson says the neighbors have been included in the planning.

“We have a homeless advisory council that is made up of people who own and operate entities in this area,” she says. “We’re talking about the homeless that are there in the urban core and being strategic in how we leverage existing resources and bring additional resources to really impact what happens there. And all of those businesses and all of those social service agencies that are already there are part of this conversation.

Deacon Tom Roberts, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, which occupies an eight-acre campus on Las Vegas Boulevard near the planned courtyard, says that many of the people served by Catholic Charities and other service organizations in the area identify mental health and addiction issues as reasons why they’re homeless. The organization can offer shelter, food, and in some cases help finding work, but there are some needed services it doesn’t provide.

“We have ways to get people that have come to us that are really struggling back to some level of independence but we don’t have is mental and behavioral health services,” Roberts says.

Roberts and other service providers have been advocating for the city’s plan. Roberts says he knows that one facility in Las Vegas can’t resolve homelessness throughout Southern Nevada, but believes that the project could become a prototype that can be replicated in other areas. The key is that the courtyard has to be more than a “human bullpen,” where people experiencing homelessness are funneled into one place and then left to fend for themselves, he says. So the city needs to “follow through” on the other aspects of the plan.

“To me it’s pretty simple,” Roberts says. “You solve for the missing link. The missing link is mental health services.

In addition to the courtyard and the corridor, the city is trying to address homelessness from a variety of angles, Thomas-Gibson says. That includes more “housing first” solutions, like rapid re-housing, where the city helps pay rent or utilities for newly homeless families or individuals whose housing could be stabilized with a small amount of assistance. Las Vegas is also looking into creating a landlord liaison role, which it hopes would help sort out issues and encourage landlords to take on tenants they might otherwise consider a risk.

The city is working “feverishly” to address its affordable housing shortage, Thomas-Gibson says. The shortage is among the worst in the nation, according to one report. And the city is trying to get other jurisdictions in southern Nevada to invest in affordable housing as well.

The courtyard is meant to address the homelessness problem that’s specific to downtown Las Vegas, but Thomas-Gibson says the broader strategy is regional.

“The long game is to be sure that there is actually housing available for low-income individuals to rent,” she says.

 

L.A. Community Gets $35 Million to Tackle Environmental Challenges—and Much More

Jamila Williams, 3, wears a fairy tale costume as she runs down a walkway at Jordan Downs housing project in the Watts section of Los Angeles, in this 2009 file photo. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The city of Watts in Los Angeles County is one of three communities in California to share in $140 million in grants aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions while chipping away at a host of urban ills, from public health disparities and housing shortages to pollution and displacement.

The grants, announced late last month, are the first to be released as part of the state’s Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program. The TCC program is designed to serve three overarching goals in disadvantaged communities—reducing emissions, strengthening economies, and improving public health. And it’s funded with the proceeds of California’s cap and trade system, enacted in 2013 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide. In addition to Watts, which will receive $35 million to plant trees, create new affordable housing, and improve transportation infrastructure, $70 million was awarded to Fresno, and another $35 million to Ontario, a small city east of Los Angeles.

Randall Winston, executive director of the Strategic Growth Council, which was created in 2008 to coordinate all of California’s work on environmental planning, transportation, and economic development, says that the TCC grants are meant to help disadvantaged communities design their own solutions to urban and environmental problems. The Strategic Growth Council used a tool called CalEnviroScreen, which ranks California communities based on their relative burdens from pollution and other health and social indicators, to weigh applications. Even before the TCC grants were officially announced last month, the SGC had decided that half the money would go to Fresno, which includes all of the ten most disadvantaged census tracts in the state, measured by CalEnviroScreen. Another quarter of the money was set aside for L.A., which has the highest number of disadvantaged census tracts in the state.

“This program out of the gate sought to target the most polluted and poorest parts of the state,” Winston says.

The application from Watts rose to the top for a number of reasons, Winston says. The city, which is 72 percent Hispanic/Latino and 26 percent African-American, has lower levels of educational attainment, half the median income, and a greater portion of rent-burdened residents than the state as a whole, according to data gathered by Watts Rising Collaborative, the group that submitted the application. And the history of Watts—six days of riots in the 1960s were followed by a state commission report that identified many of the causes of disparities in the area but was largely ignored—provided a “powerful” backdrop to its application as well, Winston says.

But mostly it was the plan itself, and the team that put it together.

The Watts Rising Collaborative includes more than a dozen partner agencies, led by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. According to the collaborative’s organizational chart, responsibility for preparing the application fell to the housing authority and the City of Los Angeles, but top-level guidance on the plan was the purview of a community leadership council, which include neighborhood representatives. Applicants for TCC grants were required to sign contractual agreements spelling out how community engagement would be included in both the planning and implementation of the proposals, Winston says.

“To me that’s so important, because it speaks to how you can keep residents engaged,” Winston says. “These are long-term investments. It’s not the case that we’re looking to award $35 million and walk away. We’re looking to see the human infrastructure in place to sustain resident involvement and input. Watts has built up an infrastructure that is kind of like no other.”

The work that’s planned in Watts is focused around the Jordan Downs public housing project, which opened in the 1950s. According to the Watts Rising application, it will involve the construction of 216 new affordable housing units, 300 new solar roofs, 150 new energy-efficient homes, 118,000 square feet of retail, five miles of bike lanes, 30 blocks of pedestrian improvements, and 5,000 new trees. Plans also included new electric buses and an electric car-share program for the public housing development. In addition to the many community goals it will serve, it’s expected to offset around 70,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Jenny Scanlin, director of development services for the housing authority, says the collaborative set its goals first, and then used garage-sale stickers to price out various individual projects, to make decisions about priorities. It began by culling through the potpourri of planning and redevelopment documents that the neighborhood has worked on over the years. A lot of projects and initiatives were already in “various stages of germination and funding,” Scanlin says. And while Watts has a strong network of community groups formed to address various problems, such as the Watts Gang Task Force, Scanlin says that a new degree of participation was needed to compete for the grants.

“There was not necessarily a collaboration of folks working solely around environmental issues, or the confluence of economic, environmental, and public health issues, so we really had to create something new to be fully responsive to the call of TCC, or the intention of the program,” Scanlin says.

Importantly, the project will also be guided by a policy of non-displacement. The work that will be done in Watts is done to improve quality of life for the community that’s already there. Scanlin says that the housing authority, like others around the country, “learned some very important lessons” from the HOPE VI urban renewal program that began in the 1990s. Through that program, housing authorities “temporarily” displaced many public housing residents only to see many of them unable to return to rebuilt projects. Policies adopted by the Watts Rising Collaborative assert that no residents will be displaced, and that new units will be mostly targeted to extremely-low-income and very-low-income families.

“It’s about recognizing the importance of keeping this fabric of the community together and recognizing how tied our families are to Watts and the communities they live in, and not wanting to disturb those ties,” Scanlin says.

Winston says that a lot of the applications for TCC grants included non-displacement policies. And while the Strategic Growth Council can’t force local governments to adopt those policies, it is thinking through ways to incorporate non-displacement in future grants. The group will be updating its guidelines this spring and hopes to be able to solicit more grant applications late this year.

The program has already encouraged communities to think about ways to integrate investments in housing, transportation, infrastructure, and greening—areas that have traditionally been siloed, Winston says, with local recipients pursuing grants in piecemeal fashion. The TCC program is meant to bring those efforts together.

“We really do think this program is geared to change the way we think about our community investments,” Winston says.

 

Can Safe Injection Sites Overcome Legal Questions — and Skeptical Neighbors?

Marianne Jauncey, medical director at a supervised opioid injection center in Sydney, Australia, lays out syringes and other equipment in this April 12, 2016 file photo. Supervised injection sites — places where people struggling with addiction can safely inject intravenous drugs — are growing in number outside the United States, but so far, none have opened in the U.S. (Photo: Rick Rycroft/AP)

Philadelphia may be among the first cities in the United States to welcome a supervised injection site for people struggling with opioid addiction.

In a press conference last week, officials announced that the city would encourage private operators to open a site in the city, where an estimated 1,200 people died of opioid overdoses last year. The announcement was a follow-up to a report from Mayor Jim Kenney’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic in Philadelphia, released in May, which included a recommendation to explore one or more safe injection facilities, places where trained staff provide a clean and safe environment to use opioids and where staff could intervene in the case of an overdose. In November, the city sent a delegation to look into the issue in Vancouver, which has hosted a safe injection site since 2003, and Seattle, where the city council recently appropriated $1.3 million to establish one or more of their own. In a report released last alongside the announcement, officials estimated that a similar site in Philadelphia could save between 25 and 75 lives a year.

But the announcement was the easy part. The hard part will be figuring out where to put it.

In many Philadelphia neighborhoods, development of any kind generates backlash, and when it comes to social services, opposition can be especially strong. For years, the city council has grappled with how to manage methadone clinics, which treat opioid users who are in recovery. In 2013, the council approved a bill sponsored by two of its members requiring new medical offices to get zoning variances in the sponsors’ districts. Though explicitly outlawing methadone clinics is illegal, the bill was widely seen as a roundabout effort to give neighbors veto power over them. And if methadone clinics are controversial, the city can expect even greater local concerns about safe injection sites.

“While we don’t have a site in mind, it would have to be a site where people who are using are already in proximity,” says Eva Gladstein, the city’s deputy managing director for Health and Human Services. “And then we would want to have pretty extensive wraparound services. So the ability to co-locate other supports next door or nearby would be important to us.” Co-located supports could include things like addiction treatment and mental health services, housing counseling, and crisis intervention.

Opioid abuse is widespread in Philadelphia. But when it comes to siting a safe injection facility, all eyes are on Kensington, the North Philly neighborhood where users have congregated for decades along a stretch of railroad track owned by Conrail. The city and Conrail began clearing the site over the summer, but in the months since, homeless drug users have occupied vacant lots and other makeshift encampments in the neighborhood. The city’s announcement that it would support establishing a safe injection site has already faced some criticism in the neighborhood.

City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents parts of Kensington, has been among the more progressive elected officials when it comes to managing social service facilities like methadone clinics in her district. But after the press conference last week, Sánchez released a statement criticizing the city for its “rush to make headlines” in the absence of a comprehensive plan for addressing opioid abuse in her district, and saying that siting a safe injection facility in Kensington would “further entrench the crisis” there.

“As you know, I’m not the NIMBY councilperson,” Sánchez says. “I’ve sited some of the most controversial things. I just think on this particular one, this has been a very top-down conversation.”

Sánchez worries that the city is avoiding responsibility for anything that might go wrong at a safe injection site by inviting private operators to make proposals. She wishes that the delegation that traveled to Vancouver and Seattle would have included representatives of some of the social service organizations that work on the ground in her district. She says the city hasn’t proven that it can handle the illegal encampments in her district as is. And she wonders how that might be different if her district were predominantly white: “In no other part of the city would these conditions be tolerated for a single day,” she said in her statement.

“If the people don’t trust that you’re taking care of them right now, they’re not going to be open to a safe injection site …” Sánchez says. “If [the administration] wants me to champion it, and get people to buy into it, I can’t do that when we can’t take care of people.”

Gladstein says the city is trying to emphasize that a safe injection site is just one strategy for reducing fatalities related to opioid use, and that it is also working on increasing housing resources for people in addiction and filling some of the vacant inpatient treatment beds it currently has. It’s also looking at programs that would employ people to help clean up around whatever site may eventually be selected. And the city hasn’t begun to do the community outreach it intends to do once an operator proposes a site.

“We’re committed to a robust civic engagement process,” Gladstein says. “I think at the point when we have one or more potential operators we would work with local elected officials and area residents to determine whether or not a site is appropriate.”

Gladstein also noted that a report commissioned by the city concluded that safe injection sites in other cities not only reduce overdose deaths and provide a place for users to find treatment options, but also “reduce outside drug use and disorder and litter and things like that.”

“I think part of this would be literally showing people what it would look like and talking about what measures would be available to control crowds or whatever other concerns or fears people might have,” Gladstein says.

Seattle got close to picking a site for a safe injection facility around the time the Philadelphia delegation visited in November, Gladstein says, but the plan later fell through. The city is currently working on a feasibility study for siting a safe injection site there, at the request of the Seattle city council. Meg Olberding, the director of external affairs at the Seattle Human Services Department, says the administration hopes to have the study finished by the end of February. Other cities, like San Francisco, Denver and Ithaca, New York, have discussed opening safe injection facilities as well, but none has gotten as far as selecting a site.

Many details are left to be worked out in Philadelphia as well. They include questions about the legality of safe injection sites; the state attorney has suggested the city may need to seek changes in state law, and the city council president has said he’s going to look closely at the legal issues as well. Gladstein says it will be “6 to 18 months” before the city has any potential sites in mind. And after that, it plans to meet with council members and community groups to talk through their concerns before moving ahead. Sánchez is hoping to taken an even wider view: She has called for hearings on the city’s approach to addressing and preventing opioid addiction.

“I would really hope that Mayor Kenney would not try to impose something like this in an area without addressing all the very legitimate concerns around treatment and the quality of life for folks there,” Sánchez says. “You just cannot do it.”

 

Documentary Project Will Literally Shed Light on the South Bronx

Ed Alvarez of the Bronx Photo League photographed this meeting at the Bronx Christian Charismatic Church for the Claremont Illuminated project. (Photo: Ed Alvarez courtesy Bronx Photo League)

This summer, empty spaces in the Claremont Village section of the South Bronx will be lit up at night with images of community life.

The images are already being captured by at least a dozen photographers, says Rhynna Santos, coordinator of the Bronx Photo League and a member of the Bronx Documentary Center, which is presenting the project, called Claremont Illuminated. Once the photographers are done shooting, the Center will work with the artist Ethan Vogt to create illuminations that will be projected on to empty spaces, like vacant lots or public stairwells. The illuminations may range from projected digital photos to lit-up prints to audio and video interviews—whatever technology will allow, Santos says.

Some of the artists are focusing on senior citizens living in the extensive public housing projects in the neighborhood. Others are zooming in on community health issues, or schools, or fatherhood, or, as Santos says, “the horrible issue of rats.”

“It’s functional art,” says Santos. “It’s not just going to be, hopefully, thought-provoking and beautiful, but also useful for the community.”

The combined public art and street lighting project is one of seven proposals to receive funding this month through the Mayor’s Grant for Cultural Impact, an outgrowth of New York’s first comprehensive cultural plan, called CreateNYC. Selected organizations get $50,000 from the Department of Cultural Affairs, plus $25,000 in either cash or in-kind support from a partner city agency, including the Departments of City Planning, the Department of Probation, and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. In all, it adds up to $500,000 in city support for diverse cultural organizations in far-flung New York neighborhoods.

And that was always the goal of CreateNYC. Under the de Blasio administration, New York has been reexamining the way it funds cultural activity, which it has done since the 19th century. As part of that re-examination, the city has begun to collect data on the diversity of boards and workforces at the city’s major cultural institutions, and has plans to tie future funding to diversity goals. The senior staffs of the city’s biggest cultural organizations are much less diverse than the city as a whole, according to the plan. Creating partnerships between city government and smaller organizations is a way for the city to broaden its support for culture beyond the theaters and museums that have national reputations.

Other cultural impact grantees include a bilingual theater project for Spanish-speaking youth, literary programming for people on probation and their neighbors, a dance project focused on preventing teen violence, and a reading program that will connect the National Book Foundation with the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development. The city also recently announced four new public artists in residence focused on social issues from domestic violence to discrimination.

"Mother and Child," another image that will be part of the Claremont Illuminated project. (Photo: Adeline Lulo, courtesy of Bronx Photo League)

“The basic lens of the entire thing had to do with equity and inclusion,” says Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

CreateNYC involved more than 400 public meetings and 188,000 online comments from New Yorkers. What the department learned in the process was that residents want arts and culture in every corner of the city, Finkelpearl says. And pairing city agencies that are working to achieve various social outcomes with cultural groups that are deeply involved in communities “puts theory together with practice.” Artists and cultural organizations have a way of “thinking around corners,” Finkelpearl says, and also sometimes have communication skills that government agencies don’t have.

For the Claremont Illuminated project, Bronx Documentary Center is partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. The project will improve community safety while highlighting community challenges. Santos says the project is intended to “give the community a voice” while also lighting up areas of Claremont Village that are simply too dark.

“It’s this thing that art can do,” says Finkelpearl. “It delivers important ideas in maybe a softer way than city government does sometimes.”

The artists documenting Claremont Village are using a wide range of media, from film and digital photography to audio and video interviews. They started shooting last summer, and are hoping to get illuminations up around the neighborhood in June.

“When you show people, respectfully, how they are seen, it really has an effect,” Santos says.

 

This Map of New Orleans Might Save a Life

(Photo: Daniel X. O'Neill)

Where do ambulance drivers park when they’re waiting for a call? And how close are they to the areas where calls are likeliest to originate?

The City of New Orleans wanted to know. Between 2014 and 2016, the city saw a 12 percent spike in emergency medical calls. During the same period, EMS teams struggled to keep up with demand, with the portion of calls being addressed in less than 12 minutes falling from 80 percent to 72 percent. But by adjusting where ambulances idle between calls—based on both traffic patterns and the volume of emergency calls—the city was able to reduce response times during the night shift and improve service to two of its worst-served neighborhoods.

That’s according to a new report from Results for America, a nonprofit that tries to help local governments create evidence-based solutions to urban problems. The group invites local government leaders to participate in fellowships that put them in contact with their peers in other cities, to exchange ideas for improving government work. The New Orleans case study was one of four that the group published in early January, highlighting the work of Results for America fellows in various cities. The group also reported on work in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and plans to release a dozen more case studies this year.

“Our goal in writing these case studies is to focus on policymakers who are interested in using data and evidence but don’t necessarily know how to get started,” says Maia Jachimowicz, the vice president for evidence-based policy implementation at Results for America.

The group has 16 fellows from 16 cities. Both the current and former directors of New Orleans’ Office of Performance and Accountability have been in the program, Jachimowicz said. The idea for analyzing ambulance response times was solicited from city staff, she says.

“To improve response times and decrease geographic disparity, the Office of Performance and Accountability team focused on two variables: how EMS ambulances were selected to address a 911 call and where they were stationed after responding to this call to wait for the next one,” according to the report.

The Office mapped five years’ worth of 911 calls, and identified 100 locations from which ambulances could respond to them within 8 minutes, according to the report. Then it used another program to find places where ambulances could cover the most calls most quickly. But data alone didn’t suffice: Some of the top locations identified through the analysis were in residential areas, where ambulance drivers don’t park, and the initial recommendations for placement would have required drivers to constantly shuffle between locations after calls to optimize response times. After discussing the work with drivers, the office created two printable maps of parking locations that help serve the city equitably and efficiently. The result is improved response times on the night shift and substantially faster service to Algiers and New Orleans East, where responses have historically been the slowest.

The two maps, one for daytime (left) and one for nighttime (right), were based off of five years of 911 calls.

Jachimowicz says that the city has been on the forefront of data-based problem-solving under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose term is ending this year. Which is not to say that it has solved all of its problems, of course. In fact, the city—where locals joke that NOPD stands for Not Our Problem, Dude—has been struggling to improve its notoriously slow police response time for several years. But she says the city has done a good job of keeping data analysis at the front of its work.

“New Orleans has been a leader in the use of data analytics for a while,” Jachimowicz says. “They’ve really built a pretty sophisticated system in the way that they do this work.”

The report also highlights tips for replicating the work in other cities, including always leaning on direct knowledge of practitioners. It also says that the project shows that equity and efficiency don’t have to be at odds, and in fact “data and evidence can be used to enhance both simultaneously.”

Other cases studies highlight Baltimore’s turn to a budgeting system based on improving outcomes in the areas that the city identifies as top priorities, Atlanta’s staff-centered approach to performance management, and Philadelphia’s use of behavioral science to improve participation in city programs and services.

Jachimowicz says that Results for America plans to release 12 more case studies for the rest of its cities this year. In promoting the work, the group hopes to show cities that data can be used to address all sorts of local challenges.

“There are many different approaches that a city or county or even a governor can take to doing this work,” Jachimowicz says. “It shouldn’t be too scary. Our end goal is that policymakers across the country are adopting the practices that they’re seeing from these leaders.”

 

5 Transportation Projects to Watch in 2018

A rendering of the NE 145th station, one of the planned stations in the Lynwood Link light-rail extension in Seattle. (Credit: SoundTransit)

There was plenty of good, bad, and weird news on the transportation beat in 2017.

Driverless cars began taking to the roadways in numbers. New Orleans launched a bike share system. An Amtrak train making its first run on a new line derailed near Olympia, Washington, killing three people. Elon Musk called public transit advocate Jarrett Walker an “idiot.”

But transit is all about moving forward. American cities are preparing to launch projects that could change the way people get around town and chip away at their dependence on private cars. Here are a few transportation projects to watch for in 2018.

Seattle light-rail expansions

Nearly a decade after voters approved the Sound Transit 2 ballot measure, pouring more than $17 billion into road and transit upgrades in the Puget Sound region of Washington over 15 years, Seattle is almost ready to begin construction on the Lynnwood Link Extension. The proposed 8.5-mile light rail line will connect Lynnwood, a small northern suburb, to downtown Seattle with an estimated 28-minute ride, according to Sound Transit. The project got formal approval from the Federal Transit Authority in 2015, and construction is scheduled to begin this year.

Sound Transit has applied for a $1.17 billion federal grant to cover part of the estimated $3 billion cost, but it’s not a sure thing. Last spring, President Donald Trump’s preliminary budget proposal threatened funding for the light rail expansions. Sound Transit is still proceeding with the project, but the federal grant is key. The project is already $500 million over budget.

A big year for bikeshare

This spring, Memphis is getting its own bikeshare system. The B-Cycle Dash system will launch with 600 bikes, tricked out with “a color touch-screen display with onboard GPS, automatic lights and four methods of payment,” according to the Memphis Daily News. Explore Bikeshare, the organization that’s planning the system, is expected to roll out an additional 300 bikes next year.

Bikeshare systems are getting more sophisticated all over. Three cities in California are launching the biggest electric-bike network in the country this May. (Electric bikes are semi-self-propelled, so you don’t have to pedal as much.) In Washington, D.C., Social Bicycles Inc. launched a network of dockless electric bikes, branded as JUMP, in September. Dockless bike share is a growing trend in the U.S. and around the world, as highlighted by Slate.

Denver hoping for a new commuter rail line

In 2004, voters in and around Denver approved a plan to put $4.7 billion into new transit infrastructure, including 120 miles of new light rail and regional commuter rail and 18 miles of bus rapid transit. The program, called FasTracks, has opened a series of new railway lines in the last few years. It has put Denver in contention, as CityLab put it, to be the “most advanced transit city in the west.”

This year, regional commuters are hoping to see the opening of the G Line, running from Union Station in Denver to the western suburb of Wheat Ridge. Residents were hoping the G Line would be running in 2016, but the opening was delayed because of a software problem that left gates down too long at at-grade crossings, according to The Denver Post. The Regional Transportation District still has not announced an official opening date for the 11-mile line, but testing in the first days of the new year has been giving residents hope.

New ferry routes in New York

Last spring, New York got a handful of new public ferry routes, allowing passengers to float on the East River between Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, where previously ferry service was only privately run. The routes augment the longstanding Staten Island Ferry, and like the subway, cost $2.75 a ride. Currently, ferries run as far as the Rockaways and Astoria. This summer, the network will be complete when two new routes are launched, linking Long Island City in Queens and Clason Point in the Bronx to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Already, the new routes are having an impact on waterfront development in Brooklyn and Queens. And NYC Ferry is planning to put bigger boats into service this year.

Bus rapid transit in Indianapolis

This year, Indianapolis will begin construction on a 13-mile electric bus rapid transit line that will run through downtown, from Broad Ripple in the north to the University of Indianapolis in the south. The project is expected to cost $96 million. The state has used eminent domain powers to obtain some portions of privately owned land for construction, and has collected some detractors in the process. When service starts in 2019, buses will be scheduled to arrive at stops every ten minutes throughout most of the day, and will stop within a quarter-mile of 150,000 jobs, according to IndyGo, the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation.

 



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