Posts by Author: Jared Brey

Portland Real Estate Market Still Adjusting to Inclusionary Housing

(AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Stephanie Reyes analyzed 1,379 policies and programs last year, all dedicated to inclusionary housing, the mandatory or voluntary inclusion of affordable housing units as part of market-rate or luxury developments.

One of the insights she came to realize: it’s important for cities to provide certainty in the market about whatever policies they choose to adopt. If developers think they can wait out a policy that the city might change its mind about, they’ll try to. Inclusionary housing policies need to be seen as a permanent part of the regulatory environment before they can work, she says.

So what does it mean when Portland appears now to be doubling-back on the inclusionary housing policy it adopted a year ago? Were the critics correct who said the policy would backfire?

“I can say with a huge amount of certainty that the answer is: We can’t know yet,” says Reyes, state and local policy manager for the Grounded Solutions Network.

When Portland voted to enact a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy late in 2016 — requiring some developers to set aside 20 percent of new apartment units for families earning less than 80 percent of median income — it was coming off half a decade of growth in multifamily construction. According to a report in The Oregonian, the city permitted an average of 3,200 apartments a year over the five years from from 2012 to 2016. In 2017, the number of permitted units shot up to 6,250, according to the report. But in the year after the inclusionary housing policy took effect, developers sought permits for only 12 projects that met its 20-unit threshold, totaling just 654 units.

“Before we enacted inclusionary zoning in 2016, a mad rush of developers and property owners and architects pulled out an enormous amount of permits—a historic number,” says Brendan Finn, chief of staff to Portland Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman. “We obviously were informed of what was happening, and kind of referred to it as the pre-inclusionary zoning pipeline.”

But while the number of multifamily permits has fallen dramatically in the last year, many developers have yet to move forward on projects that were permitted before the inclusionary zoning policy was enacted. So last month, the city council voted to reactivate its old incentive program for projects that were permitted under the former regulations, in an attempt to both kickstart those developments and squeeze a measure of affordability out of them. The program, called MULTE, offers tax breaks for multifamily projects that set aside 20 percent of units for reduced-rate rents. The incentive will only be offered for projects permitted in the run-up to February of last year, when the inclusionary zoning policy took effect.

Finn says Portland is not abandoning its inclusionary zoning policy. The city is offering MULTE for certain earlier projects because it wants to keep encouraging a growth in housing supply. It might make changes to the inclusionary zoning policy as it gathers more data on the impact it’s having on the real estate market, but the policy is here to stay.

Reyes says that every city that’s considering mandatory inclusionary zoning needs to find a balance that promotes affordable housing without preventing growth in the market-rate housing supply. In Portland’s case, the past year’s drop in permits might be dramatic, but it’s not necessarily evidence that the inclusionary policy as a concept is hurting the market.

“The question in Portland is, did they find that line correctly?” Reyes says.

There’s no question that the advent of the inclusionary zoning policy caused the rush to pull permits, both Reyes and Finn say. Developers would naturally want to avoid any such regulations if they could. But the fact that so many projects were permitted in such a short time is probably contributing to the current slowdown in the market, along with increases in construction costs and other variables.

Reyes highlights the distinction between those who own property and those who build on it.

“Over time, what studies have shown throughout the years, is that generally, the cost of providing the affordable units ends up getting passed back to the landowner in the form of reduced land prices,” Reyes says.

Landowners can’t simply take their business elsewhere the way that developers can. So ultimately land costs need to adjust so that developers can still make their financing work, Reyes says.

“It’s confusing,” Reyes says. “It’s this new thing. It takes time for landowners to face up to the new reality.”

Finn says that despite the slowdown, and the city’s effort to overcome it, those adjustments are starting to happen.

“[Inclusionary housing] is already part of the nomenclature of the development community,” Finn says. “It’s already there. It’s already built into the pro formas. We still have a lot of cranes in the air.”

The city may adjust the incentives that are included in the program or make other changes to the policy based on market studies, to make sure the requirements are balanced. But Finn believes that Portland officials are in it for the long haul, and in fact are braced for a much bigger slowdown in the market. Construction and land costs, housing supply, and policy changes could all be affecting the local market in Portland. But the national economy is bound to take a downturn sooner or later, Finn says, and when it hits the Portland development market, some people are going to blame inclusionary housing.

“There’s a firm belief amongst Portland City Council members that that’s going to happen …” Finn says. “I think the council is pretty solid in the fact that they’re not going to be pressured to change the policy because of what’s happening on a national scale.”


Baltimore Combines New and Old School to Advocate for Housing

At a public meeting with United Workers, where Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman finally committed city funding to the city's affordable housing trust fund. (Credit: United Workers Media Team)

Destiny Watford first got involved with United Workers when she was in high school, during a campaign to stop a new trash incinerator from locating in Curtis Bay, the south Baltimore neighborhood where she lives. They eventually staged a sit in. Seven students were arrested, The Baltimore Sun reported. The incinerator never got built.

Watford says that conversations with her schoolmates about environmental rights developed into broader questions about who makes decisions about what to do with land: Why was an incinerator being proposed in Curtis Bay in the first place?

“We don’t have control of land in our neighborhood,” Watford says. “We don’t have the opportunity to make decisions about our neighborhood that’s real.”

Founded in 2002 by homeless day laborers meeting in an abandoned firehouse-turned-shelter, United Workers has maintained a focus on changing that, combining new and old school community organizing tactics to amplify the voices of Baltimore residents whose concerns have historically been ignored or underfunded.

It’s not been easy, but their work is paying off. Last week, in a public meeting, Baltimore City Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman committed to dedicating the first $2 million of city funds for the city’s affordable housing trust fund, nearly two years after the fund’s creation on paper. On behalf of the mayor, Braverman also committed to building a list of potential board appointees for the trust fund in the next 30 days. The city also committed $100,000 to help get some community land trusts up and running.

United Workers helped bring the affordable housing trust fund into existence. It was part of a coalition of grassroots groups who, in the summer of 2016, started organizing to get a question on the ballot to create an affordable housing trust fund that would support a range of housing initiatives, from the creation and preservation of low-income housing to support for community land trusts and housing services for low-income renters. They knocked on doors, talked with residents about the city’s housing needs, and collected 18,000 signatures — nearly twice the 10,000 needed. That November, 83 percent of voters elected to approve the measure.

A year and a half later, the fund existed on paper, but still had no money to distribute. There’s also a widespread sense that the city’s inclusionary housing policy, meant to encourage developers to provide affordable units alongside market-rate ones, is a failure, largely because that legislation as written requires the city to pay developers to create the units. Legislators so far have been unable to agree on where to find that money. So United Workers is back on the streets, trying to build public pressure for affordable housing by going door-to-door.

“We can’t let go of our fundamental expectation that if voters overwhelmingly support something, there’s going to be follow-up,” says Greg Sawtell, an organizer with United Workers. “That’s the most basic element of democracy.”

The group has knocked on thousands of doors in the last few months, Sawtell says. It’s collected postcards from residents to send to individual councilmembers, pushed a #FundTheTrust campaign on Twitter, and held the public meeting with the city’s housing commissioner last week.

As a member of the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, United Workers is also pushing for broader goals, under the banner of the so-called 20/20 Campaign. The campaign calls for the city to dedicate $20 million to support community land trusts, which can develop housing that is kept off the private market, and another $20 million to employ Baltimoreans to deconstruct or rehab vacant homes. They’re also looking to hold Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, who was elected in 2015, accountable to her professed support of the campaign.

Organizer Terrell Askew says he knows that door-to-door advocacy is effective because it’s how he got involved with United Workers’ campaigns. Askew has experience with street canvassing and petitioning, and says that talking with people in their homes is much more productive than trying to interrupt them on their way to work. At home, residents will open up and “truly take stock of the neighborhood,” he says. Going door-to-door not only helps generate signatures and postcards, but allows advocates to update community members on what’s happening with the initiatives they’ve voted for in the past. It’s the legwork of a more participatory environment for development they’re hoping to create.

In November 2017, a year after the trust fund was created by voters, Baltimore Housing Roundtable members delivered 20,000 petition signatures to City Hall in support of the 20/20 campaign, according to a report in The Baltimore Sun. Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center and chair of the Roundtable’s policy committee, says the door-to-door advocacy that United Workers and others have done was “essential” to getting the question on the ballot in the first place, and keeping up the pressure since.

In recent months, the city council has debated raising property transfer taxes and fees to raise money for the affordable housing trust fund. But so far they haven’t agreed on a stable, recurring revenue source. Councilman John Bullock, the 9th district representative and chair of the city council’s committee on housing and urban affairs, says they have also been talking about how to fix the city’s inclusionary housing law. In most cases, Bullock says, developers are able to simply opt out of building affordable units, because the city has no money to put behind the law. It has generated just 32 affordable units since being adopted in 2007.

Baltimore’s housing issues are varied, too, ranging from a shortage of affordable rental units to a glut of vacant properties. Bullock says that housing needs to be a higher priority, and expects to introduce a bill that would help fill the housing trust fund sometime in the next month.

Braverman says the first affordable trust fund money is coming from a $3 million affordable housing bond that voters also approved in 2016. The city has also approved an additional $10 million in future bonds to support housing efforts. But there’s still no consensus on where to raise stable funding for the trust fund — or how much.

“We want to find a funding source that is sustainable, and will be a net gain in terms of the funding, and not robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Braverman says.

United Workers considers the city’s commitments a step in the right direction. But it’s only a fraction of the investment they’re hoping to see. So they’ll keep up the campaign.

“We have a voice,” Askew says. “Even if they’re not ready to listen to it, we have to raise it up and make them aware that we have a better solution to these chronic problems.”


‘Future of the American City’ Study Launches in Miami

Sea level rise in Miami could increase by as much as 5 feet by the end of this century. (AP Photo/mpi122)

By 2030, the seas around Miami could rise between 6 and 10 inches above what the mean level was in 1992, according to a 2015 report from the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact Sea Level Rise Work Group. By 2060, conservative estimates put the increase at between 14 and 26 inches. And by the end of the century, depending on the extent of future greenhouse gas emissions and how severely that affects the climate, sea levels could rise by as much as five feet.

That’s significant potential devastation for a city that is already living with the day-to-day effects of climate change.

Still, says Raul Moas, Miami program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, “A lot happens before Biscayne Bay pours into Bayfront Park.”

That’s why this week, the Knight Foundation announced a $1 million grant to the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, to carry out a three-year study aimed at working with residents to build solutions for some of the most pressing issues facing Miami and Miami Beach. The project will embed Harvard researchers in the region, develop three Miami-focused courses in the Graduate School of Design, and, according to the announcement, produce “a set of actionable, design-based recommendations.” This work is the first phase of a project the school is calling Future of the American City. Later phases will involve work in Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles.

“We hope that this serves as somewhat of a crystal ball into what challenges in the American city will look like in 20 years,” says Moas.

Beyond the focus on climate change and sea-level rise, the study will also address housing affordability and transit mobility. Like most other cities around the country, Miami and Miami Beach suffer from a shortage of affordable housing. In summer 2017, the Miami New Times reported that Miami Beach had essentially given up on goals, set in 2011, to build 16,000 affordable units to house the housekeepers, cooks, and hotel staff who power this international tourist destination. And the Miami Herald has featured stories about housekeepers forced to endure long, grueling bus commutes between their Miami Beach jobs and the far-flung apartments they’re able to afford.

Harvard’s Graduate School of Design has already been working in Miami and Miami Beach for the last half-decade, says Dean Mohsen Mostafavi. The school has offered courses centered on sea-level rise and resiliency in South Florida, and in 2015, GSD students designed the pavilion for the annual Design Miami fair. But the partnership goes deeper than that, Mostafavi says. All of the GSD’s work over the next three years is intended to bring local residents into the center of the effort and “recalibrate the relationship” between public and private actors in the design process.

“It’s been a very long focus,” Mostafavi says. “We didn’t just sort of land in Miami and write the proposal for the Knight Foundation. … We know many of the local people, politicians and developers down there, and this is the natural consequence of our experience.”

The school will offer three graduate design studios each fall for the next three years: one focused on urban mobility; one on the role of higher education and medical institutions in the city’s economy; and one centered on the ways that Miami’s ethnic neighborhoods shape its cultural identity, according to the press release. Students will travel to the region for discussions with local residents, officials and other stakeholders for a week each semester. Ultimately, the research is meant to yield “rigorous yet grounded” policy and site proposals, toolkits and white papers that offer specific design solutions to the issues at hand. Mostafavi says the group plans to communicate its recommendations to everyone, from residents to elected officials to small-time developers.

In the process, says Jesse Keenan, a faculty lecturer in architecture at Harvard GSD, the group hopes to break new ground in designing for urban problems. Traditional approaches to design and development are built around immediate economic benefits that officials and residents can measure, Keenan says. The school’s aim for the project will be to bring together various priorities — from climate challenges to social and economic equity to public participation in planning — and develop “a multi-generational orientation to the morphology of cities.”

In a blog post that accompanied the announcement, Mostafavi wrote that the study is meant as a step toward developing a national discourse about the future of American cities. So what’s missing from that discourse?

“The current discourse is too much focused on the role of capital and the role of private development,” Mostafavi says. “Without, probably, sufficient attention to the way that public and private sectors can work more collaboratively to produce environments that are really more generous for citizens of all backgrounds.”


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.”


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