Posts by Author: Oscar Perry Abello

Austin’s Housing Authority Flexes New Muscles in Expansion

(Photo by Arvindn)

About a half-hour drive north from downtown Austin, just off the I-35 freeway, you can find one of the most cutting-edge innovations in a city that has worked hard to earn a reputation as an innovation hub. The Texas capital welcomes thousands of tech CEOs, investors, thinkers and leaders to discuss the latest innovations at the annual South by Southwest Conference & Festival. But this isn’t even on their radar.

Of course, this particular innovation doesn’t have much to do with the next big app or artificial intelligence. At this location on Wells Branch Parkway, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin recently acquired a property with 308 units of “luxury” housing, including a pool, a clubhouse with a billiard table, a fitness center and a business center. With a few swipes of the pen, half of those units became permanently affordable housing. The property wasn’t previously in foreclosure, nor was it seized through eminent domain. In a highly unusual move for a local public housing authority, in these times especially, it simply went out and purchased the property on the open market

It wasn’t the first property that the Housing Authority of the City of Austin acquired in that manner, and it won’t be the last. Since 2012, the housing authority has acquired more than 2,100 units of existing housing, reserving half of those units to rent at rates affordable to families between 30 to 120 percent of area median income. The rest of the units rent out at market rates, although families with Section 8 rental assistance vouchers can rent those market-rate units and still only pay 30 percent of their monthly income in rent.

The open-market acquisition strategy is part of the housing authority’s response to the wave of displacement and loss of affordable housing in and around Austin. It’s making a small dent in what the city considers a shortage of 45,000 units for residents earning less than 60 percent of median family income.

“We’re a city struggling with the impact of gentrification, the loss of affordable housing units in our city and region,” says Michael Gerber, president of Austin’s housing authority.

Austin voters concur, recently approving a ballot measure to raise $250 million in bond financing for affordable housing — the city’s largest-ever affordable housing ballot measure. Researchers at the University of Texas have rolled out a tool to map areas where displacement is happening or is at risk of happening.

At the same time Austin is trying to deal with its growth challenges, it’s also trying to stop perpetuating the historical pattern of racial segregation created and enforced by zoning and other local policies.

“Austin is shaped by a tremendous amount of growth, [but] it’s also shaped by a history of segregation that goes back to 1928,” says Gerber.

That was the year the Fowler city plan proposed the creation of a “Negro District” in Austin. Leading up to that point, some black former sharecroppers during the Great Migration never left the South entirely, ending up in cities where they found refuge, such as Baltimore, Durham, Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston and Austin. As author Richard Rothstein documents in “The Color of Law,” the response of policymakers in these cities was strikingly similar to those in the North — they carved out areas officially or unofficially designated for “negroes” and eventually for other people of color.

In Austin, during the early years of the Great Migration, black families had settled all over the city. The Fowler city plan proposed designating the southeast part of Austin as the Negro District. But a 1917 U.S. Supreme Court decision had already struck down explicitly racial zoning laws. So instead, in the years after 1928, the city found other ways to push black families into the designated zone. Whenever the city built new schools in the northern and western parts of Austin, those schools were designated whites-only, while building new schools for blacks-only in the Negro District. Anywhere there were black families living on a block in the northern or western parts of Austin, the city would neglect maintenance until those families chose to move, finding that realtors or landlords would only sell or rent housing to black families in the Negro District.

As Austin’s black population gradually became isolated from the rest of the city, it became easy for all-white policymakers to neglect their needs. Redlining meant banks would ignore the same neighborhoods, resulting in the gradual deterioration of housing stock. Racial discrimination in the job market meant limited economic opportunity, leading to the concentration of black households, generational poverty, and subsidized housing in southeast Austin.

So it’s notable that the Housing Authority of the City of Austin has mostly been acquiring properties on the open market in the northern half of the city.

The housing authority is investing in its existing public-housing properties, too, expanding them through the Obama-era Rental Assistance Demonstration program. But ironically, it’s those same neighborhoods in southeast Austin where there is public housing that now face the most severe gentrification and displacement in the city.

This property acquisition strategy is not going to reverse displacement or segregation by itself, but the Austin housing authority can use history as a guide of what to do or what not to do.

“We’re intentional about that, we do not want to be part of adding to the concentration of poverty in areas that have had historically high levels of subsidized housing,” says Gerber. “Ultimately, it’s about tenant choice.”

Indeed, the housing authority’s strategy of acquiring properties on the open market began in 2012 as a response to Section 8 rental assistance voucher holders having trouble finding quality, desirable housing in Austin. “We felt there were too few landlords accepting the voucher,” says Gerber.

Only around 40 jurisdictions around the U.S. outlaw discrimination against rental assistance voucher holders — known as “source of income discrimination.” (Although even where it is outlawed, it’s difficult to enforce.)

Texas is the one state that explicitly prohibits counties and municipalities from enacting laws against source-of-income discrimination.

Gerber thinks that by entering the private market, the public housing authority can change negative perceptions of Section 8 tenants among landlords.

All that said, as a public housing authority, being short of cash is par for the course. In order to acquire properties on the open market, the housing authority typically has to partner with somebody who does have access to cash. Taking a page out of the Wall Street playbook, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin has partnered with a real estate investment trust, or REIT, in order to acquire two properties so far, including this most recent acquisition, on Wells Branch Parkway.

Congress created REITs in 1960, hoping to allow a wider swath of Americans access to the benefits of real estate investment, including income from tenant rents. Trading on U.S. stock exchanges today, you can find more than 200 REITs, with a total market value of more than $1.1 trillion. There are also privately-owned REITs. While Congress had noble intentions in mind when it created them, today REITs are primarily known for acquiring properties and pushing developers or landlords to prioritize investor returns over community benefit.

For the Wells Branch Parkway property, the housing authority partnered with Community Development Trust, a “for-purpose” REIT established in 1999. Community Development Trust is one of a handful of REITs that invests exclusively in affordable housing, with a current portfolio of 7,150 affordable housing units in 35 properties across 20 states. While some REITs acquire properties with the intention to sell them for profit after a few years, Community Development Trust takes a long-term ownership position — it still owns a stake in the first property it ever invested in, Summerfield Townhouses in East Hartford, Connecticut.

One advantage of being a REIT is the familiarity factor when it comes to approaching investors such as banks or insurance companies. Allstate Insurance, Prudential, MetLife, and all the biggest banks in the country can be found among Community Development Trust’s shareholders. By selling shares to investors in exchange for quarterly dividends, REITs aggregate large amounts of cash that they can deploy quickly on deals such as this Austin one to acquire the Wells Branch Parkway property.

The Austin housing authority deals come with a special twist — the housing authority keeps the deed to the land, extending a new long-term ground lease for the buildings (including affordability restrictions) to a joint venture owned by the Austin Affordable Housing Corporation (a nonprofit affiliate of the housing authority) and investors. For the Wells Branch Parkway property, in addition to Community Development Trust, the newly-formed Austin Housing Conservancy is also an investor in the property.

“Having the partners that have the equity to come in on joint ventures with us makes all the difference in the world,” says Ron Kowal, who leads the Austin Affordable Housing Corporation. “The key to it is finding those partners that are like-minded with our mission so that we’re all on the same page with what we’re trying to achieve here. It’s not just a real estate investment where everybody wants to make a bunch of money.”

When the Austin housing authority keeps the deed to the property, it also means there are no property taxes owed, which is the only public subsidy tied to project (in addition to any Section 8 voucher holders who may have moved in by their own choice).

It’s the second time Community Development Trust has partnered with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin; the first was a 642-unit acquisition in 2015. The REIT has yet to work with any other public housing authority on a similar deal.

“It’s the only mechanism I’m aware of in the affordable housing world where a private organization like ours is helping a public organization expand its portfolio of property,” says Michael Lear, vice president at Community Development Trust. “It’s kind of incredible that they’re a housing authority that is increasing the property it owns.”


The Largest Indoor Recreational Space in Chicago, and So Much More

A soccer game at the Pullman Community Center. (Credit: Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives)

Technically, it had been about a decade of planning, fundraising and building that culminated in last week’s grand opening of the Pullman Community Center, at 103rd Street and Woodlawn Avenue, on the far South Side of Chicago. But for Alderman Anthony Beale, who has represented the area in city council since 1999, the inspiration goes back further than that.

“I can honestly tell you the idea came to me when my sons and daughters were coming up in youth sports, the traveling that we had to do at that time just to have recreation opportunities,” Beale says. “One of the things I noticed traveling throughout the state and the city was how we had subpar facilities in our community, and whenever we went outside the community they had very nice facilities, nice fields, all the amenities.”

Beale got right down to it when he was first elected; he secured some state funding to reconstitute the former world champion Roseland Little League organization and rebuild the first of a string of baseball fields in the neighborhood. But that was just the beginning. The new Pullman Community Center has 135,000 square feet of indoor, multipurpose space, including 1,200 square feet of classroom/party-room space; three hardwood courts for basketball and volleyball; three indoor fields for soccer, baseball and football; and no less than four batting/pitching cages with pitching mounds and pitching machines.

In the Windy City, with its particularly brutal winters and scorching summers, indoor spaces for such a wide range of activities is in short supply, as evidenced by the flurry of activity that Kristin Curtis has already seen as the general manager of the new community center.

“We’ve already had people reach out to us about gymnastics and cheerleading, volleyball and basketball,” Curtis says. “We’re going to have pickleball for seniors. It’s exciting to me because people think community center and they’re thinking about the youth and obviously that’s a very important part of our programming, but it also extends to other people in our community.”

The impact of such a facility can be measured in several ways. There were around 200 construction jobs, and now a projected 30 to 40 permanent jobs to manage the facility, which also includes a 50-seat concession area. There’s the physical and mental health impact of a year-round athletic facility with a walking track that’s already in heavy use, according to Curtis. There’s the academic impact of the after-school support and college test prep that will be available at the facility. On top of that, there’s something less tangible that comes to mind for Beale.

“Too many times, people come from outside the community to tell us what’s best for us. It was a key component to have the whole thing owned, operated and managed by a local group that looks like the community,” Beale says. “That gives ownership, that gives people that are younger inspiration that you can be what you want to be. When they see a facility like that, owned, operated and managed locally, that speaks volumes.”

It’s true, the ribbon-cutting ceremony featured a contingent of representatives from big corporations that donated or loaned funds to build the $20-million facility, alongside Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Mayor Rahm Emanuel — along with Beale and Larry Noble, a senior at nearby Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep (where Beale is the head baseball coach). But from the conception of the project, the idea and now the facility itself is (jointly) owned by the surrounding community through the Roseland Youth Center, which co-owns the facility along with the Chicago Park District.

One of three indoor soccer fields at the center.  (Credit: Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives).

The Pullman and Roseland communities closest to the center are 82 percent and 96 percent black, respectively; the median income for each neighborhood is around $37,000. The 12-acre parcel on which the Pullman Community Center sits was previously part of the Pullman Palace Car Company central rail yard facility, where it built and maintained its famous fleet of luxurious railroad passenger cars. The land was vacant by the time it came under the purview of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives in 2007 (then known as Park Neighborhood Initiatives).

In the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis, the land ownership fell into the lap of U.S. Bank, which kept Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives in place as master developer of the former rail yard. With offices right on the former rail yard grounds, Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives is a nonprofit staffed with “recovering” planners, bankers, and lawyers. A decade ago, the group went out alongside Beale to hold dozens of community meetings to shape a vision for redeveloping and revitalizing the property and the surrounding neighborhood. Four priorities emerged from those conversations: the need for food and retail shopping in the area; the need for jobs; the need for new affordable housing; and the need for year-round recreational space.

Since then, with Beale serving as booster and Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives serving primarily as developer, the former rail yard has welcomed a new retail strip anchored by WalMart; a manufacturing, bottling and distribution center for eco-friendly home goods company Method; the Midwest regional distribution center for Whole Foods; and two Gotham Greens urban agriculture facilities. These businesses have generated some 400 permanent jobs on site, with more on the way. The companies coming in have made local hiring commitments, with a majority of permanent employees so far coming from the former rail yard’s ZIP code or those directly adjacent.

The Pullman Community Center is the latest chapter in that ongoing story. Next up is a food hall populated with local restauranteurs incubated by the small business lending arm of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives.

The nonprofit has made heavy use of federal New Markets Tax Credits to revitalize the rail yard, including the new community center. The $3.5=billion New Market Tax Credits program is set to expire after next year, although there is bipartisan support in Congress to extend it or even make it permanent. Some critics call out the high consulting fees related to the program’s onerous application process and ongoing compliance, and some say the program subsidizes investments that banks should be making anyway. Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives has utilized the program as a key tool to catalyze around $465 million of investment (so far) in and around Pullman and Roseland.

To cover the center’s $20-million development cost, Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives combined bank loans with state grants as well as corporate donations from Ford Motor Company, Exelon, the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago Bears, ESPN, Sherwin-Williams and others. The Chicago Housing Authority also chipped in $2.5 million. The way Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives structured the project financing, the New Markets Tax Credits effectively repay most of the loans taken out for construction.

Notably, there were no city budget dollars used to build the center — according to Beale, he ruled that out as an option, to avoid any conflict of interest because of his personal involvement in the project.

In exchange for joint ownership of a facility it didn’t pay a dime to build, the Chicago Parks District’s co-ownership means the jointly-owned facility is exempt from property taxes. That was essential for the project work out financially — according to David Doig, CEO of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, after a meeting with the county assessor’s office, the group figured a commercial property of this size might have had to pay in the ballpark of $400,000 a year in property taxes.

With that potential cost out of the picture, the project could move forward with the confidence that it wouldn’t experience any financial pressure to put rental prices out of reach for the surrounding community. (The parks district will also pick up some of the ongoing costs for the physical maintenance of the facility.)

Still, even with an opening ceremony surprise grant of $500,000 from Exelon, the joint facility still has about $2.5 million in loans left to pay off — to the Chicago Community Loan Fund, which also recently helped finance a major new tennis center on the South Side for XS Tennis, the tennis organization founded the coach of 2017 U.S. Open Women’s Singles Champion Sloane Stephens.

Beale says he’ll continue to spearhead fundraising efforts to supplement the Pullman Community Center’s operating revenues in order to pay off its remaining debt.

“Some companies turned us down initially because they don’t do capital, but they do operating support,” Beale says. “Now we can go back to them, because I want to keep the price point down to where kids can afford and families can afford to come there without having to reach deep into their pockets.”

In exchange for the Chicago Housing Authority’s investment in the project, the Pullman Community Center also offers priority seating and fee waivers for public housing residents in its afterschool programming, team roster slots and other programs. The community center will also provide free shuttle busing to the three public housing communities in the area — home to an estimated 6,600 youth between ages 5 and 17.

“We’re meeting with [the housing authority] on Tuesday to set the shuttle schedule,” says Curtis.

Meanwhile, Curtis and her team are spending this week preparing for the facility’s first big soccer tournaments, scheduled for this weekend.

“We really want this to be a very positive experience for people, and for the standards to be high,” says Curtis. “For me, the customer service part of it, training the staff, the cleanliness of it, for people to feel much better walking out when they came in. On my side, that’s what keeps me up.”

Curtis, a Chicago native with a master’s degree in sports management from the University of Illinois-Chicago, has two children of her own, ages 9 and 10. She lives in the nearby Washington Heights neighborhood. Like Beale, she also has the less-tangible goals in mind for the new community center.

“When we go someplace, I’m really particular where I take [my children] because I want them to be treated the right way, so they can learn how to treat other people,” says Curtis. “So my goal for these children and people in the community is to let them know that they’re welcome here, they’re wanted here, treat them with respect and have them respect the facility but also give them the great customer service that they deserve in a clean environment, and not someplace that’s rundown.”


The Dollars to Shape Cities

The more you go to city council hearings, town halls or other forums where cities are discussing affordable housing, economic revitalization or environmental sustainability, the more you hear it — like the refrain of a classic song that everybody seems to know, even if it’s not their favorite. It goes something along the lines of “the public sector will have to play a role, but it won’t be enough.”

The scale of the challenges at hand are just bigger than any public sector budget can handle — meanwhile, the private sector controls the lion’s share of capital.

But “the private sector” isn’t a monolith. There are different pools of capital with different constraints and means of accessing them. In this slideshow, we’ve compiled the basic facts about the main “buckets” of private sector capital, along with examples of how those in cities have gained access to them to meet the scale of the challenges they face.

Perhaps the most familiar to everyone. Individuals, as well as institutions, hold savings deposit accounts or certificates of deposit at banks or credit unions, which are chartered by the federal government or by state governments and which are usually insured by the federal government.

Commercial banks in the U.S. currently hold around $12 trillion in deposits, while credit unions hold $1.2 trillion in deposits.

Banks and credit unions use deposits to fund the loans they make, as well as to invest in regulator-approved financial instruments such as conventional stocks and bonds, as well as more exotic or sophisticated products

Banks currently hold around $9.4 trillion in loans, while credit unions hold around $1 trillion in loans.

Under the Community Reinvestment Act, passed in 1978, banks have an obligation to meet the credit needs of the communities where they do business. But banks also experience pressure from shareholders to seek higher returns by investing in more sophisticated financial products.

According to the latest available data from federal regulators, banks reported making $96 billion in community development loans throughout the U.S. in 2017. That includes loans to build or preserve affordable housing or revitalize commercial or industrial property.

Northwest Bank, in the Pacific Northwest, provided a letter of credit to a commercial property on the east end of Portland (pictured in the heading above), allowing residents around the property to buy ownership shares for as little as $10 a month.

Retirement savings mostly come from individual retirement accounts, 401k or 403b accounts with matching dollars from employers, and public and private pension funds.

Retirement assets in the United States total $28.3 trillion, according to the Investment Company Institute.

Most retirement savings are aggregated into mutual funds, bond funds, money market funds or other pools, each with a target level of risk and financial return. Firms that select investments for each pool can range from large Wall Street firms to smaller “boutique” shops.

Retirement savings are typically invested in the stock market, or the bond market. A smaller slice goes into real estate or commodities (oil, coffee, timber, etc.).

The Reinvestment Fund (which financed the project pictured in the heading above) is one of several community development lenders that are now accessing the bond markets. These community development lenders, all nonprofit organizations, have issued $300 million in bonds and counting since 2017.

Worker cooperatives are accessing capital through networks of financial advisors whose clients want their retirement savings to do more than just earn the maximum financial return.

Community Preservation Corporation, a community development lender, has had a decades-long arrangement with New York City and New York State to manage the investment of public pension fund dollars into affordable housing.

Community Preservation Corporation, a community development lender, has had a decades-long arrangement with New York City and New York State to manage the investment of public pension fund dollars into affordable housing.

Insurance policyholders pay trillions of dollars a year in premiums to companies selling health insurance, life insurance, car insurance, property insurance and other forms of insurance. After paying out claims, subsidizing administration and operations, and paying any dividends to shareholders, the companies can invest any cash left over.

Insurance companies currently hold around $6.5 trillion in investments and cash, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Insurance companies manage some of their investments internally, but they also farm out a lot of investment management to many of the same mutual funds, bond funds and other funds containing retirement assets.

Since most insurance companies can predict with reasonable certainty how much they’ll have to pay out in any given year, they typically prefer safe, predictable investments such as bonds. There are $41 trillion in the U.S. bond market — much of that coming from overseas investors.

Until recently, the state of California had a program to promote and monitor insurance company investments in affordable housing, clean energy, women- and minority-owned startups and other socially beneficial projects. At the state’s last count, insurance companies had $21.85 billion invested in qualified projects across California. The program expired at the end of 2016 and has not been resurrected by or replicated in any other state.

Prudential, the insurance and financial services giant, made a seed investment into a fund that will help finance stormwater retention improvements to properties in Washington, D.C. That fund invested in the project pictured in the heading above.

University and foundation endowments come from their founders and have been supplemented over the years by donors and benefactors as well as each endowment’s’ own annual investment returns.

Foundations hold $890 billion in their endowments, while universities hold $547 billion.

By IRS regulations, private foundations must spend at least five percent of the value of their total endowments every year. The other 95 percent gets invested, typically in the same manner as retirement assets or insurance company dollars. Community foundations and universities don’t have to follow the same rule, but they often do as a rule of thumb.

Beginning in 1968, the Ford Foundation pioneered the use of “program-related investments,” or loans at below-market interest rates made in accordance with a foundation’s stated mission, which count as part of a foundation’s annual five percent.

New Day Chester, a local artist-led organization revitalizing an arts corridor (pictured in the heading above) in Chester, Pennsylvania, got a program-related investment from the Barra Foundation, a small foundation based in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Program-related investments helped seed the San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund, providing access to capital at interest rates that make it financially feasible for nonprofit organizations to acquire and preserve the affordability of buildings that would have otherwise been flipped into luxury housing.

Increasingly popular, donor-advised funds are like mini-foundations for people who don’t have the time or resources to set up their own family foundations. Donors make a contribution to their fund (which they can’t take back), receive the charitable tax benefit right away, and then decide later where to grant those dollars.

In 2016, there were around $85 billion held in nearly 285,000 donor-advised funds. In that year, donor-advised funds made nearly $16 billion in grants, while taking in an additional $23 billion from donors.

Donor-advised funds are sponsored by public charities, such as a community foundation or other registered public charities. Some of the largest sponsors are those associated with large financial services firms. In 2016, Fidelity knocked off United Way as the top annual recipient of charitable donations in the United States — thanks to its affiliated donor-advised fund sponsor vehicle.

While money is sitting in donor-advised funds, waiting to be granted out, it gets invested in various ways. Some get placed into the same mutual funds alongside retirement assets, insurance company dollars, and endowments. Some also goes into accounts at local banks or credit unions.

The Central Valley Community Foundation recently moved $2.6 million in deposits from donor-advised funds and other benefactors into a new account at Self-Help Federal Credit Union, helping the credit union’s Fresno branch (pictured in the heading above) fund first-time homebuyer loans and car loans for underserved populations.

The Philadelphia Foundation recently pledged to move $30 million in assets under its management (including donor-advised funds) into the PhilaImpact Fund, which will be used to finance community development projects in the Philadelphia area.

Benefit Chicago is an initiative combining donor-advised fund dollars managed by the Chicago Community Trust with a program-related investment from the MacArthur Foundation to finance community development around Chicago.

None of these sources of capital can replace the public sector. In most of the stories featured, some type of public funding or subsidy is also present. But these sources of capital aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

The newly passed Opportunity Zones tax incentive has created a new channel for private sector investment that is already attracting billions of dollars of potential capital to be invested in low-income census tracts. Whether that investment actually benefits the 35 million residents of the 8,700 designated Opportunity Zone census tracts remains to be seen, but it is one more bucket to add to this list.

This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. To stay informed on the latest regarding Opportunity Zones or how cities are accessing any of these pools of capital in support of equitable development, affordable housing or environmental sustainability, subscribe to our monthly Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi Community Development.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.


Pedal-Assist Bike-Share Arrives in Philadelphia

Philadelphia's bike-share system is testing out electric-powered pedal-assist bicycles. (Photo by Mitchell Leff)

Philadelphia’s bike-share service is taking a step forward on the evolutionary tree this week, with the arrival of electric-powered pedal-assist bicycles to its fleet. Indego, the city’s bike-share service, started a two-month trial run of the new “e-bikes,” PlanPhilly’s Jim Saksa reports.

“I thought they were awesome,” said Chamarra McCrorie, a city employee who regularly rides her single-speed bike to work, according to PlanPhilly. “The ride was very smooth, the speed picked up immediately, and I think it’ll be a great way for people to get around the city, especially in those parts that are more hilly.”

Pedal assist e-bikes, which assist riders with an electric motor that turns on only while they are pedaling, are gradually making their way into bike-share fleets across the country, though not always without controversy. E-bikes arrived for a trial run in the nation’s capital in September and had a trial run in select NYC neighborhoods over the summer.

The arrival of e-bikes in NYC required the city to make them legal first, but the legislation to do so upset some who charged that the reforms left out restaurant-delivery workers — who often use DIY gas-powered bikes because they’re more affordable to convert than purchasing their own electric-powered pedal-assist bikes.

“My coworkers and I have been criminalized for using e-bikes,” delivery worker Clemente Martinez, 44, said at a hearing earlier this year, according to StreetsBlog NYC. “On the other side, my boss is also demanding that I use e-bikes.”

The cities of Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis — where the nation’s first bike lanes were painted — lept straight to e-bikes when their collective bike-share system launched earlier this year.

As Next City’s Josh Cohen reported last year, “though the Sacramento region is quite flat, the pedal assist will be a major boon in the summer when the temperatures soar and even the hardiest bicyclists are loath to travel under their own power.”

“We have really hot summers here,” Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, told Next City. “I don’t have a car. I travel by bike. I’m never eager to head out on a bike in the middle of the day in the summer.”

Dan Fuchs, president of Bike Davis, told Next City he expects the e-bikes to draw in users who might not otherwise consider traveling by bike.

“I think it’ll be revolutionary for a lot of people,” Fuchs said. “People don’t know about e-bikes in the U.S. … Davis’ older population could be well served by them.”

Back in Philly, Indego will assess data after two months to understand how many e-bikes to ultimately add to the fleet, and perhaps how much of a premium to charge over conventional bike-shares, PlanPhilly reported.


Amazon Throws Curveball Near the End of HQ2 Saga

Overlooking the Sunnyside Yards in Queens, toward Long Island City and Manhattan in the background. (Credit: NYCEDC)

Our long national nightmare is (almost) over. No, I’m not talking about the media barrage of vitriolic and sometimes violent political messaging in the run-up to today’s election. I’m talking about the saga of Amazon’s “HQ2,” the process of selecting a location for the behemoth company’s second headquarters — which, it turns out, will never happen as promised anyway.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news over the weekend that Amazon entered into “late-stage talks” with three locations — Dallas, Texas; Arlington, Va.; and New York City. By Monday, the New York Times reported that Dallas was no longer in the running and that the company planned to split its original HQ2 between the two remaining locations, effectively halving the original 50,000 jobs and $5 billion of investment the company promised to each location. New York City’s Long Island City site and Arlington’s Crystal City site are reportedly the “winners.”

Many expressed frustration with the decision to split the original HQ2 plan, given that Amazon dangled the jobs and investment numbers to extract promises of huge tax breaks and other incentives as part of HQ2 proposals. Business Insider called it “Breaking A Central Promise of HQ2.” People are furious, the site said.

Unfazed, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was still eagerly awaiting Amazon’s official announcement when he spoke to the Times on Monday. “I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes,” said Cuomo on Monday, according to the Times. “Because it would be a great economic boost.”

Nearly 240 municipalities vied for HQ2. The list later narrowed to 20. Most bids were not made public. (A court order forced Pittsburgh to make its bid public.) Muckrock, a nonprofit that facilitates investigative reporting, compiled a database on various HQ2 bids as information became available. Real estate investors reportedly started speculating on which city would eventually win the contest, hoping to take advantage of a sudden need for housing to accommodate HQ2 workers.

Neither of the final site’s full package of incentives has been disclosed.

“As we documented in a study last April, the Crystal City and Long Island City subsidy offers are among the many HQ2 bids that remain completely hidden,” said Good Jobs First, a nonprofit that tracks corporate subsidies, in a statement. “Citizens have no idea what their elected officials have promised to a company headed by the richest person on earth.”

Arlington, located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., was chosen despite growing resistance to HQ2 across the region.

New York City put up four neighborhoods as possible HQ2 sites in its bid. The Long Island City neighborhood, somewhat confusingly named, is the westernmost neighborhood of the Borough of Queens, located along the East River waterfront, with a smattering of fresh new parks with storybook views of the Manhattan skyline across the river. On paper, the neighborhood has good subway access to Midtown Manhattan, though in practice weekend maintenance and daily delays have become the norm with the city’s aging subway system. Some will shudder at the thought of 25,000 new workers in the area.

Still, the neighborhood’s attractiveness, as well as a glut of former industrial properties, especially along the waterfront, have led to a building boom. As the Times reported, there have been 41 new apartment buildings built in Long Island City since 2010, and last year, more new apartments were built in Long Island City than in any other neighborhood in New York City.

Not to mention, the NYC Economic Development Corporation, Amtrak, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority just last month kicked off a public process to craft a shared vision for the redevelopment of Sunnyside Yards, a massive 180-acre train storage and maintenance yard heavily used by Amtrak and two regional commuter rail services. The yard cuts through a swath of neighborhoods in Western Queens, including Long Island City. The plan right now is to build a cap over the yard and to decide what comes next by drafting a master plan with community input. At the city’s first public meeting last month for the Sunnyside Yards planning process, some were optimistic about having a brand new piece of land to bolster an already crowded area, but others were concerned about overdevelopment in the neighborhoods around the yards, City Limits reported.


Closing the Bay Area “Friends and Family” Capital Gap

Impact Hub Oakland, home to Uptima Business Bootcamp and the Bay Area pilot for The Runway Project. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

Based in the Bay Area, G.W. “Chef” Chew’s company, Something Better Foods, has created a line of plant-based meats, from Philly cheesesteaks to fried chicken, and opened a nonprofit Oakland restaurant, the Veg Hub. The firm became one of the earliest borrowers from The Runway Project, receiving a $20,000 loan from the nationwide initiative to support black entrepreneurs with capital as well as other essential assistance, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Sunday.

“That money was a blessing,” Chew said, according to the Chronicle. The loan helped Chew secure a manufacturing site for Something Better Foods. The Runway Project also helped with advice, coaching him on his business and marketing plans, and Chew is now raising more money to prepare for a distribution deal he landed with Whole Foods for next year, according to the newspaper.

The Runway Project co-founder Jessica Norwood created the initiative in 2016. As Next City reported at the time, Norwood’s vision was to close the “friends and family” capital gap for black entrepreneurs — a gap that includes building supportive communities around entrepreneurs, in addition to a source of capital that would meet the needs of very early stage businesses.

“This is the one thing that keeps getting missed in the story,” Norwood told Next City in 2016. “It’s a very obscure, small piece, it doesn’t seem like it would register or create as much of the ripple effect that it does, but it’s the beginning, it’s the genesis, it’s the part of money that tells people ‘I’m with you. I believe in you.’”

According to data compiled by the crowdfunding platform Fundable, friends and family are still the largest sources of startup capital, investing $60 billion a year, compared with $22 billion a year from “angel investors” or $20 billion a year from venture capital firms. The average amount raised from friends and family is $23,000, according to Fundable’s data. But the disparity in “friends and family” capital available based on race remains significant. The median net worth of white households is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black households, according to estimates from the Federal Reserve released in September 2017.

The lack of friends and family capital hasn’t stopped black people from starting businesses — black women, in particular, are still the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs — but the disparity in access to capital has kept many black-owned businesses from growing faster and creating more jobs. Only 2.5 percent of black women-owned firms have employees besides the owner, compared with 20 percent of U.S. firms overall.

Under its current model, The Runway Project actually combines three kinds of capital. First, the loans are funded by certificates of deposit purchased at a local financial institution — Self-Help Federal Credit Union in the case of the Bay Area. Second, to collateralize the loans, rather than requiring collateral from borrowers, The Runway Project organizes philanthropic contributions from either individuals or institutions to be placed in a separate deposit account at the financial institution — one dollar deposited for every loan dollar available. (A similar setup to the “co-op capital” model pioneered by Nusenda Credit Union in Albuquerque.)

The third type of capital is social — the “friends and family” are provided by a local business accelerator with strong roots in black communities and other under-capitalized groups. In the Bay Area, the member-owned Uptima Business Bootcamp serves that role.

“Member ownership allows us to redistribute the wealth rather than having a number of venture capitalists invest and take equity stakes and have the proceeds go to people who have significant amounts of wealth already,” Uptima co-founder Rani Langer-Croager told Next City in 2016. “It basically becomes a way for entrepreneurs to invest in each other.”

Langer-Croager also chairs The Runway Project’s Bay Area credit committee, which screens the initiative’s loan applicants.

The Runway Project has made 13 loans over the past year, and so far has a 100 percent repayment rate, according to the Chronicle.


Austin Anti-Displacement Task Force Issues Recommendations

A map of gentrification in Austin, with darker purple and blue representing later stages. (Credit: University of Texas Center for Sustainable Development in the School of Architecture & the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic in the School of Law)

With a $250-million affordable housing bond on the ballot this month, Austin already has plenty to consider when it comes to housing affordability. Adding to that: this week’s release of draft recommendations from the city’s Anti-Displacement Task Force.

Austin City Council created the task force by resolution in Aug. 2017, committing members — seven appointed by the mayor, the rest appointed by members of city council — to a ten-month process. Along the way, Austin joined the All In Cities Anti-Displacement Network, as Next City reported previously. In the meantime, two other anti-displacement documents in Austin were published, The People’s Plan to Curb Displacement and Uprooted. The latter came from researchers at the University of Texas, and was accompanied by a mapping tool to view displacement risk throughout Austin.

The task force recommendations open with a section on the limited sources of financing available for anti-displacement work, followed by sections on preventing or rectifying displacement of homeowners, of renters, and of cultural institutions and artists.

The recommendations note that, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Austin has allocated $15 of local housing resources per city resident — as contrasted with Denver allocating $34 of local funds on housing per capita; Philadelphia, $37; Boston, $68; Seattle, $115; Portland, $186; and San Francisco, $536. The document lists several options for increasing that figure in Austin, such as tax increment financing, property tax waivers for projects with a certain amount of affordable housing (which the city already does for selected projects involving a partnership with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin), and developer fees tied to density bonuses.

The draft recommendations also include lobbying the state legislature to remove Texas’ prohibition on inclusionary zoning. According to the task force, Texas is one of only three states that prohibits inclusionary zoning, the use of zoning to require projects to include affordable housing units under certain circumstances.

On homeownership, the task force currently recommends the adoption of “Right to Remain and Right to Return” policies, in alignment with the People’s Plan to Curb Displacement. Such policies or programs would, for example, identify and reach out to residents at risk of displacement to connect them to available resources; residents identified as previously displaced would be prioritized on waitlists for city-financed or city-incentivized housing, or for programs that are designed to assist first-time homebuyers. The recommendations also explore possibilities for limiting or lowering property taxes for long-time homeowners, especially seniors — as done in other cities, such as Philadelphia.

On the renter side, the task force draft includes recommendations to put in place a Tenant Opportunity to Purchase policy, as exists in Washington, D.C., which requires tenants be given an opportunity to purchase their building before a landlord may put it up for sale on the open market. It also recommends a policy such as Chicago’s Troubled Building Initiative, to ensure that landlords do not profit off of neglecting maintenance in their buildings and that there are responsible landlords available to act as receivers or purchasers if owners of neglected properties fail to adhere to compliance timelines. The task force also recommends Austin adopt HUD’s new Small Area Fair Market Rents rule, giving Section 8 rental assistance voucher holders more flexibility for their vouchers to cover higher rents in more desirable neighborhoods.

The task force draft also recommends aggressively enforcing fair housing laws, “which in Austin today are for all practical purposes ignored,” the draft reads. “The City must aggressively root out all vestiges of housing discrimination through law-enforcement actions based on a systemic program of testing, diligent investigation and prosecution.”

On the cultural institutions and artists front, the task force draft recommendations make the connection between stabilizing middle-class or workforce housing as vital to preserving a diverse audience for artists and cultural institutions. It also recommends the creation of a “cultural land trust” that can take ownership to steward properties used as affordable housing for artists or as affordable studio, office, practice and performance space.

The recommendations are open for comment until November 4, according to the Austin Monitor.


Store Closures at Odds with South Side’s Neighborhood-led Revival Efforts

The Chatham neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago was rocked recently by the news of its Target location closing.

The South Side Chicago neighborhood of Chatham isn’t quite what it once was, but it’s still got a lot going for it — some 7,400 businesses employing 50,000 people, and a long legacy as a stronghold of the black middle class.

“The culture of Greater Chatham is entrepreneurship,” Chatham native Nedra Sims Fears, told Next City recently. “[NYC’s] Harlem was the arts, culture and creative class. Chatham was the business class that financed the creative class as well as the social justice movement. Dr. King came to Chicago to meet payroll.”

As executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative, Sims Fears has been working to turn around the slow decline of the neighborhood, as older residents have retired, some have chosen to move away. Others left years ago as former industrial jobs dried up — though now many of those jobs are coming back, as evidenced by the neighborhood’s 7,400 businesses.

In analyzing the neighborhood, the Greater Chatham Initiative found just ten metal fabrication firms doing about $94 million in annual sales — a high-growth potential industry, given Chicago’s downtown construction boom and low barriers to entry-level employment. The Initiative also found 111 transportation, distribution and logistics firms in the neighborhood, pulling in about $110 million in annual sales; and about ten food packaging and processing businesses earning about $10 million in annual sales.

As the makings of a neighborhood turnaround have come together, news of Target closing its Chatham location “rocked” the neighborhood yesterday, Block Club Chicago reported. The chain announced the store will close in February.

“I’m always in here, it’s always packed in here,” Chatham resident Edith Mitchell told the news site. “I don’t know what they mean by low sales because everyone is always in there. There’s line in there now. … I don’t see why it should be closing. Look at how many people are going to lose their jobs.”

Target representatives told Block Club Chicago that the Chatham location was one of two to close on the South Side (the other in the Morgan Park neighborhood) because they were unprofitable. The corporation announced the closures of five total locations nationwide this week.

“Target follows a rigorous annual process to evaluate every store within our portfolio and we do that to maintain the overall health of the business,” Target spokesperson Jacqueline Debuse told Block Club Chicago. “Typically, a store is closed after seeing several years of decreasing profitability.”

All eligible employees at both stores will have an opportunity to transfer to other Chicagoland locations or accept a separation package, Debuse said.

The Chatham store employs about 120 full- and part-time workers, according to Block Club Chicago. There are about 115 workers at the Morgan Park location, according to The Chicago Tribune.

Several national chains have made headlines for coming to the South Side in recent years, including WalMart in the Pullman neighborhood, and Whole Foods in Englewood.

Data seem to support the idea that there is untapped consumer demand on the South Side of Chicago, which has survived years, if not decades, of neglect and disinvestment. As Next City reported previously, using anonymized credit and debit card transaction data, a study found that a south side resident on average traveled over four miles away from their home to make a purchase, while residents of the north side of Chicago on average traveled less than two miles.

“It also makes you wonder since they are closing every store in urban Chicago with the exception of Hyde Park, are you cherry-picking where you are going to have a Target store?” asked Melinda Kelly, president of the Chatham Business Association, according to Block Club Chicago.


Much-Awaited Guidelines Opening the Opportunity Zone Floodgates

A map showing designated Opportunity Zones (shaded in dark blue) in and around Philadelphia. (Credit: Policy Map)

‘Tis the season for Opportunity Zone investing. The new tax incentive to invest in economically distressed areas was already drawing significant interest before Oct. 19, the day when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) proposed key guidelines that many were waiting upon to begin making their cash available for investment in designated Opportunity Zones. The guidelines provided important clarity on a number of questions that were still preventing a large number of investors from making their cash available for Opportunity Zones.

A number of Opportunity Funds — vehicles for aggregating the funds to make multiple Opportunity Zone investments — are already forming. Novogradac & Co., an accounting firm that specializes in community development finance, published a directory of 21 Opportunity Funds, with stated goals to raise as much as $4.8 billion in capital under the new tax incentive. The National Council of State Housing Agencies also published a directory of Opportunity Funds, with some overlap between the two. Under the new law, it’s also possible to create single-investment Opportunity Funds for investing in just one eligible business or property.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said that he anticipates as much as $100 billion in investment through the Opportunity Zones tax incentive. As Next City has reported recently, many in fast-growing cities such as Austin, Texas, are concerned that the flood of capital could exacerbate existing gentrification challenges, while others in places such as Alabama are eager to connect investors to projects in places that haven’t had much access to community development capital before.

Federal records show four meetings hosted at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to discuss the proposed guidelines before their release. Attendees included representatives from the Department of the Treasury, major accounting firms, lobbyists for the logistics industry, departments of economic development or commerce from six states, Economic Innovation Group (the think thank that hatched the Opportunity Zones tax incentive) and venture capitalist Ross Baird.

If you are still getting informed on Opportunity Zones, you’re far from alone. The program has only been around since the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act at the end of 2017. The program offers tax breaks on capital gains income for investing in designated Opportunity Zones across the country.

The new law gave states, specifically governor’s offices, the responsibility to select Opportunity Zones from among eligible census tracts. To be considered eligible, census tracts had to have a poverty rate of at least 20 percent or a median family income not exceeding 80 percent of median family income for the metropolitan area or statewide median, whichever is higher. States could select up to 25 percent of eligible census tracts, and up to five percent of their selections could also be census tracts that did not meet qualifications themselves but were adjacent to an eligible census tract. Based on those parameters, out of 42,176 possible census tracts, all 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia chose 8,762 census tracts to receive designation as Opportunity Zones.

The designation process intentionally differed from the EB-5 Immigrant Investor program, which allows foreign investors to “buy” permanent U.S. residency by making an investment in a project located in a distressed area. Under the EB-5 program, developers can gerrymander census tracts together to create an “area” that meets the unemployment threshold of the program, with the project receiving the investment located far from areas of actual high unemployment. That won’t be possible under this program.

Some 35 million people live in designated Opportunity Zones, with a majority being people of color, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Urban Institute. The same researchers also created a ranking of census tracts based on existing investment trends, which revealed that many selected Opportunity Zones are already receiving a significant amount of outside investment. In selected metropolitan areas, they also found, a large proportion of selected Opportunity Zones are already experiencing demographic shifts toward more highly educated, higher-income households.

Here’s how the tax incentive works: If I have a million dollars in capital gains income, from the sale of stock or real estate or other assets (including works of art), I can temporarily defer federal tax payments on that capital gains income by investing the million dollars directly into an eligible business located in an Opportunity Zone or into an Opportunity Fund, which must invest at least 90 percent of its assets into eligible businesses located in Opportunity Zones. Eligible businesses include real estate projects (excluding golf courses, country clubs, massage parlors, hot tub or suntan facilities, race tracks, gambling establishments or liquor stores). If I leave the million dollars in this investment for five years, I get a ten percent reduction in my original capital gains taxable income; if I leave it for seven years, I get a 15 percent reduction; in other words, I’d be taxed on $850,000 of capital gains income instead of the original one million. Bonus: if I leave the funds invested for at least ten years, any new capital gains income from that investment are tax-free at the federal level.

One of the key questions addressed in the new IRS guidelines pertains to the timeline of raising capital versus actual investment in eligible projects or businesses. While investors want the tax benefits right away, real estate projects can take years to aggregate necessary capital, especially if they are projects with an intentional plan to benefit communities. Under the new guidelines, Opportunity Funds have 31 months from receiving capital from investors before they must invest the capital into an actual project — provided that they have a plan to do so within six months of receiving the capital. That means investors can have the confidence to invest in Opportunity Funds with a pipeline of projects that might take longer to come to fruition for the sake of community benefit.

Another key question concerned the law’s requirement that businesses receiving Opportunity Zone investment must conduct “substantially all” of its business inside an Opportunity Zone — as a safeguard against businesses registering an address inside an Opportunity Zone for the purposes of raising capital without actually hiring anyone or serving anyone inside that Zone. Under the final guidelines, at least 50 percent of the gross income of an eligible business must come from “the active conduct of a trade or business in the qualified Opportunity Zone.” Some advocates were hoping for a higher percentage, but others feared that might discourage investors from taking advantage of the program.

The IRS also created a “70-30 rule,” permitting up to 30 percent of an eligible business’ property to be located outside a designated Opportunity Zone. So if a local restaurant chain has five locations, for example, at least four of them must be inside an Opportunity Zone.

On other suggested safeguards, the IRS has so far been mute or is leaning more toward being friendly to investors instead of the 35 million Opportunity Zone residents. Despite calls from advocates to do so, there are no guidelines for eligible businesses to hire residents who live in the Opportunity Zones where they are operating, nor are there requirements that any housing units created with Opportunity Zone capital be affordable for existing residents of Opportunity Zones. The IRS also released a draft version of the required form to “self-certify” as an Opportunity Fund. The form is one page long, two if the fund is “out of compliance,” and the only measure of compliance is the percentage of the fund’s assets located inside a designated Opportunity Zone. Opportunity Funds must pay a nominal fee — based on how much the fund is below the 90 percent threshold — for each month in the previous tax year they are not in compliance.

With so few “guard rails” at the federal level, some are looking to states or municipalities to create measures for protecting Opportunity Zone residents from displacement, or at least incentives to encourage more responsible behavior on the part of Opportunity Funds.

“We believe the state, in designating these zones, has a responsibility to protect the communities that are already there and make sure they benefit from these zones,” Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, told Next City earlier this year.


Global Investors, and Not Families, Are Buying Affordable Homes

(Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

The signs are becoming more ubiquitous, often in neighborhoods with aging housing stock, and where aging homeowners live on fixed incomes. You see fliers stapled to telephone polls or taped to bus stop shelters that say something like, “We Buy Houses for Cash.”

Cleveland’s Old Brooklyn, a middle neighborhood, faces that exact situation. Jeff Verespej, executive director of Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, which has been acquiring and rehabbing homes in Old Brooklyn and selling them at affordable prices back to new homeowners, calls these investors “We Buy Houses LLC.” They buy houses in all-cash deals, often for lower than the homes are actually worth, because they promise payment in cash by the end of the day.

In New York City, these kinds of investors purchased 62 percent of all affordable homes purchased in New York City, according to a new report by the Center for NYC Neighborhoods. The report examines the precariousness of homeownership in New York City, ten years after the subprime mortgage crisis decimated many neighborhoods, especially those where homeowners were predominately people of color.

As of 2017, the report finds, New York homeowners tend to be wealthier, older, and whiter than most New Yorkers. More than one-third of all homeowners struggle to afford their monthly housing costs. Investor home purchases (most with all-cash offers) have doubled since the foreclosure crisis. Young and millennial home buyers are shut out of the housing market because of skyrocketing prices, stagnant wages, investor competition, and tight lending conditions, the report finds.

Concerning from a middle-neighborhoods perspective: Three-quarters of NYC’s senior homeowners are low- and moderate-income and will need assistance in obtaining financing for home repairs and accessibility improvements for aging residents.

Finally, some 400,000 New Yorkers now live in FEMA’s proposed high-risk flood zone, making it increasingly expensive for families to protect and maintain their homes, the report notes.

The report identifies “investors” as individuals or companies that buy homes to profit from them by flipping them, converting them into rentals, or holding them for the purpose of storing and building wealth through real-estate appreciation. The report identified three types of investor-bought properties: properties purchased with “LLC”, “Inc.”, or “Corp.” in their name; properties purchased by entities that bought more than four properties within a five-year period; and properties that were purchased and resold within a year.

The report makes recommendations for what to do in light of these realities facing NYC homeowners. To counter investor acquisitions of affordable homes, the report recommends cease-and-desist zones be imposed in neighborhoods undergoing persistent real estate solicitation — even worse than fliers on telephone polls, homeowners can get phone calls or even knocks on doors from solicitors offering cash buyouts for homes.

Once imposed, residents in a cease and desist zone could opt in to a “do not solicit” registry, and investors who violate the registry can face fines or lose their real estate licenses. To be most effective, the report notes, a cease-and-desist zone should be combined with resources for community outreach and education about the new zone, and services available for homeowners who may think they have no other choice but to sell.

Over the past decade, large private investment firms such as Blackstone have become the nation’s largest landlords of single-family homes, which includes all residential properties up to four units in size. Such firms became major players in the market after the subprime crisis, when federal housing agencies began selling distressed mortgages to such firms en masse. Firms such as these often raise capital from global investors; for example, Blackstone recently announced that it raised $20 billion from Saudi investors.


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