Posts by Author: Rachel Kaufman

New Orleans Falling Short on Affordable Housing Goals

(Credit: Pedro Szekely/Flickr)

New Orleans is falling drastically behind on its affordable housing goals, according to a new report and news channel WDSU.

The semiannual report, from HousingNOLA, a collaborative of housing advocates, city leaders, homebuilders and community development organizations, says that it had hoped to create 2,500 units of affordable housing by September 2018. It now thinks that it will have created only 750 units by that date.

Home prices have continued to rise in the city. In 2016, the report said, the median home value was $219,000, significantly higher than 2014’s $192,000. Meanwhile, the percentage of renters who are not cost-burdened dropped from 46 to 39 percent.

The changes come at a time when New Orleans’ housing stock is in flux. As Next City has reported, many affordable units were built by giving subsidies to developers for time-limited affordable housing deals. An estimated 1,200 housing units across the city are due to expire by 2021; another 5,000 will expire by 2031.

In this landscape, HousingNOLA was formed in 2014; a year later the group introduced a 10-year plan outlining affordable housing objectives. One of the group’s early initiatives, as the Times-Picayune reports, was a pledge to develop 3,000 affordable homes by the end of 2018. It has struggled to reach that goal.

Last year, obstacles to building housing included delays in amending the city’s master plan and delays around legislation that would update density bonuses and other housing issues, HousingNOLA said.

At the time, the group said, “People wanted to be here and the very people they wanted to share a community with were being pushed out.…We met with thousands of people…and our leaders heeded their demands, agreeing to prioritize the scarce remaining resources and work to grow more.…This year, we are seeing the realization of the dire predictions that compelled this plan. The recovery funds from Katrina are nearly exhausted and we produced approximately 500 new housing opportunities, a far cry from the 1,500 committed and 3,330 needed.”

In its report, HousingNOLA asked supporters to encourage Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the city council to adopt three principles:

1. Adopt and implement the Smart Housing Mix, which provides recommendations on how an inclusionary zoning policy can be effectively implemented in New Orleans.

2. Review the current Public Partners production goal of 1,500 units per year as identified in the HousingNOLA 10-Year Strategy and Implementation Plan, adjust for additional need, and produce the units.

3. Increase the Housing Trust Fund to meet production goals and commit to including the Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund (NHIF) reauthorization and increase on the ballot in 2020.

In a statement provided to WDSU, the city said:

“Mayor Cantrell has been a staunch advocate for the development of affordable housing to meet the needs of our residents, both now and in her previous role as council member. She will continue to promote accountability and transparency so that homes already under construction get completed and that resources previously awarded for the development and preservation of affordable homes are put to their highest and best use.”


LA County Moves to Address Homelessness With Pop-Up Bathrooms

The city of Los Angeles is moving to expand services to its homeless population. (Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

After months of bureaucratic red tape, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the placement of portable toilets and handwashing stations in Venice Beach to primarily serve the area’s homeless population, the LA Times reports.

It’s the latest move in ongoing efforts by the city of Los Angeles to provide bathroom access — among other urgently needed services — to people experiencing homelessness in neighborhoods like Venice and Skid Row, home to one of the nation’s largest chronically homeless populations. The city’s efforts have been hamstrung by the need to get approvals from other agencies, the Times reported in a separate article. A December unveiling of temporary RefreshSpot trailers, the first new public toilets on Skid Row in a decade, was seen as a “possible turning point for the homeless enclave,” the paper reported, but three months later, the trailers shut down and never reappeared.

The Times wrote:

The slow and faltering bathroom rollouts raise questions about whether logistical problems and red tape are contributing to Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that have started to flow for new programs.

“If we can’t get something as simple as mobile restrooms up and running, that doesn’t give me a lot of faith the city can produce the leadership needed to produce housing units,” said Pete White of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a skid row anti-poverty group.

The new county motion instructs the Department of Beaches and Harbors to allow the placement of two overnight restrooms at the Rose Avenue beach parking lot in Venice. The facilities could open by the end of the month and will remain in place up to a year. Attendants will monitor the restrooms and remove them every morning so that the public can park; separately, the Times reports, the nonprofit Lava Mae will park a trailer with toilets and showers in the lot for daytime use.

The board of supervisors also approved a program designating two new parking lots in Hollywood and North Hollywood as “safe parking” sites for people living in their cars, with the nonprofit Safe Parking LA providing security and programming. Safe Parking LA already operates multiple safe parking sites in the city; this motion would create two more, providing a total of 20 vehicle spaces. It’s estimated that 16,000 people live in 8,500 cars across the county.

Meanwhile, the city is moving to locate services for people experiencing homelessness elsewhere in town as well. As Next City reported in April, the city council voted to establish a temporary shelter on a parking lot in El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, in downtown Los Angeles. The area has the city’s second largest concentration of people experiencing homelessness in downtown LA, after Skid Row. The five trailers in the project, Curbed LA wrote, will provide a combined 60 beds, bathrooms and showers, and office space for on-site case managers to help residents get permanent housing.

And Mayor Eric Garcetti and his team haven’t given up on reopening the bathroom and shower stations on Skid Row, the Times wrote.

“While I am disappointed that the expansion of the ReFresh Spot is taking longer than anticipated, I remain encouraged that it will help meet the basic human needs of far more people, and will offer services that were not previously available,” Garcetti told the newspaper in an email. “My team is working to reopen the site as quickly as possible.”

The initial response to the Skid Row bathrooms was enthusiastic, the Times added. Guests enjoyed “the minimal security, attendants who included formerly homeless people and a culturally sensitive music playlist, which ranged from classic R&B to soft rock and jazz.”

One of the new trailers has arrived and may open on Skid Row this month; the others are expected later this summer.


New York City To Subsidize MetroCards for Low-Income Residents

Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Johnson reach early handshake agreement on FY19 Budget, which includes $106 million for Fair Fares. (Credit: The City of New York)

New York City’s latest budget includes $106 million to subsidize MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers.

The program, called Fair Fares, will allow New Yorkers whose income is below the federal poverty line to buy MetroCards at half the regular cost, the New York Times reports. About 800,000 people could be eligible for the subsidy, although far fewer are expected to initially enroll. The Community Service Society of New York (CSS), which supported the program, and the advocacy group Riders Alliance, estimate that about 361,000 riders will take advantage of the program, AM New York reports.

One in four working-age, low-income New Yorkers can’t afford MetroCards, according to the CSS, which in 2016 released a report on what it called the city’s “transit affordability crisis” and the challenges faced by the working poor in getting around.

Mayor de Blasio originally opposed funding the Fair Fares program, saying that the richest New Yorkers should be taxed to pay for it, the New York Times reported in a separate story. But to do that would require state approval, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo was unlikely to approve such a measure, the Times said.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson had pushed de Blasio hard on the program.

“I don’t understand how you can justify subsidizing $6.60 for every ferry ride, but not helping people who live in poverty get on the train,” Johnson told the mayor’s budget director at a hearing, according to the Times. (De Blasio had asked for $300 million to subsidize the NYC Ferry, which carries 3.8 million riders a year to the subways’ 6 million.)

During tense negotiations, the Times said, Johnson “walked out [of the mayoral residence] after Mr. de Blasio offered a much smaller number to finance the fare subsidy.” City Hall disputes the account.

Johnson and de Blasio finally came to an agreement on Wednesday. The $106 million should be enough to pay for the first six months of the program, after which the city will analyze the cost for future years based on how many people sign up, the Daily News reported.

That said, “this is not a one-time commitment,” Johnson declared.

NYC already subsidizes MetroCards for students, seniors, the disabled and 40,000 people who receive cash assistance. The new program will operate in much the same way. The cards are personalized and cost $1.35 per ride, less than half the subway/bus fare of $2.75.

London, Seattle and San Francisco already have fare subsidies for low-income people. Boston and Denver are considering it, the Times said.

The program’s supporters say that not only will it help struggling residents financially, it could also contribute to criminal justice reform if it reduces the number of arrests for fare evasion.

The fiscal year 2019 budget, de Blasio told AM NY, is balanced and “profoundly responsible.”

On Fair Fares, he added, “It’s a profound and good and moral ideal. I have felt that from the beginning. The challenge was always how to make it work. The beauty of this idea, in terms of making this the fairest big city in America, it’s going to help so many New Yorkers to reach opportunity that too often is out of reach because of pure lack of resources.”


Seattle Pivots on Head Tax in Face of Mounting Opposition

The Seattle area has the country's third-largest homeless population. (Credit: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Less than a month after approving it, the Seattle City Council abruptly reversed course and is considering a repeal of the “head tax,” a tax on large employers meant to raise $47 million per year to address the city’s homelessness crisis.

The Seattle Times reports that seven of nine council members, as well as Mayor Jenny Durkan, scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday to push legislation that would repeal the tax, which was set at $275 per employee per year for companies that gross $20 million per year.

“it is clear that the ordinance will lead to a prolonged, expensive political fight over the next five months that will do nothing to tackle our urgent housing and homelessness crisis,” Mayor Durkan and the seven council members said in a statement posted on the mayor’s website. “The City remains committed to building solutions that bring businesses, labor, philanthropy, neighborhoods and communities to the table. Now more than ever, we all must roll up our sleeves and tackle this crisis together. These shared solutions must include a continued focus on moving our most vulnerable from the streets, providing needed services and on building more housing as quickly as possible. The state and region must be full partners and contribute to the solutions, including working for progressive revenue sources. Seattle taxpayers cannot continue to shoulder the majority of costs, and impacts.”

A campaign funded by businesses called No Tax on Jobs raised more than $200,000 and planned to submit signatures for a repeal referendum on the November ballot, the Times said. Amazon, Starbucks and Vulcan, a company founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, supported the repeal campaign, the Associated Press said.

Lisa Daugaard, a member of a city task force whose recommendations helped create the head tax proposal, decried the businesses that fought against the tax.

“The onus is very much on those who fought so hard against this solution to identify a better one, or admit they’re OK with the city having shanty towns and favelas in our public spaces indefinitely,” she told the Times.

As Next City has previously reported, Seattle declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015. The county has the country’s third-largest homeless population, a number that jumped four percent in the annual one-night recount held in May, according to the Times. Part of the cause is soaring rents, which have risen 57 percent in the past six years, and high home prices (the median home price is around $720,000). Further, Washington State, which has no income tax, has the most regressive tax system in the country. Seattle is the only city in the U.S. to have one of the top five highest tax burdens for people earning $25,000 or less, while also having one of the lowest tax burdens for people earning more than $150,000.

Denise Moriguchi, chief executive of longtime Seattle grocery company Uwajimaya, told the Seattle Times that she believed the head tax was an “ill-conceived proposal to tax the very businesses which provide jobs, generate tax revenue and provide support to organizations that help address homelessness.”

While the head tax — a scaled-down compromise of the original proposal — passed the council unanimously, only two council members still stood by the tax as of Monday.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who originally supported the tax, told the Seattle Times that he “didn’t fully contemplate” what a contentious referendum process would look like. “The likelihood of a good outcome seems slim enough that I want to pivot.”

“We’re at this standoff,” he said. “Everyone can kill everyone’s ideas and then we end up 2½ years into a state of emergency and we really haven’t done much.”


Rent Strikes Heating Up Nationwide, Say Tenant Organizers

1919 Harlem, NY, rent strike. (Credit: Wikimedia/NY Times)

Tenants in Washington, D.C., are going into their second month of a rent strike, a tactic that organizers and experts say is becoming increasingly common as cities gentrify, the Washington Post reports.

The strike mirrors others that have taken place in Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, the Post and the Toronto Star report.

“It’s a rare demonstration of the economic power that residential tenants have,” Kenneth Hale, legal director for a tenants advocacy group in Toronto, told the Star. “We don’t see it very often, but the reality is every month, residential tenants hand over more than a billion dollars to their landlords. That’s a lot of economic clout.”

The strike in D.C., in the Brightwood Park neighborhood, is being coordinated by the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC), a D.C. organization that advocates for tenants’ rights. It has historically stayed away from facilitating rent strikes, the Post wrote, but “frustration with the slow pace of legal battles and rapidly rising rents in the District prompted organizers to guide residents through the process of striking.” Nine residents are participating in the strike, saying that their building owner has neglected maintenance for years. A number of neighbors have already left the building, driven away by water and fire damage, a boiler-pipe explosion, pests, mold, faulty wiring and unreliable heat and hot water, according to the Post.

The property manager, Delores Johnson, calls the striking tenants troublemakers who had too many adults living in their units, changed the locks on their doors and barred maintenance workers or exterminators from entering their units. “This really isn’t a rent strike,” she told the Post. “They just don’t want to pay rent, and they don’t want to be evicted.”

Rent strikes were once commonplace, a fixture in late 19th- and early 20th-century cities. As Matthew Desmond writes in Evicted, “Strikers…were not an especially radical bunch…[m]ost were ordinary mothers and fathers who believed landlords were entitled to modest rent increases and fair profits, but not ‘price gouging.’”

Now rent strikes are gaining traction once more. In Toronto, the success of two major rent strikes against landlords in the past year shows tenants’ power, the Toronto Star wrote. In Colorado, the state legislature had even considered a bill that would formalize the process of rent strikes, giving renters the right to withhold rent up to the amount it would cost to repair a major defect in the unit, Colorado Public Radio reported in April. (The bill died in committee in May.) And in Los Angeles, there have been a half-dozen rent strikes since 2016, the Washington Post reports, with the city leading the charge in renter activism — unsurprising, the Post says, since LA has one of the most cost-burdened rental markets in the U.S. and the largest share of renters of any major U.S. city.

“We are reaching levels of inequality that we have not seen since the Gilded Age, and so maybe it’s time to return to tactics like the rent strikes that were invented in those years,” Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, an organizer with the LA Tenants Union, told the Post.

Back in Washington, D.C., at the site of the Brightwood Park strike, building owner EADS LLC, has sued some of its tenants, mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants, for not paying rent. EADS has pledged to renovate 13 of the building’s apartments, as well as its hallways, in the coming months. It was unclear if the renovations had been planned before the tenants began withholding rent. The strike could take years to reach a conclusion, the Post reported, but if it is successful, LEDC organizer Rob Wohl told the newspaper that it might help tenants in other buildings strike, as well.

“Tenants are becoming more willing to organize around the notion that they’re paying too much for too little and they could still lose their homes,” Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor, told the Washington Post. “That creates a kind of fearlessness because you have less to lose.”


Houston Unveils $1 Billion Harvey Aid Action Plan

Flood-damage debris litters Houston street on September 17, 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. (Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Houston officials have released the first action plan for how to spend $1.15 billion in federal housing aid, part of a $5 billion package allocated to the state, the Houston Chronicle reports. The split is about 60/40 single-family homes and apartments.

“Even though a billion dollars is a lot of money, we know it isn’t enough to meet all of the housing needs in Houston,” Tom McCasland, director of Houston’s Housing and Community Development department, told the Chronicle. “But the opportunity here is one we’ve never had before. It’s a big step toward a city where everyone has a safe, affordable home, in a thriving neighborhood.”

Texas officials planned to publish one statewide plan in March, but Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner accused the state land office of “hogging the $5 billion” and cutting the city out of talks. Now, instead, Houston gets to allocate about $1 billion; surrounding Harris County will publish a similar plan for its $1 billion, and both plans will be attached as amendments to the statewide plan that will address the rest of the Gulf Coast.

Houston is proposing to spend its part of the pie as follows:

  • $385 million to help homeowners repair or rebuild storm-damaged homes
  • $315 million to buy land to construct new multifamily apartments or repair damaged apartments
  • $200 million to build new single-family homes
  • $60 million to repair “small rental properties,” which includes single-family homes (1–7 units), or build new ones
  • $60 million toward social services and homelessness programs
  • $21 million for an affordable-housing assistance program to help low- and moderate-income renters become homeowners
  • $40 million to buy out repeatedly flooded properties
  • $30 million for economic revitalization
  • and $43 million for planning and administrative costs.

HUD rules say that at least 70 percent of the funds must benefit families making no more than 80 percent of the median income, which is $60,000 for a family of four.

The aid monies will make a dent in Houston’s recovery, but it’s not nearly enough, the Chronicle reports. By the city’s calculations, even after it spends the incoming $1 billion, it will still leave an “unmet housing need” of $2.3 billion. And city officials say that even that number understates the need.

“Unmet housing need” is calculated by looking at homeowners who suffered $8,000 or more in property damage and renters who lost $2,000 or more. Those damage totals came from FEMA “verified loss” amounts. It leaves out storm-damaged households that didn’t apply for aid (including the households of thousands of undocumented immigrants) and 182,550 families that applied for aid but were denied, the Chronicle reports.

Federal officials say a high denial rate is part of the process, as FEMA encourages everyone affected by a disaster to register. Many do so even if they have obvious disqualifications.

FEMA spokesman Robert Howard told the Chronicle in a separate story that a person “might have only suffered minor damage but registered because they heard a media report telling them they should.”

Still, a suspicion that the FEMA numbers undercount renters and low-income people is why city officials contracted in February with a data analytics firm, the Chronicle says. Officials hope to use its work to advocate for more aid in the coming months.

The Houston aid draft plan goes to public comment, then will be voted on by the city council in late June.


Austin to Explore Repeal of Measures Targeting Homeless

Annual homeless count in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Flickr)

Austin’s public safety commission voted Monday to approve a resolution asking the city to review and possibly repeal ordinances that target people experiencing homelessness — but many advocates for the homeless are against repeal, saying it may further disconnect people from needed services and could even lead to criminal citations.

The resolution highlights three ordinances, the Austin Monitor writes. First, there’s a no-camping rule. There’s also a rule against sitting or lying down in parts of downtown, and one against “aggressive panhandling,” which includes making physical contact, making threats, using obscene language or following people.

Commissioner Daniela Nuñez, who authored the resolution, said an analysis by the city auditor found that the ordinances make it harder for people experiencing homelessness to connect to services that would help them get a job or housing.

In theory, said Andrew Keegan, an assistant city auditor who helped draft the analysis, bringing people into community court is a connection to necessary services. In practice, he said, the court is overwhelmed and unable to give every person the attention they need. “It did not appear to be an efficient method to connect people to services,” he said.

Violating the ordinances is only a class C misdemeanor, which does not show up on a person’s criminal history, but if a person is cited for violating the ordinance and then misses a court date, she could receive an arrest warrant.

The resolution only asks the city to review the measures and seek input from stakeholders, including the homeless themselves.

Fox 7 asked two people experiencing homelessness what they thought about repealing the sit/lie ordinance. Both told the channel they thought it was a good idea.

“it’s not like you’re bothering anybody or doing anything, you’re just in your own little world,” Jason Williams said.

Emily Gerrick, staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, a group that advocates for a fairer criminal justice system for low-income people, said that the laws could be interpreted as an unconstitutional targeting of people based on their status, or a violation of First Amendment rights. She added that the definition of “aggressive panhandling” is vague, and that some of her organization’s clients have been ticketed simply for holding signs on the side of the road.

Austin Police Department assistant chief Justin Newsom testified that the ordinances were needed to “maintain public order.”

“If we didn’t have an ordinance against camping, then the front steps out here at City Hall and this space out front could be completely filled with tents and people living there,” he said. The only way to clear the area would be to arrest people for criminal trespassing, which is a class B misdemeanor and does show up on an arrest record. Newsom added that the real issue was a lack of services and housing. “What we give them is totally insufficient,” he said. “And everybody knows that in this town.”

Ed McHorse, a board member of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), said that the ordinances needed changes but agreed with Newsom that the “potential unintended consequences” might be worse, according to the Monitor. “You could have people who are getting citations right now that don’t interfere with their ability to get housing,” he told the commission. “They start getting citations that do. And that would make our work more difficult.”

The Salvation Army also agreed that the ordinances should remain, but for a different reason. In a letter sent to the commission, it wrote that the people camping out around the Salvation Army’s shelter are dangerous to the 150 women and chlidren who live inside the shelter. “The ‘tent city’ that appears to be developing around the perimeter of the ARCH truly presents an unacceptable level of risk for all — residents, staff, and local business alike. For this reason, we respectfully request your consideration in tabling any repeal of the sit/lie ordinances for further investigation and review…Until we have some better strategies, which our newly organized Housing Next group led by City of Austin and ECHO is beginning to facilitate, it seems premature to take out the only enforcement measure we have on the books, however ineffective it has been. Let us not risk making this situation worse while we are trying to figure out how to handle it more effectively,” it wrote.

The resolution, which passed 6-2, ultimately directs the Austin City Manager to “seek input from stakeholders” on the three ordinances, “consider how these ordinances will impact respect and trust between Austin Police Department and homeless individuals” and “work to fund and expand community-based solutions that effectively or efficiently connect people facing homelessness to social services.”


Phoenix Street Safety Board Members Resign, Citing City Delays and Inaction

A pedestrian walks across wide, rain-drenched streets in Phoenix. (Credit: Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo)

Shortly after being named the deadliest state in the country for pedestrians, seven of nine members of a task force created to develop “Complete Streets” design guidelines resigned, AZCentral reports.

In a resignation letter sent May 30, the members expressed frustration that their work “has been maligned by developer lobbyists, disrespected by city staff and dismissed by ill-prepared political bodies.”

The volunteer advisory board was created back in 2014. Board members submitted a Complete Streets policy and a set of design guidelines to the Phoenix city council in August 2015. The council approved the policy in July 2017, but never formally voted on the design guidelines. Approval of the policy “gave the appearance of progress and made for good headlines,” the resignation letter contends. But without the guidelines the policy is toothless, say board members, who also charged that a year of discussions with developer representatives did little but slow the process.

Complete Streets is a nationwide transportation initiative promoting transportation policy and design that emphasizes street safety, mobility, and accessibility.

In a study released by the Governors Highway Safety Association in May, Arizona came in #1 for pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 residents in the first half of 2017, ABC15 reported. The state had 1.61 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people, more than double the national average of .81. Based on 2016 data, Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, had the second-highest number of pedestrian fatalities, second only to Los Angeles County.

Perhaps coincidentally, nearby Tempe, Arizona, which is also in Maricopa County, was the site of the fatal crash in which an autonomous car operated by Uber killed a pedestrian.

A mobility plan separate from the Complete Streets initiative, the Transportation 2050 plan, created to increase transit access, add new bike lanes and sidewalks and improve pedestrian safety, was approved by Phoenix voters in 2015. Some of the Transportation 2050 plan has already been enacted, with the city working to expand light rail and launch a Neighborhood Mobility Improvement Study to increase pedestrian and biker safety in 11 priority neighborhoods, selected for their high bike and bus ridership, low car ownership rates and presence of low-income people, reports ABC15.

Phoenix has also pledged to spend $343 million to add more than 1,000 miles of bike lanes and 135 miles of sidewalk over the next 30 years, AZ Central reports, with 176 miles of bike lane to be added before 2022.

“The highest scoring projects that mean the most to every study area hopefully will become reality for these folks,” Mobility Planner Brian Fellows told ABC15. “And hopefully, it will make them safer and happier.”

The Complete Streets policy will have to wait a little longer. The advisory board had pushed the council to vote on the guidelines in April, overruling the recommendations of city staff, the Phoenix New Times reports. Instead, the council agreed to move up the timeline so the council would vote in May instead of late June.

“We can either wait for more people to die and have a process where pretty much nothing will change, or we can start working on this now,” Leslie Dornfeld, chair of the advisory board before her resignation, told the council in April.

But another delay in May pushed that vote to August “at the earliest,” reports AZ Central. That’s when all but two members of the board resigned.

In a statement provided to AZ Central, Phoenix city spokesman Matthew Heil said that “We have always had the same common goal — to provide safe streets designed to achieve a more sustainable, safe and accessible transportation system for all.”


A Win for Tenants’ Rights in Historic Prop F Vote in San Francisco

San Francisco apartment buildings. (Credit: Steve Dunlap/Flickr)

San Francisco has become the second city in the U.S. to guarantee renters the right to an attorney when facing an eviction lawsuit in housing court.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the ballot measure Proposition F won with 56 percent of the vote.

That isn’t entirely surprising, adds the San Francisco Weekly: “Organizers managed to get more than double the number of signatures required to get the measure on the ballot, weeks before the filing deadline. The top three mayoral candidates voiced their support…the odds were certainly in Prop F’s favor.”

Many tenants appear in rent court without a lawyer, which gives landlords a clear advantage. The Right to Counsel Coalition of NYC says that half of tenants who are evicted would not be if they had had an attorney. “That means landlords evict tenants because they have power, not because the law supports them,” the coalition writes.

New York City became the first city to provide legal representation in housing court in 2017, in large part thanks to advocacy by the Right to Counsel coalition. A study commissioned by the NYC Bar Association before the change estimated that universal access to representation in housing court would save the city $320 million, since keeping tenants in their homes lowers the number of people entering homeless shelters and lowers healthcare and other costs. It also would avert the replacement of over 3,000 affordable housing units that would lose their status as a result of eviction proceedings. The law was officially passed in August 2017 but will be phased in over the next five years by zip code.

Tenants’ rights groups hailed the vote in San Francisco, where evictions have been on the rise since the tech boom. About 1,600 tenants were evicted last year, the Chronicle reported, a 26 percent increase since 2010. San Francisco already budgets $2 million per year to help low-income tenants, but it’s not enough, advocates say. The Office of Housing and Community Development now has 12 months to come up with a plan to serve all of San Francisco’s residents.

“This has been a dream of the Tenants Union for many, many years,” Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, told SF Weekly. “The Tenants Union believes organizing is the beginning, and organizing is the power. But when you are facing a judge as a tenant, and you are alone, it doesn’t look good.”

The San Francisco Apartment Association, which represents landlords, opposed the measure. SFAA spokesman Charley Goss told radio station KALW that not every tenant deserved a taxpayer-funded attorney. “People are being evicted for damaging the building [or for] being a nuisance for other residents in the building,” he said. “We don’t believe that the city and taxpayers should fund eviction defense, for those instances.”

Other than New York and San Francisco, no other cities in the U.S. have passed laws guaranteeing tenants a right to counsel. But many have considered or enacted policies that establish legal-aid funds for low-income tenants, including a fund established in D.C., managed by the DC Bar, to provide free legal counsel to low-income tenants. The councilmember who initially introduced the measure, Kenyan McDuffie, described the program as a “bold step” toward establishing a right to counsel.

San Francisco’s ballot measure is the first right-to-counsel law approved by voters, notes KALW. That could inspire organizing efforts in other cities.

“This is a historic moment for the country, but it’s looking pretty good that we are changing the conversation around housing and what everybody needs,” Varma told SF Weekly. “I’ll see you in fucking court.”


New Maps Show Access to Opportunity Isn’t Just Physical

An interactive StoryMap of the Columbia Parc/St. Bernard area in New Orleans. (Credit: UNC Center for Community Capital)

The so-called “zip code effect” — the idea that your economic circumstances are in part determined by where you live — is real, but teasing out the exact factors that go into that relationship can be complicated. Is it access to jobs and education? A more diverse community, with a range of incomes? Quality housing?

A new pair of interactive “StoryMaps,” from the UNC Center for Community Capital (CCC) and JPMorgan Chase & Co., and a complementary report aim to address those questions. The Assessing and Promoting Opportunity in Low- and Moderate-Income Communities report investigated two neighborhoods over an 18-month period, one in San Francisco and another in New Orleans, in very different circumstances. The purpose of the report, as its authors said, was to “shed light on which aspects of access to opportunity are universal — i.e. seem to be present regardless of setting — and which are more a matter of local particularities.”

Columbia Parc, in New Orleans, and Protrero Terrace and Annex, in San Francisco, couldn’t be more different. Although both sites have undergone or are undergoing a conversion from public to mixed-income housing, the contrast is stark. Columbia Parc is in a low-income neighborhood, where 57 percent of households are poor; it is the site of the former St. Bernard public housing development, which was closed after Hurricane Katrina and torn down in 2008. Protrero Terrace and Annex is in a wealthy community, where 58 percent of households are affluent.

The maps — one for San Francisco and one for New Orleans — highlight what is different about the two neighborhoods. In Protrero Terrace, for example, which is in the process of being converted to a mixed-income community, most residents have health insurance, and the neighborhood has a relatively low share of cost-burdened households, compared with San Francisco as a whole. Yet residents still struggle: no bus line serves Protrero Annex, and the lines serving the Terrace have been cut over time. The nearest bank and credit union branches are more than a mile away, so residents end up using local ATMs (and paying the associated fees) or check-cashing stores. These are issues similar to those faced by people living in Columbia Parc in New Orleans, even though the surroundings are quite different.

UNC’s CCC found two factors shared by both communities that may explain their access to opportunities. They write:

Friction of distance, which takes into account the amount of effort required to complete a journey and which implies that even a short journey can be perceived as daunting. This has relevance in each site, where interviews revealed that even when services and amenities were in close proximity, residents did not perceive resources to be accessible.…Lack of voice was raised in both sites by interviewees who expressed concern about residents’ limited participation in the decision-making processes that affect their lives.

Reducing “friction of distance” can be accomplished by reducing the effort it takes to apply for assistance. New York City did just this when it used design tools to improve the affordable housing lottery process, as Next City reported earlier this year. Service providers should also consider co-locating services with housing, and ensuring that services are offered in culturally relevant ways (e.g., in a person’s native language).

As for incorporating resident voices, CCC suggests that developers and planners partner with and invest in “place-based partners” that work closely with residents, such as community development corporations.

“Affordable, quality housing is necessary, but it is insufficient to promote household and community well-being,” the report authors write. “From residents and stakeholders in both communities, we learned that accessing and using services, resources, and opportunities is not just a matter of physical proximity. Other factors intervene to shape how opportunity is experienced: a lack of information and awareness, minimal social networks, a lack of cultural competency and empathy on the part of service providers, and larger community problems such as systemic racism and fragmented human service systems all act as barriers between residents and fulfillment of their hopes and dreams.”


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Architect Mahmood Fallahian

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