The Specter of Asbestos in Low-Income Housing

Posted by Charles MacGregor on April 20, 2017

Half a century ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see asbestos used in everything from tar paper for roofing, pipe insulation, caulking, ceiling tiles, and home insulation. Asbestos was durable, heat resistant, and cheap, making it a perfect home construction material. And though we have since learned how dangerous it is, approximately 700,000 public buildings in the United States may still contain asbestos—tucked away in insulation, acoustical plaster and concrete, fireproofing materials, floor tiles, and dozens of other applications. Frighteningly, this number serves as an indication of how prevalent it may be in private homes.

Today, federal rules prevent newly manufactured products from containing any more than 1 percent asbestos, and the Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating the substance to determine whether it needs to be banned entirely or regulated even more strictly. Considered safe when left alone, asbestos is incredibly dangerous when it is broken or damaged—creating dust that can be inhaled or ingested, often by people who don’t even know they being exposed.

Studies have shone a light on the prevalence of toxins present inside the homes of lower-income families. Chiefly among those toxins are radon and lead, and because lower-income housing tends to also be older, asbestos is another very real threat to the owners and inhabitants of those homes. The cost of lead and asbestos abatement totals in the thousands of dollars, and private homes aren’t usually included in asbestos regulation, so its removal becomes less of a priority for landlords, and is much less likely to happen at all.

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Seven Tips to Help You Forge Health and Housing Partnerships

Posted by Pamela Bailey on April 19, 2017

In NeighborWorks America’s new five-year strategic plan (2017-2021), one of our most significant transitions is recognition that many members of our network are increasingly broadening and deepening their cross-sector collaborations. We want to support them in advancing this new paradigm to create more opportunities for low-income people and communities.

One of the diverse sectors in which our network members are increasingly active, often through new types of collaborations, is health. A survey conducted by NeighborWorks of 242 of its network organizations showed that nearly 89 percent are engaging in activities that connect housing and community development directly to health—with the most common strategies focused on the home environment and access to healthy foods. A total of 83 percent of those initiatives relied on partners, ranging from hospitals to local public health departments.

A paper summarizing the results of the survey, co-authored by Sarah Norman, NeighborWorks’ director of healthy homes and communities, is now in peer review at the journal Cities & Health and is summarized in a blog post on Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies website.

“What makes these findings striking is the message they send to the nation’s health providers, who are called upon by recent changes in the medical field to pay more attention to the social determinants of health—including housing,” says Norman. “Rather than strike out on their own, we urge health stakeholders to partner with housing and community development organizations already working in neighborhoods across the country.”

Tips For Finding Health Partners

According to the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps Program, about 80 percent of a person’s health status can be attributed to non-medical factors such as housing and income. This is increasingly acknowledged and in fact, current law requires nonprofit hospitals to think beyond medical care to community health.

However, don’t expect health care providers to reach out to you. It is up to you to proactively contact hospitals, county departments of public health, etc. Here are some useful facts and suggestions for housing and community development organizations that want to get started in this space or seek other allies in the health sector:

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A Community Benefits Proposal Is Ignored. Is Displacement Far Behind?

Posted by Lillian M. Ortiz and Keli A. Tianga on April 18, 2017












If you’re up-to-date on your gentrification news, you may have heard that residents of four historically African-American neighborhoods in Atlanta are in the midst of an occupation of Turner Field—the former home of the Atlanta Braves.

The organized resident groups have demanded, since 2013 when the baseball team announced it was leaving, to be considered and included in the planned development of 67 acres of commercial and housing on the land. So far, they’ve reported little to no luck in getting a community benefits agreement considered by the city or the developers, and they have escalated their protest to erecting a tent city on the property. Residents have been camped on the property since April 1 demanding that the proposal be acknowledged and addressed.

In a project called the “deal of the year” by the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the City of Atlanta sold the land to Georgia State University (GSU) and the Carter, Oakwood Development and Healey Weatherholtz joint venture last year. Two resident groups, the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition and Housing Justice League, have organized community members from the historic towns of Summerhill, Peoplestown, Mechanicsville, and Pittsburgh to push back against planned development they say has purposely excluded them.

“We didn’t make this decision to pitch tents lightly,” says Peoplestown resident Columbus Ward in a recent press release. “We have families, we have jobs, we have responsibilities. But at the end of the day, Carter, GSU, and the city are threatening the very existence of our neighborhoods. This is a fight for our right to remain and thrive. We refuse to be seen as commodities. We are real people.”

This community action is but one among several in cities around the country where longtime residents fear displacement at the hand of publicly supported private development, and have begun organizing against it.

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CRA Should be Becoming Less Partisan. Instead, It’s More.

Posted by Josh Silver on April 17, 2017

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) is a law that requires banks to serve the credit needs, consistent with safety and soundness, of all communities including low- and moderate-income communities. With this requirement, CRA is essentially aimed at making capitalism work better in all communities. Any hardworking citizen with good credit should be able to secure a loan and participate in the capitalist economy by using the loan to buy a home or start a small business. This ethic is consistent with both liberal and conservative notions that all Americans should have a fair chance to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and take responsibility for providing for their families and bettering their communities.

Unfortunately, in the current climate, support for CRA is becoming more partisan, even though prominent Republicans and banks have supported CRA as a positive economic force.

Let’s review the record of CRA supporting robust community economies:

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False Narratives About Artists Harm Artists, and Communities

Posted by Jamie Bennett on April 13, 2017

In 2002, Richard Florida published a book that kicked off a wave of urban development efforts based on the belief that architects, artists, musicians, and writers were core members of an emergent creative class who together represented the economic future of our country.

As the ideas in The Rise of the Creative Class circulated among mayors, city managers, economic development officials, and urban planners, the conversation generally settled into a discussion around talent attraction and what would create the conditions to get these creatives to move to one city over another.

Mr. Florida’s thinking has continued to evolve and expand—in fact, his most recent book focuses on housing affordability, transportation equity, and living wages—issues that impact a city’s existing residents from every class. But that initial conversation he started has continued to shape the conditions for our work in at least one unhelpful way.

While The Rise of the Creative Class got many municipal leaders to look at artists as assets for the first time, it did so by positioning them as “others,” as outsiders who were not rooted in any community. They were seen as a roving economic development army that stayed in a place only as long as there was shade-grown, fair trade coffee no more than a bike-share ride away from their live/work loft, and who left as soon as the luxury condos and wine bars moved in.

But that isn't true.

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Urban Institute Report Highlights Health and Housing Links

Posted by Lillian M. Ortiz on April 12, 2017

There have been many studies, reports, and articles throughout the years that highlight the correlation between a person's housing and their health. (We even had an entire issue dedicated to this topic.) That's especially true today, where talk of the “social determinants of health” seems to be the hot new catchphrase.

For those trying to convince others—community partners, city officials, hospitals, and health organizations, etc.—to view housing and issues of neighborhood disinvestment through a health lens (and vice versa), the Urban Institute has compiled a helpful one-stop report about the effects of vacant buildings, low-quality housing, and empty lots on the well being of individuals and communities. While there isn’t a lot of new and startling information in Urban Blight and Public Health: Addressing the Impact of Substandard Housing, Abandoned Buildings, and Vacant Lots, the 40-page report does compile various studies related to health and housing issues through the years, some more than 15 years old; others as recent as last year.

The report’s authors, however, point out that several of the studies cited examine only one health impact, like asthma or lead poisoning, in a single place over a short period of time, giving us mostly snapshots of how housing influences health. Also, most of the studies do not provide direct causation, as the methods to do so would take “substantial investments of time and resources.”

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10 Ways to Speak Truth to Powerful Lies

Posted by Alan Jenkins on April 7, 2017

How to engage, inform, and fight back against falsehoods.

In an era of fake news, alternative facts, and downright lies, it’s a daily struggle to promote the continued benefit of our social justice work and a positive, inclusive vision for our country that’s rooted in truth and fairness. And when the loudest and most virulent falsehoods come from the highest levels of government, this challenge can feel overwhelming.

Research and experience point to clear ways that we as advocates, journalists, and citizens can overcome the fiction and push reality. Here are 10 of them:

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Lawn Sign Liberalism

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on April 6, 2017

If you live anywhere with a substantial resistance to the current administration's attacks on immigrants, you may have seen these lawn/window signs–they say, in Spanish, English, and Arabic, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” (There’s also a variant in Hebrew, English, and Arabic.)

In an atmosphere of demagoguery and baseless hysteria about foreigners and immigrants, this kind of gesture is important (not sufficient, but important). I intend to get one.

But their popularity also makes me a little uncomfortable, and I imagine anyone else who pays attention to fair housing might feel similarly.

No Matter Where?

When I was on a work visit recently to Montclair, New Jersey, where Shelterforce's office is located, I saw these signs all over the place—on churches, lawns, and business windows. This is not surprising. Montclair is an epicenter for liberalism, well known as a haven for (upper class) interracial couples, and the home of multiple former Obama administration officials, New York Times higher ups, foundation officials, and the like.

Seeing those signs everywhere made me smile. And it also made me cringe.

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Indigenous Approaches to Succession and Mentoring

Posted by Brent Kakesako on April 4, 2017

What would you do if your output and activity at your current job dipped substantially? Looking from the outside, how might you feel to see someone else in a position you had at an organization you’ve worked at for a substantial time? How might your organization’s work continue after you leave?


I’ve been fortunate to transition into my role as executive director with the help of my predecessor, and I've see him grappling with these very real questions. The American approach to work often values productivity in terms of outputs and deliverables, and generally, this prevails even in our social justice work. Many of us give of ourselves and sacrifice our time, energy, and other facets of our lives for the cause or to advance the movement; but without some sort of balance and planning on our end, we could face a harsh reality as we meet our advanced years in life. There maybe an increased need for health care due to physical and emotional sacrifices. There may be a need for continued income due to financial sacrifices. And there is the undeniable fact that as we advance in years, our initial capacity and productivity (from the perspective of one set of metrics) may decrease. There is always a push to find younger talent that might at least maintain, if not increase, productivity levels and bring in fresh ideas. But what about the individuals who have accumulated years of valuable experience? How do we build in processes and systems within our workflow to learn from and honor them?

Sit back, close your eyes, and think of at least one person you know of who fits these descriptions and say their name out loud.

These individuals were and are tireless in their work, their advocacy. They are powerhouses and did the work of at least three people, because they had to. So the question many of us put off answering is: What will happen when they are gone? How do we create transition and succession plans for them and in turn, a plan for the organization?

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Local Contracting—Cost Cutting, Economic Development, Or Both?

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on March 31, 2017

We recently published both an article and an Answer column that shows how one group in Philadelphia, WPRE/NR, is challenging the conventional wisdom that scattered site, small-unit rehab has to be more expensive than new construction.

There are a few reasons WPRE/NR's scattered site units cost less:

  • They do batches of 20 to 60 units at a time resulting in lower costs per unit than one-off rehabs.
  • They don’t have to include many components required in a multiunit building—such as stairways, elevators, structured parking, or common areas—or have to pour foundations.
  • They hire small local subcontractors with community connections.

As we published the last item on that list, we knew that while it wasn't actually unique to this scattered-site rehab program, that it might spark some concern.

Hiring local contractors is a great way to support community economic development—it keeps money circulating in the neighborhood, creates more local jobs, and tends to reduce the racial wealth gap if it gives more opportunity to businesses owned by people of color.

On the other hand, listing local hire as specifically a cost-saving measure also raises questions. Why is it cheaper? Does it have to do with paying lower wages? After all, the question of whether affordable housing developers should pay prevailing wages has been a long-standing debate. People who earn a living wage don't need help paying for housing (in most markets), after all.

The issue is not clear cut.

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