What the “New” Housing Advocates Miss

Posted by Jamaal Green on October 9, 2015

Emily Badger has a recent piece in the Washington Post that typifies the logic of the new urban housing advocates. Badger points out the irrationality underlying many local protests of increased housing density as well as draws the linkages between growing metros resistance to increased housing and socio-economic inequality. The answer in these pieces is always simple—loosen zoning restrictions and let developers meet market demand.

It is clear that overly restrictive zoning is a major culprit in the many housing affordability crises we see in growing cities across the country. But what commentators in the "liberalize zoning" crowd lack is an understanding of the local political context in these large metropolitan areas. For example, Badger talks about the Bay Area and San Francisco as basically synonymous entities and not as a collection of rather disparate municipalities with their own governmental structures and local politics.

The result of this is a fundamental misinterpretation of the potential levers of power housing activists can pull. For example, while there is a large renter constituency and movement in the city of San Francisco, the same cannot be said for San Fran's surrounding suburbs like Cupertino (here's a talk from Kim-Mai Cutler on that history). These suburban enclaves have no real indigenous renter population because they were designed from the very beginning to be owner enclaves. You simply will not get a mass movement against exclusionary zoning in such communities unless you get a band of renegade homeowners who decide they want to radically open their neighborhoods. Given historical anxiety over school quality and transparent discrimination against renters, it is unlikely these parts of metropolitan areas will dramatically increase local density.

One potential reason why the new housing advocates may miss the political and historical contexts around zoning is that they often draw from a relatively narrow range of academics and studies when discussing cities. Urban economists like Ed Glaeser and Enrico Moretti are long time advocates of zoning liberalization as a means of maximizing regional growth, but their studies ignore the underlying political conflicts and actors that encourage zoning restrictions. Additionally, scholars like Sonia Hirt, who recently wrote a fine book on the history of zoning, focus primarily on the political conflicts around the adoption of zoning as a policy tool and not on the use of zoning as a weapon in social segregation. In this sense, Zoned in the USA, and similar works, are inadequate to actually guide our understanding of how zoning has been used in the recent past, or today, as a tool of segregation.

This paradox, or blind spot, is why these new housing supply advocates should look at the political and legal histories behind opening up the suburbs and embrace fair housing law as one tool in the fight to gut exclusionary zoning. There is arguably no other policy or legal tool that can subvert the political inertia that exists in suburbs around exclusionary zoning. While fair housing law is imperfect, and decidedly slow, if the new housing advocates are serious about increasing density throughout metropolitan areas, then they should take a hint from the old housing advocates and embrace the ideals of fairness and justice and advocate not simply for increasing the housing supply or liberalizing zoning but for desegregating our cities and suburbs. Recent work from journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones exploring the death of fair housing and school desegregation shines a light on the long standing, racist anxiety that underpins opposition to expanding the housing supply and densifying neighborhoods. But what Jones’ work also highlights is the necessity of a multi-scalar political project that works at local, regional, state, and federal levels. Simply put, the new housing advocates will never see their desires realized (or they’ll only find success in the central cities they desire to live in where there’s a big enough constituency) if they do not join forces with fair housing advocates in attacking the institutional foundations that underpin exclusionary zoning everywhere.

(Photo credit: Aerial view of Cupertino. CA, by Kevin Hale, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Tackling Uncomfortable Issues, With Enthusiasm

Posted by Keli A. Tianga on October 8, 2015

We've written about the fissures that can appear when community developers and organizers of different ages, gender, or ethnic and racial background attempt to work in the same spaces. National CAPACD enthusiastically embraced all of these issues at it’s convention last week, the theme of which was "Moving Forward, Rising Together: Uniting for Thriving Communities."

It opened with a look back by several founding members, including Gordon Chin, founding executive director of the Chinatown CDC and author of the new book, Building Community, Chinatown Style, Bob Santos, leader, activist, and former director of InterimCDA (and co-author of the book Gang of Four) and Sue Taoka, executive V.P. of the CDFI Craft 3 (and former co-president of the National Coalition of Asian Pacific American Community), who said that "the founding of National CAPACD gave each of their groups a voice at the local, state, and national levels."

A point of context, referred to more than once, was the I-Hotel. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the uprising and protests at this San Francisco hotel by poor, Asian (predominantly Filipino) residents were catalyzing events that not only opened the city’s eyes to the devastating effect Urban Renewal was having on poor and disenfranchised communities, but hinted at the potential power organizing could have for Asian American and Pacific Islanders. The respect for this grassroots spirit was evident in the recognition of new and veteran members, and was reflected in its theme of "renewed focus on working in coalition with communities of color on issues of racial justice."

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Have We Forgotten How to Fight?

Posted by Randy Stoecker on October 2, 2015

I write from Wisconsin, now in its fifth year of rule by an entrenched right-wing government that the voters keep re-electing. In that short time, we have lost voting rights, worker rights, women’s rights, environmental and health protections, and academic freedom, just to name a few.

As I try to understand this I wonder, have we forgotten how to fight? I have been reading Aaron Schutz and Mike Miller's new book, People Power: The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky in hopes it might help. This author combination of academic and organizer takes us on a journey of Alinsky's work and the work of those he influenced. Featured are Nicholas von Hoffman, Fred Ross, Tom Gaudette, John Baumann, Ed Chambers, Cesar Chevaz, Dolores Huerta, Wade Rathke, and others. As I read, I begin to see how community organizing went from a sophisticated, creative and powerful approach to a set of rigid formulas that end up overly focused on building relationships in churches on the one hand (think DART, PICO, Gamaliel, IAF) or only mobilizing people for actions rather than building organizations (think Midwest Academy and Citizen Action and Occupy and Black Lives Matter) on the other. And I begin to get a glimmer of what we have forgotten. Mike Miller says "I think the organizers of Occupy Wall Street would benefit from a reading of Saul Alinsky." Aaron Schutz reflects, "the congregation-based approach, by itself, is not enough." But, with the notable exception of National People's Action, and a few independent groups, congregational relationships or fleeting mobilizations are what we have.

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NAACP’s Journey for Justice And Voting Rights

Posted by Ana Garcia-Ashley on September 29, 2015

We live in interesting times.

Two years ago, immigrant leaders from across the country camped out on the National Mall in the Fast for Families to inspire a hunger strike, witnessed and supported by me and other Gamaliel faith leaders from Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish and other traditions.

Last fall, our leaders headed to Nevada to hear President Obama announce executive action for immigration reform and extension of deferred action for our Dreamer young people (sadly still on hold due to pending lawsuit).

This past week, leaders made a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia for the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S., which millions have rightly seen as an opportunity to speak up for economic and social justice.

Our movements can shift quickly from one issue or action to another, which is why I don’t want to lose the moment to congratulate the NAACP on the conclusion last week of their Journey for Justice march from Selma to Washington, D.C. to celebrate and reinforce the Voting Rights Act on its 50th anniversary.

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Leveling the Information Playing Field Between Advocates and Developers

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on September 28, 2015

Inclusionary housing has been around for decades. It encompasses a range of policies that call on developers to contribute toward creating affordable homes, either within their new developments, offsite, or through a fee.

There seems to be a surge in interest in inclusionary housing recently, which makes sense to me for several reasons:

  • With rising rental costs, increased interest in urban living, and decreases in traditional funding for affordable housing there is a dramatic and visible need for new ways to address the affordability crisis. Inclusionary housing not only taps a different source, but it is usually accompanied by long-term affordability restrictions, making it a long-term solution, not a temporary Band-Aid.
  • Gentrification is on many people's minds, and inclusionary policies done right have the potential to make those benefiting from directly mitigate some of the loss of affordability and economic exclusion that results (though it's not enough by itself).
  • New research emphasizing the role of place in life outcomes has increased interest from many directions in economic integration, and inclusionary housing can be one way to do that that doesn't pull existing funding away from community revitalization.
  • Mayor DeBlasio of New York has raised its profile, as have organizing efforts in Seattle, Denver, and elsewhere while legal challenges in California have also brought it attention in a different way.

So, great! It's a good tool for the times. Why isn't it everywhere?

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The Perfect Solution to Homelessness

Posted by Randy Shaw on September 25, 2015

The past month has seen national media stories on rising homelessness in New York City, San Francisco, Madison, Los Angeles and other cities. Each story describes the problem, the local government response, and the insistence from homeless advocacy groups that this response falls short. This led The New York Times to conclude on September 23, 2015, “to date, no city has claimed to have the perfect solution” to homelessness."

While technically true—mayors know better than to describe any policy as “perfect”—such a claim is materially false. Cities have known since the 1990s that a combination of affordable housing and support services—known now as “supportive housing”—dramatically reduces homelessness. In combination with outreach services and intensive service housing for those with severe mental health issues, the nation’s cities have developed a “perfect solution” to homelessness.

The problem is that the federal government won’t fund it.

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EPA Should Make Environmental Justice Job One

Posted by Laura Barrett on September 24, 2015

The EPA is making news lately.  Unfortunately, it’s not for protecting the environment or victims of pollution. Activist groups, low income residents of communities plagued by toxins, and journalists are all taking the EPA to task because they charge that through inaction, it is aiding environmental racism.

In July, Earthjustice and five other groups sued the EPA for its failure to investigate civil rights complaints. These non-profits say that the EPA is letting states “off the hook” when they grant permits to companies that pollute in communities of color. “It is unacceptable that the racial composition of a community continues to be a critical factor in predicting exposure to toxic contamination,” Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado said. “Justice has been delayed for too long. While EPA sits on these complaints, facilities continue to pollute and communities living in proximity to these facilities are deprived of their rights.”

In August, six other organizations filed an “intent to sue” against the EPA for failing to update its regulations on mining waste. (They are the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Environmental Integrity Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Responsible Drilling Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.)

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Community Development and Faith

Posted by Keli A. Tianga on September 23, 2015

Pope Francis begins his visit to the United States today with stops in Washington D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia. In New York City, he will convene an interfaith prayer group of over 400 religious leaders at the September 11th Memorial, and he will also visit a Catholic primary school in East Harlem’s El Barrio neighborhood. It is a community that in the past four decades was among the country's poster children for the inner city slum, but is now facing the gentrification sprawl that is affecting all of the city’s once-poorer neighborhoods.

Pope Francis has addressed income inequality, immigration, housing, and mass incarceration—in Philadelphia he will visit with inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional facility—all issues that he has said are barometers for human compassion. And it is expected that he will challenge this country to confront the uncomfortable questions and history that has brought us to this critical point.

Followers of all religions, and no religion, widely agree that this Pope is sharing messages of community, compassion, and charity through pretty radical words and actions for a Pope, even though the irony of this being considered radical is lost on many.

Community organizing has always involved faith—it is faith in action—and as the field has evolved, community development has involved faith-based institutions, as they tend to be the oldest and most established places in distressed communities, with members who are long-time residents invested in their neighborhoods. One of the oldest of its kind, The Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem, New York, was founded over thirty years ago by Abyssinian Baptist Church, and among other things, has developed over 1,500 units of affordable housing with the stated goal of preventing displacement of residents.

Large scale, faith-based organizing is unparalleled, and groups like Gamaliel wage regional and national campaigns around issues such as education and transportation equity through interfaith action. Via leadership training and policy work, Gamaliel says its organizing, "draws on struggles for justice by people of faith stretching back thousands of years and spanning many nations, faiths, and cultures." As Gamaliel and this 2013 Shelterforce article states, organizations like theirs have leadership that more closely reflects the demographics of our country with women and young people of color.

At the neighborhood level, churches, synagogues, and mosques work to fill the holes, and shortcomings, in our social safety net. The Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN) is a national group of churches and synagogues that host homeless families, giving them temporary shelter, food provided by parishioners, and the opportunity to work on a plan to get back on track. According to a volunteer, one of IHN’s goals is to keep two-parent families together, where shelter facilities would most likely require them to be separated.

Amidst the data-driven period the field is in, I understand that the language it uses has changed to resonate more with the public as well as decision-makers, who appreciate and demand things like "measurable outcomes." However, as I read about and report on organizations big and small, I want to know where compassion currently sits for our readers.

All faiths have a day of reflection during a week filled with work, when one is supposed to stop to contemplate and consider their place in the world. I hope you will share with us where compassion, love, and charity sit in your daily work. 

(Photo credit: Keith Riley-Whittingham, via flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Unfriend Your Neighbor to Get a Loan?

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on September 16, 2015

Want to be that one person who bootstraps themselves out of poverty and makes it, against all odds? Not if Facebook has anything to do with it.

Now, we already know that that rags-to-riches part of the American myth is just thatmyth. Social mobility is at a serious low. In an attempt to combat this somewhat, in the community development and asset-building fields, CDFIs and others use careful one-on-one underwriting, lending circles, and other strategies to extend credit to those whose credit scores might not really reflect their credit-worthiness.

This work to tip the financial playing field a little can help more people achieve things like citizenship, higher education, or a new business that might bring greater financial security—though of course it needs to be combined with large scale changes in things like tax policy, education policy, economic/labor policy, and urban policy to have serious effects.

But then someone goes and makes the problem so much worse. Such as when Facebook recently applied for a patent on technology that would allow lenders to use the credit scores of your social network in their lending decisions.

Let that sink in. 

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Skipping “Placed-Based” Work Leaves Cities Vulnerable to Climate Change

Posted by Denise Fairchild on September 15, 2015

I remember it clearly. “The Myth of Community Development,” Nicholas Lemann’s 1994 New York Times Magazine article, cracked the foundation of the community development industry. He argued that no one wanted to live in ghettos; they were merely transition zones toward the ultimate suburban dream. [Editor's Note: Shelterforce published several critiques of Lemann's article, including one by then-vice president Al Gore. Read them here]. He even critiqued the community wealth creation benefits of community development, and cited the fact that the New Community Corporation CDC in Newark, New Jersey created over 2,000 jobs, attracted and started numerous community-owned businesses, and provided essential community services such as child care to an economically battered community, but failed to spur private sector enterprises.

The article shifted the social change environment from place-based initiatives to ‘income- mobility strategies.' Lemann critiqued the Clinton Administration’s proposed Enterprise Zone programs by suggesting that place-based schemes—including urban renewal, model cities, community development block grant programs and community economic development—never did and never would, work.

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