Seattle Eyes Zoning’s Third Rail—Single Family Neighborhoods

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on July 31, 2015

My city of Albany, N.Y., is currently going through a rezoning process. Mostly this entails cleaning up a fragmented, inconsistent code that hasn't really be overhauled in 50 years to make things more consistent, understandable, and up-to-date, which should go a long way toward making development and redevelopment, as well as home improvement, easier.

When I went to a recent presentation by one of the consultants working on the plan, I was struck by how delicate he and the city's director planning felt they needed to be to tiptoe around the suggestion, obvious to most of us who live here, that it might not make sense to keep two-family zoning in areas where the built environment includes very high numbers of three-family homes.

Similarly, the consultant was at great pains (and I think he did a great job), to explain how allowing accessory dwelling units in single-family zoned areas has never caused anyone any problems anywhere it has been implemented. And yet, he added, that they are generally not allowed in the wealthiest neighborhoods, which was a shame since they tended to have the most space to accommodate them.

The inevitability that he accorded to the weathy neighborhoods' NIMBY power on such a small, no-downside thing made me deeply sad. I went home and wrote a newspaper column calling on Albany to prove him wrong and allow accessory dwelling units across all the city's single-family zones, regardless of income or lot size. I'll let you know how that goes.

But in the meantime, Seattle's Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory (HALA) Committee has called for something so much bolder.

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Community Groups’ Role Vanishes Under New Federal Workforce Legislation

Posted by Brian Holland on July 30, 2015

On July 22, 2014, after it passed by wide bipartisan margins earlier in the year, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed by President Obama. This law represented the culmination of several fits and starts—in both the Bush and Obama administrations—along the way to reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act (WIA).

This updated law, which is being implemented this year, retains some features of the previous legislation, but also makes some changes that push community-based organizations to the sidelines.

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REO to Rental: Wall Street’s Latest Idea Hurts California Communities

Posted by Divya Rao and Kevin Stein on July 29, 2015

Over the last few years, communities have witnessed the latest iteration of Wall Street predation—the purchase in bulk of distressed single-family mortgages and foreclosed homes (REOs) with the intent to rent them- so called REO to Rental. Investors are muscling out first time home buyers, displacing tenants, outbidding nonprofit affordable housing developers, and changing the demographics of communities.

This new scheme is being funded in the same way that caused the foreclosure crisis- by securitizing housing payments (this time, rent payments) and passing on the risk to communities.

A recent survey by the California Reinvestment Coalition of 80 community based organizations identifies some of the most concerning trends, provides context for who is funding this recent boom, and makes recommendations to protect communities from additional harm.

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Industry and Advocates: To Truly Help Homeowners, Work Together

Posted by Doug Ryan on July 28, 2015

In recent months, the once very under-the-radar debate about manufactured home financing has gotten much more attention than is typical for the industry. At issue are lending regulations promulgated by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which took effect in January 2014. The rules, which encourage responsible lending to consumers who are typically low-income and often first-time homebuyers, offer more protections to borrowers for loans that exceed certain rate and fee thresholds. It also defines retailers—who often direct families to lenders—as loan originators if they perform certain functions, such as completing a loan application. These are common-sense rules aimed at preventing another industry-caused mortgage meltdown like the one that occurred at the end of the last century.

The regulations treat chattel loans, which fund the majority of purchases, differently—more generously—than mortgages. And they should. Lenders argue that the rules are too onerous, forcing banks from the market or making other lenders restrict the types of loans they offer. For whatever reason, industry has not shared data to support their claims, but have relied on anecdotes and, more to the point, Congress, which introduced legislation that would gut the rules. It’s clear that part of the strategy to advance the measure is to attack organizations that oppose the bill, such as mine, as ill-informed or as somehow opposed to consumers and manufactured housing.

Here’s the truth. . .

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Fair Housing’s Giant Two Steps Forward

Posted by Alan Jenkins on July 27, 2015

It’s a rare moment when two branches of our federal government take major steps to expand opportunity for all Americans.  But, with relatively little fanfare, that’s what’s happened over the last few weeks in the critical area of housing.

First, on June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court held that if a housing policy seriously disadvantages one gender, racial, religious or ethnic group, families with children, or people with disabilities, that policy is illegal unless there is an important justification for the policy. That principle, known as “disparate impact,” has been integral to the Fair Housing Act’s protections for over four decades, but this was the High Court’s first time considering it.

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We Know Whose Fault Poverty Is—So Why Do Our Terms Blame the Poor?

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on July 23, 2015

Shelterforce began, 40 years ago, as a newspaper for tenant organizers. They were legal aid lawyers and similar rabble rousers in small cities in Northern New Jersey, wanting to connect to other folks doing similar work across the country: organizing groups of tenants to stand up to their landlords about horrendous living conditions, fighting for policies that protected tenants.

We have expanded over the years, as many of those same people have moved into deploying the resources they fought for, and have moved to looking at the intersections of all the different factors that relate to empower or disempower low-income people and to create places that tend to be healthy, empowering places to live, or not.

These things are great. But periodically, we all need to be reminded that this was a movement started to acheive justice, not to extend charity or moralizing, and having had that reminder, to reexamine our programs and our philosophies for drift.

Recently I have read two searing articles that I think everyone who works in the field should read, closely, and really sit with. 

One is "Resilience Is Futile: How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty" by Melissa Chadburn, which talks about the trend toward examining and trying to improve poor people's "resilience" in the face of challenges that are structural and political.

What the resilience preachers look for is a person to be unchanged in the face of trauma. But I would argue that this is impossible, that people are always changed by trauma, and furthermore, that we ought to be. Rather than shift ourselves to change what is, the foundations that fund these initiatives would be better off addressing the gaps, filling the lacks, changing what isn’t.

Chadburn shows, using her own experience, both growing up poor and working at a nonprofit taking this approach, the absurdity of assuming that the problem is that people who are being screwed are not resilient enough.

There is, for sure, value in understanding trauma and how to work with and support trauma-survivors (I think this project is pretty good on that), and in recognizing how many traumas poverty deals out. But by slipping into making a certain kind of resilience, as opposed to reducing the causes of poverty and trauma, the goal becomes a serious problem.

The other article, even closer to home for many of our readers, is Maya Dukmasova's stirring argument that we need to ditch the term "concentrated poverty" because it puts the blame for the problems in poor areas on the presence of many poor people themselves, rather than on the forces that isolate people there and deprive them of public amenities and opportunities:

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The Puzzle of Turning Vision into Action

Posted by Laurie Goldman on July 21, 2015

Articulating a vision from the hopes and dreams of diverse community members is like piecing together a 250 piece jigsaw puzzle. Translating that vision into action steps in the course of a fast-paced development process is like assembling a puzzle when key pieces are missing and need to be created.

Union United—a coalition dedicated to development without displacement in the culturally diverse and rapidly changing Union Square neighborhood of Somerville, Massachusetts —adopted this metaphor to guide its second annual strategic planning retreat. The Coalition’s tenants and homeowners, local business owners, and representatives of community and faith based organizations gathered in a church basement to put their community vision jigsaw puzzle together.

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Affordable Housing Advocates Need to be Strong TOD Advocates

Posted by Lisa Hodges on July 20, 2015

The Red Line Transit Project is a proposed 14.1-mile light rail line designed to connect approximately 55,000 daily riders in East and West Baltimore, providing access to employment centers, reducing travel times, and creating thousands of construction jobs. Planning on the $3 billion project started in 2002 with the anticipated start of construction in 2015. Unfortunately, the project is in danger of losing state funding due to a change in political power at the state level and the Governor’s recent announcement that it will not be built as currently configured.

As a local affordable housing advocate and developer, I have been coordinating advocacy for the Red Line on behalf of Enterprise Community Partners. Despite the many benefits to low-income residents along the planned route as well as significant construction jobs which will be created. I have been struck by how few of my affordable housing development colleagues were informed about the project. . .

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Breaking Up the Pipeline to Prison

Posted by Laura Barrett on July 17, 2015

[Editor's Note: This is our friend and regular Rooflines blogger Laura Barrett's last post as campaign director of Gamaliel. Laura will continue posting to the blog as the new director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, and we look forward to reading her thoughftul and challenging posts in that new role.

For a roundup of Laura's past posts, click here. We're also very pleased that Gamaliel will continue to contribute its unique perspective to Rooflines.]


President Obama is doing more than speaking out for criminal justice reform, he is taking action.

Earlier this week, President Barak Obama took decisive and impressive action by commuting the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders. This was the most commutations in one day in over 40 years. He told the crowd at the NAACP convention that he would call for a review of solitary confinement and a reduction or an end to mandatory minimum sentences.

It seems like the campaign to end solitary confinement, pushed by WISDOM, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and other groups, is gaining some momentum.

It's a becoming a bi-partisan movement and even Republican presidential candidates are getting on board. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is focusing on non-violent drug offenders. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), wants to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have served their terms. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has staked out mandatory minimums. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (R-RI) are promoting a bill to help lower-risk inmates win earlier release. . .

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What Have We Learned a Decade after the Gulf Coast Hurricanes?

Posted by Jonathan Reckford on July 16, 2015

As the housing community reflects in August on the tenth anniversary of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, what are the lessons we've learned from those disasters and the ones that followed? Some best practices:

Think about the long term and create a plan that stretches from recovery to reconstruction. Start from your goal and engineer backward. As much as possible, design and orient emergency interventions that can be effectively transitioned to permanent housing and development of communities.

Engage the community. A common phrase in disaster response work is “nothing about us without us.” There is so much wisdom in those words. As we work to rebuild communities, we must keep the people who live there at the center of our plans. It doesn’t make for a faster process, and sometimes things get messy, but pays off tremendously. . . .

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