Writing Truth For Power

Posted by Laurie Goldman on July 25, 2014

When Union United, a recently formed coalition of residents, local business owners, labor unions, and community and faith-based organizations in Somerville, Mass., read a local newspaper commentary about the proposed redevelopment of their neighborhood that didn't share their concerns about displacement, they saw it not as a disappointment, but as an opportunity to get the word out about their efforts to ensure that the community will benefit from the development.

The coalition’s published response, co-authored by six of its members, critiqued the article’s suggestion that the large scale of the transit-oriented development and the city’s expressed commitment to values-based, community-oriented redevelopment were sufficient to forestall gentrification. 

The 18 coalition members who exchanged e-mails over five days and multiple drafts sought to speak truth to power. At the same time, the collective writing process allowed them to discover more about the truth, empower diverse constituents, and speak as a unified group whose members respect and learn from one another’s differences.  They were writing truth for power. 

This worked in several ways:

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Put the “Choice” in “Housing Choice Vouchers”

Posted by Rooflines on July 25, 2014

In June, Alexander Polikoff, lead counsel in the ongoing Gautreaux housing desegregation litigation, spoke to HUD staff on the FHEO Speaker Series.  Here is an excerpt of his speech that focuses on the specific stumbling blocks getting in the way of vouchers fulfulling their promise of mobility:

The first of the two programmatic reasons we haven't used vouchers to get children out of harm's way has been the inertia of adhering to the familiar way of doing voucher business. Every voucher administrator should be required to read, Segregating Shelter: How Housing Policies Shape the Residential Locations of Low Income Minority Families, by Stefanie Deluca, Peter Rosenblatt and Philip Garboden. Segregating Shelter makes clear how cruelly ironic for those families is the middle word in the designation "housing choice vouchers." It explains, plain and simple, why it is that under typical voucher rules so few minority families acquire housing in middle class neighborhoods and so many wind up in high poverty, segregated ones.

The explanation is not rocket science.  Instead of being user-friendly, portability is a Rube Goldberg construct that is all but impossible for many families to navigate.  Moreover it burdens PHAs with additional work and expense while providing them no offsetting benefits.

Instead of providing incentives to PHAs to foster mobility, HUD's SEMAP assessment policy rewards quick lease-up over good location and rates as high performers PHAs who earn not a single point for helping families move to low poverty, non-segregated neighborhoods.  Instead of FMRs [fair market rents] that facilitate mobility, HUD uses a metro-wide FMR arrangement that makes it more difficult. HUD tolerates search time limits that often lead families to take the first unit they can find, and landlord lists that are heavily weighted with properties in high poverty, segregated neighborhoods.

And so on.  One cannot but conclude that HUD is content with a system that not only provides minimal support for families who desire to relocate to non-poor, non-segregated neighborhoods, but one that actually frustrates that desire.

The second programmatic reason we haven't used vouchers to get children out of harm's way is that HUD fails to require PHAs to provide effective mobility counseling, post- as well as pre-move: 

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Answers from Red States for Our Broken Criminal Justice System

Posted by Laura Barrett on July 24, 2014

Left, right or center, few dispute that our criminal justice system is broken. But two new and thrilling victories this month are giving real hope to activists who want more effective and humane crimes policies. 

In a largely "red" state," Missouri, Governor Jay Nixon signed the popular and thoroughly bi-partisan "Ban the Ban" bill into law. The act, supported by Metropolitan Congregations United and MORE2, will end the food stamps ban for those jailed on drug convictions faced. During the floor vote a visibly moved state legislator said that thanks to personal visits by faith-based leaders and formerly incarcerated people, she now understood why food stamps are so important to those who are trying to stay sober.

And in an even more "red" state, officials in Fulton County Georgia voted to "Ban the Box,"  the infamous question on employment applications "Have you ever been convicted...".  This move will dramatically help once incarcerated people to get jobs. Faith-based ABLE, and 9 to 5's coalition to pass this measure has been wildly successful: earlier this year, the City of Atlanta and Dekalb County adopted nearly identical legislation. 

Let's hope Wisconsin becomes the next state to jump aboard this encouraging bandwagon.

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Subsidizing the Upper Middle Class?

Posted by Sasha Hauswald on July 22, 2014

On June 30th, CapitalNewYork.com published an article titled "Defining Affordability Upward," about Upper West Side Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal and her battle to create “affordable” housing for families earning over $150,000 per year.  According to Councilwoman Rosenthal, these “are the families that took a chance on the neighborhood a few decades ago and made it what it is today. They’re not rich, just upper-middle class.” 

In April, she negotiated for 20 units in a new housing development for households earning between 175 percent and 230 percent of New York City’s median income, equivalent to $147,000 to $193,000 per year for a family of four.  Her rationale is that without “middle-income” housing, the Upper West Side will become a place for just the very rich and very poor.

Rosenthal’s prioritization of housing for people earning significantly above average raises the question: “What benefits are we reaping, as a society, from subsidizing housing for our upper-middle class citizens?” 

Researchers tell us that affordable housing for lower-income families has numerous benefits, particularly when that housing is in a mixed-income environment like TF Cornerstone’s Upper West Side development (see image) is. It boosts children’s school achievement, cuts down criminal involvement, improves parent and child health, raises employment rates, ameliorates mental and emotional illness and decreases addictive behavior.  In other words, affordable housing is a powerful remedy for the family trauma and social maladies associated with poverty.

But what benefits can we expect from price-restricted housing for upper-income earners?

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Getting Together—Using National Gatherings to Learn from Each Other

Posted by Brent Kakesako on July 21, 2014

Given our national economic climate and the growing recognition of collaborative, place-based and culturally-grounded approaches, it is only fitting then that the theme of the National CAPACD 14th Annual Convention was "The Movement for Economic Justice: Changing the Narrative Together," which requires us to live the theme of the Administration for Children & Families (ACF) Native Grantee Meeting—"Honoring Our Commitments to Native Families and Communities: Today and Tomorrow."

The National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD) is a national intermediary dedicated to addressing housing, community, and economic development needs of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. ACF's Administration for Native Americans (ANA) works to support all Native Americans, including federally recognized tribes, American Indian and Alaska Native organizations, Native Hawaiian organizations as well as Native populations in the territories of Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianna Islands, to build their self-sufficiency.

Both of the gatherings thus provided a forum for diverse communities across the nation to come together to discuss the challenges their families are facing—often shared due to systemic and structural issues—and the unique ways each community is taking grassroots and community-based approaches to addressing these challenges. 

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Living the TOD Lifestyle in Denver: Growing Transit and Affordable Housing

Posted by Dana Hawkins-Simons on July 18, 2014

A consequence of huge transit expansions is that nearby rentals and other housing tend to escalate in cost, and lower income residents—who may have lived their entire lives in the same neighborhood—can get priced out. A recent report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council warns that, for example, rents for apartments near the new Green Line stations in the ever-gentrifying Boston suburb of Somerville could rise as much as 67 percent—even before the new stops open.

Equitable transit oriented development (TOD) aims to prevent this by including housing that’s affordable to local residents in the development plan early on, and assuring that it remains so for decades to come.

“If you allow change to just happen, you run the risk of wholesale displacement of low-income folks,” says Tony Pickett, a key player in efforts to include long-term affordable housing in two of the nation’s largest TOD ventures: Denver’s FasTracks plan and Atlanta’s Beltline project. “We’re working to avoid that."

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What Happens Once the Artists Arrive?

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on July 17, 2014

Conventional wisdom says that artists and gay people are tend to be pioneers in distressed neighborhoods, signs that change is ’a coming. While there have been some funny, and likely apocryphal stories about unlikely conservatives awkwardly wondering in public meetings if “we could get some of those gay people here” to boost a struggling town, that understanding hasn’t exactly been something people have tried to parlay into an economic development strategy.

Artists, on the other hand, are a hot commodity, with special artist housing and art spaces cropping up as part of many places’ revitalization plans.

There are good things about this, and bad things. Certainly recognizing the crucial roles of art in creating community, challenging oppression, and bringing beauty and identity to places that have been short on it, and therefore deciding that cultivating and supporting spaces for artists to affordably live and work is an appropriate public/charitable goal makes a lot of sense.

However, we need to be aware of a couple troubling trends underneath these celebrations of the transformative power of art, and community developers need to make sure they're not perpetuating them. 

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Are You TED Talk Ready?  The Importance of Conceptual Capital

Posted by Michael Hickey on July 17, 2014

In the callow youth of the nonprofit sector, you needed two kinds of capital: (1) financial capital, because money does, after all, grease the wheels of change, and (2) social capital, because proving you could fill the courthouse steps or get the Governor to answer your call was a way to make up for not having enough money.  But the NPO sector is burgeoning, the capacity for evaluation is still limited, and the power of social media has grown.  Now there’s a new kind of resource you need: conceptual capital.  It’s the stuff that drives your visibility in a crowded marketplace.  So what is it, why do you need it, and where do you get it?

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Do Fences Prevent Good Neighbors?

Posted by David Holtzman on July 16, 2014

Lately I've been reading about places where communities are separated by fences. Not divided, as if they had previously been together. I mean places like Hamden, Conn., or the town of Mont-Royal in Montreal, where the wealthier community has literally built a fence to separate itself from the lower-income neighborhood next door.

Neither of these fences was built recently, and neither situation seems surprising when one considers what attitudes were in the mainstream in the 1950s. What is disturbing is that when it is proposed today that these fences be torn down, people on the wealthy side of the fence continue to argue that the separation is needed. People fear their neighbors so much they can't imagine living together with people of a different race, class or ethnic background.

What I have often seen as a land use planner is that developers of apartment and townhouse communities, especially those that are expected to include affordable housing, typically propose a vegetated buffer of at least 20 feet to separate them from whatever happens to be next door. Developers do this in anticipation of opposition from neighbors to affordable homes, or in respond to a demand neighbors make. The result is the perpetuation of a cul-de-sac, segregated development pattern, rather than one that might tie communities together over time. Neighbors often cite their property value as what is at stake, but behind this is often fear of what the new residents will be like or resentment that people might get a subsidy for their housing.

I wonder if 50 years from now, poorer residents will peek through these tree buffers much as they look through those fences today, seething that they have to be "kept out" of the "better" neighborhood, while wealthier residents still have this fear of their poorer neighbors, because the buffer prevents them from relating to each other in any meaningful way.


(Photo by Flickr user Industry Is Virtue, CC BY-NC-ND.)

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Julian Castro Must Uphold Fair Housing

Posted by Alan Jenkins on July 15, 2014

Last week, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly confirmed San Antonio Mayor Juliàn Castro to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  One of Castro’s first official acts as HUD Secretary should be to concretize the department’s duty to promote fair housing throughout its programs and activities.

Protecting equal housing opportunity is at the core of HUD’s mission.  For almost 50 years, the Department has been required by statute affirmatively to further fair housing.  That duty includes ensuring that states and local governments that receive HUD funds for housing and community development efforts take proactive steps to address discrimination, foster residential integration, and promote equal access. 

Upholding fair housing where taxpayer dollars are deployed is the smart thing to do, as well as the legal thing to do.  Diverse communities connected to quality schools, transportation, and job opportunities strengthen our economy and our social fabric.  And the opportunity to live, learn, and play together prepares children of all races for an increasingly diverse workplace and world.

Yet, despite the clear legal mandate and the proven social benefits, HUD has never issued regulations implementing this principle.  The lack of regulations, and inadequate federal enforcement, continue to hold back progress in communities around the country.  For example, some cities and towns still maintain arbitrary rules prohibiting smaller homes or apartments that working people could afford, which in many places excludes most people of color. In many places, longstanding patterns of neighborhood segregation continue to keep people of different backgrounds living apart. And some housing developers still refuse to make buildings accessible to people with disabilities. Overcoming these obstacles takes work and attention.  Yet HUD has not done all that it can—or is required to do—to ensure that its funds are used with accountability and fairness.

A year ago, HUD issued proposed regulations to implement its fair housing obligation.  The draft rules were far from perfect, lacking important accountability measures, but they represented an important step forward.  The agency received scores of public comments, but has still not issued a final rule that would provide clear instructions to states, localities, and residents.  With Mr. Castro confirmed, it’s time to move forward with a final regulation.

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