“Nowhere to Live Safe”: Moving to Peace and Safety

Posted by Barbara Samuels on September 16, 2014


We all experience stress in our daily lives, whether financial worries or problems at work or at home. Few of us escape some exposure to “adverse childhood experiences.” But many low-income families have to live, day in and day out, with corrosive fear for their children’s basic safety.

A new policy brief, authored by researchers from Princeton University and published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, offers sobering data on how just how prevalent children’s exposure to violence may be. The brief summarizes findings from RWJF’s “Fragile Families Study,” involving 5,000 children born in U.S. cities in 2000, and a longitudinal examination of a range of factors known to be associated with children’s health and development.

Nearly a quarter of the mothers in the study reported witnessing or having been the victim of violence. But this figure masks wide racial and ethnic disparities in neighborhood conditions. More than 40 percent of black mothers reported exposure to neighborhood violence, almost three times the level reported by white mothers and immigrant Latina mothers.

As though the prevalence of violence is not sobering enough, the researchers found that exposure to neighborhood violence was highest when children were three to five years old. A mounting body of evidence tells us that children’s exposure to chronic adversity and toxic stress during critical periods of early childhood years is harmful to cognitive development and lifelong health. “What happens in early childhood can matter for a lifetime.”

That is what the research shows, but what do low-income families have to say about the stress that they experience living in some of the most disinvested neighborhoods in America?

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Regions Can’t Live By Oxygen Alone

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on September 15, 2014

Jack Jensen, an affordable housing and green builder in Ithaca, N.Y., is grumpy about smart growth.

Specifically, he's pissed off at the assumption that urban infill preserves green space. As   he wrote in his post on "oxygen-based development" on Friday:

Every time a downtown project is announced, the developers and officials announce loudly and proudly that they’ve preserved open space. Hooey. The owners of green space are still free to do with it as they please. Unless downtown developers are required to buy and hold enough open space to absorb the carbon dioxide from, and provide the oxygen for, the occupants of their urban unit, they have preserved nothing.

That's a fairly good point. Dense development only actually perserves green space if we  assume the totoal amount of development is fixed, which it is not, or if it explicitly preserves the greenfields it's not sprawling into.

I can be pretty down with the idea that if we're serious about open space preservation and climate change and such that pairing development with required open space preservation should be worth considering, something like Jensen's suggestion.

I also sympathize with his idea that rural areas are bound up with their cities and offer them benefits beyond agriculture for which we should be grateful. (His closing comment about how much the rural areas should bill city dwellers for the oxygen their land is producing reminds me of the flip version of my column The Unapologetic City, which discusses the various unpaid-for benefits suburban residents get from their core cities.)

Unfortunately, these cogent points get a bit lost in Jenson's desire to defend rural living against the urban scourge—an American impulse if there ever was one, but misplaced for several reasons.

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Ditch Smart Growth; Try Oxygen-Based Development

Posted by Jack Jensen on September 12, 2014

At the Farm Pond Circle Reforestation Community in South Lansing, N.Y., a small community outside of the small city of Ithaca, N.Y., we believe that Mother Nature is pretty upset. As the saying goes, “When Mama ain’t happy, nobody happy.”

We think that the planners of downtown Ithaca have come to the wrong conclusions. They dream of a one-city county with a historic core nestled amidst fields and forests, a clean lake, and an economy run on ideas. Super-Green Shangri-La. But they’ve put us on the wrong path to get there.

My progressive credentials are in order. I teach green building and design, run a local housing nonprofit, belong to the Ithaca Green Building Alliance, and believe that Ithaca is the bestest little city in America. Plus I have a fading Obama sticker on my truck, and a ponytail. I’m sure I will be tarred and free-range feathered by the Green Mafia for what I’m about to say. But here goes anyway.

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Social Impact Investment and the Failure of Imagination

Posted by Michael Hickey on September 11, 2014

Domestic social impact investment is stuck. Each year a few deals trickle through, but despite the potential and promise, impact investments in the United States are rare, complex, and entirely one-off. To be sure, there are structural challenges to growing the market in the United States—just look at Tracy Palandjian’s recent article on the state of the social impact bond sector—but I can’t help feeling that we’re suffering as much from a failure of imagination as infrastructure.

The problem is, few social entrepreneurs can clearly describe their impact capital needs, while few potential investors understand how to place impact capital into deals. I mean, if neither side really knows how to go about its business, how can we expect them to do business with each other?

But I have an idea . . .

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Does Richmond Show the Future of Community Wealth Building?

Posted by Steve Dubb on September 10, 2014

Although an important figure in both U.S. and African-American history, Maggie Lena Walker is not a household name—not the way, at least, that her contemporaries such as Brooker T. Washington, Zora Neale Hurston, or W.E.B. Dubois are.

Yet Walker was the first woman (of any race) in the nation to charter a bank, which she did when she opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Va., in 1903. At least among those of us working in community development, that fact alone ought to make her far better known. Just last year, the city of Richmond lifted up her legacy when Mayor Dwight C. Jones chose to name the city’s anti-poverty program the Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty.

Richmond’s program, which includes the creation of the nation’s first Office of Community Wealth Building, marks a reimagining of community economic development policy. The use of the phrase “community wealth building” is deliberate.

As Professor Thad Williamson, who has taken leave from the University of Richmond to help launch the initiative, explains: “We’re shifting a little away from the anti-poverty phrase—although it’s still used—simply because we don’t want people to think it’s anti-poor people. The focus is on poverty reduction but also building up neighborhood wealth.” 

It is also a departure in that the office has a community advisory board entitled the Community Wealth Advisory Board—half of which is composed of residents below the poverty line—that will review and give feedback regarding proposals coming out of the office. Broadly, the office aims to break down divisions among seven different policy areas—transportation, housing, workforce development, targeted economic development, early childhood education, adolescent transition, and college access—in order to more effectively uproot structural poverty.

The link between community wealth building and Walker is clear.

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Mamas, Don’t Let Your Organizers Grow Up To Be Developers

Posted by John Emmeus Davis on September 7, 2014

When a community-based developer of affordable housing incorporates community organizing into its programmatic repertoire, there is almost always added value—for the persons housed, for residents of the area served, for the organization itself.

The reverse is less often true.

Community organizers rarely become better at cultivating collective power and agitating for social change when they leave the streets, exchanging ball caps for hard hats. Not only do they stop doing what they do best; they start doing something that takes everyone a terribly long time to do well.

Place-based activism is diminished by this one-way flow of talent. I lament it, although I would hesitate to pinch it off, since the entire field of community development is regularly replenished and reinvigorated by organizers becoming developers. Nor would I discourage grassroots activists from exploring whether a new community development corporation (CDC), community land trust, or the like might be needed.

While nonprofit start-ups should never be done lightly, there are neighborhoods and towns without any nonprofit development capacity. There are also many places where long-established community development organizations have lost touch with values and constituents to which they were once committed or have become increasingly adverse to attempting any development other than tax credit rental housing or plain vanilla homeownership.

In these cases, having people who have been building collective power turn their energies toward building housing or doing other sorts of development can be positive, despite the potential for competing with existing nonprofits for subsidies and sites that are already in short supply. Competition is not always a bad thing. Every field, including ours, needs irreverent young Turks periodically storming the gates of organizations that may have lost their edge, giving graybeards like me a run for our money.

That said, my heart sinks a little whenever I’m approached by a group that has been doing great advocacy organizing and now wants my advice about acquiring land, building houses, or doing some other sort of development.

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Tips for Getting Your “Innovative” Project Funded

Posted by Brian Carnahan, Betsy Krieger, and Taylor Koch on September 5, 2014

In her July Rooflines post on the idea of “disruptive innovation,” Miriam Axel-Lute addressed how innovation has been over promoted in the nonprofit and public sectors. She focused on the difference between “the world of venture capital” and the nonprofit and public worlds—the latter two have obligations beyond earnings, which makes other organizations in their sectors partners rather than competitors. This means that nonprofit and public-sector organizations do not need to fixate on innovation, but often should focus on long-term goals with incremental improvements. “So very often what we need is will and coordination to implement well-known solutions, not some radically new solution,” Axel-Lute writes.

Really, we need to strike a balance between innovation and proven, dependable strategies. We have tried to do that at the Ohio Housing Finance Agency’s (OHFA) Housing Investment Fund (HIF) since 2009. HIF is a competitive grant and loan program for strategies to address housing needs that do not entirely fit the parameters of OHFA’s core programs.

HIF-funded projects are intended to implement unique, innovative and replicable approaches to meet Ohio’s housing needs, further the achievement of OHFA’s Annual Plan, and help drive housing policy for long-term economic and social value. By targeting initiatives outside of traditional program boundaries, OHFA encouraged proposals that demonstrated a greater diversity of affordable housing opportunities and services and/or served areas with few affordable housing options. (Note: the fund has been suspended to allow OHFA to identify additional resources for the program.)

The 33 projects HIF funded with its $13.4 million in funding include capital improvements, an evaluation to assess Appalachian Ohio housing needs, an analysis of a renter equity program, installation of temporary modular ramps for disabled individuals, tenant-landlord mediation services for renters at imminent risk of eviction, lead and energy efficiency repairs, a mobile health clinic for Cleveland’s Housing First projects, a permanent supportive housing (PAH) employment program, and construction of a life skills training facility for persons with developmental disabilities.

Encouraging “unique, innovative, and replicable” projects can prove challenging. Although HIF incentivized new approaches, project sponsors must still produce results that make public investments worthwhile. The public sector is risk averse when it comes to potential financial losses.

From our experiences working with HIF, here are some key considerations for organizations applying for funding for an “innovative” project:

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Extreme Makeover: CLT Home Edition

Posted by Dana Hawkins-Simons on August 29, 2014

Who doesn’t enjoy a room makeover contest with stunning results? The competition is even more gratifying when it serves a dual purpose: delighting a happy homeowner, and fostering awareness of the community land trust (CLT) housing model.

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Moving Forward: It’s What We Do

Posted by Chris Krehmeyer on August 28, 2014

It is with an odd combination of relief and sadness that I see that my hometown—my community—is no longer the lead in national headlines, no longer the first visual on national cable news and no longer the most trending hashtag. 

My organization has owned almost 20 single family rental homes in Ferguson, Mo., for over a decade and Michael Brown graduated from the school district that is our targeted geography for our community building efforts. My first thoughts about this tragedy were shared in local media and can be found here.

I wanted to use this space in Shelterforce, however, to talk to my peers in our difficult field of housing and community development.  My message to you is to take a moment and make sure you are taking care of yourself and your staff.

I have been in this field since 1986 and have seen my share of difficult and challenging events in the lives of those we serve and our larger community. The tragic death of Michael Brown, or "Big Mike" as he was known by his friends, has shaken me like nothing else I have experienced. I cannot understand how a parent buries their child and ask that each of you take a moment and steep in that idea. I further cannot understand how a police officer like Darren Wilson, who previously had not had any issues, suddenly is thrust into the role of villain and has had his life ruined. I will leave it to the justice system to work through all the issues in this case and hope that all the protesters continue to push our local prosecutor to ensure a fair, just trial. 

The picture above is of me and a number of Mike’s fellow 2014 graduates from Normandy High School. My organization, Beyond Housing, has the unique opportunity to send this talented group to Carnegie Hall for a choir competition. These young folks are talented, passionate, and destined for great things. 

So was Mike.

How do we in this work come to terms with the sadness, grief, and trauma that encroaches on our daily efforts to make change in our communities? 

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Ferguson, Sanford and the Persistence of Violent Racism

Posted by Josh Ishimatsu on August 27, 2014

“Wonder when I’ll find paradise // Somewhere there’s a home sweet and nice” –WAR, The World is a Ghetto

By now, many of you have probably have read the open letter to Michael Brown’s family from Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s mother). It is heartbreaking to think about the deep loss—the deep injustice—that these families have had to bear.

Many of the smaller facts and even the bigger issues between the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin shootings are different. Brown was shot by a policeman, Martin was shot by a volunteer on neighborhood watch. In Ferguson, there are major secondary issues around the militarization of police; in Florida, big sideline issues were "stand your ground" laws, gun control, gated communities. But at the simple core, both Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were murdered because they were young and black and male.

I lead with these two things—the parents’ grief and loss and the racist violence directed at young black men—because they should be front and center in our discussions about Michael and Trayvon.

All of us outside observers—pundits, bloggers, academics, advocates, organizers, arm chair (or laptop) quarterbacks—discuss these tragic shootings, through our own lenses and from our own contexts. We generate paragraphs of text, tables of statistics (percent of police who live in the communities in which they police; the increasing number of guns in the hands of private citizens), color-coded and time-sequenced maps (the increase of poverty in Ferguson over the past ten years; segregation by race in St. Louis) and mostly we talk and talk and talk.

And these conversations are important. These shootings are important touchstones. They expose deep and complicated tangles of issues around race, class, and gender; about violence, fear, and safety; about our country, about where we are going, about what we value; about justice; about the mythologies of the American Dream. These are important issues to discuss, to act upon. We need to have these hard conversations in order to better progress as a society.

But in our discussions about what has happened, in our calls to action, in our advocacy for new policies and practices, it is easy to lose sight of the simple, central reality of loss and of injustice.

So I wanted to call out these core realities before I jump into my own punditry.

All that being said, this blog post is about the demographics of Ferguson and Sanford (the places where Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were killed, respectively). I want to build off of Miriam Axel-Lute’s recent post about the dangerous rhetoric of labeling poor neighborhoods in terms of deficits and borrow some of her points about the fact that how we talk/think about issues often undermines our ability to change things for the better.

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