Affordable housing in the news

I haven’t written a new post in weeks. This is in part due to an unusually busy schedule but also (and probably mostly) in part to the lack of connection I have felt lately to this blog. I still care passionately about affordable housing, but I haven’t been able to muster interest in research and writing. Perhaps it is fatigue at the lack of overall progress; perhaps I had read too many heartwrenching stories about the lack of resources and will to provide shelter to people. As I figure out my next steps (do I continue this blog? change its scope? take a break?) here are five stories that have inspired me over the past few weeks. Enjoy.

1.“Great neighborhoods don’t have to be illegal -they’re not elsewhere”– Daniel Hertz at City Observatory takes American zoning laws to task. Using Sonia’s Hirt’s new book Zoned in the USA as his foundation, Hertz compares the planning tools used by other countries with America’s insistence on rigid zoning law as the only method for controlling city growth. Our strict zoning creates awkward cities, unwalkable places, and too much separation between residential and commercial areas. It is rare (outside of dense urban centers) to find housing, grocery stores and other amenities all within easy walking distance. Instead, we cordon off land for a single-use and only grant amendments with complicated local approval meetings.

Bringing land use policy to a national (as opposed to the current local) level is one proposed solution. Greater public involvement in land                                ownership, tax subsidies and other policy measures are all important tools used elsewhere, but ignored in America. As a result, we actually                              have lower rates of homeownership, in contrast to our country’s rampant pro-homeowner rhetoric. A more holistic approach to zoning could                    help align America’s values (walkable neighborhoods, safe and contained communities, homeownership) in line with its reality.

2. The Color of Debt: How Collection Suits Squeeze Black Neighborhoods: This is an excellent investigation from ProPublica about the racial disparity of debt collection suits. The rate of judgments passed in mostly black neighborhoods is twice as high as that against residents in mostly white neighborhoods, the reporters found. And this is when income has been taken into account. The study looks at the number of debt-related lawsuits in the Chicago, Newark and St. Louis metropolitan areas. Debt collectors are race-blind; all they know is that an account holder has fallen behind on payments. What this suggests, the article concludes, is blacks generally have access to fewer resources and thus cannot afford to stay abreast of their debt. They are less likely to have family members who can help pay bills and they cannot afford (or access) lawyers.

Another point the article touches on (but does not spend much time with) is the lack of access to legal help. The people interviewed for the article did not seem to know about pro-bono lawyers, were more likely to file Chapter 13 bankruptcy as opposed to the easier, less expensive and more-immediate Chapter 7, and were unaware they could claim certain legal exemptions based on age or family composition. To me, this information-gap is crucial: had many of the interviewees been privy to such information, they could have stemmed, if not stopped, their wage garnishment. Debt collectors bank on account holders’ poor understanding of rights, and take advantage. Most people (including myself) panic when a debt collector calls or when a letter arrives demanding immediate payment of bills that exceed the household budget. Greater access to financial education, tenants rights and legal aid could go a long way in preventing unnecessary and costly debt-related lawsuits.

3. NYCHA residents see little benefit from gentrification in their neighborhoods, report shows: New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), the city’s “anti-poverty innovation unit”, contracted consulting firm Abt Associates to conduct a report, released in May, 2015, that examining the social and economic impact of gentrification in neighborhoods containing public housing. Not surprisingly, the conclusion is that most public housing residents do not enjoy the massive benefits promised by gentrification. Although they are surrounded by wealth, many cannot afford to shop at the new grocery stores and the more affordable corner bodegas and laundrymats cannot maintain their businesses amid soaring property values (and the attendant soaring rents). Rich and poor still occupy separate worlds, even when jammed into the same few blocks.

In discussing the economic benefits at Queensbridge in Long Island City, designated by the report as increasing income (i.e. gentrifying), the report states:

Residents and staff at job placement agencies did not feel that the changes to the neighborhood’s economic landscape, such as new hotels and corporate headquarters, have translated into increased local opportunities for NYCHA residents. Thus while the average income in Queensbridge ($27,355) is higher than the average for NYCHA residents in persistently low-income neighborhoods, our qualitative work suggests that the earnings difference may not be driven by employment opportunities in the immediate neighborhood.

Increased job opportunities are often touted as a major positive outcome of gentrification. This suggests that priority is not given to longtime neighborhood residents as they should be if overall economic improvement is the goal, but to people who commute from other neighborhoods. I would be interested to know the racial and socioeconomic makeup of employees at new stores. (Whole Foods, a typical harbinger of gentrification, is making a conscious effort to hire from within the community at its Englewood location on Chicago’s south side, to open in 2016. Proof that, with a small amount of effort, finding local employees is possible.)

What I like most about this study is the inclusion of NYCHA residents on the research team. Abt partnered with local neighborhood advocacy groups (BronxWorks, Hudson Guild, and Urban Upbound) who provided local expertise and NYCHA employees. The housing authority residents helped collect qualitative evidence in the form of interviews, photographs, and exploration of public spaces. By using local people, Abt was probably able to access people who might otherwise have shied away from interviews. Further, it removed a degree of outsider-insider bias, and could have contributed to more authentic data.

With gentrification a basically inevitable urban process, it is heartening to see qualitative (not just quantitative) information about how this change affects low-income residents. The report can be read in its entirety here.

4. No Government Shutdown (now), But Congress May Shut Out More From Affordable Housing: Kathryn at Poverty & Policy examines how the Federal budget affects Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV). As HUD funding is reduced, the amount of money allocated to local housing authorities is duly reduced, forcing authorities to pull vouchers, to change voucher-issuance policy and even to shift funds from vouchers to maintenance or even administration. The latter happens when a housing authority is given Moving to Work (MTW) status, which shifts HUD funding intended for vouchers into a block grant that can essentially be used to cover any costs the housing authority can dream up (this is how the Chicago Housing Authority came to have more than $400 million in cash reserves). The end result of reduced funding (however the housing authority chooses to manage) is fewer vouchers and fewer people able to access affordable housing. And lawmakers do not seem inclined to improve the program. As Kathryn aptly states, it is “distressing, to put it mildly, that folks who call the shots in Congress seem disposed to make a bad situation worse.”

5. Five myths about public housing: Public housing has a bad rap in popular culture; it is usually conceived as housing of last report and its mention conjures depressing images of Pruit Igoe, Cabrini-Greene and Red Hook. Public housing is supposedly violent, poorly maintained, filled with ne’er do wells and people who play the system. What people forget when they make these assumptions, is that these labels can be applied throughout society. Few people editorialize about corruption in the suburbs, tax-loopholes exploited by the wealthy or the depressing nature of high-rise condo buildings; the poor are often held to a higher standard than the rest of society.

Inspired by the many stereotypes he saw embodied in HBO’s “Show Me a Hero”, David Madden dispels five popular myths about public housing in this Washington Post article. He backs up his assertions with research, and shows that public housing buildings, and the residents living within them, are not nearly as horrible as most people think. Rather, they are a good and necessary way to house poor and working class people.

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