Elizabeth Warren Introduces Plan to Expand Affordable Housing and Dismantle Racist Zoning Practices

Originally published in The Intercept on September 28, 2018.

This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introduced the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, one of the most far-reaching federal housing bills in decades. The legislation calls for a half-trillion dollar investment in affordable housing over the next 10 years, creating up to 3.2 million new units for low- and middle-income families.

The bill also expands the protections of decades-old legislation to reduce discriminatory banking, ban housing discrimination, and desegregate neighborhoods. For example, Warren’s bill would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against renters with federal housing vouchers, and would also impose new regulations on credit unions and nonbank mortgage lenders like Quicken Loans. The bill also incentivizes states and localities to loosen their racist and discriminatory zoning restrictions; eases the path for low-income families to move into more affluent communities; and provides federal assistance to first-time homebuyers from formerly segregated areas and those who saw their wealth decimated in the 2008 financial crisis.

Warren’s bill comes on the heels of two other federal housing bills introduced this summer by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, of New Jersey and California, respectively. Harris’s bill, which came first, aims to provide financial relief to renters by creating a new refundable tax credit. Booker’s bill would also establish a refundable tax credit for renters and incentivize communities to curb their exclusionary zoning rules to increase housing supply. Booker, Harris, and Warren are all names frequently thrown around as 2020 presidential hopefuls, though none has actually announced their intent to run.

“Much of the housing discussion has been about affordability, production, and tenant protections, which are all really important issues,” said Philip Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. “What’s so powerful about Warren’s bill is that it aims to tackle all those things, and it also looks at how are we going to structure our society going forward. Fair housing is really embedded in the legislation, and that’s why I find it so creative.”

To incentivize states and communities to ease their zoning restrictions and boost affordable housing supply, a Warren aide told The Intercept, the senator’s staff looked at the Race to the Top program, the Obama administration’s signature education initiative. In Race to the Top, the federal government doled out $4 billion in competitive grants to states that adopted the administration’s preferred education reform policies, like lifting caps on charter schools and overhauling teacher evaluations. The program was massively effective: Forty-six states and Washington, D.C., revamped their policies to compete for the federal funds.

Warren’s bill takes that same competitive grant model, and allows states, metropolitan regions, and cities to compete for $10 billion in federal funds. (Race to the Top had two rounds of competitive funding; Warren’s bill proposes five.) To compete, jurisdictions must first reform their zoning restrictions and reduce other barriers to affordable housing production. Grant winners can then use the federal dollars to fund all sorts of projects, such as building parks and schools and improving local transit.

Often when new, dense housing developments are proposed, residents raise concerns about the overcrowding of schools or increased traffic congestion. Warren’s bill would arm political leaders with added resources to help make those housing tradeoffs a bit easier. Yes, increasing housing supply could lead to an increase in the public school student population, but reforming land use policies could also help cities access additional federal dollars to absorb those new residents more smoothly.

To fund the bill, Warren proposes a return to Bush-era estate tax levels, and increasing those taxes on the country’s 10,000 wealthiest families. The Massachusetts senator cited an independent study conducted by the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, an economics research firm, which determined that Warren’s bill was “fiscally responsible” and would “go a long way toward addressing” the affordable housing crisis. Moody’s projects the bill would lower rents by 10 percent and make it easier for low- and middle-income workers to live closer to their jobs, thereby reducing “long and costly commutes.”

POLITICIANS, INCLUDING PROMINENT progressives like Warren, have historically steered away from efforts to curtail exclusionary zoning, said Rick Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal think tank. The difference now, he told The Intercept, is that “rents have become too damn high,” so elected officials, including presidential hopefuls, are more open to ideas that previously seemed too controversial to embrace.

Henry Kraemer, a Portland-based activist, co-authored an article in The Nation in May making the political case for Democrats to take up housing issues. In August, he followed up with a co-authored report laying out specific policy recommendations, such as new rent subsidies and expanded public housing. Kraemer and his report co-author, Laura Loe Bernstein, note that successfully enacting all their proposals would be “nearly or entirely impossible” without ending “apartment bans” — another name for exclusionary zoning. “Apartment bans restrict new home-building to the sort of single-family houses most commonly associated with suburbs and affluent neighborhoods,” they write. “Apartment bans are extraordinarily widespread, and render it illegal to build duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and other spaces where multiple families can live nestled together (and often more cheaply) on the same plot of land.”

Kraemer told The Intercept it’s “fantastic” to see 2020 hopefuls “putting out bold solutions to the housing crisis” that Democrats can pursue if they reclaim Congress and the White House. In the short term, Kraemer said, the Harris, Booker, and Warren bills “send the right signals” to state and local lawmakers.

“Maybe more than any other politician, Elizabeth Warren helped set the tone and agenda for the party’s economic work around the country,” Kraemer said. “To see her saying now that these historic inequities in housing and soaring rents and mortgages are huge problems — well, that’s a big, big deal.”

The Trump administration has also recently signaled its intent to address zoning rules, at least rhetorically. In August, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson came out to say that he, too, wants to use federal funds to loosen zoning restrictions. “I want to encourage the development of mixed-income multifamily dwellings all over the place,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

But progressives have voiced rightful skepticism of Carson’s newfound enthusiasm for zoning reform, as he’s also been leading the push to weaken civil rights protections from his federal perch. For the past year, HUD has been trying to weaken the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which was finalized in 2015 and designed to bolster fair housing enforcement. In August, the agency announced that over the next two months it would be opening the rule back up for public comment, claiming that “the current regulations are ineffective” and provide jurisdictions with “inadequate autonomy in developing fair housing goals.”

Carson went further in a statement, claiming that the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule is “suffocating investment” in distressed neighborhoods and contributing to the lack of affordable housing.

“When Ben Carson talks about zoning, he’s not really talking about exclusionary zoning. He’s talking about fair housing rules that prevent the piling on of all the low-income housing in poor neighborhoods,” said Tegeler, whose primary concern with Warren’s bill is that it lacks language to prevent the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal housing funds from pouring exclusively into poor areas.

“It’s very important that this continues to be a fair housing bill and not play into the Trump administration’s framing,” Tegeler said. “As this bill is further refined, we’d hope to see some protections against piling on the bulk of this new development in high-poverty, segregated neighborhoods.”

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When a Suburb Tries to Densify, Forget ‘Minnesota Nice’

Originally published in CityLab on June 21, 2018.
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In late April, some residents of Normandale Lake Estates, an apartment complex in Bloomington, Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis, received a letter informing them that their leases were being terminated and they’d have to move out by June 1. New owners had recently bought the building and planned to upgrade the units. Existing tenants were told they could prequalify to return, but many suspect the new rents will be higher than they can afford. In the meantime, they’re scrambling to find new places to live.

For some of the displaced Bloomington renters, this isn’t the first time they’ve been forced out of their homes. A little over two years ago, in the nearby suburb of Richfield, new owners purchased an apartment complex called Crossroads at Penn. They renamed it Concierge, renovated the units, and priced out hundreds of families. Some of those Crossroads tenants, like Lisa Jones, who relies on a federal housing voucher for herself and her two grandchildren, and Linda Soderstrom, also on federal housing subsidy, moved from Richfield to the Normandale Lake Estates. Now they’ve been pushed out once more.

“The lack of humanity is deep,” Soderstrom told The Star-Tribune. “It’s really deep.”

After the Crossroads takeover in late 2015, housing activists and community groups across the metropolitan region began meeting regularly to strategize how they could confront the challenges of rising rents and displacement. Soon the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition was born—comprised of nearly two dozen community and faith-based groups. Their mission centered on the “the three P’s”—preservation of affordable housing, production of affordable housing, and protection of tenants.

Much of the attention around affordable housing in the U.S. has tended to focus on cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle—densely built urban areas where land for new housing is in short supply. But most Americans live in suburbs, many of which are seeing rapidly increasing poverty and racial diversityHere, the need for affordable housing can be just as acute, but the dynamics of the issue are distinct from the urban version—and, often, more complex.

On the outskirts of the Twin Cities, the housing crisis includes some familiar ingredients—anxieties about race and poverty, debates about density and “neighborhood character.” But here there are also deep divisions between various pro-housing advocacy organizations, as well as big differences between suburbs, depending on their relative affluence.

Hope Melton, a retired urban planner, has lived in the wealthy suburb of Edina for nearly 40 years. Last fall, she invited some neighbors to meet in her living room, to kickstart a conversation about steep local housing prices. They’ve been meeting and growing their group ever since.

“Fifteen or twenty years ago, the affordable housing crisis was mainly hitting poor people,” Melton told CityLab. “Now it’s affecting a much wider swath of people. We’ve really been attracting a lot of seniors in Edina, the older generation is really stepping up.”

Although the Twin Cities have historically been one of the nation’s most affordable places to live, the region has a markedly low rental vacancy rate, meaning there’s high demand for new units and steady pressure on rents. Activists fear that “flipping” affordable units into luxury market-rate apartments will become increasingly common prospects for investors, especially those from out-of-state.

Anne Mavity, the executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, says the region is not building new affordable units at the rate at which presently affordable units are disappearing. Market-rate units that were constructed 35 years ago are generally reasonably priced today simply because they’re and older and not fancy. The term-of-art for these types of units is “NOAH” or “naturally-occurring affordable housing.”

“We’re losing NOAH at a rapid pace,” Mavity said. “And every time a sale happens, the price of the unit is going to go up, the rents will go up. We are increasingly attractive to national investors, and that is not good for our residents.”

To combat some of these trends, the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition has been organizing around several key policy areas, namely to add new affordable housing stock, and help tenants fight displacement. In March, for example, the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance requiring new property owners to give low-income tenants 90 days notice to find a new place to live if they’re being priced out, and to pay for tenants’ moving expenses. A similar rule was just introduced to the Bloomington City Council this month, according to the city’s program manager, Bryan Hartman.

Nelima Sitati-Munene, executive director of the African Career Education & Resource, Inc. (ACER), a group focused on organizing the African immigrant community in Minnesota and a member of the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition, says they’ve been pushing municipal leaders to no longer “view the landlord as the only stakeholder” in their cities. In her suburb of Brooklyn Park, activists recently succeeded in getting rental affordability requirements included in new multi-family housing developments.

Sitati-Munene says organizing around suburban governments has been both a challenge and opportunity. “The reality is this affordable housing crisis is a new phenomenon for a lot of people,” she said. “And a lot of suburban city councilmembers are part-time. A lot of leaders have been really surprised to learn what’s going on, to hear people’s personal stories.”

Still, the fundamental tensions associated with affordable housing debates in other parts of the country persist here: Many suburbanites are vehemently opposed to changes in local development patterns, especially when the word “density” comes up.

“That’s a very polarizing issue,” said Ricardo Perez, a community developer at the Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County, when I asked him about increasing housing density as a strategy to boost affordability. “I personally leave it to the policy experts to have those conversations amongst themselves. My main focus is on community and to serve those families who are being affected directly by these issues.”

Aaron Berc, a housing organizer with Jewish Community Action and another Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition leader, was similarly noncommittal on the question of density. “We’re not going to support a project because it’s dense. We’ll support a dense project because it’s affordable,” he said. “Certainly we need more housing—our city needs to go grow. But I would say we need housing that is affordable for the community more than we need more housing.”

These questions around development and density are hardly theoretical abstractions. In March, the city of Minneapolis released a draft comprehensive plan which included a new proposal to upzone neighborhoods so that single-family-homes could be more easily converted into fourplexes, an idea with the strong backing of Minneapolis’s new mayor, Jacob Frey. “Affordable housing is a right,” he tweeted in March. “Addressing our supply—and shortage—is going to be a key part of realizing that right.”

Some groups, like the Defend Glendale Public Housing Coalition, have already come out in strong opposition to the fourplex idea; they argue that relying on market-based solutions will inevitably make things worse for low-income people and increase displacement. The city is accepting public comment on the draft proposal through the end of July.

In Edina, efforts to add more housing have also met stiff resistance. The City Council recently rejected a proposal for a new seven-story building, which would have included 20 percent of its 135 units as affordable. In October the Edina City Council rejected another proposed high-rise condo buildingthis one of 173 new units, with twenty percent of them designated as affordable.

There’s no doubt that height and density are the two issues that have focused people’s minds as we address development, redevelopment and affordable housing,” says Melton. “How would I characterize the conversation? Chaotic, emotional, uninformed.”

The dynamics get more complicated, Melton says, as residents wrestle with complex issues of race and class through the politics of Midwestern cultural norms. “‘Minnesota Nice’ plays into this very much,” she said. “People don’t raise their voice, nobody wants to talk about race, nobody wants to talk about their responsibility historically for what’s happened to people that they don’t want to have in their community.”

Instead, Melton says, her neighbors will “say they don’t want ‘urban’ things, that they don’t want all the noise and diversity and crowding and traffic and all that,” she says. “Those things they regard as negative, and they moved to Edina to escape it.”

Bruce McCarthy, the president of the Lake Cornelia Neighborhood Association in Edina, has said he is “very pro-development” but that “we just want to see it a certain kind of way.” He’s urged his city council to focus on its new comprehensive plan before it approves any new project that requires amending building size requirements.

Yet even among housing activists who might otherwise be on the same side, the issue of racial integration and fair housing can be charged. In 2014, two of the Twin City’s most racially diverse suburbs, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, filed a federal fair housing complaint against the state, alleging that policymakers had illegally concentrated subsidized housing and poverty in their cities, in defiance of a state law that requires affluent communities to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing. The re-adoption of a “fair system” is a way of ensuring that more subsidized units end up in higher-income areas. The Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH), a faith-based housing organization, partnered with the cities on the complaint.

Sue Watlov Phillips, executive director of MICAH, says the Metropolitan Council, a regional government agency charged with enforcing the “fair share” law (among many other municipal duties) has been resistant to their complaint, though HUD is continuing to investigate their grievances.

“We’re not saying anyone needs to move or be forced to move, but we’re saying we want to make sure if you want to move out to another place, you should have affordable housing and opportunity in every community,” she said. “We went from being one of the most integrated metros in the country to one of the most segregated, and a lot of it was because we have designated our resources and policies so housing could only be developed in certain areas.”

But Sitati-Munene of Brooklyn Park’s ACER opposes the fair housing complaint: Her group insists that the working-class suburbs of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center need much more subsidized housing construction, not less.

Despite disagreements over strategy, placement, and scale, the fact that groups in in the Twin Cities metro are even wrestling with these issues puts them ahead of the curve nationally when it comes to organizing the suburbs. And activists acknowledge that the housing issues they’re confronting are not unique to their region.

“After the foreclosure crisis people lost their homes and more people have started to rent,” says Sitati-Munene“Rental markets are flooded, and prices are going up. If other suburbs aren’t dealing with affordable housing issues now, it’s coming.”

Donald Trump and the GOP Are Expanding a Controversial Obama-Era Public Housing Program

Originally published in The Intercept on April 2, 2018.
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The most recent spending bill passed by the Republican Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump includes a massive expansion of a controversial program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, which privatizes public housing to preserve physical housing units. Despite the program’s threat to public housing in general, beleaguered affordable housing advocates have reacted with cautious approval, even as a government watchdog recently affirmed their long-term concerns, finding that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has insufficiently monitored the program and may be exaggerating its benefits.

In a 72-page report issued on March 22, the Government Accountability Office concluded, among other things, that HUD has not sufficiently monitored tenants’ experiences; has not ensured tenants can exercise all their rights; has dramatically exaggerated the amount of private capital generated through the RAD program; and has not done enough to ensure the long-term affordability of the units. The report issued five recommendations to improve the program, all five of which HUD said it agrees with.

Many affordable housing advocates are open to RAD, which works by allowing private companies to rehabilitate and manage public housing in exchange for tax credits and subsidies, but they have voiced concerns for years about what they consider to be wholly insufficient oversight for the federal program and potential risks for low-income tenants. GAO has now affirmed some of those fears with an independent assessment, yet lawmakers are moving to expand the program, accelerating the upending of traditional public housing.

At least one member of Congress has been skeptical of the program for years. “I have long expressed concerns that the conversion of public housing, under RAD, will risk the long-term affordability of this important housing resource and this GAO report serves as confirmation that RAD is in desperate need of reform,” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said in a statement about the GAO assessment. Waters, the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee and one of the most outspoken critics of RAD, sent a letter to GAO in 2015 requesting a formal review of the program. A year earlier she had sent a letter to former President Barack Obama asking him to reconsider his RAD support, saying she believes it “may very well do more harm than good in diminishing a crucial public asset.”

RAD was one of a number of affordable housing programs to get a boost in the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed last month. The Obama administration first launched RAD seven years ago, and the program now boasts support from Democrats and Republicans, including HUD Secretary Ben Carson. It was conceived to address the biggest problem facing the nation’s 1.2 million public housing units: $49 billion in backlogged repairs and maintenance, leading to a permanent loss of 10,000 apartments every year.

Under the program, public housing authorities across the country are able to submit applications to HUD with requests to transfer all or some of their public housing stock to the private sector. If their applications are approved, they then negotiate RAD contracts, which are designed to renew every 15 to 20 years and require private developers to keep the units affordable for low-income tenants in perpetuity. Technically, all public housing tenants should be able to live in the private units if they want to, though housing advocates say this “right of return” is not always enforced.

Given the federal government’s refusal to sufficiently fund public housing — even Congress’s new $800 million investment in public housing rehabilitation will only make a small dent in the needed repairs — RAD supporters say privatizing the units is the best way to preserve the physical units over the long haul. Six years ago Congress authorized just 60,000 units, or 5 percent of the nation’s public housing stock, to be “converted” through RAD. Since then, Congress has repeatedly raised that capped number, most recently in the new omnibus bill, which bumps it from 225,000 units up to 455,000. In other words, 38 percent of the nation’s public housing has already been authorized for transfer to the private sector.

The federal government’s track record in privatizing public housing certainly warrants concern: When HUD launched a program in the 1990s to convert public housing units into mixed-income developments, the feds intentionally shrunk the number of affordable units, and thousands of tenants were permanently displaced. Another federal program launched in the late 1960s gave private developers tax credits and subsidies to build affordable housing, backed by 30-year mortgages. When those mortgages started to be paid off, many developers kicked out poor tenants and converted the buildings into middle-class and luxury housing.

HUD officials say they’ve studied their historical mistakes and have worked hard to design RAD in ways that will specifically avoid these past pitfalls. Indeed, RAD comes with a more robust set of tenant protections than other federal housing programs, but enforcement of these rights has been lacking to date. Last October, the National Housing Law Project sent a letter to Carson outlining a host of RAD oversight concerns, some of which were corroborated this month with the release of the long-awaited GAO assessment. For example, public housing residents who paid a flat rent are supposed to be guaranteed a phase-in of any rent increase under RAD exceeding $25, but GAO noted that HUD has not been tracking things like “changes in rent, as well as relocations or displacement of individual households.”

Tom Davis, the director of HUD’s Office of Recapitalization, which oversees the RAD program, told The Intercept that he finds the GAO report useful, but not too damning.

“One of the takeaways from the report is that given the scope of what they were looking at, their recommendations were really narrowly focused, and their recommendations were for things we have been already working on,” he said. “Their feedback is helpful, but these are also pretty on-the-margin kinds of critiques. We have tried to learn from history, and we think we have a pretty good scheme to avoid the risks to affordability.”

One of the findings of the GAO report was that HUD exaggerates how much private capital RAD generates. The federal housing agency claims that for every $1 in public money spent, RAD leverages $19 in private funds, while GAO estimates $1 in public money yields just $1.23 in private funds. Davis said the disparity results from a difference in methodology.

“We chose one methodology, the GAO chose another one, and we don’t think theirs is the best indicator of the impact of the program,” Davis said. “Theirs is legitimate, but we think ours is as well.” Their disagreement centers on issues like whether money that comes from private banks in anticipation of federal tax credits should be considered public or private dollars.

GAO also conducted some tenant surveys, reporting that RAD residents across its 14 focus groups said they had very mixed experiences in terms of transparency and assistance.

Davis said focus group data can be helpful in “identifying concerns” for HUD’s consideration, but noted the hazards of relying on anecdotal information. He pointed to a more formal survey HUD has commissioned on tenants’ RAD experiences, which will be released in late 2018 or early 2019. “A rigorous social science survey based on the evaluation of a statistical pool of participating tenants will give us a really strong sense of whether RAD is working for residents or not,” he said. “I think those lessons are going to be really important, so we’re really looking forward to that study.”

Aside from the GAO report, HUD published its own interim RAD evaluation in the fall of 2016. The study, conducted by a management consulting firm called Econometrica Inc., deemed RAD initially successful based off metrics such as the number of applications for conversion it processed, the amount of private financing it generated, and the number of RAD transactions closed. The interim report did not investigate the early impact of RAD on tenants.

Davis said the interim report “was very clear in affirming our view that this is a program that brings new sources of money to solve the problem of deferred capital housing needs.” While he acknowledged that GAO had identified some risks to affordability, he said they are not major risks, and expressed confidence in his agency’s ability to address those concerns. Davis also emphasized that not having RAD at all would pose far more risks to long-term housing affordability.

Jessica Cassella, a National Housing Law Project staff attorney who focuses on tenant protections under RAD, told The Intercept that one important issue highlighted by GAO is that HUD has been relying largely on local data collected by housing authorities and property owners. “As the GAO recommended, and as we think as well, HUD should have its own set of data,” Cassella said.

Last fall, HUD started requiring property owners to certify information about tenants’ experiences to the federal government. For the first time since the program’s inception, owners must now report how many residents came back to a converted RAD property and how many former public housing tenants did not return. To incorrectly certify information could be criminal fraud under the False Claims Act, punishable by thousands of dollars in fines and even prison sentences. Advocates view this new requirement as an improvement to the RAD oversight and monitoring process.

“Things always take longer to stand up than you think when it’s a government program,” said Davis. “Certification wasn’t initially required — [private companies] had to certify certain things at closing, but they didn’t have to come back after the project was complete to certify what actually happened [to tenants].”

Davis told The Intercept that this newly required tenant information has not yet been made publicly available because his team is “working through kinks and tweaking” data. He said HUD “discovered in the first few months of the reporting that some people interpreted questions differently, and we want to align that so the data is good when we make it public.”

But Cassella noted that HUD’s new certifications still fail to monitor all the rights that tenants are guaranteed, such as the right to relocate with a choice mobility voucher. Under RAD, tenants are entitled to request a voucher to move to any unit on the private market after living one or two years in a RAD-converted property.

“We have anecdotally encountered situations where housing authorities do not have procedures set up so tenants can exercise that right, and HUD does not have any way to currently monitor whether these moves are actually happening,” she said.

Cassella also pointed to GAO’s finding that roughly one-third of the public housing units chosen for RAD did not report making any capital repairs at the time of their conversion. “Given that there’s a $49 billion backlog, it’s hard to imagine how a third of those properties don’t need any repairs,” she said. “Maybe some of those repairs will be deferred to a later time, but when the stated purpose of RAD is to physically improve the properties, we would hope to see a lot more of those repairs happening early on.” It’s not clear how the federal government evaluates RAD applications that claim no immediate physical repairs are necessary.

Even if Congress one day lifts the cap on RAD to make all public housing units eligible for conversion to the private sector — as some groups have been advocating for — it is unlikely that every building in the public housing stock would make for a viable RAD candidate.

Some public housing units are in such bad shape that experts suspect not even tax credits or other federal subsidies will be enough to entice private developers to take over certain decrepit buildings. There’s a risk that, as RAD expands and most public housing units are converted to the private sector, those that aren’t converted will be the ones in the worst condition.

“If people had a bad image of public housing before, it’ll just get even worse,” said Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at The New School, when I interviewed him about RAD in 2015. “It’s analogous to the health insurance pool — where all the healthy people leave, and then you’re just left with just those who have the most expensive health needs.”

Though HUD and affordable housing advocates don’t exactly see eye to eye, even the advocates are convinced that there might be no better option available at this time but to push for stronger HUD oversight.

“We’ve seen a number of problems, such as tenants being improperly discouraged from returning, owners or developers not accommodating people with disabilities, or the new construction not being suited to family needs,” said Brenda Castañeda, an attorney at the Charlottesville, Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice. “The RAD process could clearly benefit from active HUD oversight, as the GAO suggests.”

1,500 Affordable Housing Units Headed for Baltimore Could Multiply

Originally published in Next City on October 24, 2017.
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The state of Maryland announced in October it would provide 1,500 new affordable housing opportunities in high-opportunity parts of the Baltimore region, a victory for fair housing advocates who filed a federal complaint with HUD in 2011.

The complainants alleged that Maryland administered its Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program in a discriminatory way, steering families with children into high-poverty, black neighborhoods, while building a disproportionate number of affordable units for seniors, especially white seniors, in the predominantly white suburbs.

This legal settlement not only requires Maryland to build new units, but also to offer incentives to developers to build affordable family-size housing, and to consider subsidizing transportation alternatives in areas that lack quality public transit.

Fair housing advocates say that getting 1,500 affordable units off the ground will make it significantly easier to build even more units in high-opportunity areas going forward.

“Once you knock down these barriers, once the development community starts changing its business model to incorporate looking for sites in high-opportunity areas, once the units get built and the sky doesn’t fall — the political opposition tends to lessen,” says Barbara Samuels, a fair housing attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “It builds up its own momentum, and we see these 1,500 units as a step that will lead to other future steps.”

The coalition that filed the complaint, the Baltimore Regional Housing Campaign (BRHC), didn’t expect their efforts to take as long as they did, but they did expect an administrative complaint to move faster than filing a lawsuit.

In 1995, the ACLU of Maryland filed a federal suit taking aim at Baltimore’s racially segregated public housing. Though the court eventually ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and as part of the legal remedy Baltimore has established one of the most successful housing mobility programs in the U.S., the case didn’t settle until 2012; the lawsuit approach took 17 years.

Meanwhile, the last two decades have brought about increased attention to segregation in the LIHTC program. Florence Roisman, a law professor at Indiana University, published a law review article in 1998 arguing that the LIHTC program, which is run by the Treasury Department, not HUD, was operating outside the confines of civil rights law. As LIHTC is the largest federal program to subsidize place-based affordable rental housing, Roisman urged corrective action.

In 2002, the Connecticut ACLU sued the state’s housing finance agency, arguing that LIHTC units in Hartford led to increased racial segregation, in violation of state law. In 2004, fair housing advocates in New Jersey sued their state, saying its LIHTC policies encouraged racial segregation, in violation of the Fair Housing Act. These and other developments influenced advocates in Maryland, who convened in early 2006, to explore what barriers prevented LIHTC units from being developed in higher-opportunity areas of their state.

It became clear then that one of the largest impediments standing in the way was Maryland’s policy of requiring local officials to sign off on LIHTC development, effectively empowering politicians with a pocket veto, no matter how important the affordable housing project was. A HUD study published in 2015 and conducted by New York University’s Furman Institute singled out Maryland’s local approval policy as one that led to notable increases in LIHTCs being deployed to develop housing in poor neighborhoods. Advocates tried to pressure Maryland to abandon this policy, but when efforts at voluntary persuasion failed, the BRHC filed its complaint.

In 2014, in response to the complaint and increased local advocacy, Maryland’s legislature opted to get rid of its local veto requirement. As part of the new legal settlement announced this month, the state has agreed to never reinstate it.

“If we can accomplish all this here, we can do it anywhere,” says Samuels. “You don’t need to go back far to remember when Baltimore was known as the city that killed [the] Moving to Opportunity [program].” Moving to Opportunity was a housing experiment that ran from 1994 to 1998 and involved moving individuals out of high-poverty areas with vouchers into low-poverty census tracts, to see how this would improve their lives. But politicians and racist homeowners in suburban Baltimore County rebelled early on, and U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland led the effort to kill funding to expand the program nationally.

Now, though, Maryland has a well-regarded mobility program, revamped LIHTC policies as a result of the BRHC fair housing complaint, and in 2016, Baltimore County settled another fair housing complaint, agreeing to spend $30 million over the next decade to support developers building 1,000 affordable units in higher-income neighborhoods. Baltimore County also agreed to establish its own mobility program, to assist families in predominantly black, poor neighborhoods in relocating to more affluent suburbs.

In 2015, a team of Harvard researchers published a study examining the long-term impacts of the Moving to Opportunity program. They found that poor children who moved to better neighborhoods were more likely to attend college and earned more in the workforce when compared to similar adults who hadn’t moved. The researchers also found that of the nation’s 100 largest counties, Baltimore ranked last in terms of facilitating upward mobility — partly due to its high degree of racial and economic segregation. Fair housing is no silver bullet, but Maryland’s renewed commitment to integrated housing is a bright spot for civil rights.

The Hopes and Fears Around Ben Carson’s Favorite Public Housing Program

Originally published in CityLab on April 21, 2017.

When Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren asked Ben Carson what he would do as HUD secretary to address the condition of U.S. public housing, Carson enthusiastically singled out one program for praise—the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD), a five-year-old federal initiative that has gone largely under the radar. He said he’s “very encouraged” by RAD’s early results, and “looks forward to working with Congress to expand this worthy program.”

RAD works by transferring public housing units to the private sector, so that developers and housing authorities can tap into a broader range of subsidies and financing tools to rehab and manage the units. Given Congress’s refusal to adequately fund public housing and the billions of dollars needed for backlogged repairs, supporters say RAD is the best available option to preserve the affordable units, lest they become too uninhabitable for anyone to live in at all.

Roughly 60,000 public housing units have been converted to project-based Section 8 rentals through RAD since its launch in 2012, and Congress has authorized 185,000 units to be converted in total. Technically, all public housing tenants should be able to return to the private units if they want to, though housing advocates fear the RAD statute has loopholes that could prevent this goal from coming true.

It’s little surprise that RAD—a revenue-neutral program that leverages the private sector—might appeal to leaders like Carson. RAD has garnered strong bipartisan support among Republican and Democratic legislators alike, and many expect its congressional cap to be lifted altogether in the coming years, potentially setting the stage for a radical change to much of the nation’s public housing.

But there are housing advocates concerned about how fast RAD is moving, and they warn that oversight and transparency remain mixed at best. For some tenants, the conversions have been a nightmare.

Katrina Jones, a single mother of three, had been living in public housing for a decade when she learned that her subsidized building in Hopewell, Virginia, would be razed through RAD, and new affordable apartments would be built in its place. Jones, who has one daughter confined to a wheelchair, was thrilled by the prospect of long-overdue housing repairs and upgrades for her 1960s-era building.

However, according to HUD complaints filed in December, the Hopewell housing authority and the nonprofit RAD developer refused to make accommodations for Jones and her family, convincing her to take a tenant buy-out. At the time, Jones’ son was facing criminal charges (which were later dropped), and she needed money to pay his attorney fees. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave., half of which went towards paying attorney fees to defend her son against criminal charges that were later dropped. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave.

Jones now works at WalMart and pays $1,450 per month for an accessible unit in Chester, Virginia; her public housing rent had been $400 a month. “I’m living a whole new life right now where I’m struggling more every single day just to keep my current apartment,” she says. “These people don’t care what happens to you once you’re out.”

Jones is one of a dozen former tenants named in complaints recently filed by Virginia legal aid lawyers who say the Hopewell RAD conversions violated a wide range of federal laws and regulations—including unlawful threats of eviction and discrimination against families with children and the disabled. HUD is investigating the allegations, but tenant advocates say the problems documented in Hopewell reflect larger accountability issues related to the program.

It’s not just in Virginia. John Kelly, a 74-year-old tenant living in public housing in San Francisco, is currently under threat of eviction for not signing the lease of his building’s new RAD landlord, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC). Kelly, who has been reaching out to housing nonprofits and HUD for the past six months, says the lease he’s being asked to sign is “illegal, dishonest, unconscionable.”

Kelly describes himself as “not a big fan” of government, and he thinks private organizations could do a better job of managing his building than the San Francisco housing authority. But his experience dealing with RAD, he says, has been terrible.

Terry Bagby, a 58-year-old veteran who also lives in Kelly’s building, agrees it’s been extremely stressful. “A lot of our questions go unanswered by all these different agencies that come and have meetings with us,” he says. “I’m surprised I haven’t had another heart attack or stroke dealing with all this nonsense. I’d move out of this city in a heartbeat if I could.”

TNDC did not return multiple requests for comment, but Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Housing Rights Committee, says local groups have been working closely with the city to monitor RAD conversions. Some developers have been responsible, she says; with others it’s been more of a struggle.

“Tenants are distrustful, for real reasons,” says Sherburn-Zimmer, referring to the city’s history of displacement and eviction. “You definitely get some agencies who have young workers, new to town, who tell tenants everything is going to be great. Tenants aren’t stupid; they want everything in writing.”

Whether these are isolated incidents or signs that RAD portends greater risks for tenants in the future is not yet clear. The serious shortcomings of earlier housing programs like HOPE VI and Section 236 loom large. Both Bagby and Kelly expressed fears that their city’s commitment to low-income housing will eventually disappear.

Kim Rolla, a lawyer who helped file the Hopewell complaint, says she and her colleagues got a lot of pushback from other affordable housing advocates after contacting the media about HUD’s investigation. “It was the same week that the budget cuts were announced, and they said, ‘Why would you criticize this HUD program right now?’”

Jessica Casella, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project, says that Hopewell is the most egregious complaint she’s heard of, but her organization has documented many kinds of tenant RAD issues over the past few years. She also admits there are many places where nobody really knows how these conversions are going. “One of our major concerns is the level and quality of oversight by HUD,” says Casella. “I think HUD has put its emphasis on getting properties to closing, and much less effort in making sure that after deals are finalized, the transitions go smoothly.”

Transparency around RAD has also been a challenge for advocates, academics, and reporters. Rolla says she and her colleagues faced serious difficulty accessing basic information about the Hopewell RAD deal—and their request to have hundreds of dollars in FOIA fees waived was denied on the grounds that such disclosures were “not in the public interest.”

Tom Davis, the director of HUD’s Office of Recapitalization, which oversees RAD, says his agency is trying to make RAD “the gold standard in terms of protections of residents,” noting that it has far more rules and regulations for tenant treatment than almost any other federal housing program. Davis says there’s also been a lot of work over the last 18 months to upgrade the procedures related to how HUD monitors properties post-conversion, including proactively reaching out to public housing authorities to ensure there are no issues.

“I think if there are any agencies out there meant to protect us, they’re not funded that well,” said Terry Bagby, wearily. “They probably don’t have a lot of people working on their staff, and are underpaid.”

Going forward, as HUD continues investigating Hopewell, advocates hope to make sure that the federal housing agency’s commitment to RAD oversight doesn’t waver.

Should a New Tax Credit From Washington Subsidize Housing for the Middle Class?

Originally published in Next City on November 8, 2016.
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As voters head to the polls to vote on their next president, they will likely encounter a campaign ad or two promising that the candidate in question will deliver a better future for America’s middle-class.

But while presidential elections have long been about playing to the middle-class — or those who consider themselves to be in that hallowed American demographic, the question of how to build housing for them is now coming to Congress.

An Oregon senator has introduced a bill to create a new federal program that would incentivize developers to build and preserve housing accessible to those families earning up to 100 percent of the area median income. In Portland, where the senator lives when he is not in Washington, the 2016 AMI for a family of four is $73,300.

The “Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit” proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is modeled after the 30-year-old Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the largest federal program to support placed-based affordable rental housing, which requires that units must target those earning 60 percent or less of the AMI. Wyden’s idea is to create a program for middle-class families who struggle to afford housing, but who earn too much to qualify for federal subsidies restricted to the poor. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, as the housing industry — including powerful lobbying groups such as the National Association of Home Builders— lines up behind the bill, a growing number of advocates for low-income populations and affordable housing organizations are saying no — and urging the Senator to focus on those with the most several housing needs instead.

National Low-Income Housing Coalition president Diane Yentel says Wyden’s bill is a misguided and wasteful use of federal resources. In an email to Next City, Yentel said that data clearly shows that for households in the 80 percent to 100 percent income band, there’s little to no need for a federal solution. Just 101,623 of those renters are severely cost burdened, compared to the 7.8 million extremely-low income households that have severe cost-burdens.

“There are literally more children living in homeless shelters than there are severely cost-burdened middle-income renters,” Yentel wrote.

For households earning 61-80 percent of AMI that are severely cost-burdened, Yentel says you’ll find them clustered in just a few cities and a better solution to address those problems would be through a different bill co-sponsored by Wyden. That bill would allow some LIHTC developments to target households up to 80 percent of AMI, and to construct more low-income housing through the National Housing Trust Fund. This, she says, would create a “reverse filtering effect” that would help move extremely-low income individuals into affordable housing, and out of housing that would otherwise be affordable to households higher up the income scale.

Defenders of the middle-income tax credit proposal point to data released by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies that found that in the 10 highest-cost metro areas, 75 percent of renter households earning $30,000-44,9999, and half of those earning $45,000-74,999 were cost burdened in 2014. In the Oregon cities represented by Wyden, more and more renters are feeling the pressure of a hot housing market.

“One of the arguments the LIHTC people brought up is that if the MIHTC passes, it will take funding away from the LIHTC,” says Carol Ott, an affordable housing advocate in Baltimore. “I’m concerned about this, but I firmly believe if we work hard enough, we can have both.”

Low-income housing advocates are skeptical. In the next Congress there will be major pushes to increase the LIHTC, to create a renters’ tax credit for the lowest-income families, to increase spending for family homelessness, to expand the Section 8 voucher program, and to increase funding for the National Housing Trust Fund. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates that Wyden’s MIHTC proposal would cost $4.5 billion annually when fully implemented, and that to pass such a large housing subsidy for the middle class would very likely crowd out the political will for even larger investments for the poor.

A spokesperson for Wyden’s office told Next City that they’re not worried this would crowd out funding for low-income households, and that if state housing authorities want to use their Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit dollars to bolster their Low-Income Housing Tax Credit pool, they can do that.

Wyden is the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, and if Democrats regain control of the Senate after Election Day, his office says that pushing forward the Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit would “absolutely” a top legislative priority.

Why Subsidizing Teacher Housing with Tax Credits Is Bad Policy

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 24, 2016.
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Late last month California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Teacher Housing Act of 2016—a bill (as its preamble states) that will “facilitate the acquisition, construction, rehabilitation, and preservation of affordable housing restricted to teachers and school district employees.” Critically, the legislation allows California to use its federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) to finance teacher housing—making it the first state in the country to do so.

The law has been sold as a win-win for everyone, and certainly on its face, it sounds appealing. There’s broad recognition that housing is increasingly expensive —especially in exorbitantly pricey cities like San Francisco. Americans strongly support their public school teachers—77 percent say they continue to “trust and have confidence” in them. Moreover, California is grappling with teacher shortages, and champions of the new law believe that providing housing assistance could help attract and retain quality educators, strengthening local communities to boot.

But make no mistake: There are some real losers here.

The LIHTC was established as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, and today it is the country’s largest federal program to support place-based, affordable rental housing. The Internal Revenue Service runs it, but individual states get considerable freedom to decide how to distribute their tax credits, so long as they meet federal requirements. One such requirement is that units must target households earning 60 percent or less of the area median income.

This 60 percent threshold is notably higher than other federal affordable housing programs, like Section 8 vouchers and public housing. While LIHTC units built in high-poverty neighborhoods house extremely poor tenants, plenty aren’t built there, which is why tax-credit tenants tend to have higher incomes than recipients of other federal rental assistance programs.

Given that federal housing subsidies are in limited supply, the allocation of tax credits to fund teacher housing merits more scrutiny that it’s received.

“The low-income housing tax credit is meant for single mothers who didn’t graduate from high school, not those people with college degrees and masters degrees,” says Keren Horn, an economist at University of Massachusetts Boston who studies the LIHTC. “Tax credits are targeted at 60 percent of AMI, and if teachers in your metropolitan area are earning less than that, I think the answer is you have to raise their income.”

And then of course, how do we justify giving housing subsidies to some public workers but not others? Why subsidize teachers’ housing but not nurses’? Or trash collectors’?

“It’s a bad idea, and it gets people competing with each other over who is the most oppressed,” says Peter Dreier, an urban policy professor at Occidental College. “A lot of colleges provide housing subsidies for their employees, and if an employer wants to do that as a benefit, or something negotiated through collective bargaining—sure. But the government shouldn’t be in that business.”

Nationally, nearly 20 million renter households have incomes low enough to qualify for federal subsidies, but fewer than one out of four of these households receive anything at all. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the number of unassisted renters with “worst case” housing needs—meaning they pay more than half of their incomes for housing, or live in severely substandard conditions—rose by 30 percent between 2007 and 2013.

These trends hold broadly true in California as well. In 2016, more than 1,590,000 poor California households paid more than half their incomes on rent, a 28 percent increase from before the recession. The budget for public housing in the state shrank by more than $56 million between 2010 and 2014. More than 113,000 Californians live in shelters, or on the streets.

California’s new teacher housing law does not make more money available for developers of affordable housing; it allows developers to amend the list of eligible recipients. The result is potentially fewer resources available for deeply impoverished families.

The law also carries racial implications. During the 2014-2015 school year, 65 percent of California public school teachers were white; four percent were black, and 19 percent were Hispanic. By contrast, a 2012 HUD report says that roughly 56 percent of the residents in California’s tax credit units were black or Hispanic, and only 28 percent were white. It’s realistic to worry that this new law will facilitate the transfer of resources away from poor people of color to (oft-struggling) middle-class white professionals.

The federal government used to prohibit states from awarding LIHTC to specific occupations. There’s an IRS rule that all residential units have to be available for “general public use.”

But in 2008, as Congress was working on a new housing bill in the wake of the housing market collapse, a group of developers who build housing for artists successfully lobbied for a “general use” exemption. Since then, LIHTC-funded housing complexes restricted specifically for artists have increased considerably.

In May, the Prospect covered a new report on these artist housing complexes, which were found to have far whiter and comparatively more affluent tenants than one typically finds in LIHTC projects. Coining these developments “Politically Opportune Subsidized Housing”—or POSH—the report’s authors noted that such projects carry great political appeal, since using tax credits to support redevelopment and urban revitalization—in this case, supporting the arts—is far less divisive than building new housing for poor black and Latino families.

Myron Orfield, the director of the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity, which published the artist housing report, says teacher housing feels an awful lot like artist housing. (In fact, California’s new teacher housing law was passed precisely to legislate the same kind of statutory exemption that Congress carved out for artists in 2008.)

Orfield also notes the lucrative opportunities these projects offer developers, who often struggle to use affordable housing tax credits in more affluent communities. The prospects for LIHTC construction in suburban areas become much more favorable if the developments would go towards housing middle-class public school teachers, who are disproportionately white.

“If you build housing in whiter, suburban neighborhoods, those projects would be worth more to the developer, they would appreciate faster, and there also would be more incentives for developers to turn the units into market-rate rentals as fast as they can,” says Orfield. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to build higher-value housing, but what you should do is build true affordable housing for low-income people, instead of taking a political short cut by making it only for teachers.”

The teacher housing idea is already spreading to other states, including areas that do not face acute struggles to afford housing. In Baltimore, where some teacher housing developments recently cropped up, developers say they built it not because affordable housing was hard to find, but because they wanted to reward educators with “Class-A apartments.” In Newark, developers touted the urban revitalization potential of teacher housing. Others say teacher housing will lead to stronger relationships between students and educators, fortifying communities more broadly.

It’s worth noting that while a growing number of researchers have explored how housing instability negatively impacts student achievement, there is no real evidence that says teachers living in the same school district where they work improves public education, student-teacher relationships, or local communities. And as The Learning Policy Institute, a Palo Alto-based education think tank noted last month, housing incentive programs have never even been studied to determine if they’re effective at recruiting or retaining teachers. (An LA Times investigation found that local teachers earned too much to even qualify for the affordable housing complexes the Los Angeles Unified School District recently built for its educators.) Plus, while research does suggest that teacher turnover negatively affects student learning, plenty of workers take on longer commutes in exchange for higher salaries.

Evidence of a national teacher housing crisis is also thin: A report issued last month by the National Housing Conference found that high school teachers earning median wages could rent a two-bedroom home in 94 percent of the 210 metro areas they studied, and teachers could purchase a median-price home in 62 percent of the metro areas. The report did not even take into account whether the teacher had a second income-earner in their household, suggesting the homeownership statistics are likely much higher.

Rather than carve out exceptions for certain jobs, Dreier says his state must tackle the housing crisis afflicting all middle class Californians, which means building more permanently affordable mixed-income housing, and protecting and preserving the affordable housing that already exists. In an era of tight resources, the public must find ways to prioritize supports for the most disadvantaged families, while also identifying new ways to improve the lives of the middle class. That’s the only real win-win.

 

What The Texas Ruling Means for Fair Housing

Originally published in Next City on September 9, 2016.
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Fair housing advocates scored a major victory in 2015 when the Supreme Court upheld the so-called “disparate impact” standard, a legal theory that says individuals can allege housing discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act without having to prove that someone intentionally sought to discriminate. The Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), a Dallas-based nonprofit, had argued in court that the Texas Department of Housing awarded its low-income housing tax credits in a way that perpetuated segregation, concentrating affordable housing in black neighborhoods with high poverty.

Lost amid the excitement of the nation’s highest court reiterating the aims of the Fair Housing Act, a law passed in 1968 that bars housing discrimination and requires recipients of federal funds to promote housing integration, was that ICP’s original case got sent back to a lower court for review. Two weeks ago, a district judge in Texas issued a new ruling for this case, finding that ICP failed to prove housing discrimination under the disparate impact theory. Their case has been dismissed, and they have not yet decided if they’ll appeal.

Fair housing disparate impact cases are fairly rare, and also hard to win. Stacy Seicshnaydre, a professor at Tulane University Law School, has analyzed the history of disparate impact claims brought under the Fair Housing Act. She found that plaintiffs were successful in only 20 percent of their cases on appeal, a notably low rate.

Seicshnaydre says that disparate impact cases under the Fair Housing Act are just generally more expensive and difficult, compared to other kinds of suits. They tend to require more outside expertise, for example, since one has to include a statistical analysis demonstrating there have been disparities.

“A Supreme Court decision eliminating the disparate impact theory would have been a huge setback,” says Seicshnaydre. “The fact that the district court decided the ICP didn’t prove its case is disappointing, but it doesn’t have the same impact that a Supreme Court decision would have had. Disparate impact theory is still recognized as a good theory, so I think that’s still an incredibly favorable result for the fair housing movement.”

Indeed, the past year and a half has brought about a host of additional gains for integration advocates. Just before the Supreme Court released its decision in 2015, Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz released a study illustrating the connections between one’s geography and economic mobility. The researchers analyzed which counties were the worst for facilitating upward mobility, demonstrating how opportunity is significantly impacted by where a person grows up. Research released this spring by Eric Chyn, an economist at the University of Michigan, found additional evidence to support the idea that moving poor children into higher-opportunity neighborhoods carries long-term benefits for them as adults.

The federal government has also stepped up its efforts to promote fair housing. Following the Supreme Court decision, HUD released a new federal rule to provide communities with the supports they need to meet their fair housing obligations. They have since pushed for historic fair housing settlements in places like Maryland and Minnesota, emphasizing the need to affirmatively integrate housing under the Fair Housing Act.

“These efforts and events are having an impact. They’re encouraging, and sometimes forcing, communities to grapple with difficult, entrenched issues that were decades in the making,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Much more scrutiny is being given to where and how affordable housing is developed.”

There have also been notable improvements in Texas since ICP first brought its original suit. The state agency revised its process for allocating housing tax credits, now offering greater rewards to developers seeking to build in higher-income areas. Some recalcitrant towns have presented challenges, but in Dallas, a housing committee on the city council has been working on a plan to expand affordable housing units throughout the city, as part of a major effort to write the city’s first-ever housing policy. The Dallas Morning News editorial board recently praised these efforts to create more mixed-income neighborhoods, saying this carries “the potential to make Dallas a more equitable city for all of its residents.” The committee’s proposals should head to the full city council as soon as next month.

Ultimately, to achieve fair housing, Yentel says we’ll need greater investment in programs like the National Housing Trust Fund and Section 8 vouchers, in order to expand access to affordable housing, while also revitalizing distressed areas. “Realizing fair housing means providing low-income people with genuine choices about where to live,” she says. “And that requires that we work towards making every community one of opportunity.”

Baltimore Can’t Rely on ‘Judge Judy’ to Protect Renters

Originally published in Next City on December 9, 2015.
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Every year, more than 6,000 Baltimore renters and their families are evicted. Across the U.S., only Detroit has a higher percentage of residents facing that same fate. While it’s been all too easy for Baltimore officials to chalk this grim reality up to the wretched effects of poverty, a new report tells a more complete story.

“Justice Diverted,” issued by the Public Justice Center (in collaboration with the Right to Housing Alliance and scholars from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore) is based on a study of Baltimore tenants called to rent court. Housed in the District Court of Maryland, the court is where landlords take renters who are late on their monthly payments. Through examining hundreds of surveys, in-depth interviews, court records and city data, the researchers discovered that the court systematically “prioritizes efficiencies which privilege the landlord’s bottom line.”

While activists and legal experts previously suspected that rent court had a disproportionate impact on black families in Baltimore, advocates are now armed with concrete data to make a political case for reform. The study found that most people who are called to rent court — and ultimately evicted — are black women living near the federal poverty line and raising at least one child. Though black women make up 34 percent of Baltimore’s population, they comprised 79 percent of those surveyed in the rent court study.

Although rodent infestations, plumbing leaks and peeling paint could all be grounds for withheld rent, most tenants summoned to court were unfamiliar with their legal rights. Some tried to prepare by searching the Internet and watching movies and “Judge Judy,” but 73 percent of those surveyed did not know they could raise a defense if their house or apartment had serious defects. Indeed, nearly 80 percent reported at least one housing health or safety threat when they showed up to court. Nearly 60 percent cited insect or rodent problems, 37 percent cited plumbing leaks, and 41 percent cited lead poisoning anxieties due to chipping paint.

Unlike Baltimore’s foreclosure crisis — which elicited a sense of public emergency and outcry — the eviction crisis has largely been ignored. But in 2009, in the midst of the housing market crash, Baltimore’s eviction rate actually exceeded the rate of ratified mortgage foreclosures; by 2013, Baltimore’s eviction rate exceeded that of foreclosure filings.

One reason for the lack of attention: There’s no system to track data about who is being evicted, and when and why. “It is essential that the city direct funds to creating and disseminating data on rent eviction so that homelessness prevention strategies and housing policies reflect the real indicators of city renters’ hardship,” the report concluded.

The report makes more recommendations for reforming rent court and ameliorating the city’s eviction crisis. To reduce the number of eviction cases filed annually (currently 150,000), the city could instate a mandatory pre-filing period, like those that exist in the vast majority of states. Requiring pre-filing notices enables most rental disputes to be resolved without resorting to litigation.

The court could also more closely investigate whether landlords who file claims are properly licensed and compliant with lead paint laws. The researchers found that a majority of landlords presented the court with incorrect or incomplete registration and licensing information — but were not caught or held to account. Baltimore could also expand its licensing and property inspection requirements, because the current legal protections fail to cover the full range of rental units that tenants reside in.

Other recommendations were focused on leveling the playing field for tenants inside the courtroom and helping families avoid the traumatic hardship of losing their homes overall in the city. The authors call for increasing tenant legal representation, court assistance and funding for eviction prevention programs.

Judge John P. Morrissey, the chief judge of the Maryland District Court, told the Baltimore Sun that many of the recommendations outlined in the report would require a legislative response from lawmakers in Annapolis. Which is why the report was timed to coincide with the launch of the 7,000 Families Campaign — a political effort to stop the “housed-to-homeless” pipeline for poor Baltimore families and push for local reforms.

“We can correct some of this through legislative fixes at the state and city level, but that’s going to take some muscle,” says Jessica Lewis, an organizer with the Right to Housing Alliance. “It’s going to take a unified renter-led movement, and growing our collective power. More than half of the population of Baltimore City are renters, and it’s time that the eviction crisis, and the role that rent court plays in it, is taken seriously.”

Can Affordable Housing Help Retain Teachers?

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 18, 2015.
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On December 1, Allison Leshefsky, an elementary school gym teacher in San Francisco, will be evicted from the rent-controlled apartment she’s lived in for the past ten years. She and her partner pay $2,000 a month in rent, but if their place were put on the market, it would likely go for at least $5,000 a month—far more than any public school teacher could afford. As of August 2015, one-bedroom apartments in San Francisco rented for an average of $2,965 a month, and two-bedrooms for $3,853. Leshefsky’s landlord, who manages and partially owns nine San Francisco properties, has gained notoriety for evicting or allegedly forcing tenants out, in order to rent their units for more money.

Leshefsky has decided to finish out the school year teaching in San Francisco, even if that means paying jacked up prices for an air mattress she finds on Craigslist. “I’m making a commitment to get through the rest of the year regardless of whose couch I’m on or whose overpriced house I’m in,” she says. “I’m making a commitment to my students to finish this out.” But then, she says, she’ll have to leave.

In recent years, a growing number of researchers, policymakers, and philanthropists have directed their attention to the relationship between housing instability and student achievement. A great deal of evidence has shown how homelessness and housing insecurity can negatively impact a student’s behavior, which creates problems not only for them but for their classmates and teachers as well. A host of educational interventions are being tried in conjunction with local housing authorities, and some cities are even tying housing vouchers to specific struggling schools—in the hopes that such requirements will reduce student turnover and increase school performance.

Yet despite the perennial quest for top-notch teachers, less attention has been paid to the relationship between educators and their housing. It doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination to think that teachers’ instructional capacities could be impacted by conditions they face outside the classroom, such as high rents, or unsafe housing. “There is no possible way the city can recruit talented people and maintain them with the housing crisis here,” says Leshefsky. “Students deserve teachers that are secure in their homes, and when a teacher is not secure, they can’t be the most effective educator.”

The city of San Francisco seems to agree. Last month, San Francisco’s mayor announced a new plan, formed in partnership with the school district and the teachers union, to provide housing assistance to some 500 public school teachers by 2020. Elements of the plan include forgivable loans, rental subsidies, housing counseling services, and the development of affordable housing specifically for teachers. This month, 73 percent  of San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure that will help make this plan a reality.

Across the country, other variants of teacher housing developments have cropped up, or are in the works—though the motivations for them, and allies behind them, differ from city to city. From San Francisco, to West Virginia, to Philadelphia, the efforts to attract, or retain, teachers through subsidized housing is growing more pronounced, and debates over how such projects impact their surrounding communities are likely to intensify in the coming years.

MATTHEW HARDY, the communications director for the San Francisco teachers union, says the union has a three-pronged strategy to deal with the city’s housing crisis. The first involves fighting for higher wages. In December 2014, the union negotiated a substantial salary increase for teachers and aides—a raise of more than 12 percent over three years. “But if we just limited ourselves to that, we’re not going to be successful,” says Hardy, which is why the union has also been pushing for teacher housing—using surplus district property—and for broader affordable housing policies for all city residents.

“Of course San Francisco is a wonderful place, and some people are willing to make immediate sacrifices to get their foot in the door, but it gets to a point where teachers start to wonder if they should continue paying $1,500 a month for a tiny room or move to the suburbs [where salaries are higher and housing is cheaper] and make $15,000-$20,000 more,” says Hardy. “We need to find ways to support teachers early in their careers, but also those who are more experienced and might want to start a family or buy a home.”

“If affordable brick-and-mortar teacher housing were actually here right now, and not several years in the future, then there would be no doubt in my mind that I would have continued to stay in the district,” Leshefsky said, wearily.

A very different sort of housing crisis plagues McDowell County, West Virginia—a poor, rural area, with a population that’s fallen by 80 percent since the 1950s. Teachers aren’t being priced out, but few want to move there, and those who might be so inclined struggle to find attractive housing options.

In 2011, former West Virginia First Lady Gayle Manchin asked Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), to help her figure out a way to improve McDowell’s school system. They started to organize a coalition of public and private organizations to tackle not only educational issues, but also regional poverty. In a speech given in 2012, Weingarten called this effort “solution-driven unionism.” Rather than shut down a school that’s struggling, she argued, unions can push to strengthen them with wraparound services. Then “learning improves, the school improves, community schools become more attractive than private or charter schools, people return to them with new confidence, home values increase and communities are renewed.”

Part of the McDowell plan includes not just wraparound services for community members, but also new apartments to attract teachers who might not otherwise want to move to McDowell County. As the lead coordinator involved in the teacher housing complex told Governing, “You can’t expect someone to leave life on a college campus for an isolated area where they live in the middle of nowhere and don’t know anybody.”

“What we’re constructing is the first multiple-story building in the area in decades,” said Weingarten in an interview. “The housing will address three big issues: the high teacher vacancy rate, the dearth of available housing, and the need for economic development.”

WHILE McDOWELL COUNTY’S “teacher village” won’t be the nation’s first, others are generally found in urban areas, and have been constructed largely without the involvement of the local teachers unions. In fact, partners more closely aligned to the educational reform movement have led them—those with ties to charter school networks and organizations like Teach for America.

In 2012, then-Mayor of Newark Cory Booker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, leaders from Google and Goldman Sachs, and others gathered to break ground on the Newark Teachers Village—a downtown Newark development that houses three charter schools, a daycare facility, more than 200 subsidized teacher apartments, and nearly two dozen retail shops. The project received tens of millions of dollars in tax credits. (The Wall Street Journal reported on the event with the headline: “Viewing Newark as a ‘Blank Canvas’”.) The real estate development group that spearheaded the project, RBH Group, is listed as a Teach for America corporate sponsor, and one of RBH’s founding partners, Ron Beit, is the chairman of the board of TFA’s New Jersey chapter.

The Newark Teachers Union, an affiliate of the AFT, originally backed the Newark Teachers Village—though Newark teachers say that their now-deceased president, Joseph Del Grosso, did so without consulting union members. The AFT is an affiliate member of the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor organizations that includes construction unions, and some think Del Grosso supported the plan because it carried the potential to create new construction jobs, not because it was actually in the teachers’ interest. However, despite Del Grosso’s initial support, the union was ultimately uninvolved with the project.

“They basically shut out the public school teachers and the public school union,” said Weingarten in an interview. “Just like they shut out the community from their reform efforts, they shut us out too. Initially we had conversations [about the Teachers Village], and then we were stonewalled.” Had the AFT been involved, then the union likely would have invested pension funds into the project, which may have broadened, and diversified, the project’s mission, and given more stakeholders a say in shaping its development. The union could have also pushed to bring on different types of asset managers, like the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, which they used in West Virginia and San Francisco. Ron Beit did not return repeated requests for comment.

Over the past couple years, similar teacher housing projects have opened up in other East Coast cities. In 2009, the Seawall Development Corporation established Miller’s Court in Baltimore, using millions of dollars in local, state, and federal tax credits—and another, Union Mill, a few years later. The lead developer, Donald Manekin, was a former board member of Teach For America, and said he originally got the idea to build teacher villages when he saw 100 new TFA members arriving in Baltimore each year. “We’d sit at the end of these board meetings and say wouldn’t it be great if there was a great place for teachers new to the city?” He made these remarks to Newsworks in 2013, as his company prepared to build another teacher housing complex in Philadelphia.

Teach For America’s vice president for administration, Matt Gould, told The New York Times that his organization backs the projects because they “allow [teachers] to have safe, affordable housing. It’s a recruiting tool.” Teach For America is also reportedly looking into New Orleans and Washington as additional cities to expand teacher housing.

I spoke with Thibault Manekin, Donald Manekin’s son, and co-founder of Seawall Development Corporation, about his work building teacher housing. “Really our goal was to provide Class-A apartments and space for teachers doing the most important work in our city, which is helping kids get an education,” he said. To do this, the Manekins provide teachers with a free fitness center, free parking, reduced rent, lounge space, and other amenities that one might find in a more expensive apartment building. (Their website describes the buildings as “an urban oasis”.) Manekin says his company is in the middle of a similar project in Springfield, Massachusetts, and helping others think through comparable developments in other cities. “Yeah, I think you’ll start to see this spread more,” he said.

I asked him if he thought Baltimore teachers had struggled to find safe or affordable housing before he and his father embarked on their projects. “I think the challenge was that teachers, often new to Baltimore, and new to the classroom, weren’t living with like-minded people, and so might be making bad decisions on where to live,” he said. “As a result of that it makes the job that much harder. We just wanted to provide them with a world class space at a significant discount.”

While safe and affordable housing was available, he went on, “you wouldn’t really be living with people in the same boat as you.” They wanted to establish a space where teachers could lean on one another outside of the workplace.

Weingarten says the union was not included in the Philadelphia project, and was only cursorily consulted with for the Baltimore developments.

BRANDEN RIPPEY, a Newark public school teacher who has been working in the district for 18 years, said he acknowledges that Newark needs to build better housing to attract high-quality teachers. “Newark isn’t San Francisco. You do need to work to draw people in, and some of the housing we have here is in bad neighborhoods, and there is crime,” he says. As well, most of Newark’s teachers live outside of the city, so the idea of enabling teachers to establish roots as residents within the community is something he also likes. “I support the idea of creating good, affordable housing for working class people. The problem is that [the Newark Teachers Village] is clearly designed for white, young professional types, at a time when we desperately need more housing for poor people of color.”

Rippey notes that the Teachers Village is located close to other redevelopment projects in downtown Newark. “It’s just becoming a little yuppie commercial district,” he says. “The reality is they have a vision for gentrifying the whole downtown.” Rippey believes that these projects serve as a way to easily import TFA teachers, and by extension, weaken union power. Whereas developers like Beit and Manekin see the teacher housing complexes as positive ways to build communal spaces for local educators, Rippey thinks they can serve as a vehicle to isolate new and relatively young teachers from the union and the broader community. “It’ll keep those teachers residentially, and almost culturally, segregated,” he says.

IN A WAY, these Teachers Villages function as sort of a camp experience. You may be making a two-year commitment to live and work in an unfamiliar city, one that perhaps you, or your family, worry is unsafe. You know that you’re going to be working hard, long days—and so living in close quarters with people going through similar experiences might be quite comforting. All in all, it appears to be a pretty good deal—you’ll be afforded lots of amenities and discounts, you’ll live in a place you know is secure, and you’ll have the chance to develop friendships with other “like-minded” individuals.

In 2013, Mark Weber, a public school teacher and an education policy doctoral student, wrote some strong critiques about these new teacher housing projects.

It’s the perfect scheme: Beit and his private investors get tens of millions of dollars in tax credits to finance the development. He then turns around and rents his commercial units to charter schools, which drain tax revenues away from the neighboring public schools (which could sorely use the money to shore up their crumbling infrastructures). Those schools then pay their young teachers, recruited from TFA, who then turn around and pay rent to Beit. So Beit’s managed to develop three revenue streams—tax credits, charter school rents, and teacher residence rents—all made possible by the proliferation of charters and TFA.

And here’s the real beauty part: If the neighborhood gets gentrified and property values rise, the increases accrue to the property owners—like Beit—but not the people who actually live in the neighborhood. Think about it: If these teachers were buying brownstones and condos, the rising property values would accrue to them. But, because they’re renters, and not owners, they don’t see any of the increase. Their presence will raise the value of the neighborhood’s properties, but they’ll get none of the reward (assuming everything goes according to plan).

I called Weber to discuss some of his thoughts in greater detail. He sounded skeptical that these subsidized projects had much value at all: Will they really help attract lifelong educators into the profession, or will they just serve as a nice perk for young teachers who wouldn’t stay in the classroom beyond a few years anyway?

“If these charter schools need young people who are willing to work long hours and do the career for just a couple years, then things like teacher villages are almost custom-made, because you’re not going to be buying condos, and it’s close to your work,” he said. “Is that sustainable? I would argue no if we’re trying to build a workforce that sees teaching as a lifetime career. We could continue to build, or we can ask ourselves if we’re paying teachers enough money. If you can’t comfortably live here without staying in subsidized housing, maybe that’s a problem.”

Others have also questioned whether this whole subsidized housing deal isn’t just a misplaced way to avoid paying teachers significantly higher salaries. An individual used to feel more comfortable entering the teaching profession—despite its lack of prestige or big paychecks—given the relative stability if offered: a middle-class life, solid health care benefits, and a stable pension to live on during retirement. Today, however, those sorts of guarantees are beginning to fall by the wayside.

“If you’re not going to offer good health care benefits, what are you going to offer to get people to join the profession?” asked Weber. “Some modest rent control in hip neighborhoods? That’s not going to help the neighborhood much, and that’s not going to be much of an incentive to go into teaching.”

MAYBE SUBSIDIZED HOUSING that targets young professionals won’t be what it takes to help attract career educators, yet it’s clear that cities do want to help recruit and retain educators who actually live in the communities in which they serve—an effort that may require more than just a salary increase (though that would help.) Whether it’s a Teach for America participant looking for a supportive communal space, or a mid-career educator with a family who wants to live closer to his or her workplace, thinking about the intersections between housing and teaching is something that even the most progressive unionists, like Rippey, believe we should be doing more of.

Weingarten defended the AFT’s McDowell and San Francisco projects, and contrasted them with the ones in Baltimore, Newark, and Philadelphia. “We’re not looking to create a boutique pipeline for some people to work in different communities, it’s not that,” she said. “It’s about creating affordable housing so people can establish roots in the cities in which they live.”

Still, even teacher villages more closely aligned to the reform movement are helping young teachers, and local nonprofit organizations, forge better ties with the communities in which they serve. “The amount of teachers that have actually stayed in the classroom and in Baltimore, and then gone out and bought homes has been really inspiring to see,” said Thibault Manekin. Of the 30 homes he and his father have built in Baltimore, he says 20 have been sold to former tenants of Miller’s Court and Union Mill.

Would Leshefsky be willing to live outside San Francisco and continue working at her school with a longer daily commute?

“No, I would not be willing to do a two-hour commute just to serve a community that I don’t belong to,” she said. “I’m one of the most constant people in my students’ lives right now, and I don’t think someone who lives outside the city can necessarily connect with their students in the same way. We’re all going through very similar struggles.”