Your Coronavirus Housing Questions, Answered

A month ago, the worst fears of a coronavirus housing apocalypse were coming into view: According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, 31% of renters living in 11.5 million apartment units in the U.S. were late on the rent on April 5. That figure didn’t include the tens of millions of renters who live in single-family homes and other housing situations.

But by hook or by crook, millions of American renters made it through April. By April 26, the share of apartment tenants who were late with the rent had fallen to 8% — enough to put the month just a few percentage points behind rent collection in March (95%) or April 2019 (96%).

Now comes May, and the national unemployment rate has surged, reaching as high as 22%. To make sense of how deep the coronavirus housing crisis really runs and what might happen this month, CityLab asked readers to submit their most pressing questions about keeping a roof over their heads. Tenants and landlords alike sent in their thoughts and concerns. Some of these questions with answers follow (in condensed form).

Q: Are renters going on strike?

A: Yes. The national #CancelRent movement that took shape before May Day may be the largest rent strike in decades. Tenant organizers drummed up support for actions in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities.

We Strike Together, a joint partnership by a number of social justice organizations, counts more than 190,000 rent and mortgage strikes. In New York alone, the Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance garnered more than 14,000 commitments to not pay the rent or mortgage, including some 57 apartment buildings.

Q: How many people paid rent for May?

A: There’s no way of knowing yet. If April was any indication, there won’t be a true answer for a while.

Last month, people reached deep into savings or paid with credit cards. Some out-of-work tenants began receiving unemployment benefits; others are still on hold. Some people are now getting state-level benefits but not the $600 federal boost. Millions are waiting for their federal stimulus checks to arrive, but this is only a one-time payment — and $1,200 doesn’t even cover the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country.

With so many people struggling, landlords may not be in a hurry to evict their tenants, according to Flora Arabo, national senior director for state and local policy at the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners. They may be willing to work with renters on partial rent or repayment plans in order to keep some income flowing.

“Most housing providers don’t want to have to evict tenants,” Arabo says. “They want steady tenants who pay. For most providers, it’s a last-resort option. If there is a massive wave of evictions, that’s not good for the property owners either.”

Q: Can renters be evicted during the pandemic?

A: The answer depends on a couple of things: where renters live and what kind of mortgage their landlord has.

States are all over the map on coronavirus tenant protections. Six states have taken no action (or next-to-no action) during the pandemic: Arkansas, Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. None of those states has passed any kind of statewide order to prevent evictions or foreclosures during the pandemic.

(Marie Patino)

Other states have done only the bare minimum in terms of tamping down coronavirus evictions. In Oklahoma and Georgia, for example, the states have extended deadlines for eviction proceedings. Those states are still conducting court hearings, but in most states — even those with limited tenant protections, such as Louisiana and Virginia — the courts are closed.

Princeton University’s Eviction Lab  has produced a helpful scorecard for each state based on their Covid-19 housing policies. On a five-point scale, Massachusetts earns a 4.15, the highest score in the land; Georgia merits a whopping 0.08 (still better than some others). The National Consumer Law Project also offers detailed guides on eviction moratoriums for each state.

Some cities have produced even stronger rules about evictions and foreclosures. There’s no central database for where cities stand yet. But any city that is willing and able to pass tougher regulations on landlords is likely to have a tenant advocate or another office that can provide more information.

In April, a national bill to cancel and forgive all rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis was introduced by Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar. For now, though, renters still owe the rent, no matter where they live.

Q: Does the landlord’s mortgage affect whether renters can be evicted? And how can renters get that information?

A: Renters who live in a property backed by the federal government cannot be evicted for the time being. This eviction moratorium applies to a vast web of mortgages financed, insured or securitized by federal agencies (such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) as well as homes subsidized through federal aid programs (like Section 8).

For tenants in apartment buildings, there are a few tools available to figure out whether the eviction moratorium applies where they live. On May 4, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac both launched look-up tools: Renters can enter their building name and address to find out whether the property is federally backed. The National Low Income Housing Coalition put out a similar tool in April.

However, these tools won’t help the tens of millions of renters who live in single-family homes. The Federal Housing Finance Agency is working on that tool, but for now, renters in single-family homes, condos, and small apartment buildings will need to talk to their landlords to find out whether their units are covered by the eviction moratorium laid out by the CARES Act.

Q: What happens if my lease ends while shelter-in-place orders are in effect? What about renters who don’t have written leases?

A: Under normal circumstances, the lease itself describes what happens when the lease ends, whether it expires, renews for a certain term or converts to a month-to-month agreement. State laws outline default procedures for circumstances when the lease isn’t specific. A stay-at-home order would not block a lease from expiring or renewing. But a federal, state, or local eviction moratorium would stop a landlord from removing a tenant or a leaseholder from kicking out a subletter.

“Even if a tenant’s lease has expired and the person hasn’t moved out, the landlord is required to take the tenant to court and cannot lawfully resort to ‘self help’ such as changing locks or disconnecting utility service,” says Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project. “It’s kind of a legal twilight zone where the tenant may not have the ‘right’ to possession of the premises, but does have the right not to be evicted except through judicial means.”

So it comes down to the eviction moratorium. Under the CARES Act, landlords have to give tenants a 30-day notice to evict after the moratorium expires. Many of the state and local moratoriums don’t have this buffer, so tenants without a lease could be out as soon as the order expires.

Landlords may not be in any hurry to see their tenants out the door. In fact, the opposite might be true: Landlords (or lease-holders) may ask tenants (or subletters) to sign full-year leases right away in order to guarantee the rent.

Q: Is there any sort of housing assistance to help out with the cost of rent during Covid-19?

A: In some places, yes. For example, in Massachusetts, a program called Rental Assistance for Families in Transition provides up to $4,000 for households in distress, and the state added $5 million in funding for households affected by Covid-19. In Dallas, more than 16,000 people flocked to apply for rent and mortgage assistance on Monday, the day the city opened its program.

Housing experts are calling on Congress and federal agencies to do a lot more to make aid for renters available everywhere.

Q: Due to the pandemic, some renters can’t use building amenities like gyms, lounges, courtyards, and roof decks. Can renters ask for partial coronavirus rent abatement?

A: Maybe! But before you ask, you might want to remember that many landlords report spending more on maintenance costs, hiring cleaners ‘round the clock to scrub mail rooms and common spaces. Rent abatements are subject to normal lease rules. Rent increases are frozen in a few cities and states for now.

Q: What can landlords do if their tenants can’t pay the rent? What  about homeowners who can’t pay their mortgage?

A: More than 3.8 million homeowners are now in mortgage forbearance plans — which is more than 7 percent of all mortgage holders.

Homeowners and landlords with federally backed mortgages may be able to defer their mortgage payments for up to a year, with no added interest, late fees, or penalties. The National Consumer Law Center has assembled a guide for property owners to determine whether their homes or buildings are federally backed or insured.

The federal government is offering the best possible terms for mortgage forbearance. Banks are offering their own forbearance plans, however, often with terms that are less beneficial for borrowers.

Hello Lender, a tool for mortgage borrowers experiencing financial distress, auto-generates a letter to lenders to declare the homeowner’s participation in the federal forbearance program. The free tool — a product by Six Fifty, the technology arm of the law firm Wilson Sonsini — works a little bit like TurboTax. Borrowers enter their information, and the tool spits out a letter with all the qualifying information.

Q: How can renters get their landlords to work with them on the rent? What if the property owner is a corporation or real estate investment trust?

A: Six Fifty offers another tool, Hello Landlord, for renters to issue notices to landlords that outline tenant rights under state law and the CARES Act. Written notice might be the best approach to take for renters living in large multifamily buildings owned by a corporate landlord.

Nobody knows what happens when eviction moratoriums expire. When the $600-a-week federal expansion to unemployment benefits expires in August, it could trigger a massive wave of delinquencies for out-of-work renters and borrowers. At the same time, a wave of evictions could be followed by a glut of rental vacancies, which doesn’t serve landlords’ interests.

Short of sweeping rent strikes, many housing experts encourage renters to call their landlords, explain their situation, and see what they can work out. “Renters are responsible people,” Arabo says. “They want to pay their rent. They don’t want to lose their housing.”

Powered by WPeMatico

How to Head Off a Coronavirus Housing Crisis

Debates about the U.S. housing crisis feel like they happened years ago; the housing plans of the Democratic presidential candidates are now artifacts from another era. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically upended the status of millions of Americans, who may not have a plan for paying the rent in April or going forward. But those campaign schemes, full of what were once thought experiments about boosting aid for struggling households, could be roadmaps that help current leaders find the way out of this new catastrophe.

Some of those campaign ideas came from Julián Castro, whose safety net–focused presidential bid ended in January. Castro, the ex-secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama and former mayor of San Antonio, proposed a number of ideas to improve the security for America’s most vulnerable households. Most notably, he suggested expanding the Housing Choice Voucher program, which provides rental aid to low-income households, as a fully funded federal entitlement for every eligible adult in America.

The vouchers program (better known as Section 8) is now under tremendous strain, even as the pandemic compounds the housing crunch for low-income renters. HUD and other federal agencies are taking steps to provide relief to renters and homeowners, but other tools at the federal government’s disposal, including the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, are still pending a major disaster declaration from the White House and coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

CityLab spoke with Castro about what to do to make sure that the most vulnerable families are able to keep their homes as the U.S. tries to weather the pandemic by sheltering in place.

As you’ve seen in Texas and around the country, the pandemic has had an incredible, devastating impact on the service industry and other sectors. This is making people very fearful about how they’re going to survive, and how they’re going to pay the rent. How do you see this pandemic response shaping a housing dynamic that was already an affordability crisis?

What’s been revealed here in a very poignant and powerful way are the gaps that exist for so many Americans out there. How close so many people are to falling into poverty, and for those who are in poverty, how vulnerable they are to a shift in their circumstances like this. One of the things we proposed was to make the Housing Choice Voucher program an entitlement program. We also called for, and I know [New Jersey Senator Cory Booker] and [California Senator Kamala Harris] called for, a refundable renters’ tax credit as well. That could be distributed on a monthly basis for renters, so that it could help them as the rents go up in communities across the country — or in situations like this, where you have unforeseen circumstances that are stressful for the tenant and the landlord.

I was pleased to see what HUD did the other day in terms of its announcement on evictions and so forth, but they’re going to end up having to go further than that. In the long term, we’re going to need to invest in a Housing Choice Voucher system that is much more robust. We need to invest in more public housing. We scaled back our commitment from public housing many years ago. I thought before this, and I said this when I was HUD secretary, that we need to be moving in the opposite direction. Having a strong, widespread supply of well-placed public housing not only allows for more stability every day in American communities, but also better response in moments like this.

What are some of the ways HUD could go further to meet this crisis?

It’s going to need to go further in terms of the timeline. It’s clear that the time horizon we’re looking at will be longer than [through the end of April]. Schools are looking at being closed longer than that. We’re seeing unemployment claims skyrocket. I don’t think this challenge is going to be done by the end of April. I also think they need to do everything they can to provide more direct relief to renters. And also to landlords participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program.

Frankly, there are advantages, but there are weaknesses to relying on the private sector to provide what is essentially subsidized housing. You’re going to get a lot of these landlords who, when that tenant may not be able to produce the other part of the rent, they’re going to look at evicting them. Now, when HUD comes down on them, you can’t evict them, you’re going to see a lot of people saying, “Well then, you know what, I’m out of the program.” That’s a weakness of the program. They’re going to need to figure out a way both to support those renters and also keep the number of landlords participating in the program as high as they possibly can. There’s going to be stress on both parts.

I also believe that HUD needs to work to make sure that residents, particularly in Section 202 and Section 811 housing, are as safe as possible. [Section 202 provides supportive low-income housing for the elderly; Section 811 serves people with disabilities.] You have a tremendous number of vulnerable communities out there — residents who are older, residents who are disabled — in public housing complexes. I haven’t seen a comprehensive plan on how they’re dealing with that. We have something like 3,300 housing authorities across the United States. I don’t believe that we can leave it up to 3,300 housing authorities to make sure these residents are as safe as possible. We need a strong federal government response directing that.

Could you briefly describe the dynamic with Housing Choice Vouchers? What happens to voucher holders when their income falls?

The Housing Choice Voucher program includes a requirement that the voucher holder pay a certain amount of their income in rent. They’re a participant in paying the rent. The question is, what will happen when they don’t have that income to pay along with their voucher? [HUD] can restrict evictions, whether in public housing or in Housing Choice Voucher housing, but you’re going to get a lot of landlords eventually resisting that and seeking to evict tenants who don’t have the full amount of rent. That’s a problem.

So what the federal government is going to need to do is robustly address and help everyday Americans who are tenants — but also find a way to buck up the landlords, so they don’t flee the program, either immediately or on June 1 or on July 15. Let’s say that we get past this crisis. What you may have are a lot of landlords who say, “You know what, I’m not going to go through that again. I’m out of the program.” There’s a danger there, not only during this crisis, but over the next year or so, of landlords leaving the program.

Somebody might argue that for landlords, it actually is better because the federal government right now, in what could become a shaky housing market, is actually the most reliable renter, so to speak. Part of that is true. But that’s not the entire story.

So in order to just maintain the status quo for current voucher holders, to say nothing of the millions of people who are eligible for vouchers but don’t receive them, the federal government is going to have to boost the value of vouchers?

They’re going to have to ensure that renters are taken care of in terms of being able to fully pay the rent. Of course that voucher amount that is already paid to landlords is an important component of that. The ability of those renters to pay their portion is also an important part. You could control that with a rule on no evictions, for a while. But what happens when a landlord says, “Well, then I don’t want to participate in the program?” What HUD needs to do is address the short-term and the long-term consequences of this tremendous uncertainty.

In order to make landlords whole, to make renters able to pay their rent — what’s the best way for the federal government to do this? Is it sending checks? Could the vouchers themselves be expanded to help struggling renters?

They have it within their power [at HUD] to address these issues. What it takes is the resources and a strong coordinated administrative effort. In some ways, the Housing Choice Voucher program is a very easy program to address this kind of emergency situation. You already have the administrative relationship with those landlords. You already have the administrative relationship with those tenants. What the system is going to require is more investment during this crisis, and then also a management of those relationships between landlords and tenants after the crisis, so you don’t have a bunch of landlords exiting the program. I absolutely believe that, in terms of managing the status quo, it’s utilizing the existing administrative relationships and putting more resources into them.

And then, for the future, as soon as the federal government can, they should do something like an entitlement program based off the Housing Choice Voucher program as well as use our tax code for a refundable renters’ tax credit. That would help people who are not in the system, everyday renters, who have a hard time as rents skyrocket across the country.

Do you think those approaches — expanding housing vouchers and launching a monthly renters tax credit — could be easier or more effective than introducing a basic income? The proposal for direct cash payments might miss households who are extremely low income and don’t file federal income taxes, for example.

It’s going to take a combination of those things. They’re not mutually exclusive. This is absolutely unprecedented in America’s history. We’ve certainly had times of crisis. And sacrifice. World War II comes to mind. We’ve had natural disasters and other types of emergencies. But I don’t believe we’ve seen something this widespread that’s going to have potentially the health impact and certainly the economic impact that coronavirus is going to have. It requires creativity. It requires going beyond the bounds of what we normally do.

This idea goes beyond the bounds of what we normally do: A lot of people ask, why can’t we just suspend rent? And suspend mortgage payments, too? A rent jubilee or holiday, when those payments aren’t due — is that a good idea?

Of course it may become necessary during an absolute crisis as this thing develops. We’re in uncharted waters right now. Would I keep that on the table? Yeah. We have to address that just as we make sure that everyone has a safe decent place to live. The government has to step in and make sure that’s possible. Is it possible to halt all mortgages, all evictions? I believe that’s possible, but it would require a tremendous amount of backing and investment by the federal government, too.

What concerns me is that for the last 40 years, more or less, this notion that smaller government is better has progressed in our society. We’re seeing some real concrete downsides of that during this crisis.

What next steps do you hope to see from government at the local, state, and federal level?

Locally, it’s about making sure that the basic needs of people are being met. For instance, for public utilities, putting a moratorium on disconnections. Making sure the housing authority at the local level is doing its part to stop eviction. It’s all about the basic needs. They are the frontline providers for so many basic needs. I told the mayor in San Antonio the other day, I think you should get together the public utilities and have a press conference and address what each is doing to take care of people at this time.

As you go up to the state level, then you get to a more global response. I think a lot of things they’re doing in California will work for other states. States have a greater role on issues like affordable housing, paid sick leave, and small business grants.

On the federal level, I completely disagree with Trump and this statement he made, that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.” The federal government has the greatest resources and the ability to marshal expertise from around the world and deploy those ideas to generate economic stimulus and deliver health resources. We need a sober and methodical approach that’s lacking.

Powered by WPeMatico

How to Head Off a Coronavirus Housing Crisis

Debates about the U.S. housing crisis feel like they happened years ago; the housing plans of the Democratic presidential candidates are now artifacts from another era. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically upended the status of millions of Americans, who may not have a plan for paying the rent in April or going forward. But those campaign schemes, full of what were once thought experiments about boosting aid for struggling households, could be roadmaps that help current leaders find the way out of this new catastrophe.

Some of those campaign ideas came from Julián Castro, whose safety net–focused presidential bid ended in January. Castro, the ex-secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama and former mayor of San Antonio, proposed a number of ideas to improve the security for America’s most vulnerable households. Most notably, he suggested expanding the Housing Choice Voucher program, which provides rental aid to low-income households, as a fully funded federal entitlement for every eligible adult in America.

The vouchers program (better known as Section 8) is now under tremendous strain, even as the pandemic compounds the housing crunch for low-income renters. HUD and other federal agencies are taking steps to provide relief to renters and homeowners, but other tools at the federal government’s disposal, including the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, are still pending a major disaster declaration from the White House and coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

CityLab spoke with Castro about what to do to make sure that the most vulnerable families are able to keep their homes as the U.S. tries to weather the pandemic by sheltering in place.

As you’ve seen in Texas and around the country, the pandemic has had an incredible, devastating impact on the service industry and other sectors. This is making people very fearful about how they’re going to survive, and how they’re going to pay the rent. How do you see this pandemic response shaping a housing dynamic that was already an affordability crisis?

What’s been revealed here in a very poignant and powerful way are the gaps that exist for so many Americans out there. How close so many people are to falling into poverty, and for those who are in poverty, how vulnerable they are to a shift in their circumstances like this. One of the things we proposed was to make the Housing Choice Voucher program an entitlement program. We also called for, and I know [New Jersey Senator Cory Booker] and [California Senator Kamala Harris] called for, a refundable renters’ tax credit as well. That could be distributed on a monthly basis for renters, so that it could help them as the rents go up in communities across the country — or in situations like this, where you have unforeseen circumstances that are stressful for the tenant and the landlord.

I was pleased to see what HUD did the other day in terms of its announcement on evictions and so forth, but they’re going to end up having to go further than that. In the long term, we’re going to need to invest in a Housing Choice Voucher system that is much more robust. We need to invest in more public housing. We scaled back our commitment from public housing many years ago. I thought before this, and I said this when I was HUD secretary, that we need to be moving in the opposite direction. Having a strong, widespread supply of well-placed public housing not only allows for more stability every day in American communities, but also better response in moments like this.

What are some of the ways HUD could go further to meet this crisis?

It’s going to need to go further in terms of the timeline. It’s clear that the time horizon we’re looking at will be longer than [through the end of April]. Schools are looking at being closed longer than that. We’re seeing unemployment claims skyrocket. I don’t think this challenge is going to be done by the end of April. I also think they need to do everything they can to provide more direct relief to renters. And also to landlords participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program.

Frankly, there are advantages, but there are weaknesses to relying on the private sector to provide what is essentially subsidized housing. You’re going to get a lot of these landlords who, when that tenant may not be able to produce the other part of the rent, they’re going to look at evicting them. Now, when HUD comes down on them, you can’t evict them, you’re going to see a lot of people saying, “Well then, you know what, I’m out of the program.” That’s a weakness of the program. They’re going to need to figure out a way both to support those renters and also keep the number of landlords participating in the program as high as they possibly can. There’s going to be stress on both parts.

I also believe that HUD needs to work to make sure that residents, particularly in Section 202 and Section 811 housing, are as safe as possible. [Section 202 provides supportive low-income housing for the elderly; Section 811 serves people with disabilities.] You have a tremendous number of vulnerable communities out there — residents who are older, residents who are disabled — in public housing complexes. I haven’t seen a comprehensive plan on how they’re dealing with that. We have something like 3,300 housing authorities across the United States. I don’t believe that we can leave it up to 3,300 housing authorities to make sure these residents are as safe as possible. We need a strong federal government response directing that.

Could you briefly describe the dynamic with Housing Choice Vouchers? What happens to voucher holders when their income falls?

The Housing Choice Voucher program includes a requirement that the voucher holder pay a certain amount of their income in rent. They’re a participant in paying the rent. The question is, what will happen when they don’t have that income to pay along with their voucher? [HUD] can restrict evictions, whether in public housing or in Housing Choice Voucher housing, but you’re going to get a lot of landlords eventually resisting that and seeking to evict tenants who don’t have the full amount of rent. That’s a problem.

So what the federal government is going to need to do is robustly address and help everyday Americans who are tenants — but also find a way to buck up the landlords, so they don’t flee the program, either immediately or on June 1 or on July 15. Let’s say that we get past this crisis. What you may have are a lot of landlords who say, “You know what, I’m not going to go through that again. I’m out of the program.” There’s a danger there, not only during this crisis, but over the next year or so, of landlords leaving the program.

Somebody might argue that for landlords, it actually is better because the federal government right now, in what could become a shaky housing market, is actually the most reliable renter, so to speak. Part of that is true. But that’s not the entire story.

So in order to just maintain the status quo for current voucher holders, to say nothing of the millions of people who are eligible for vouchers but don’t receive them, the federal government is going to have to boost the value of vouchers?

They’re going to have to ensure that renters are taken care of in terms of being able to fully pay the rent. Of course that voucher amount that is already paid to landlords is an important component of that. The ability of those renters to pay their portion is also an important part. You could control that with a rule on no evictions, for a while. But what happens when a landlord says, “Well, then I don’t want to participate in the program?” What HUD needs to do is address the short-term and the long-term consequences of this tremendous uncertainty.

In order to make landlords whole, to make renters able to pay their rent — what’s the best way for the federal government to do this? Is it sending checks? Could the vouchers themselves be expanded to help struggling renters?

They have it within their power [at HUD] to address these issues. What it takes is the resources and a strong coordinated administrative effort. In some ways, the Housing Choice Voucher program is a very easy program to address this kind of emergency situation. You already have the administrative relationship with those landlords. You already have the administrative relationship with those tenants. What the system is going to require is more investment during this crisis, and then also a management of those relationships between landlords and tenants after the crisis, so you don’t have a bunch of landlords exiting the program. I absolutely believe that, in terms of managing the status quo, it’s utilizing the existing administrative relationships and putting more resources into them.

And then, for the future, as soon as the federal government can, they should do something like an entitlement program based off the Housing Choice Voucher program as well as use our tax code for a refundable renters’ tax credit. That would help people who are not in the system, everyday renters, who have a hard time as rents skyrocket across the country.

Do you think those approaches — expanding housing vouchers and launching a monthly renters tax credit — could be easier or more effective than introducing a basic income? The proposal for direct cash payments might miss households who are extremely low income and don’t file federal income taxes, for example.

It’s going to take a combination of those things. They’re not mutually exclusive. This is absolutely unprecedented in America’s history. We’ve certainly had times of crisis. And sacrifice. World War II comes to mind. We’ve had natural disasters and other types of emergencies. But I don’t believe we’ve seen something this widespread that’s going to have potentially the health impact and certainly the economic impact that coronavirus is going to have. It requires creativity. It requires going beyond the bounds of what we normally do.

This idea goes beyond the bounds of what we normally do: A lot of people ask, why can’t we just suspend rent? And suspend mortgage payments, too? A rent jubilee or holiday, when those payments aren’t due — is that a good idea?

Of course it may become necessary during an absolute crisis as this thing develops. We’re in uncharted waters right now. Would I keep that on the table? Yeah. We have to address that just as we make sure that everyone has a safe decent place to live. The government has to step in and make sure that’s possible. Is it possible to halt all mortgages, all evictions? I believe that’s possible, but it would require a tremendous amount of backing and investment by the federal government, too.

What concerns me is that for the last 40 years, more or less, this notion that smaller government is better has progressed in our society. We’re seeing some real concrete downsides of that during this crisis.

What next steps do you hope to see from government at the local, state, and federal level?

Locally, it’s about making sure that the basic needs of people are being met. For instance, for public utilities, putting a moratorium on disconnections. Making sure the housing authority at the local level is doing its part to stop eviction. It’s all about the basic needs. They are the frontline providers for so many basic needs. I told the mayor in San Antonio the other day, I think you should get together the public utilities and have a press conference and address what each is doing to take care of people at this time.

As you go up to the state level, then you get to a more global response. I think a lot of things they’re doing in California will work for other states. States have a greater role on issues like affordable housing, paid sick leave, and small business grants.

On the federal level, I completely disagree with Trump and this statement he made, that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.” The federal government has the greatest resources and the ability to marshal expertise from around the world and deploy those ideas to generate economic stimulus and deliver health resources. We need a sober and methodical approach that’s lacking.

Powered by WPeMatico

‘East Lake Meadows’ Isn’t Just a Public Housing Tragedy

Beverly Parks grew up in a house in Atlanta in the 1960s, where she and her siblings took turns sleeping in one bed. Huddling in the living room during the winter, she’d take a breath and see the frost hang in the air. But in 1970, her family moved into the East Lake Meadows public housing development, and things changed. For $45 a month, her mother could afford a three-bedroom apartment.

“When you come from an environment of no food, no heat, cold, to a housing project, that was just like heaven to us,” she said.

The images of East Lake Meadows that linger in history books don’t look like heaven: Nicknamed “Little Vietnam” within a year of its opening in 1970, it was one of the many American public housing projects cast as dysfunctional when crime, drugs, and government disinvestment — both intentional and negligent — tore through the property in the 1970s and ‘80s. Today, the neighborhood is unrecognizable: In 2000, the development was demolished and rebuilt as a mixed-income project. The original residents were promised they could return, but most were displaced.

In the new PBS documentary East Lake Meadows, directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon and produced by famed documentarian Ken Burns, those former residents help trace the trajectory of East Lake Meadows with candor, revealing what made it such a special, and eventually, after years of negligence, such a horrible place to live.

Like the 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which centered on a St. Louis public housing project made famous in videos of its decline and subsequent implosion, East Lake Meadows uses the history of one development to explain the calcification of segregation in America and the damage that’s done when divisions are drawn between a “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Along with former residents, the film features a who’s who of contemporary voices on American inequality, such as New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah Jones and historian/New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb. The feature film, which premiered on PBS this week and is available to stream online, also serves as a powerful call to action: The reason some public housing failed was not because it has to fail, but because there was a lack of will to make it succeed.

“We could do this better. We could provide decent housing to the people who need it most,” said Burns, who also co-directed the 2012 documentary The Central Park 5. “Ultimately that’s the message of the film: We could be doing this, we just have to decide we want to.”

CityLab spoke to Burns and McMahon by phone — their tour to promote the film was cancelled because of Covid-19 concerns, so the couple and their son were staying in with family in South Carolina.

The documentary used one distinct public housing development to tell such a sweeping story. Why did you choose to highlight East Lake Meadows?

Sarah Burns: We originally learned about East Lake because we’d been told about the new community there — the narrative that is out there about all the successes of the new community, and how much things have changed. But we immediately recognized that that was a really incomplete version of the story, and that in order to think about this place that’s there now, it was much more important to consider the place that was there before.

David McMahon: It felt like in this case that people who had a vested interest in the success of the place had been the ones who put the story out there. And it is an extraordinary success story in certain ways; as Ed Goetz says in the film, you could hardly believe you could remake a community to the extent that they did. But it was just a little digging and we discovered that it wasn’t [a success story] for the people who had been living there when it was East Lake Meadows.

Why Atlanta?

Burns: While Chicago has been the focus of much of the academic research and writing about public housing — certainly a theme is places like Cabrini Green — because of Atlanta’s history of being the first city that started building these federally funded housing projects in the ‘30s, and then being so aggressive beginning in the ‘90s with tearing it all down, it was actually a great place for telling these stories.

We felt like in some ways we could have chosen any housing project and that we would have had stories from residents that we would have been able to explore many of these same issues. When we were sharing the film with public housing residents in other cities, people have found that they recognize something in these stories — that they can relate to those experiences and feel in some way that it’s their story too.

How did you find so many former residents of East Lake Meadows?

McMahon: The tricky thing was that a lot of people did not come back: It was 20 years since the original housing had been bulldozed.

When they were in the 4th, 5th and 6th grade, in the late ’90s, they’d begun doing video diaries of the experience of watching their housing come down around them — their teacher had given them cameras and told them how to use them. The teacher eventually made the video diaries into a feature-length documentary which premiered at a local library.

We tracked the students down using a private investigator. It took months. Some of them gave us on-camera interviews, but they were there at the very end — they had 9- or 10-year-old’s perspectives. They weren’t going to be enough.

So we started, at the suggestion of our colleagues, a Facebook page. After a couple of days, something like 1,500 people had come to the page, all eager to share their memories: Many of them remained connected. In some cases [they left] in the late ’70s — after saving enough to buy a house; in other cases it was under, eviction or leaving with the sense that the housing was coming down and there was nothing left for them, in other cases it was a Section 8 voucher. We were trying to show there were a lot of outcomes over the years.

Burns: So many of the people we talked to said, “Are you going to talk about the good stuff, too?” Even the idea of that was really important to people. They recognized that the way their community had been portrayed, to the extent that it had been, was always with this focus on the “Little Vietnam” aspect of it — the crime, violence, the drugs, the problems. It was really important to so many of the people we talked to that that not be the only thing that was covered, because that had been very much their experience so far.

And people were not shy about telling us about that stuff too: They weren’t saying that that wasn’t the case. That there was crime and violence and it could be scary, especially for people who were parents there, the ways you try to protect your children. But that also there were also happy memories, and ways that people came together.

McMahon: Everyone talked in one form or another about how they were able to keep life moving there in the absence of services that other communities are provided or the businesses that we take for granted that grow around all of the communities that are not abandoned.

One of the most compelling figures was Eva Davis, a resident of East Lake Meadows and a fearless tenant leader who’s described by her granddaughter, Evette El-Amin, as a “fiesty young old lady.” She’s the one who, by the end, convinces many tenants that demolishing and rebuilding East Lake Meadows is the only realistic way forward. How did you find her story? Were there other examples across the country of these strong matriarchs who led movements in public housing?

McMahon: Eva Davis had died a year or two before we began production, and we found her family and her passing was very raw for everybody. It was not only the family. Everyone had something to say about Ms. Davis. She had impacted everybody’s life there. And certainly across Atlanta and I think well beyond, projects have tenants’ association leaders, they’re often women and they often have political clout. They often are dealing with problems as diverse as how do we get people to stop buying drugs on our corner to how do we get a toilet fixed in the third building in 3C. All day long she was advocating for these people.

Eva Davis at East Lake Meadows in September 1986. (Louie Favorite/ Atlanta Journal-Constitution/PBS)

[Before moving to East Lake Meadows, Davis] comes up from a rural area south of Atlanta and gets engaged in civil rights actions there and really cuts her teeth marching with the ministers in Atlanta at the height of the civil rights movement. She’s a perfect person to begin organizing the tenants; she could get 400 people out to vote if the city councilman who represented the district was there to support them. She was a bulldog, as one of her daughters says. Ms. Davis is totally unique. Yet a lot of these spaces have a “Ms. Davis,” and often it’s “Ms.”

The film outlines a forgotten origin story of public housing, which was first marketed and intended as a home for “respectable,” middle-class-presenting, low-income white people. In the 1930s, for example, Atlanta bulldozed an integrated neighborhood to build Techwood Homes, a public housing development that was made for white families only. Why is that history important, and what does it say about public housing?

McMahon: There’s an evolution across the years of who we think deserves public housing. When [the U.S.] began public housing, we had identified a class of people, white people largely, who had fallen from the middle class in the Great Depression and perhaps lost their housing. It was thought we could give them a step back to the middle class. In designing it, they had to do it in segregated terms. With the societal trends of white flight and white people leaving the city [in the 1950s and ‘60s], there was a loss of a tax base, a divestment, a lack of commitment to [public housing]. That really happened when it was exclusively black and brown people.

Burns: The reason why we need to cover that history was both to know how different it was in the beginning, and that different intent, but also to understand that we can do this well. The image you get of public housing in the media over the last decades is the one of the Cabrini Greens, the East Lake Meadows, the Pruitt-Igoes — these large public housing projects serving an extremely poor community, frequently one that is majority African American in population and that is challenged in many ways with crime and drugs. That’s what we see on the news and that’s the sense we walk away from of what public housing is. It comes to define the whole of public housing.

Over the years it’s been done in different ways. There have been times when we have funded it and taken care of it and provided solid buildings that actually provide decent housing. There was a time when this served a different purpose — that it served fairly well the people who lived in it, that it was safe and decent housing, and that it did help people as a sort of stepping stone. It was a different demographic that it was serving in that way.

To [New York Times Magazine reporter] Nikole Hannah Jones’ point: We could do this well. We have done this well. We’ve just never done it well for the most vulnerable, for the people who need it the most.

McMahon: I also don’t think we want to touch the entirety of public housing with this brush exclusively. There are 3,000 housing authorities across the country and some of them succeed beautifully. I think that that gets to how do we do this well going forward: that perhaps there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

But it does seem to be a universal thing that if you decide to start tearing down the public housing, we know now to put the people who were living there at that time in the foreground, and make sure they’re engaged in the solution in a neighborhood that’s not serving its residents very well.

Atlanta was doing something radical in the mid-’90s: They had a dramatic plan to tear down all of this housing. I think it’s a cautionary tale.

Powered by WPeMatico

For Those Living in Public Housing, It’s a Long Way to Work

Let’s say there are two people in Atlanta who need jobs. They poke around on Snagajob, a job-search site for hourly work that lists hundreds of thousands of jobs in 300,000 locations. They scroll through listings for FedEx delivery driver, or shift manager at Wendy’s, or lot associate at Home Depot. But one job seeker lives in a public housing development, and the other doesn’t. According to a new Urban Institute report, their odds of finding work close to home might look very different.

Using job listing and applicant data collected in 2015 by Snagajob, researchers cross-referenced available jobs posted in 16 metro areas with the number of applicants who lived within a “reasonable commuting distance” from the jobs in question. (Here, “reasonable” is defined as one being within 6.3 miles of each zip code’s population-weighted center; though Snagajob is just one platform, U.S. Census Bureau figures suggest that in the 16 metros researchers studied, it accounted for 13% of recent new hires.) Then they compared that difference for those who used federal housing assistance, like public housing, Housing Choice Vouchers, or Section 8 rental assistance, and those who didn’t.

Depending upon which zip code they call home, researchers found that the average person using some form of government housing aid is likely to face tougher odds of getting a job near their neighborhood than the average job seeker who isn’t using assistance, even those who are extremely low-income. “In fact, the average assisted household is surrounded by 6,032 more nearby Snagajob seekers than Snagajob postings, compared with 3,056 more for unassisted, extremely low–income households — nearly double the amount,” the report reads.

Of all assisted households, those living in public housing had the biggest difference between the number of job seekers and the number of jobs nearby; next came housing choice voucher, or HCV, recipients.

These outcomes weren’t totally intuitive, says Christina Stacy, a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute and the lead author of the report. “You’d think public assisted, federally supported rental housing might help people live closer to available jobs, and maybe live in places they might prefer, that have more opportunity,” she said. But landlords have long discriminated against voucher holders, and public housing has historically been sited in neighborhoods far from opportunity. Though some lower-income families experience frequent, and often turbulent, residential moves, they often lack the ability to choose when, how, and to where those moves happen. As a result, more families on housing assistance may end up living in places where fewer businesses are looking to hire nearby, and where there’s more competition for the spots that exist.

That’s not true everywhere. While New York City, Miami and L.A. show pretty much everyone in every zip code contending with more fellow job seekers than open job listings — with the worst gaps appearing for those who live in assisted housing — Minneapolis, San Francisco and Boston are trending in the opposite direction. There, nearby jobs exceed the number of people who want to fill them.

The gaps between job availability and job seekers are actually smaller for assisted households than for unassisted households in cities like Seattle, which has a healthy regional job market and a fervent construction pace. As the map below shows, the majority of assisted households are concentrated in the city proper, ready to meet demand; assisted households 35 miles south in places like Tacoma aren’t as fortunate.

In the Seattle MSA, both jobs and applicants are concentrated in central Seattle zip codes, but Tacoma displays a greater spatial mismatch. (Sources: Urban Institute analysis of 2015 Snagajob data, 2015 US Department of Housing and Urban Development Picture of Subsidized Households data, and 2013–17 American Community Survey five-year estimates.)

On the other end of the spectrum, households on federal housing assistance in New York City, Chicago and Atlanta have the worst spatial mismatch compared to their unassisted and extremely low-income counterparts, even compared to the poor odds for the rest of the pool. Chicago’s assisted households cluster in the south and west sides, while in Atlanta (as seen in the map below) jobs are clustered in the city’s center — both areas where there are a lot of people gunning for the same gigs.

Spatial mismatch and public and assisted housing in the Atlanta MSA, by zip code. (Sources: Urban Institute analysis of 2015 Snagajob data, 2015 US Department of Housing and Urban Development Picture of Subsidized Households data, and 2013–17 American Community Survey five-year estimates.)

Spatial mismatch was first understood as a phenomenon that increases racial divides, limiting economic prospects for segregated, majority-black neighborhoods. Though job applicants’ race wasn’t recorded on Snagajob or analyzed as part of these maps, among subsidized households, people of color are disproportionately represented.

Proximity to jobs isn’t the only thing that makes a neighborhood worthy of settling down in, of course. Access to good grocery stores, health care, schools, family and friends could all rank higher on anyone’s priority list. But research shows that, particularly for hourly or low-wage workers, spatial mismatch can increase rates and lengthen spells of unemployment. Employers lose out, too, if they can’t find enough staff.

Scoring high on the spatial mismatch scale doesn’t have to preclude workers from bridging those divides and finding a great job in another neighborhood anyway, though. Good public transportation — and affordable housing built near it — can turn an unreasonable commute into a reasonable one. A journey of 6.3 miles in the Bay Area, for example, could mean a two-stop BART ride from Oakland into San Francisco’s Financial District; in Atlanta, that same 6.3 miles across the city could take up to an hour by bus.

The study didn’t account for the connectivity dimension, though Stacy says further research will try to. And the fact that their jobs data is from five years ago, before the U.S. experienced today’s record-low unemployment levels, is another important caveat — though the caveat to the caveat is that, for black Americans, the rate is still twice as high as for white Americans on the national level, as it has been for decades.

Still, creating more housing that’s both affordable and accessible to jobs is an urgent goal in increasingly pricey cities like New York and L.A. To achieve it, Stacy suggests targeting higher levels of housing choice voucher assistance in job-rich areas, enforcing anti-discrimination laws against landlords that deny voucher holders from renting, and consciously locating new public housing in job-rich neighborhoods. Focusing public transportation improvements on areas that are home to job seekers would go a long way, too.

Powered by WPeMatico

How to Make a Housing Crisis

For most of American history, cities grew along a familiar pattern. Once a suburban community grew large enough, the neighboring big city would loosen its borders and swallow it up through annexation. Then in the 1950s, the developers of Lakewood, California—sometimes described as the “Levittown of the West Coast”—invented a new “municipal technology” to avoid this fate.

By contracting out vital municipal services like police, fire and sanitation to the county or private entities, the 17,500-home subdivision just outside of Long Beach was able to incorporate as a city at a significantly lower population than it otherwise would have needed. Copycat contract cities became hugely popular in the ensuing decades, forming concentric circles around old urban centers and providing suburban homeowners with the solace that, safely within their incorporated entities, they would be protected from what might euphemistically be called big-city ills.

Contract cities aren’t the first thing that come to mind for most people when they think of the affordable housing crisis that many American cities now face—these suburban communities tend not to have many homeless people or renters at risk of eviction. But in desirable regions like coastal California, contract cities have played a huge role in exacerbating housing problems outside their borders. For over half a century, they’ve been all too successful at implementing their founding mandates: preserving their physical and demographic character, and delivering consistently rising home values to homeowners.

“One of the main reasons it worked was that these cities effectively opted out of paying for expensive social services by zoning out poorer people,” New York Times economics reporter Conor Dougherty writes in Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.

Dougherty’s new book provides a comprehensive account of the origins of California’s housing crisis, illuminating the many places where it hides in plain sight—in contract cities, in tax law, in shifting cultural trends, in structural economic transformations, as well as in the annals of policy and planning. Dougherty applies a similarly wide lens to the diverse activists who have emerged to challenge the housing status quo, leaving readers hopeful for the future of a broader housing movement—if perhaps also a bit overwhelmed by it. “There’s a lot layered on to this that has nothing to do with housing, but it’s manifesting in housing fights because of the seriousness of this issue,” he tells CityLab in a phone interview.

Golden Gates is at its best as a history, whose breadth demonstrates the impossibility of silver-bullet housing solutions. One of many counterintuitive origin points for California’s current crisis was San Francisco’s freeway revolts that began in the 1950s, when grassroots neighborhood activists successfully prevented highways from being constructed throughout most (but not all) of the city. The revolts marked the beginning of the state’s anti-growth movement, which challenged California’s longstanding growth-for-growth’s sake philosophy. That doctrine had brought “urban renewal” projects that transformed minority neighborhoods into bombed-out shells of their former selves and inspired proposals to fill in nearly the entire San Francisco Bay.

Anti-growth activism began as a close cousin of the state’s environmentalism, but as time went on, “the good intention of stopping sprawl soon became cover for stopping everything,” Dougherty writes. The broad language of the California Environmental Quality Act enabled this conceptual fudging, granting ordinary citizens the power to halt coastal subdivisions and green urban infill projects alike. As land use and planning power devolved to neighborhood groups, city governments followed their lead by “downzoning” large swaths of their land to preserve the existing urban landscape, as if it were a pristine old-growth forest.

The infamous Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot initiative that capped property taxes, meant that new housing could cost cities more in services than it would bring in through taxes. In response, cities privileged much more lucrative commercial development—setting the stage for the state’s severe jobs/housing imbalance—and tacked hefty fees on new housing construction. Combine that with flatlining productivity in the construction industry and a persistent labor shortage following the Great Recession and you get construction costs that ensure new housing is by definition luxury housing.

Meanwhile, in the depths of the 2008 foreclosure crisis, giant private equity firms snapped up tens of thousands of homes, creating a new category of renter households living month-to-month at the whim of Wall Street bottom lines. By that point, California’s once-robust tenant movement was already hobbled by laws from the 1980s and ’90s that severely limited rent control and expanded landlords’ power to evict tenants.  

These historical factors, and many more, bore down on the Bay Area right as it became the “burning-hot nucleus of some of the most epochal forces in human history” during the recent tech boom. San Francisco has gone from having a housing crisis to being a housing-crisis meme: the supercommuters, the homeless teachers, the poop on the sidewalk, not to mention the proxy housing battles over shadows, office construction, and gentrifier watering holes.

This is where Dougherty’s history crashes into the lived realities of contemporary Californians, and their fight for a better housing future. Each character or group of characters Dougherty introduces represents a possible solution to the multifaceted crisis he has laid out. Among them is Stephanie Gutierrez, a 15-year-old from Redwood City who organizes her building against a 50% rent hike. The strikers win some significant concessions, but Gutierrez and her family are ultimately forced to leave anyway, leading her into a serious bout of depression. Multiply Gutierrez’s experience by a million and you have an entire generation of Californians whose childhoods have been shaped by housing insecurity.

If Gutierrez represents tenant power—and tenant despair—Sister Christina Heltsley, whose community land trust buys market-rate housing and keeps it permanently affordable, represents the movement to get housing off of the private market. Rick Holliday, a developer who hopes to make construction more affordable by building apartments in a factory and stacking them together on site, embodies yet another solution.  

And then there are the YIMBYs, the “Yes In My Backyard” activists fighting to lower zoning and regulatory barriers to all kinds of housing—“so long as it was built tall and fast and had people living in it.” This group emerged in San Francisco in 2014, when an economics Ph.D. dropout named Sonja Trauss formed the San Francisco Bay Area Renter’s Federation (SFBARF). Using a combination of performance art-style provocations and Twitter activism, she brought legions of young, nerdy, white-collar San Franciscans to testify in favor of new housing at bone-dry planning meetings. In just a few years, the YIMBYs grew to be a powerful political movement, led by San Francisco’s state senator, Scott Wiener, who has thrice tried (and failed) to pass comprehensive statewide zoning reform.

What’s unprecedented about the YIMBYs is not their ideology, but their political power. As early as the 1970s, MIT urban planning professor Bernard Frieden made the argument that California’s growth controls, applied to wildlands and existing neighborhoods alike, would only make housing progressively more expensive. In more recent years, economist Edward Glaeser, journalist Matthew Yglesias, and others took up these ideas in light of the 21st century “urban revival,” which saw big coastal cities boom without adding commensurate housing, thus locking people out of America’s greatest engines of opportunity.

“What was interesting to me was that they were trying to create some kind of constituency around this,” Dougherty says of the YIMBYs. They upended Frieden’s notion that, unlike tenants or homeowners, the people zoned out of the housing market were “unorganized and probably unorganizable.”

Close observers of the YIMBY movement will find plenty of gossipy tidbits in Golden Gates, like the fact that Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman reached out to then-journalist Kim-Mai Cutler about starting a pro-housing political organization after reading her legendary TechCrunch manifesto, “How Burrowing Owls Lead to Vomiting Anarchists.” Cutler refused, so Stoppelman ended up giving Trauss $10,000 to “keep doing what she was doing”—seeding the YIMBY movement with capital in much the same manner that he once received his first venture funding.

The YIMBY movement’s rapid rise an ability to gain lucrative institutional backing—especially from the tech industry—has turned out to be its biggest political liability. “Encoded in that ascent was an age-old American message, which was that problems are only problems when they affect white people,” Dougherty writes. This perception issue was on vivid display when the Moms for Housing activists, a group of African-American women who drew national media attention for their occupation of a vacant home in Oakland, showed up to protest the unveiling of the latest version of SB50, Wiener’s unsuccessful zoning reform bill.

A great deal of Golden Gates is spent parsing the divide between the YIMBYs and more traditional tenant activists. It’s a divide that plays out in dramatic fashion on Twitter, and, more substantively, helps illustrate the differing priorities of people in need of immediate relief from skyrocketing rents and those fighting to address California’s extreme housing shortage. Even for those versed in the minutia of housing Twitter, it can be difficult to follow the contours of this debate across the book’s many characters and scenes. And Golden Gates’s focus on YIMBY drama takes oxygen away from other types of housing activists, namely environmentalists and urban planners, who think about housing in the context of reducing carbon emissions and congestion, protecting open space from sprawl, and redressing historic inequities between neighborhoods.

But Dougherty sees the thrust and parry of the Bay Area housing debate as the best way to dramatize a problem that resists straightforward fixes. “I thought the YIMBY movement and all the problems they were encountering—that complexity is the issue, that’s the story,” he says. Dougherty also sees a broader housing movement coalescing out of this scrum, offering “mixed solutions” that take pieces from both sides.

“Building more housing does nothing for renters being evicted today. Rent control does,” Dougherty writes. “Capping rent prices does nothing to solve the underlying problem of a housing shortage that is the root cause of displacement. Building housing does.” Dougherty sees this logic reflected in the mixed housing solutions offered by nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates, as well as recent zoning reform victories in Oregon and Minneapolis, and new rent caps in California and New York.

Even as housing becomes a more prominent national issue, and more cities across the country start encountering California-style housing problems, the Golden State is sure to remain the epicenter of the housing movement. The next few years are likely to contain enough drama for Dougherty to write a sequel. Some of the activists he follows are beginning to chip away at Prop 13 and California’s longstanding rent control restrictions. And as for those contract cities and other exclusive suburbs, Scott Wiener and his army of YIMBY activists are gearing up for round four.

“This is ultimately a book about people who show up,” Dougherty said. “Apathy is a bigger problem than somebody trying to propose a solution, getting some blowback, and altering their platform. Maybe that’s the process working.”

Powered by WPeMatico

The Fair Housing Case That Cracked Open the Suburbs

Twenty-five years ago today, the ACLU of Maryland filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that changed the housing landscape in a major metropolitan area. The suit, Carmen Thompson, et al. v. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, et al., was a crucible for two questions that remain urgent today: “Who gets to live where?” and “What is racism?”

In the early 1990s, housing authorities across America were itching to tear down high-rise public housing. Under President Bill Clinton, the HOPE VI program inspired visions of low-rise mixed-income housing replacing the towers.

Leaders in Baltimore, Maryland, shared that vision—the city’s stock of high-rise public housing, built in the 1950s, had acquired a well-deserved reputation for crime and poor maintenance. But first they had to contend with housing attorney Barbara Samuels, who saw an opportunity in HOPE VI to right a historic wrong.

Samuels had done the math: Federal law mandated one-for-one replacement, and the city’s plans for garden apartments and two-story rowhouses replacing clusters of 11-story towers would require many units to go somewhere else. She had also done her social studies, reading decades’ worth of primary documents depicting the explicitly discriminatory history that had crammed the projects into poor black neighborhoods. Samuels wondered: What if the suburbs started taking their fair share of public housing?

The documents Samuels read shocked her. She had represented public housing tenants for years as a Legal Aid attorney, just trying to keep a decent roof over their heads. “What I had never really thought about, even as I was in and out of various public housing developments, is why they were where they were,” Samuels told me in a 2015 interview for my book The Lines Between Us, which uses Thompson v. HUD as its centerpiece.

The documents transformed Samuels from a housing lawyer into a fair housing lawyer, and they gave momentum to the work of a task force of local organizations determined to “dismantle the remnants of segregation.” Samuels joined the ACLU of Maryland in 1993, and two years later the organization filed a class action lawsuit representing Carmen Thompson and five other black public housing tenants, along with a request for an injunction against the demolition of the towers. They essentially told the city, “You segregated public housing when you built it. Don’t do it again 50 years later.”

Within two years, the parties had agreed to a partial consent decree creating over 1,000 special Section 8 vouchers for black public housing residents, for use only in low-poverty areas with at least 75 percent white residents. In Baltimore, those neighborhoods would be found mostly in the suburban counties surrounding Baltimore City—precisely the communities that resisted low-income housing and, before the Fair Housing Act of 1968, had fought the settlement of African Americans. As the city struggled to launch a mobility counseling program to accompany the vouchers, Baltimore’s four high-rise projects crumbled over six years of controlled demolition.

Despite the partial settlement, Thompson v. HUD went to trial in 2003. Some arguments boiled down to which policy should take precedence in deconcentrating poverty: pouring investment into poor black areas like West Baltimore, or creating housing in wealthier suburbs for the black poor. Given the city’s limited resources, battles often arose over whether to bring opportunity to people or move people to opportunity. Samuels wanted to do both—in fact, her legal team pushed in vain for a remedy that equalized services in poor city neighborhoods with those in wealthier ones.

Federal judge Marvin J. Garbis found liability on just one count against HUD: failing to abide by a passage of the Fair Housing Act that required the defendants to “administer [housing] programs…in a manner affirmatively to further the policies of [the Act].” HUD should have thought beyond the city line, Garbis declared. “Baltimore City,” he wrote in his ruling, “should not be viewed as an island reservation for use as a container for all of the poor of a contiguous region of Baltimore.” The final remedy created 2,600 more mobility vouchers—but only in 2012, after seven years of on-again and off-again negotiations.

In 2011, Samuels joined local advocacy organizations to file two more federal housing complaints in the region: one against the State of Maryland, and another against suburban Baltimore County. Both led to settlements.

In her legal approach, Samuels recognized the metamorphosis that racism and discrimination had undergone since the Fair Housing Act. While both Thompson v. HUD and one of her later complaints included claims of intentional discrimination, they also relied on two fair housing tools that do not require evidence of intentional discrimination.

The “affirmatively further fair housing” provision that decided Thompson requires HUD and its grantees to document barriers to fair housing choice and take proactive steps to undo segregation. You don’t have to catch a racist doing or saying a racist thing, and the same is true under disparate impact theory, which Samuels used against Baltimore County and Maryland. In this approach, plaintiffs outline the disproportionate harm that a policy creates among a class protected under civil rights law, no matter the intent.

During President Barack Obama’s second term, HUD clarified the potential uses of both disparate impact and the duty to affirmatively further fair housing, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legitimacy of disparate impact in housing cases. The statute’s language, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, refers to the “consequences of an action rather than the actor’s intent.”

While Justice Kennedy was no fan of race-based remedies—indeed, he endorsed “race-neutral means” in his opinion—his distinction between intent and effect put the Supreme Court’s imprimatur on an understanding of racism and discrimination much more suitable to the covert nature of 21st century discrimination.

Ben Carson’s HUD, however, has come along and defined racism down. The agency wrote a draft rule weakening disparate impact, suspended part of the Obama rule on affirmatively furthering, and wrote its own draft rule to further dilute that duty. These acts would leave little that is actionable beyond intent.

But Carson came too late to disrupt the legacy of Thompson v. HUD, which can be seen across the Baltimore region and beyond. The Baltimore Housing Mobility Program has helped more than 4,000 former public housing families move to high-opportunity areas throughout the region; nationwide, researchers like Stefanie Deluca and Raj Chetty are documenting mobility successes in Seattle and elsewhere. Housing mobility, once a reliable trigger for suburban bigotry and backlash, has become a bipartisan poverty solution: Congress’s 2019 budget included $28 million for a mobility demonstration program.

Housing mobility alone will not deliver racial justice. An unconscionable number of families remain on waiting lists for public housing and Section 8. Ferguson and Baltimore showed America what happens when we keep choosing to condone segregation, concentrated poverty, and the punishing dynamics those conditions create. But Thompson v. HUD at least documented how those conditions came to be—and helped a lot of families find opportunity that had long been denied.

“People used to assume, ‘Subsidized housing? You put it where all the poor people are,’” says Barbara Samuels, who still works for ACLU of Maryland. “We’ve gone beyond that superficial logic.” In the wake of Thompson, she notes, many of the major public interest legal organizations in Baltimore have challenged segregative housing practices; nationally, best-selling books like The Color of Law have raised the baseline understanding of how segregation took root in America’s cities.

“The case of Thompson v. HUD has been changing the way we view the landscape of Baltimore City and its suburbs, showing that segregation is not inevitable,” Samuels says. “Policy caused it, and policy can reverse it. Do we have the political will?”

Powered by WPeMatico

A Group of Mothers, a Vacant Home, and a Win for Fair Housing

On November 18, two women walked in through the unlocked door of a vacant three-bedroom house on West Oakland’s Magnolia Street, set up small bedrooms for themselves and their children, and settled in for an occupation designed to call attention to the Bay Area’s housing affordability crisis.

Over the next few months, this collective of formerly unhoused women grew in size—and power. Calling themselves Moms 4 Housing, the group remained in 2928 Magnolia Street day and night, sometimes protected by volunteer security guards while they slept. National figures emerged to voice their support; housing activists and local community members showed up with signs and supplies. On January 10, a judge ruled that the women were squatting illegally and ordered them out. Still, they stayed—until Tuesday, January 14, when a heavily armed contingent of Alameda County Sheriff’s Office deputies entered the home, pushed their furniture into the street, and arrested two of the women. By morning, the families had been fully evicted.

But on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a new chapter began for the women, whose activism in California’s East Bay has snowballed into a national movement for housing rights: The house on Magnolia Street, once vacant, will soon belong to them.

In a dramatic concession, Wedgewood Properties, a home-flipping company that purchased the house in August, will give Oakland’s Community Land Trust the chance to purchase the property for a market price and to rehabilitate it. The group will be able to stay there officially once the sale is complete.

“This is what happens when we organize, when people come together to build the beloved community,” said Moms 4 Housing member Dominique Walker in a statement. She’s a community organizer who grew up in Oakland, and is raising two children without access to stable housing. “Today we honor Dr. King’s radical legacy by taking Oakland back from banks and corporations.”

The agreement, announced on January 20 in a joint press release from the Oakland Mayor’s office, Wedgewood, and the Moms, was made “in good faith” and does not yet have a written contract associated with it. Along with the offer to purchase the deed to the Magnolia Street house, Wedgewood told CityLab it has agreed to give the Oakland Community Land Trust or other community land trusts the right of first refusal on the approximately 50 homes they currently own in Oakland, and the ones they acquire in the future. The terms of those refusal rights will be negotiated with the city. Neither Wedgewood nor the mayor’s office could elaborate on the timeline for the sale or the drawing of a written contract. The Oakland Community Land Trust did not respond to a request for comment.

To broker the deal, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf had a series of conversations with Wedgewood’s CEO, Greg Geiser; though the mothers initially proposed involving the land trust in early January, serious talks only started after last week’s expulsion from the house.

“Wedgewood made it clear from the beginning they wouldn’t have any discussions or negotiations regarding this issue before the women left voluntarily or were evicted,” Sam Springer, a spokesperson for the company, told CityLab.

For the mothers, this resolution appeared to inspire mixed feelings of relief and resentment.

“Now that we’ve come to this agreement, it shows that all of this was uncalled for,” Moms 4 Housing member Misty Cross said in a press conference. She asked the mayor, the Alameda Sheriff’s Office, and Wedgewood to issue public apologies. She called out the media for asking the wrong questions for months, and for framing the activists as criminal trespassers. Because of the antagonistic response they’d received, she said, they had conversations with their children that “no mother should have.” In the background, a baby cried.

Beyond four walls

Though there’s now a clear path to a short-term resolution for the Moms—who were living in homelessness before moving to Magnolia Street and who became unhoused again after being evicted—the aims of their movement extend far beyond four walls.

“We’re going to keep this movement going, to make sure everyone who’s unhoused has a home,” said Cross.Regardless of your drug abuse, if you have bad credit, if you are a student and struggling … we won’t stop until everyone is housed, because we want to make sure that this becomes the law. We want housing to be a human right.”

The wide reverberations of their movement show how urgent the housing crisis has become in Oakland. The city has more than 4,000 unhoused residents—a population that grew 47 percent between 2017 and 2019. Along with homelessness rates, housing costs have climbed. Local businesses and longtime residents have been leaving historically black neighborhoods: African Americans made up just under half the city’s population in 1980; today the figure is is closer to 25 percent.

Legislators continue to debate policies designed to address these disparities. A California-wide upzoning measure, Senate Bill 50, is up for another vote this year, after being quashed late last session. If approved, SB50 would legalize multi-family zoning across a state where nearly 80 percent of land is zoned for single-family units. State Senator Scott Weiner, who introduced the bill, says that recalibrating land use will help spur a new wave of construction and bring down housing prices. The Moms 4 Housing profess to advance similar goals—more affordable housing, and less displacement—but they have opposed the measure, sharing fears with other progressive activists that it will embolden developers to build more luxury developments.

Weiner’s latest amendments aim to address those concerns, via inclusionary zoning rules that reserve 40 percent of the affordable housing created by the bill for people living nearby; past revisions instituted protections for areas that are at risk for gentrification. The bill’s fate depends on a “yes” vote in the Senate by January 31. (Schaaf, along with San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, support it.)

Supply isn’t the only problem, the Moms argue. Together with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a grassroots organizing group, they have also tried to bring attention to another facet of Oakland’s housing crunch: its vacancy rate. There are more vacant housing units than homeless people in the city of Oakland, a statistic that stings.

The true meaning of such vacancy rates is complicated; they represent “a snapshot in time, and can describe a number of very distinct phenomena,” as Benjamin Schneider recently wrote in CityLab. A common form of vacancy is a housing unit that’s in the process of changing occupants; other vacant units “might be held as second homes, rented as Airbnbs, or retained as investment properties until the price is sufficiently high. But such properties likely represent a small proportion of a city’s total housing units.”

The house that the Moms occupied since November represents a more insidious form of vacancy, they say: After 2928 Magnolia was foreclosed upon last year, Wedgewood bought it at an auction for $500,000 at the end of July with plans to renovate it; by the time the Moms arrived, it had been empty for months. Seeing a livable space go to waste feels cruel within a housing market that’s increasingly dysfunctional for many longtime residents. To afford two-bedroom housing in the zip code that contains 2928 Magnolia Street, the National Low Income Housing Institute reports that a renter would have to earn $43.46 an hour, or $86,920 a year.

The only demographic category in the Bay Area whose incomes mostly rise above the salary needed for a two-bedroom abode in the Moms’ West Oakland neighborhood is white men, who earn a little more than $100,000 at the median. Black women earn less than half of that—$49,369. While Latinas bring in even less at $39,600.

For many Bay Area residents, the solution to this disparity between incomes and housing has been to relocate to more affordable parts of the region. But the Moms reject that idea. “It’s easy for people to say, ‘Just go ahead and move where you can afford,’” said Cross, who’s been an organizer in Oakland for years. “But when you feel like you’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears into something, you don’t want to just let it go like that.”

Housing advocates say that real estate speculators like Wedgewood act as a “displacement machine,” exacerbating the city’s vacancies and jacking up prices. The company is “one of Oakland’s most prolific house flippers,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, with 160 sales over the last nine years. But house flipping in the Bay Area is low compared to many other U.S. cities: According to Attom Data Solutions, the San Francisco-Oakland area saw 380 flips in the third quarter of 2019, about 3.7 percent of all sales. That rate puts it at 129th out of 148 U.S. metros. “Wedgewood is a housing creator,” Wedgewood’s Springer told CityLab. “It takes housing that is dilapidated and unused, and turns it into housing for homebuyers.”

Like the Magnolia Street property, many of the homes Wedgewood buys, rehabs, and sells for a profit have been foreclosed upon. An NBC Bay Area investigation found that the business has been involved in 300 lawsuits—“mostly unlawful detainers in which the company was attempting to evict a tenant or former owners living in a home it recently purchased.” (Singer directed CityLab to its comment to NBC: “Wedgewood always follows all legal requirements in connection with its efforts to obtain possession of the properties it purchases.”)

Lawyers representing Moms 4 Housing say that the city of Oakland is part of the housing speculation story. “Certainly the city has allowed these speculators to come in and buy up these properties [without] demanding that they utilize them, [or] demanding that they make them available for rent,” said EmilyRose Johns, a senior associate with the law firm Siegel, Yee, Brunner & Mehta, which is also representing dozens of other homeless residents across the city. “This is heavily contributing to the crisis that we’re seeing right now.”

From private to community ownership

Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland’s city council president, who’s been a strong supporter of the Moms, has proposed another way to move private properties into community ownership: pushing the city to buy foreclosed properties at county auctions. This would “reduce the problem of bidding wars” that in turn drive displacement, she said in a statement. Though a spokesperson for Schaaf said she has not yet reviewed Kaplan’s plan, the mayor’s office’s announcement last week included a commitment to maintaining a registry of foreclosed properties, and to creating a database to track vacant properties.

By including community land trusts early on in the buying process for vacant homes, Schaaf says Wedgewood properties that are currently being bid on in the speculative market have a greater chance of being filled by low-income homeowners. To support the trusts in their acquisitions of housing, Schaaf says she’ll launch an Advisory Board on Community Ownership of Housing, which will be co-chaired by a member of Moms 4 Housing.

While she “does not condone illegal acts,” the Oakland mayor says she respects the mothers’ mission, and “can passionately advance the cause that inspired them.”

Schaaf’s administration is also facing other legal challenges to its handling of the homelessness crisis. Last April, Siegel, Yee, Brunner & Mehta filed a federal lawsuit against the city for storming tent encampments in the city, confiscating and destroying some of the property of the homeless residents, in violation of their constitutional and due process rights.

“During these operations, the City will take and destroy the property of residents or force property abandonment through threat of arrest,” reads the complaint. “As a result, homeless residents are stripped of critical property necessary for safety and survival and of precious belongings. The operations often force homeless residents into unfamiliar areas with less protection from the elements and from those who wish to prey on their vulnerability, less property, and less stability.”

Johns, the lawyer, says she also encourages Oakland residents who object to what she calls the “excessive force” used against the Moms 4 Housing advocates to file a taxpayer lawsuit against the city or sheriff’s department for wasting public dollars.

For those familiar with Oakland history, the military-style tactics used in the January 14 eviction held ugly echoes of the way the city’s law enforcement once dealt with its poor residents, and black women in particular: the violent police escalations that caused African Americans to form the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in the city in 1966.

“This city has a rich history in black culture and in resistance,” said Walker, whose grandparents moved to Oakland in the 1950s. “We’re resisting right now, and we’re not going anywhere. We deserve to be here.”

Powered by WPeMatico

Would Capping Office Space Ease San Francisco’s Housing Crunch?

Voters in San Francisco will soon weigh a Solomonic compromise on housing in the city: a zero-sum building moratorium that ties new office space to affordable housing.

Proposition E, a measure coming up on the primary ballot in March, would limit future office growth in San Francisco as a function of the city’s shortfall of new affordable housing. Under this new accounting, in any year that the city fails to live up to its state-mandated obligation to approve new affordable housing, the legal cap on new office space would be lowered by the same degree. A miss on housing would mean a proportionate dip in new office space.

If this proposal sounds complicated, that’s because it is. The amount of new office space that’s allowed in San Francisco is already capped, thanks to a 1986 ballot measure; given the city’s well-known failures on the affordable housing front, new office space production would almost certainly take a hit under this initiative. A one- or two-digit percent default on the goals set by California would result in a one- or two-digit percent reduction in office construction.

By design, Proposition E sets up a trade-off between office space and affordable housing, according to the initiative’s sponsor, John Elberling, the executive director of Todco, a nonprofit affordable housing management group based in the central South of Market (SoMa) district. “Either we’re going to significantly increase our affordable housing or reduce our office development,” Elberling says. “It’s going to be one or the other.”

The March measure is the latest in a long line of ballot initiatives that aim to cool San Francisco’s incandescent housing market by tamping down demand. Four years ago, voters narrowly defeated a ballot measure for a building moratorium on new construction in the Mission District of 18 to 30 months. Efforts to block new construction reflect a broad belief that high housing costs will eventually drive tech companies out of San Francisco. Proposition E makes the connection explicit: If the city can’t get new affordable housing, then it can’t have new industry.

Prop E will put new pressure on what Elberling describes as the Bay Area’s “growth industry.” Under the new dispensation, developers as well as other sectors that derive benefits from growth will have a strong incentive to make sure that affordable housing gets built. The idea is to turn developers into a lobby for affordable housing. “It would be in their self-interest,” he says. “They will push harder for more funding for more affordable housing.”

Further, the measure would expedite developments that include their fair share of affordable housing units (or pay for them to be built elsewhere). Should San Francisco fail to hit its housing targets, the Prop E regulation will instead slow new office projects—a win-win scenario, from Elberling’s perspective. “When you’re in a hole,” he says, “you stop digging.”

But addressing the city’s jobs-housing imbalance by driving jobs out of the area would be short-sighted, says Nick Josefowitz, policy director of the Bay Area urbanist nonprofit SPUR—especially because San Francisco is “one of the most transit-oriented places west of the Mississippi.” Already, offices are moving out in search of cheaper real estate; the payment-processing company Stripe fled for the more suburban city of South San Francisco this fall. Under Prop E, more offices looking to expand may have to look to the San Francisco Peninsula or to the East Bay—areas that are less connected by transit than San Francisco while similarly strapped for cheaper housing.

“When looking at the jobs-housing balance, it’s more appropriate to look at it at the regional level,” Josefowitz says. “People are commuting all over this region … many coming in from the Central Valley. What I think is important is that the entire region steps up to build … enough affordable housing to house our residents rather than trying to necessarily dice up the jobs-housing balance in small cities at that scale.”

Other opponents of Prop E have a different concern: The cap won’t do enough to slow office growth, especially in the short term. “I really think that Prop E is much ado about very little,“ says Randy Shaw, the author of a book on California’s housing supply crisis, Generation Priced Out. In his proposal, Elberling ensured that the measure will exempt 5.5 million square feet of office space across SoMa, where seven building permits have already been approved. Because of the “staggering” amount of office space not covered under the proposal, it could take 10 to 15 years for the intended targets to start brushing up against the limits, Shaw says.

In central SoMa, Elberling’s proposal not only grandfathers in the projects already underway, it would actually expedite their construction. Under Proposition M, the 1986 measure, the city set strict limits on office construction to prevent the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco; the new measure would allow these seven buildings to sidestep those restrictions. “If we stuck with Prop M as it is, it would take a long time for central SoMa plans to be built out,” says Sonja Trauss, co-executive director of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund* and a founding figure in California’s “Yes In My Backyard” movement. “This ballot measure is going to create a flood of new offices, without doing anything to guarantee that we’ll have more affordable housing.”

Plus, the housing demand created by those new office jobs will likely be for market-rate units, not affordable ones, Josefowitz says. “One of the things we’re seeing in the Bay Area and especially in San Francisco is that office rents are going up and up and up, and it’s really displacing small- and medium-sized businesses, nonprofits, and companies who employ low-wage workers. I think limiting the supply of office space is just going to exacerbate that problem,” Josefowitz says. “The last businesses left in San Francisco as rents rise are going to be the ones paying their employees the most.”

Eventually, the intended effect of Prop E could be more pronounced. Over the last three years, San Francisco has only hit 68 percent of the state’s affordable housing target. Had Prop E been in place already (and not facilitating rapid construction in SoMa), the city’s 875,000-square-feet annual cap on office construction would have been lowered by 280,000 square feet (reflecting the 32 percent affordable housing shortfall). Current property owners would stand to gain as new opportunities grow rarer—much as homeowners benefit under a moratorium on new housing.

Over the long run, the measure might dramatically slow new office growth in San Francisco. Pipeline projects accelerated by Prop E now will essentially borrow cap space from the future; millions of square feet of greenlit offices will be deducted under caps over the next decade. (So if the qualifying developments in SoMa introduce 1.7 million square feet of office space now, then 170,000 square feet will be subtracted from the city’s cap for each year over 10 years.) Beyond the handful of projects in the pipeline, the measure would altogether suspend new office development in SoMa unless and until the city builds 15,000 new market-rate and affordable units in the neighborhood—a significant lift.

Rent-strapped SF voters appear to be willing to buy the premise behind Prop E: An October poll of 600 likely primary voters in San Francisco found that a majority (56 percent) supported the proposal. San Francisco Mayor London Breed initially sponsored a countermeasure that would have negated the measure; when pollsters offered details about Prop E versus Breed’s alternative, support for the ballot measure ticked slightly up while support for her countermeasure fell. She has since withdrawn it. “She can, it seems, read a poll—and has ceded the field,” wrote Joe Eskanazi of the online news site Mission Local. The sort of funded opposition to construction constriction that might typically come from developers has been muted, too, thanks to Elberling’s generous exemptions.

Plenty of players in the Bay Area housing debate profess to share the same basic goal: San Francisco needs more places for workers to live and more affordable housing. But the best means for achieving that end vary widely, as other proposed measures attest. One seismic proposal slated for November’s ballot would exclude most commercial property from protections under Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that slashed and capped California property taxes. And in the legislature, State Senator Scott Wiener is once again advancing Senate Bill 50, a bill to increase the legal density of housing near transit. The $600 million affordable housing bond San Francisco voters passed last November is also part of this mix.

“God willing, we’ll be successful and we’ll have a building boom of affordable housing,” says Trauss. “If I’m optimistic … maybe [Prop E] won’t matter at all.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of the article misstated the location of the San Francisco Peninsula. In addition, Sonja Trauss was incorrectly identified.  

Powered by WPeMatico

As Trump Ditches a Fair Housing Rule, New York City Doubles Down

The Trump administration is walking back a rule on fair housing that requires communities to show how they’re working to undo long-established patterns of racial segregation. In its place, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is proposing an updated rule that bears little resemblance to the standard set by the Obama administration. Advocates for housing are crying out that the White House is operating in bad faith.

Known by its mantra-like moniker, Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) is a mandate established by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. While this charge to desegregate is decades old, only within the last decade has the federal government sought to actively enforce the standard. In 2015, under then-Housing Secretary Julián Castro, HUD issued a “final rule” clarifying the federal government’s fair housing policies. This rule proved to be short lived: The Trump administration hit the brakes in 2018 by suspending a deadline for compliance with the rule, before anyone could fulfill its obligations. Then, on Tuesday, the department issued a new rule to replace the Obama standard altogether.

Officials in New York City, however, are standing by the original rule, which requires jurisdictions that receive federal housing dollars to produce a comprehensive fair housing assessment. While the city was no longer on the hook for the report after HUD paused the process two years ago, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio finished the assessment anyway—then built an entire policy platform around the results.

“If you don’t look hard at where you are and how you got there, you’re never going to do a good job of getting to a better place,” says Vicki Been, New York City’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development. “We’re not going to stick our heads in the sand the way that this administration is doing.”

The “Where We Live NYC” report is a blueprint for addressing fair housing challenges in America’s largest city—an effort rooted in the work that federal housing officials are now abandoning. The draft document offers a detailed look at racial discrimination, segregation, and other obstacles to fair housing, plus a draft plan for policies to address these barriers. The report establishes a baseline for understanding the experiences that families face in different parts of the city. A lengthy portion is devoted to the history of New York City’s growth and patterns of racial segregation since 1900. At more than 200 pages, “Where We Live NYC” shows the very real challenges the city faces to address discrimination by landlords, lenders, and leaders.

“What we’ve tried to do here is really lay out what we’ve got to solve for,” Been says. “It’s the result of 400 years [of discrimination]. It’s going to take a number of administrations to solve this.” The report, she says, “makes it harder for New Yorkers to walk away from that.”

The draft report outlines six goals that the city hopes to implement over the next five years. Those goals—policy proposals described at length—include devoting resources to combating discrimination by landlords, preserving naturally occurring affordable housing, enabling households with rental assistance to find homes in wealthier neighborhoods, and other strategies to shore up fairer living circumstances for renters and homeowners alike.

For example, the New York City Commission on Human Rights conducts so-called paired-testing exercises to suss out discrimination in the housing market. In these experiments, the agency sends out pairs of trained actors with different characteristics to test whether a broker or landlord is discriminating against potential buyers or tenants. One pair of would-be renters might have a traditional income stream, whereas the other might be using a housing voucher; others might have different immigration statuses. The report recommends expanding the work by the office in order to prevent differential treatment based on source of income, race, sex, disability, and other characteristics.

The research that led to the Where We Live report is a product of the AFFH push from HUD in 2015. The federal law hasn’t changed over this time at all: Desegregation is still an explicit mandate under the landmark Civil Rights-era legislation that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But federal enforcement of this provision has been lax or confused at best over the 50 years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act.

“We know from past experience that without oversight, local governments often follow the path of least resistance, which time and time again has been shown to perpetuate structural barriers to equality and integration,” says Thomas Silverstein, counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

HUD’s solution under Castro was to require every jurisdiction to perform an assessment of fair housing—mandatory documentation designed to be both exhaustive and standardized. The new rule proposed under Housing Secretary Ben Carson doesn’t require an assessment of fair housing. Little of the 2015 rule survived the review process.

“If you look at the definition [of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing] that’s in the current rule, it includes concepts like ensuring access to opportunity, replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns, and transforming racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity,” says Sasha Samberg-Champion, who practices civil rights law as counsel with Relman Colfax. “That’s all been taken out.”

He adds, “HUD is taking the fair housing out of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.”

Instead, the new rule from HUD prioritizes access to affordable housing, with an emphasis on the supply and location of low-cost options for living. Many housing advocates argue that Carson aims to move the goal posts for Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing from a mandate about race to one about class. The existing rule is not universally beloved, though, and some of its critics cheered the pivot by HUD.

Emily Hamilton and Salim Further, research fellows with George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, described the Obama-era rule as “bureaucratic symbolism.” While the rule requires state and local officials to draft lengthy reports, all that work comes to nothing if elected officials never act on (or read) their recommendations. The proposal to focus on easing restrictive zoning will serve all renters and buyers better, they say. “Instead, the new rule uses quantifiable statistics to identify jurisdictions that are succeeding–or failing–in allowing housing markets to serve residents (or prospective residents) of every color, class, and creed,” they write in a recent commentary.

Howard Husock, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, writes in City Journal that the move by HUD to lower regulatory barriers is a positive good in and of itself. Husock describes the 2015 rule as “social engineering”—much as Carson himself has done—and compares AFFH to busing. He welcomes the government’s proposal to decouple the provision of housing dollars from work on desegregation. “HUD itself will highlight—but not mandate—good approaches,” Husock writes.

By the same token, Carson’s critics argue that the new rule weakens the government’s options for enforcing the fair housing mandate. The rule may allow HUD to withhold federal funds from jurisdictions that maintain barriers to new housing—a boon for affordable housing, potentially, but a tangent to fair housing. The department is giving up a policy stick for attacking segregation and (maybe) taking up a different one.

“In the past, Carson has suggested he would use the [Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing] rule to loosen and lessen restrictive zoning that inhibits housing production, an important goal given the deep racial disparities created by some local zoning laws,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO for the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “But even here he fails, choosing to instead let localities off the hook by explicitly stating there will be no consequences if they keep their restrictive zoning laws.”    

As the new rule from HUD notes, assessments submitted under the prior AFFH rule averaged 204 pages. If the new draft rule is made final, jurisdictions will need to do far less to demonstrate their compliance under the law. HUD estimates that each jurisdiction will spend about 10 hours total complying with the new rule. “That’s one day’s work for one person and call it a day, each year,” Samberg-Champion says.

The new rule also establishes a rational basis review as the legal standard for challenges under the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing standard, a legal term of art related to the level of scrutiny that courts must apply in judicial review of a law. In short, courts won’t need to spend too much time looking at complaints brought forward on fair housing grounds. “It’s extremely rare for any policy to be struck down on the basis of rational basis review,” Silverstein says. “With that standard, you’re sending a very strong signal that the bar is set as low as it possibly could be.”

The government’s new posture on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing is the latest signal that HUD, under Carson, is rethinking fair housing law. Last year, the department proposed a rule change on disparate impact, the legal theory that has guided housing law for more than half a century. That proposed rule would make it more burdensome for parties to bring forward fair housing complaints under the law. This latest rule change would curb the role of the federal government in steering jurisdictions away from discrimination in local policies.

New York City officials say that they’ll take the other road, and their Where We Live report—detailed briefs on policies and strategies for tackling citywide discrimination—follows the path paved by the Obama administration.

“It’s the first serious attempt to enforce the obligations of the Fair Housing Act since the Fair Housing Act was passed,” says Vicki Been, New York City’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development. “That was a long time ago. We need to make progress.”

Powered by WPeMatico