CityLab Daily: Housing Makes the Debate Stage

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What We’re Following

Soundbites: For the first time in a long time, the Democratic presidential candidates have been talking about housing on the trail. But last night in Atlanta was the first time they were asked about it on the debate stage. First up was Tom Steyer, a candidate whose housing ideas have not yet been covered by CityLab. The California billionaire jumped right in on why where you live matters.

Where you put your head at night determines so many things about your life. It determines where your kids go to school. It determines the air you breathe, where you shop, how long it takes you to get to work.

Steyer has yet to release a detailed housing plan, but he promised to “build literally millions of new units” and he connected housing to climate change. “How we build units, where people live, has a dramatic impact on climate and on sustainability.”

Next up was Senator Elizabeth Warren. “Our housing problem in America is a problem on the supply side,” said the senator, pointing to how the feds “stopped building … affordable housing” while private developers built “McMansions.” True to her brand, Warren has a plan: To build 3.2 million housing units (see CityLab coverage here). But it’s not just about building for Warren. “Housing is how we build wealth in America,“ she said, noting the need to reverse the effects of redlining that cut African Americans out of housing subsidies.

Finally, Senator Cory Booker, who started his career as a tenants’ rights lawyer and served as Newark’s mayor during the housing crisis, turned to gentrification:

We’re not talking about something that is going on all over America, which is gentrification and low-income families being moved further and further out, often compounding racial segregation.

Not so fast, Senator. Evidence suggests the scope of gentrification is bit narrower than “all over America.” On the broader problem of affordability, Booker offered his plan to give a refundable tax credit to renters (CityLab coverage here).

Off stage but on Twitter, former Obama HUD secretary Juliàn Castro had a few ideas he would have liked to add to the mix. Maybe next time!

Watch the video clip from MSNBC here, and for more context, check out CityLab housing writer Kriston Capps’ Twitter feed from the evening.

Andrew Small


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Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

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The country that produced Van Gogh’s Starry Night is now covered in a thick layer of light pollution. Even on the clearest nights, only 10 percent of the stars visible from Earth can be seen from Dutch cities. But during Nacht van de Nacht (Night of the Night), an annual event in the Netherlands, cities turn off their lights for one night to encourage people to embrace a “dark where possible, light where necessary” philosophy year-round.

The lights-out evening is meant to raise environmental awareness and bring attention to how light pollution makes urban dwellers feel. “Light pollution forms a kind of roof, … severing our last connection with the outdoors and that which lies beyond us,” says one designer who runs workshops for darker skies. On CityLab: Holland Aims to Bring Back Its Starry Nights


What We’re Reading

The plight of the urban planner (New Yorker)

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Would a universal basic income pay your rent? (Curbed)

Black student enrollment in Chicago’s schools has fallen 30 percent over the last decade (Chalkbeat)

Denver’s B-Cycle, the city’s bike-sharing system, is shutting down (Denver Post)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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What a Trillion-Dollar Housing Pledge Looks Like

Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar introduced a bold act on Thursday that would commit $1 trillion to the cause of affordable housing. That’s trillion with a T, which makes Omar’s bill a new milemarker in the progressive left’s efforts to stake out a national housing agenda.

Housing has emerged as a pressing issue on the campaign trail, and it surfaced as a concern during the Democratic Party forum on Wednesday night. Several candidates discussed their plans on topics such as zoning, rent relief, and racial segregation. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke to the history of redlining, while New Jersey Senator Cory Booker mentioned his plan for a tax credit for renters. Yet a separate idea is brewing on the left. Housing is a litmus for liberals, as as a younger generation of progressives embraces a solution abandoned by elected officials after decades of systemic failures: public housing.

Omar’s Homes for All Act plants a flag for an unapologetic public housing agenda. Her bill would authorize funding for 12 million new homes over 10 years, most of which would take the form of public housing. It would mark the first commitment to public housing since the Clinton era, when Congress shredded this part of the social safety net. It speaks to the growing dissatisfaction among tenants and advocates with neighborhood change. In many cities, proven approaches to rental affordability—namely building more homes everywhere—have fallen short.

The figures spelled out by the Homes for All Act are staggering: $80 billion for public housing agencies every year through 2031 (for a total of $800 billion) to fund the construction of 9.5 million new public housing units. Another $20 billion each year ($200 billion over 10 years) would go toward the federal Housing Trust Fund, an Obama-era program to provide affordable housing for the very poorest families in the nation.

In another signal of a generational sea change on social programs, Omar isn’t just looking to build more public housing. She wants to transform it into something like an entitlement. The bill would make it mandatory for government to actually pay all the costs associated with the maintenance and operation of public housing. That’s a provision to guarantee future spending and a significant shift from the status quo: Costs for deferred maintenance for public housing will reach at least $90 billion by 2030.

The Homes for All Act sets out a variety of requirements for these newly provisioned affordable homes, including access to public transit, childcare, and other services. And by putting public housing on a similar footing with safety-net pillars like Social Security and unemployment insurance, Omar’s bill would ensure that new public housing never again falls in the awful state of disrepair seen in many projects today.

On top of a trillion dollars for housing, Omar’s bill establishes a new Community Control and Anti-Displacement Fund—a $200 billion appropriation under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The purpose of the fund, which might be the first federal housing proposal to specifically call out gentrification as a crisis, is to “provide grants to local governments for the purposes of combating gentrification and neighborhood destabilization.” The section outlining the fund runs fewer than 100 words, so there’s room for the congresswoman to explain what she means by gentrification.

The Homes for All Act comes just days after the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act was introduced by Omar’s fellow freshman congresswoman and Squad member New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That bill, which AOC launched with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders amid cheering tenants’ rights advocates in a rally outside the U.S. Capitol last week, proposes rebuilding the nation’s public housing stock through billions of dollars in energy retrofits. It would also commit billions to meet the government’s deferred maintenance bills and decarbonize public housing.

Like the Sanders-AOC bill, Omar’s housing push features a critical but easy-to-overlook detail: It repeals the Faircloth Amendment. Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform bill with a GOP rider attached that capped public housing at 1999 levels, making any new construction over this number illegal. Repealing this amendment is technically necessary to build even one more federal public housing unit beyond the limit set 20 years ago. Calls for the repeal of the Faircloth Amendment are evidence that progressives are undeterred by the failures of the past and determined to start a new social project.  

Don’t look for a pay-for mechanism for Omar’s trillion-dollar housing plan: There isn’t one. Even $1 trillion couldn’t subsidize millions of new housing units. The math in Omar’s bill works out to a per-unit cost of $83,000, far too little to actually build all those homes in the places where they’re needed, especially given that the bill that requires these homes to be located in neighborhoods with equitable access to transit and amenities.  

Instead, the Homes for All Act functions primarily as a statement of progressive values. It flows from three plain truths: Every state, county, and metro area faces a shortage of affordable housing. A sizable fraction of households pay more than half their income on their rent. And based on its recent progress, the private market is so far incapable of addressing this affordable housing shortfall. Socialists are stepping up with their own solutions.

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CityLab Daily: Inside the Green New Deal for Public Housing

What We’re Following

Here’s the deal: On Thursday, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would dedicate billions of dollars to energy retrofits for America’s public housing. The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would commit up to $180 billion over 10 years to upgrading 1.2 million federally owned homes.

That might sound like a lot of green, but it’s actually a two-in-one deal: The bill would address the federal government’s dilapidated buildings that already have very costly deferred maintenance backlogs, while also reducing those buildings’ energy consumption. Another easy-to-overlook feature: It would repeal a law that currently caps the number of public housing units at the level it was at in 1999. CityLab’s Kriston Capps has the story: Inside the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act

Andrew Small


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Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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Bernie Sanders and AOC Unveil a Green New Deal for Public Housing

Socialist Democrats are pushing the progressive envelope with a new iteration of Green New Deal legislation this week, this time with a focus on public housing.

On Thursday, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a new bill that would dedicate billions of dollars to energy retrofits for America’s dilapidated public housing stock. The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would commit up to $180 billion over 10 years to upgrading 1.2 million federally owned homes.

At a press conference outside the Capitol on Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez said a bill focused on public housing reflects the larger aim of the Green New Deal to prioritize “frontline communities”—those that are most likely to be harmed by the climate crisis. “In the Bronx alone, 2,400 public housing residents may be going without heat tonight. That is inhumane,” she said. “That is environmental injustice.”

At the same event, Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coaltion, said: “We must build the political will to combat both the affordable housing and climate crises.”

The bill is an effort to bag two birds with one stone. America’s public housing portfolio is in a shambles, with deferred maintenance costs nationwide running into the billions. The bill introduced by AOC and Sanders would bring that backlog up to date while also reducing the energy consumption from this aging housing stock.

Overall, buildings are responsible for about 39 percent of global carbon emissions, and about one-third of emissions in the U.S. That puts energy retrofits front and center in debates about how to arrest climate change.

“For an estimate between $119 and $172 billion, you could decarbonize the country’s entire public housing stock,” said Billy Fleming, the Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania. “If you think about that from just a pure carbon perspective, that’s the equivalent of taking 1.2 million cars off the road.”

The energy retrofits imagined by the bill run the gamut, including new cladding, efficient window glazing, and electric appliances. Building-systems modeling tools would be used to determine the best approach to upgrades in different regions. All the technology envisioned by the bill is already within reach, according to Fleming. Energy retrofits could reduce the costs of public-housing water bills by $97 million per year (about 30 percent), according to estimates by the progressive think tank Data for Progress, and bring down energy costs by $613 million (70 percent).

Fleming, an alum of President Barack Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, is also a senior fellow with Data for Progress, which has led the national conversation on policy associated with the rising socialist left and the Green New Deal. He said that Ocasio-Cortez’s office approached the think tank to discuss how deep energy retrofits could be a way of improving the lives of public housing residents while also accomplishing Green New Deal goals.

“It was a surprise to us how quickly and how cheaply this could be done,” said Fleming, who worked on the proposal with Julian Brave NoiseCat, director of Green New Deal strategy for Data for Progress, and Daniel Aldana Cohen, director of Penn’s Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative and, like Fleming, a Data for Progress senior fellow. “We began by saying, what are the things we have to do just to get public housing up to the standard that we promised residents?”

Overall costs for the program speak primarily to the dire straits of public housing in America. Estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for necessary repairs for public housing nationwide through 2030 total $90 billion, work that includes abatement of lead, mold, and other toxins. Given the intrusive nature of this work, a more dramatic overhaul would not necessarily mean a much bigger lift.

“If we have to do all of this work anyway, what would it cost to take this a step further and do deep energy retrofits that get the nation’s entire public housing stock at or near a net-zero standard?” Fleming said.

The bill, which is cosponsored by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, would create some 250,000 jobs—including high-paying jobs and union jobs, as the proposal’s backers are quick to point out. Some of these would benefit public housing residents themselves. A bill that would actually put severely delayed federal upgrades into motion would not only spur new opportunities, it would promote economies of scale to boost industries in weatherization and energy retrofits, its backers say.

“Policies such as this which protect the needs of workers, taxpayers and community should be implemented wherever public funds are spent,” said Mike Prohaska, business manager for New York’s Construction & General Building Laborers Local 79, in a statement.

The bill would have a seismic impact in New York City, where the nation’s largest public housing agency faces deferred maintenance costs of nearly $32 billion. Federal prosecutors accused the New York City Housing Authority of “systematic misconduct, indifference and outright lies” following an investigation into elevated blood lead levels among public housing residents. A local solution to the city’s public housing crisis looks impossible. In fact, earlier this year, HUD Secretary Ben Carson named a federal monitor to oversee the the New York City Housing Authority.

“As [New York City] makes plans for a changing climate, public housing residents are often last on the list, despite being some of the most vulnerable,” said Wanda Salamán, executive director of Mothers on the Move/Madres en Movimiento, a South Bronx community organization, in a statement. “The Green New Deal for Public Housing includes opportunities for residents to finally gain access to promised jobs, while improving their quality of life and planning for climate resilience.”

Yet the benefits of a GND for public housing would not accrue to New York and other coastal cities alone. The analysis from Data for Progress finds that such a bill would create more on-site construction jobs in states that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 than in blue states.

The original Green New Deal framework called for upgrading all buildings in the U.S. as a way to transform the nation’s economy. Republicans pounced on that proposal as impossibly optimistic, citing figures from conservative think tanks that pegged the costs for building upgrades at $1.6 to 4.2 trillion.

So the new approach from AOC’s office is more piecemeal. The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act fits within an existing policy sphere targeting the built environment to bring down the country’s carbon pollution. A new, Green New Deal–inspired law in New York aims to cut the city’s carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement. (Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris protocols earlier this month.) Numerous U.S. cities now require the owners of large buildings to measure and disclose their energy use.

The AOC–Sanders bill also promotes public housing as a goal in itself. A provision of the bill would repeal the Faircloth Amendment, a federal rule that caps the construction of new public housing units. Data for Progress has outlined a vision for a progressive housing agenda that leans heavily on public housing and other goals that current federal law (and federal funding levels) make difficult or impossible. People’s Action, a grassroots group, introduced a policy platform called the Homes Guarantee that outlines many of the same goals.

Housing has emerged as a high-profile issue in the Democratic primary, with numerous candidates touting a range of plans and reforms. In the fall, Ocasio-Cortez produced her own suite of protections for tenants, immigrants, children, and others, most notably a proposal for a national rent control policy. The left has found a policy arena in which they have common ground with establishment Democrats—at least in terms of big-sky proposals.

“The folks at People’s Action and in the housing and tenants’ rights movement really built the momentum for Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Sanders to feel like they had the cover and the urgency necessary to put this bill up,” Fleming said.

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What’s Missing From Apple’s $2.5 Billion Housing Plan

On Monday, Apple announced a $2.5 billion pledge to finance housing initiatives in California. Deployed in partnership with the state, its plan is designed to improve both “affordability and availability” in California communities that have struggled to meet residents’ needs.  

State and business leaders applauded the tech giant for its philanthropic foray, which follows similar moves by Google, Facebook, and Microsoft on the West Coast. But housing experts and advocates are cautious about how much the company’s voluntary investment can do to budge the fundamental barriers to housing construction in the state.

For one, zoning restrictions and opposition from neighborhood groups may prevent developers from seeing through bold plans to expand housing, even once they’re given the sites to build.

“It’s really, really good to have money, and it’s really, really good to have land, but you have to get all the approvals to make housing a reality,” said Leslye Corsiglia, the executive director of the affordable housing organization, Silicon Valley @ Home. Until we can get the community to understand the need for more housing; we’ll be fighting an uphill battle.”

Most of Apple’s investment will effectively turn the company into a housing lender. The company will offer $1 billion in credit to the state and other developers to build very low to moderate-income housing. Another $1 billion will provide mortgage financing and down-payment assistance to first-time homebuyers, in tandem with the state government. The remaining $500 million will be spread across more local efforts, including dedicating land that Apple already owns in San Jose to building affordable housing, creating a Bay Area-specific housing fund, and supporting homelessness initiatives in Silicon Valley.

California Governor Gavin Newsom commended the company’s initiative, which was crafted in partnership with state officials. Newsom has set a goal of building 3.5 million units of housing by 2025; Apple’s is now the largest investment in housing among private companies that have recently pledged their assistance. “This unparalleled financial commitment to affordable housing, and the innovative strategies at the heart of this initiative, are proof that Apple is serious about solving this issue. I hope other companies follow their lead,” Newsom said in a statement.

Todd David, the executive director at the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, said that the plan to supply $1 billion in loans to the state and other developers could prove useful in circumstances where officials can’t move public dollars quickly enough to purchase land for affordable housing. “Private funds have the ability to be faster and more flexible when opportunities come up,” he said.

The news of Apple’s investment comes after years of inaction by the iPhone maker to address regional housing pressures that it and other large Silicon Valley employers have exacerbated. As Apple, Google, Facebook, and other tech titans have turned into the richest companies in the world, the vast wealth they’ve brought to the San Francisco Bay Area has not been spread evenly. Highly paid workers pay top dollar for increasingly constrained housing supplies, while the construction of new housing has slowed to a snail’s pace due to construction costs, zoning barriers, and NIMBY-ish neighborhood resistance. In San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and some smaller Bay Area communities, a lack of low- and moderately priced accommodations is pushing out longtime residents and exacerbating homelessness, a pattern also seen in Los Angeles, San Diego, and other sought-after coastal cities.  

But Apple has been singled out as a uniquely visible contributor to the problem. It houses 12,000 corporate employees at its 175-acre “Spaceship” campus in Cupertino, which opened in 2017 with no connections to public transit lines or additional employee housing. Its approach contrasts with Google, which has a similarly sized real estate portfolio in the region but has incorporated housing and car-free transportation options into its new developments in San Jose. Facebook also has plans to house 35,000 employees in its upcoming campus in Menlo Park.

And Apple follows its Silicon Valley peers with its investment plan. In June, Google made a $1 billion commitment to open some of its land holdings to affordable housing developers. Last month, Facebook pledged the same amount to produce new units for teachers, police officers, and other middle-class workers, which followed the creation of a separate $500 million affordable housing fund by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, earlier this year.  

But some housing experts and advocates say that the largest barrier to housing is not money, but political will. Pulling the right policy levers to transform those funds into more supply may prove challenging for Apple, even with the state’s support.

“A one-time investment is good, but we’re going to have this problem for a long time,” said Corisiglia. “It’s going to take a lot.”

Kate Vershov Downing, a former planning commissioner in Palo Alto who now sits on the board of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, said that the Bay Area’s housing problems are a result of “artificial scarcity.”

“Our housing crisis exists because almost all the land zoned for housing in Silicon Valley is zoned for single family housing only,” she wrote in an email. For example, in Palo Alto, only three percent of residential land is zoned for multi-family dwellings—the sort of higher-density development that affordable housing developers generally pursue.

Apple’s state-wide affordable housing investments are meant to jumpstart shovel-ready projects on surplus land; the company wouldn’t comment on whether it would nudge zoning rules or pressure lawmakers to expand that surplus.

That challenge is clear in San Jose, where Apple has pledged to commit about $300 million worth of land it already owns to new affordable housing construction. But the North San Jose property is currently zoned for commercial projects, and when the company first bought the space, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo says he expected Apple would fill it with research and development offices. Changing the land use regulations and getting approval to build will be an involved process, Liccardo said.

“We haven’t been able to build any housing in North San Jose in several years because of a legal settlement with some surrounding cities,” he said. The city is behind on its own goals to build 32,000 housing units in North San Jose, 20 percent of them affordable, in part because of the “red tape that’s choking development,” Liccardo said, referring to the neighboring City of Santa Clara’s resistance to building on their border.

Facebook’s housing plan, which was announced in October, included a similar pledge to Apple’s: It’s freeing up more than $225 million worth of land in its headquarters city of Menlo Park, where it says it will help build 1,500 units of affordable housing. But Facebook’s plot is already zoned for residential development, potentially streamlining the development process.

Liccardo says while he’s open to rezoning Apple’s newly earmarked 80 acres of land to accommodate homes, he would rather see the company build both dwellings and office space on the site. “We are certainly open to converting in very limited circumstances,” he said. “But I think what we’ll see emerge from this is that Apple will bring forward a Master Plan to build housing and jobs.”

Local advocates hope that the city embraces as much residential development as possible. “If Apple’s willing to step up and say, let’s use all this land in North San Jose—that’s well-situated for building affordable and work-force housing—it could be a huge opportunity for the city,” said Jeffrey Buchanan, the policy director of a local economic advocacy group, Working Partnerships.

In addition to expanding supply, Apple’s plan emphasizes assisting individuals looking to buy their first homes through mortgage financing and down payment assistance. In its announcement, Apple said it would work with California’s housing authority to target its aid at the “missing middle,” or the ”essential service personnel, school employees and veterans” who have been priced out of the neighborhoods they serve and who would most benefit from this kind of program.

But Salim Furth, an urban economist at George Mason’s Mercatus Center, worries that this fund may only exacerbate some of the problems fueling the housing crisis—creating a small group of winners who can afford to settle down, while leaving renters and anyone else who doesn’t receive financing help behind. “There’s an aspect of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic here,” he said. “You’re boosting demand artificially and telling people they should spend even more of their money on housing.”

He, too, believes that policy change is the most critical lever to increase supply. But, he adds, if you are going to make a private investment of $2.5 billion, “do it all on the supply side.”

Some critics take issue with the premise of this form of corporate philanthropy, however large. In a statement on Monday, Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders ripped Apple’s pledge as a diversion from larger taxation issues. “Apple’s announcement that it is entering the real estate lending business is an effort to distract from the fact that it has helped create California’s housing crisis—all while raking in $800 million of taxpayer subsidies, and keeping a quarter trillion dollars of profit offshore, in order to avoid paying billions of dollars in taxes,” he said.

Last year, Apple made headlines for capitalizing on President Trump’s tax reforms with plans to repatriate some $285 billion of those offshore monies that Sanders referenced. It has also earned attention for its years-long battle to recoup millions in property taxes from Santa Clara County, where it is the largest property owner, and for strongly opposing an employee “head tax” proposed by the city of Cupertino to fund transportation initiatives, which was eventually shelved. Similarly, Facebook made its big housing pledge right as CEO Mark Zuckerberg was set to testify before Congress about a spate of regulatory and governance concerns related to the company. And last year, Amazon managed to overturn a Seattle “head tax” that would have raised $47 million annually to fund housing measures, opting to donate $8 million to fight homelessness instead.

Silicon Valley’s largest employers taking a stand on affordable housing could push local governments to reform some of the structural barriers in the way of production. The Chan-Zuckerberg investment came paired with initiatives that “preserve and expand housing” and strengthen tenant protections; though Apple’s plan doesn’t have a built-in policy arm, the company says it plans to hold governance committee meetings with the state to keep it on track.

But no one-time investment alone can change the structural roadblocks that zoning and NIMBYism present to housing. “If a company really wanted to make a difference with respect to housing, they’d put money towards supporting local and state level politicians who believe that the path to affordability and environmental sustainability lies in building housing next to existing job centers,” Downing said. “They’d also back propositions and bills that promise to do the same.”

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Inside the College Football Game-Day Housing Boom

Earlier this month, more than 59,000 college football fans descended on Mississippi State University’s campus in Starkville, Mississippi, to watch the Louisiana State Tigers take on the home team. The visitors dealt the Bulldogs a harsh defeat, 36-13. It’s been a tough season so far for MSU’s program.

But game-day weekends are still good business for short-term rentals in a college football town like in Starkville. In a city of just over 25,000 souls, hundreds of places to stay are available to book across Airbnb, VRBO, Homeaway, and other online booking platforms. During the 2018 football season, Airbnb alone brought in more than 1,700 visitors, a local newspaper reported earlier this year.

The vast majority of rentals units are single-family homes in residential neighborhoods near campus. Many of them run upwards of $400 to $500 per night—great cash for property owners who can vacate in order to hawk their pads for the weekend, or have second properties to do so.

A sample game-day listing from Starkville, Mississippi. (Airbnb)

Starkville isn’t alone in experiencing the autumnal onslaught of overnighters. Numerous college towns with serious football fanbases receive waves of alumni and road warriors on the Friday nights before the game, often traveling as family packs or roommate reunions. With the growing popularity of Airbnb (and in some cases, the football teams themselves), game-day housing is a big enough industry that some rental platforms are solely devoted to accommodating those travelers. It’s just one of many outgrowths from the massive money-making machine that is American college football: The University of Alabama’s team, for example, brought in $108 million in revenue last year alone.

“College football is just really steeped in group traditions,” said Wes Smithe, the co-founder and CEO of Gameday Housing, a niche booking site that launched in 2009 and now lists about 700 active hosts nationwide, the majority of them in college football towns. College basketball isn’t nearly as big of a draw, he’s found. One of the most important market factors for his company are schools with large, resilient fanbases, Smithe said—think Notre Dame, the University of Michigan, and Penn State.

But as in many larger cities grappling with tourism spikes, some college communities are also dealing with the downsides of their seasonal magnetism. Disruptive noise, safety concerns, and scant parking are common refrains among locals besieged by weekend football crowds. Describing a rented house next to hers that had a revolving door of fans last year, Starkville homeowner Julia Baca complained to her board of aldermen earlier this year. “No one would call that a neighbor,” she said, according to a local newspaper. “One would call that a hotel.”

Nor are area hotels pleased with the Airbnb-ization of college football, since short-term rental hosts don’t pay lodging taxes, in the absence of regulations.

Some towns with college sports crowds are pushing back, creating geographic restrictions, requiring licenses, and enforcing annual caps for short-term rentals. But these are often small municipalities located in some of the most conservative parts of the country, so enacting aggressive housing regulations isn’t easy. Auburn, Alabama, a city of 64,000 with about 1,400 short-term listings, has been working towards public consensus on a rental ordinance for the past two years.

“In a strong property-rights state, people like to be left alone,” said Forrest Cotten, the city of Auburn’s planning director. “But after keeping an eye on these listings for about three years, it was getting to a point where we needed some kind of construct to level the playing field.”

There’s another side effect of the hot market for game-day housing, one that offers a small-town variation on a phenomenon often seen in sought-after big cities: a glut of units that sit largely empty outside the football season. Wealthy alumni superfans are buying up game-day retreats in their old college haunts. Others are investor-owned home purchased to rent out on Airbnb. At the most extreme end of this market are game-day homes expressly designed as such—Taj Mahals of gridiron fandom that might feature team logo-embossed barstools, giant flatscreens, and built-in Kegerators.

Taylor Shelton, a MSU geosciences professor, is researching this phenomenon in Starkville. Based on vacant residence counts from the Census Bureau, parcel data from the county assessor, and Airbnb listings, he estimates that game-day homes make up 5 to 10 percent of the town’s total housing stock. That share has grown steadily in the past seven years. Shelton believes it’s linked to a current dearth in affordable housing in Starkville, since home values and rents have also risen significantly. Game-day homebuyers and speculative investors can snag properties at higher prices than locals can afford.

“It’s not New York, San Francisco, or anywhere else with a booming hot housing market that’s experiencing hyper-gentrification and displacement,” he said. “But game-day houses represent the bleeding edge of where that element of the real estate market is going here.”

As part of an ongoing research project, geosciences professor Taylor Shelton has created a preliminary map of probable game-day homes around Starkville, Mississippi. (Courtesy of Taylor Shelton, Mississippi State University)

Apart from their effects on affordability, these secondary homes can fray the community fabric in some of these towns. Visiting fans show up on Friday, make a racket, and then vanish; some locals end up wishing they saw more faces next door throughout the year. It was “nice having neighbors,” Linda Gahan, an emeritus professor at Clemson University, told the Greenville News about her block near campus, where several properties have been snapped up and now sit mostly unoccupied.

Ashley Crites, the planning director in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, sees the same thing happening out her window. A recent study by the city found that about 19 percent of the city’s housing stock is effectively made up of secondary homes, many of them rentals and retreats for Crimson Tide fans. The rise in those occasional-use properties is likely suppressing the availability of affordable housing, the report found. When Tuscaloosa created its 45-night cap on Airbnb-type rentals a few years ago, the city spent a lot of time talking to its peers about to how to better handle the seasonal surge.

“There’s a national trend of affordable homes in close proximity to stadiums getting purchased and converted into rentals,” she said. “That pushes prices out of reach for people who could afford them before.”

On the other hand, the overall economic boost from college football is enormous, she said—one study has found that a single home game brings in $17 million to Tuscaloosa’s coffers, in the form of accommodation bookings, restaurant orders, and other local tourism gains. For better and for worse, game-day weekends are part of life in the NCAA. Said Crites: “Football is a different animal down here.”

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CityLab Daily: The Housing Shortage and Gentrification Aren’t the Same Thing

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What We’re Following

Staying on target: Today’s high-priced cities face two overlapping crises that are often seen as the same thing. There’s gentrification, which mutates particular neighborhoods, and there’s a housing shortage, which is squeezing entire regions.

Both issues raise prices, strain families, and reallocate wealth to the already privileged. But it’s worth untangling how each is changing neighborhoods and cities, because the tactics for solving one crisis won’t solve the other, argues Devin Michelle Bunten, an urban planner and economist at MIT. While gentrification reshuffles who lives where in a city, the housing shortage is “like a region-wide round of musical chairs, in which the winners sat down before the music even stopped.” On CityLab: The Housing Shortage and Gentrification Aren’t the Same Thing

Andrew Small


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What We’re Reading

2018 was the deadliest year for pedestrians and cyclists since 1990 (New York Times)

Exxon is on trial, accused of misleading investors about the risks of climate change (NPR)

Air pollution is getting worse and data shows more people are dying (Washington Post)

Letter of recommendation: mandatory blackouts (New York Times)

Maryland AG sues Kushner apartment company, alleging thousands of violations while renting rodent-infested units (Baltimore Sun)


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Untangling the Housing Shortage and Gentrification

To a great extent, America’s urban housing troubles can be summed up by one fact. In 1980, homes more than 10 miles from city centers were more expensive than those closer than 10 miles; today, that situation has reversed. “The ascendancy of housing prices in the city center forms the set piece of what is loosely referred to as gentrification,” noted the economists who wrote the study from which this data point is drawn.

But casting an arbitrary 10-mile radius around American downtowns means we’re going to miss a lot. Take, for example, the San Francisco Bay Area. West Oakland (median home value: $647,400) is expensive and eight miles from San Francisco ($1.35 million). It’s gentrifying: It was home to 15,864 black residents in 2000, and the ensuing decade saw this figure decline by one-fifth. Sausalito ($1.33 million) is seven miles from downtown. While it’s as expensive as ever, Sausalito is not gentrifying.

West Oakland and Sausalito demonstrate twin, overlapping crises facing high-priced American cities: gentrification, which mutates particular neighborhoods, and a housing shortage that squeezes entire regions. Both crises raise prices, strain families, and reallocate wealth to the already privileged. But the problems are distinct. Solving both crises at once requires us to get the details right.

Gentrification is the territorial expansion of a wealthy community into a disinvested neighborhood, the installation of the social and legal regimes of the newcomers, and the deployment of new physical capital, both on a small scale—by homeowners undertaking renovations—and on a larger scale, by landed capitalists and public-sector officials keen to raise revenue. It is the disruption and displacement of the original residents and their spatially realized social networks.

Understanding gentrification requires understanding the neighborhood, which is two things: first, a community. The assemblage of people who call a place home collectively shape the types of shops and restaurants the neighborhood hosts, its religious institutions, its clubs and activities. These in turn attract new residents for whom the community is a good fit.

Second, a neighborhood is a geographic place. It has a physical climate, maybe streams and hills or perhaps a beach, subway stations, museums established long ago. Perhaps it has a freeway cutting through the landscape, or manufacturing facilities or oil wells, poisoning the air.

Unsurprisingly, the geography of a place and the community residing there are linked. Along the most measurable dimensions, richer people tend to live in places with attractive geographies. Conversely, places with undesirable attributes like industrial or transportation pollution, poor access to jobs, and uninviting climates are usually left for the poorest and most marginalized.

Usually—but not always. Occasionally, physically attractive locations come to be occupied by low-income communities, immigrant communities, black communities. Neighborhoods like these are ripe for gentrification. Changes in labor markets, large investments by public or private institutions, or even just changing preferences among the wealthy move these neighborhoods into the sight lines of richer people, and then they gentrify.

The housing shortage, meanwhile, is a region-wide round of musical chairs, in which the winners sat down before the music even stopped. Whereas gentrification reshuffles which communities occupy which parts of the city, the housing shortage can operate at the scale of cities and regions as well as neighborhoods.

Open land around cities is in scarce supply. Construction at the fringe—sprawl—once represented a release valve for high-pressure urban markets. But our cities are large enough now that the urban fringe is often hours from the center, making it less attractive to live there, and financing conditions since the recession have further crimped this pipeline. The land shortage is especially acute in coastal and mountainous areas like those around San Francisco and Seattle.

True, a few urban neighborhoods are being built (or rebuilt). New apartments are rising near downtowns, along waterways, on parking lots, and at the sites of public housing projects. The common thread? Places that build don’t have residential neighbors—or at least none with sufficient power to resist change. Playa Vista, a shuttered aeronautics facility in Los Angeles, has added thousands of homes since 2000, when it had eight residents. Boston’s Seaport and NoMa in D.C. have also shot up fast. Even this questionable strategy is near its end, though, because we are running out of those kind of sites.

Nowhere in this country is a sizable multifamily building boom taking place in an existing neighborhood. And at no time in this century have we added units to backyards at such a pace that the alleyway becomes a de facto street. Almost everywhere, renters with stagnating incomes are forced to compete with one another in a Hunger Games of housing.

Rent burdens are rising in suburbs, in exurbs, in small towns. In Kansas. There is a straight, and short, line pointing from the shortage to housing unaffordability at this broad level. Yet plenty of middle-class and even working-class families could afford the lumber, nails, and labor required to put a house together in their preferred neighborhood. So what stops them? It would be illegal.

Housing policies are designed to ensure that new neighborhood entrants are as rich or richer than those who arrived before them. The typical resident of multifamily housing in the U.S. earns half as much as the typical resident of a detached single-family home. A ban on apartments is a ban on these families.

Within single-family-home neighborhoods, minimum lot sizes are wealth sieves. You can only enter such a neighborhood if you have enough wealth to hold 5,000 square feet of land (the baseline Los Angeles minimum), or even an acre and a half (most of Weston, Massachusetts, which happens to be the second-richest town in the state).

These wealth filters create a shortage at the local scale. Aggregated over the vast suburbs and suburb-like areas within cities, they’ve cut off our ability to build enough units anywhere.

Abolishing these filters would be a good start for resolving the shortage. This would likely ease gentrification pressures. Some people who might otherwise move to a gentrifying neighborhood would move elsewhere; more housing all over would slow rent growth in some neighborhoods and provide more options. But ending the shortage would not mean that neighborhoods don’t change. Cities change. Seas rise, hillsides burn, transit opens, freeways close (or are widened).

Policies introduced to fight gentrification—rent control and tenant protections—may ameliorate the effects of neighborhood change, but they won’t build new homes. We must allow new construction somewhere, despite the changes this will bring. Of course, we must do so in a way that avoids gentrification.

Gentrification and the shortage are not the only housing crises in our cities. An increasing number of people are experiencing homelessness, and much of the U.S. has no official right to shelter. Official point-in-time counts miss a large share of the unhoused, especially women and children. Brushes with homelessness disrupt families, health care, education, and employment.

Rent control may keep some people from sliding past precarity into homelessness, and more homes will be necessary if we are to house everyone. But preventing homelessness requires more direct action. The same truth applies to other housing inequalities and insecurities—for instance, the fact that so much existing housing is not accessible to those with limited mobility.

Housing is on the agenda of presidential candidates, who are proposing funds for rent vouchers and new construction, incentives to abolish wealth filters, and even nationwide rent control. The abundance of plans reflects the urgency of the moment. But particular crises require particular solutions. Planning for transformational change requires getting the details right.

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A Breakdown of San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Crisis

You’ve undoubtedly heard by now that there is a housing affordability crisis in many cities across the United States.

In high cost cities like San Francisco (and New York, and Los Angeles, and Boston) housing affordability challenges have left  low-income families  with minimal discretionary income after their rents are paid; pushed first responders out of the communities in which they serve; forced teachers to face hours-long commutes, or leave the profession entirely; and led to people experiencing homelessness camping in tents on the sidewalk. Long a simmering problem, the region’s housing costs have escalated so dramatically over the last decade that nearly half of Bay Area residents struggle to afford their housing.

If it’s no secret that the high cost of housing is our state’s most pressing challenge, and the crisis is so well documented, why haven’t we fixed the problem? I have yet to see a single silver bullet (and I’ve spent years looking for it), but as with most public policy issues, it helps to break the issue down into smaller bites. In the simplest terms (and recognizing that I’m focusing on one specific housing type: multifamily rental housing), to build affordable housing, you need three things:

  • Land: A piece of dirt on which to build new housing
  • Political Will: Approved and entitled architectural plans for the new homes
  • Funding: Money to fund land acquisition, construction, and maintenance and operation of the newly built housing

There is a tried-and-true roadmap to build affordable housing. It’s expensive; particularly in coastal California, but it’s not a secret: a developer secures financing to acquire and develop the land, an architect designs a project that the city approves and grants entitlements and permits, and tenants pay an affordable rent, which provides revenue to pay off the construction loan and keep the building in operation.

But what happens when land is hard to come by, or existing residents resist new housing construction, or when the cost to build exceeds what a development project can reasonably charge in rents? This is when developers, advocates, bureaucrats, and elected officials need to get creative to ensure that low-income families, people experiencing homelessness, teachers, nurses, and first responders have access to safe and decently affordable housing.

Housing for Whom?

Identifying and quantifying housing needs in the community is a key – and often difficult – step in laying out an affordable housing policy platform. With finite funding available to subsidize new affordable housing, it’s almost always the case that there are needs left un-met. In California, state law requires that every eight years, the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) determines the specific number of new housing units each city must plan for that are affordable to very low-, low-, moderate-, and above-moderate-income households.  The goals are ambitious, and rarely achieved.

Eligibility for most federal, state, and local housing assistance programs is determined by how a household compares to the jurisdiction’s Area Median Income (AMI).  A city’s AMI is the household income for the median (middle) household in a defined area; that is, line up all the households in the city from lowest to highest income, and the median income is right at the center. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) calculates the AMI for each metropolitan area of the country each year, and jurisdictions may apply filters or screens to adjust that calculation in a way that takes into account local factors.

While no one needs to memorize the complex income chart for their jurisdiction, it’s critical to keep in mind who you are trying to house when you contemplate a new development. Is the goal to build housing for:

  • People experiencing homelessness?
  • Working families with young children?
  • Seniors on fixed incomes?
  • First responders?
  • Teachers and paraprofessionals?

Different local, state, and federal funding sources serve different points on the income spectrum.  Traditionally, publicly funded affordable housing programs have served households earning up to 60% of AMI, with the general assumption that people earning more than that could at least afford market rate rents, if not homeownership.

In San Francisco, in 2019, the median income for a family of four is $123,150. A low-income family of four earning 60% AMI earns $73,900 per year. With market rate rents averaging $3,700/month, that low-income family faces a monthly housing affordability gap of more than $1,800, and would need to earn at least $133,200 in order to afford the average market rate rent.

Solutions

There is a definitive need for affordable housing programs for low-income households. But there is also clearly a need for housing assistance for people earning up to and beyond the city’s median income. When available funds and programs don’t align well with defined needs – and there is simply not enough money to solve the problem, the housing affordability challenge can seem insurmountable.

If there is a silver lining to the current state of housing in the Bay Area, it’s that the affordability crisis has served as a much-needed call to action. Under a regional framework known as the 3Ps (production, preservation, and protections), new programs that seek to facilitate new housing construction, preserve existing affordable housing, and to enact tenant protections have been tried, tested, funded, and legislated at the local, regional, and state levels.  A few highlights include:

  • Land: at the State level, the Surplus Land Act clarifies that unused public land should be activated for affordable housing development. At the local level, San Francisco voters will consider a ballot measure in November 2019 that will allow affordable housing on most sites that are publicly owned. In order to better attract and retain teachers, San Francisco has funded the first educator housing development on school district property, and the San Francisco Unified School District has identified three additional parcels as future sites for employee housing.
  • Political Will: Senate Bill 35, authored by Senator Wiener, passed in late 2017 paved the way for by-right, streamlined project approvals and shaving years off of the entitlement timeline for new affordable housing developments. Efforts to upzone in order to encourage transit oriented development, increase density, and add affordable housing to the region have been hotly debated at the regional level and at the State legislature. While Senate Bill 50, also from Senator Wiener, stalled at the end of the last legislative session, it will be considered in the 2020 session.
  • Funding: In San Francisco, voters passed a $350 million housing bond in November 2015; on the upcoming November 2019 ballot San Franciscans will have an opportunity to pass another housing bond – this time in the amount of $600 million. Public-private partnerships such as the San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund are focused on market-paced anti-displacement strategies and innovation in new housing production.

Regionally, private funders are coming together around housing in efforts such as the Partnership for the Bay’s Future and Kaiser Permanente’s initiative tackling housing insecurity in Oakland.  And at the State level, Governor Newsom signed a budget that includes $500 million in new low income housing tax credits, which are scheduled to be allocated in January of 2020 to spur new housing production.

Optimism matters, but pragmatism and focus are required, along with a commitment to focusing on the 3Ps for the long term. California has not kept pace with housing production needs for decades, and housing construction has been particularly slow in coastal communities, where jobs have been added at breakneck speed. It stands to reason that solving, or making a dent, in housing affordability challenges will also take decades. We can’t afford not to try.

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This Is How to Make Democratic Candidates’ Housing Plans a Reality

Most Americans know that hard work alone isn’t always enough to get you a decent, affordable place to live in the United States of America. The stats are oft-cited: 47 percent of rental households in this country spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In New York City, where I served as deputy mayor, a minimum wage earner must work 15-hour days, seven days a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment, a situation which is not unusual in the United States.

This housing crisis has become a focal point in the 2020 democratic presidential primary. And while topics like national rent control have gotten a lot of play, our nation’s crumbling public housing stock hasn’t received a lot of solution-oriented attention, even though 2 million low-income Americans reside in it.

The candidate plans that do address public housing—namely those released by Senator Bernie Sanders and Julián Castro—call for increased investments to repair and modernize our existing stock, as well as legislative changes to allow for the construction of new public housing units. These proposals rely on a few basic assumptions—that government or the non-profit sector should own and operate all regulated affordable housing (and that they are good at doing it), and that putting billions of dollars into repairing and upgrading our aging public housing is good practice—even if the buildings are beyond their useful life.

The evolution of our housing policies and associated federal funding provides valuable lessons as we look to the future. In preparing for tonight’s debate, the 2020 candidates would be well served to articulate their own plans for cost-effectively improving the lives of public-housing residents.

First, a quick history

The Housing Act of 1937 was intended to improve living conditions in cities and create quality public housing for low- and middle-income families. But after several iterations of the bill, two critical pieces were inserted. First, the Act passed with coverage for only the lowest income residents, due in part to fear that middle-income housing would compete with the private market. And second, while federal government provided the funding, the implementation of the Act was left to local housing authorities, allowing each municipality to decide if and how they wanted to engage. In tandem, these two amendments drove the development of much of the public housing we still have today: largely segregated, often isolated from city or local services, and tenanted predominantly by low- to very low-income families.

In 1974, President Richard Nixon created the Section 8 program as a replacement for new public housing, shifting federal funding either directly to tenants to rent on the private market, or to private developers and owners to build income-restricted projects.

The Reagan Administration later cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) budget by more than 50 percent, including funding for Section 8. In 1986, they introduced the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC), which now provides the “subsidy” to for-profit and non-profit developers that finances the vast majority of the country’s low-income housing.

The march against public housing as the affordable housing model continued, embraced by both parties: In 1992, HUD launched the HOPE VI program, incentivizing the demolition of distressed public housing projects that were then replaced with mixed-income housing built and operated by the private sector. And in 1999, President Bill Clinton signed the Faircloth Amendment, prohibiting the creation of any new units of public housing. HUD’s budget for the maintenance of existing stock also steadily declined, leading to multi-billion dollar deficits nationwide.

Recognizing the toll that years of disinvestment had on public housing residents, and driven by the core belief that buildings managed by third parties generate better outcomes for low-income families, the Obama Administration launched Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). Under RAD, public housing units are converted to Section 8, leveraging private capital to renovate and upgrade the buildings. The Section 8 contracts ensure current residents pay the same low rent and that all units remain affordable to low- and moderate-income households, ultimately allowing a wider mix of incomes to populate the buildings as units turn over. In 2018, HUD announced the completion of 100,000 RAD conversions, and Congress increased the total allowance to 455,000. However, many of these projects require incremental funding, and Congress failed to authorize enough to complete all these conversions.

This brings us to the present, with evidence of inhumane living conditions in developments from the South Bronx to St. Louis, and incompetent, bloated, and sometimes corrupt public housing authorities operating with inadequate resources to address the growing capital needs of the more than 1 million apartments still in public ownership.

Many claim that the failure of public housing is a political choice and that the United States can simply choose to properly fund it. But if history has taught us anything, more money isn’t the answer—it’s how we spend our money that can drive positive or negative outcomes.

So what should we do?

To start, we must recognize a series of difficult truths. A grand utopian vision of a country that provides quality housing for its residents is great in theory, but let’s be honest about what that means in practice.

Keeping up with both major capital repairs and the day-to-day maintenance issues of large portfolios requires the talent, technology, and financial resources that the public sector simply cannot provide at scale. Even the best public housing authorities struggle to compete for talented property managers in strong markets. Housing authorities are also forced to bid out construction contracts pursuant to Byzantine procurement rules that slow things down and drive up costs. Nimble is not the first word that comes to mind when the government needs to procure new windows.

Much of our public housing stock is also in such a state of disrepair that it meets the federal definition of physical and cost obsolescence. New York City alone has tens of thousands of these units. And even though building new units is often cheaper than upgrading these buildings, advocates and local elected officials often pressure housing authorities to pour precious resources into them. That is simply not good fiscal or public policy.

Housing owned by the public sector also creates intense pressure on localities to prioritize their lowest-income and most vulnerable residents in distributing this public resource. As a result, developments are often 100 percent occupied by very low-income residents, perpetuating economic segregation and the stigma that all too often is associated with living in public housing. We know mixed-use buildings and mixed-income neighborhoods produce better health, education, and economic outcomes. So why double down on a system that makes that difficult, if not impossible, to realize?

We need to invest our affordable housing dollars smartly, leveraging non-profit and private sector capital and experience to achieve the goal of providing high-quality housing that is affordable to the increasing number of people in this country who are rent-burdened. And we should do it in a way that promotes diversity—not just in the buildings, but in the housing industry itself.

That is why fully funding RAD is a far better approach than just increasing funding for public housing in its past and present form.

There are many creative and inclusive ways to implement and expand RAD. Congress can require public housing authorities to do a percentage of conversions with community-based organizations and mission-based developers, often people of color who want to be leaders in their own communities.

The RAD program can also be improved and clarified to ensure that the homes stay permanently affordable and that existing tenants’ rights are protected. At the same time, our elected officials should admit that it is okay if higher income tenants move in when there are vacancies. It is simply good public policy to promote racial and ethnic diversity in our neighborhoods.

Congress should also allocate money to public housing authorities to support strong asset management and regulatory systems that hold the new owners and managers accountable—money much better spent.

At the end of the day, we can’t lose sight of the tenants who stand to gain or lose the most from these policies, platforms and political agendas.  Abstract promises of “permanent” government funding and less bureaucracy down the line are hard to believe based on the effect our political past, and present, have had on public housing in this country.

We should absolutely harness the current momentum, but we must be politically smart and fiscally practical. Investing in strong public-private partnerships will improve the lives of public housing residents and is a proven model for providing quality affordable housing in this country.  Let’s focus on making sure our next national leaders have the political will to make that commitment, and to make it a big one.

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