community land trusts

What startups can teach community land trusts about narrative

You just need to sell it to people (neweconomyproject)

You just need to sell it to people (neweconomyproject)

Recently, Grounded Solutions Network, which is the national umbrella organization for community land trusts, received $1 million from Citibank’s development arm to form an accelerator to launch more CLTs. As a housing advocate, a startup founder, and a tech educator who runs an accelerator, I’m excited. I’ll talk about the accelerator in a moment, but I’m particularly excited because it finally gives me a chance to talk about all three through the power of narrative. Forming a strong narrative is drilled into startups from the get-go, but the housing community, so far, has failed to appreciate its importance, or at least how to do it right. That might be changing.

A bit of background first. I got involved with the community land trust movement 6 years ago to help solve the foreclosure crisis in Brooklyn. As part of a grad school studio at Columbia, we were contracted by the New Economy Project (they were NEDAP at the time) to come up with a way to protect minority homeowners from losing their homes or to regain their lost homes from the particularly heinous predatory lending practices that laid waist to many majority-minority communities. (The foreclosure crisis has never endedin these communities, by the way.)

While working with visiting professor Jeffrey Lowe and the legendary Peter Marcuse, we were able to study the CLT model in great depth. I visited and researched the Lake Champlain CLT in Burlington, VT (the biggest CLT in the country) and Dudley Street Neighbors Initiative in Boston, MA (the first community group to be granted powers of eminent domain).

I was and remain enamored by the story of these organizations and the people that made them possible. The CLT model changed the destiny of these communities. It created permanent, community-controlled affordable housing in places largely abandoned by the public and private sectors. These people showed how working together against unbelievable odds could make something big happen.

Their stories made me believe that CLTs could happen in NYC. By the end of the studio, we began crafting a vision for how the model could work and how it could help these homeowners and communities who had been sacked by the financial industry. It was a very exciting time.

However, most people in city government had no idea what a CLT was or flat out laughed at a bunch of lefty grad school students and community groups for suggesting that it could work in the real estate capital of the world (that is slowly changing). This is despite the presence and decades-long success of Cooper Square, the first CLT formed in NYC. Even in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, when the city was taking over hundreds of properties, the model never found an audience. In retrospect, we put a lot of work into research and policy, but failed to appreciate how crafting a good narrative could get people’s attention.

At the same time, on an entirely unrelated note, I was launching my first startup company, Brightbox. (Going to grad school for urban planning and building a tech company confused a lot of people -including my parents- at the time) Brigthbox is a secure cellphone charger for bars, nightclubs, and restaurants that allows people to charge their phones when they need to. My good friend Adam Johnson came up with the idea while we were bartenders in NYC’s Meatpacking District dealing with this problem every night. Our experience as scene-y bartenders gave our product two key insights —highlight security and sexiness. Through some grit, dumb luck, and smart luck, we got funding and began the Quest to Scale into other markets and sectors with some notable ups and downs.

Along the way, there was one key lesson that we could always come back to for guidance — no matter who we worked with, whether it was a dive bar or Disney, as much as they liked seeing the product, they loved hearing the story about how we were bartenders. We saw an everyday problem first hand and did something to solve it. It is a great story.

To this day, it is clear to me that the power of that narrative — simple, plucky, aspirational — is what took Brightbox from a literal cocktail napkin idea to a business with hundreds of kiosks across the country and world. (One of my former coworkers just shared a Facebook memory from Internet Week 2012, where Brightbox shared a small booth in the back corner of an event with Uber. We obviously didn’t learn how to scale compared to them.)

Telling a good story is the foundation for growing a startup company (or a campaign or a religion). It’s what attracts users, talent, and investors that ultimately help build the product and the business. I have kept that lesson with me as I have started my second company, homeBody, and we drill it in to my students at CUNY Startups: Everything is built on the power of your unique narrative. There’s a big problem a lot of people have. But there’s an elegant solution. You’re the one who can make it. You’re the one who can get it to people. A lot of people. And it’s going to change everything.

This urgently needs to happen with the affordable housing crisis. The crisis is massive and painful, but housing advocates have not been able to craft a narrative to solve it that captures the nation’s attention. Coincidentally, as I worked on this blog this week, Citylab had an article about the nonprofit agency Public Interest who is trying to make an “Inconvenient Truth” type doc about the crisis to do just that. I hope they do it.

That’s why I’m so excited about Grounded Solutions CLT accelerator. It shows that a powerful narrative is forming about how to solve the housing crisis: communities taking control. First, the fact that Citibank is investing in it shows that at least some major financial institutions are coming around to the model. I have no love for the financial industry or its role in creating the housing crisis, but there is no way to solve it without them playing some role either. Second, creating a formal structure to grow more local CLTs spreads the model to more organizations and more communities. The more people hear about CLTs, the more they like them. The more they get started and succeed in one place, the more they will get started and succeed in other places.

The Ground Solutions accelerator isn’t like a traditional startup accelerator, but calling it that shows a willingness to adopt a startup vernacular, which is an important signal to the public (and press) that there is something cutting edge going on in the housing crisis. I hope that insight is embraced within the accelerator as well — Leveraging technology to form and manage CLTs; Adopting branding and growth hacking techniques to gain support; telling a compelling story to secure stakeholders in the community.

I’m excited to see the beginning of a convergence with my startup experience and my housing experience. Of course there are unique complexities in trying to scale a community-based model of housing that don’t compare to scaling a hardware startup, but there is at least one major similarity. It’s a heck of a story.

There is a massive, wide spread problem (phone batteries die, housing is too expensive) with a really simple, elegant solution (secure phone charger, community-owned housing.) As the accelerator gets off the ground, I hope that Grounded Solutions, their local partners, and other housing advocates continue to embrace the tools startups use to craft their narrative. The CLT model can be a game changer in the housing crisis if more people hear its story.

Making the City’s Vacant Land Work for the Public (via Gotham Gazette)

(photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)

(photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)

This post was first published in Gotham Gazette

Last month, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) announced that it selected developers to build affordable housing on 87 city-owned vacant lots, which could produce almost 500 affordable homes. This came the day after Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report criticizing the city for moving slowly on developing such lots.

As New York City staggers through the unrelenting affordable housing, homelessness, and displacement crises this plan is a missed opportunity that we can not tolerate. The city has repeatedly squandered the most value asset - land - it has in fighting these crises. Instead of giving away these vacant lots, the city should keep them and create a public land trust.

New York City owns 1,125 vacant lots. For decades it has relied on an insider-favoring process that turns over vacant properties to private developers and some non-profit developers. That number doesn't include city-owned distressed properties, which is bound to spike as foreclosures are nearing great recession levels. In either case, the transfer comes with laughable requirements for (and definitions of) affordable housing.

This process is the result of a long retreat from the public ambition that defined New York City during its period of great growth in the first half of the 20th century. An activist city government - albeit one tainted by machine politics and systemic racism - built institutions that expanded the very idea of what public life could be and made modern New York City possible. That all ended in the 1970s and left subsequent leaders wary of ambitious public growth and reliant on powerfully connected private actors.

This must change. Our over-reliance on the private market has demonstrably failed the public interest and carries much of the blame for the mess we are in.

Using the community land trust model, the city should retain ownership of the land - removing it from the speculative market that drives up prices - and contract out development based on a fixed equity model that incentivizes construction while limiting costs. It would then directly own and manage this housing stock, guaranteeing that 100% of it is permanently affordable for low- and middle-income households.

Make no mistake, what I am suggesting is public housing. A new, 21st century form that avoids the previous century’s mistakes of massive public housing developments while retaining its public virtues.

Public housing, for all of its problems (thanks to a loss of $1 billion in federal funding since 2000, with more reductions on the way), is still the best vehicle for providing New Yorkers with sustainable affordable housing.

Despite its operational failures, NYCHA currently offers an average monthly rent of $509 to over 400,000 New Yorkers in 176,000 homes and has a waiting list of 257,000 families. Public housing works and we need more of it.

A public land trust that takes advantage of small-site development on vacant lots would work even better as a public housing model in today's economic, political, and social landscape. Instead of the discredited 'shotgun' approach of megablock development that destroyed existing communities while isolating its newly created ones, this approach would be a syringe-sized injection of affordability into existing communities and landscapes.

Neighbors would barely notice the physical changes while enjoying the practical protections of permanent affordability taking root across individual sites. Most of these lots are in distressed neighborhoods that are at high risk of displacement as speculative developers (many of them private equity firms) swoop in. The best, fastest way to address displacement in these neighborhoods is through public-owned land anchoring their development.

The community land trust model works, too. It has successfully provided permanent affordability across the United States for decades, notably in Burlington, Vermont (initially supported by then-mayor Bernie Sanders) and in Dudley Square in Boston (created by local residents who were granted eminent domain). Even here in New York City, the city's first trust, Cooper Square, has quietly managed hundreds of homes in the Lower East Side as a community land trust since 1994.

Speaking of Cooper Square, through its efforts along with the New Economy Project and NYCCLI, the community land trust model has finally started to get the attention it deserves in New York. Last year HPD and Community Enterprises announced $1.65 million in initial funding for the creation of new CLTs and training programs. Many elected officials like Borough President Scott Stringer, Council Members Donovan Richards and Margaret Chin, and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have all worked to expand CLTs in the city.

These developments represent the chance for a fundamental shift in how to create permanent affordable housing in New York City. The land trust model does not rely on excessive tax-subsidies to private developers, flimsy definitions of affordability, or unenforceable protections for maintaining affordability over time. It is simple and sustainable. We should all be excited that the city finally sees this as a viable policy tool.

However, if Mayor de Blasio wants to deliver on his promise to build or protect 300,000 affordable housing units while also recommitting to public housing and NYCHA, he should take the next step by transferring the city’s many vacant lots into a public land trust.

We know the model works. The city knows the model works. Usually the hardest part is acquiring the land, but the city already has it. There is nothing to stop a public land trust from getting into the fight.

New York City was once capable of envisioning and delivering bold progress for the public good. We need this again, updated for the 21st century. The mayor has at the very least claimed this rhetoric and along the way tapped into a respondent audience in many corners of the city. Now it is time to act.

3 Anti-Market Victories for NYC Affordable Housing in 2017

Tenants and advocates had real success this year (ANHD)

Tenants and advocates had real success this year (ANHD)

For affordable housing advocates in New York City, 2017 was a sum-of-all-fears kind of year. The affordable housing crisis continues to touch all corners of the city (and America) leading to a shocking increase in homelessness, foreclosures, and rent burdens. The election of Donald Trump and the placement of Dr. Ben Carson at HUD have expedited the federal retreat from housing aid and removed the possibility of national solutions for affordable housing (and for helping NYCHA.) Finally, the squabbling of Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo has nearly paralyzed efforts for reform and relief at the state level.

But it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Largely through the tireless efforts of local tenants and advocates, the cause has seen several key victories at the city-level. 

Further more, these three victories show that even modest tweaks to the existing political and legal framework can lay the foundation for the type of profound change that we need to address the crisis at a structural level. Namely, we need to reject the market ideology that has caused the crisis and continues to exploit it.

1. Community Land Trusts have arrived as a powerful affordability tool

Any reader of this blog knows how important homeBody thinks community land trusts are to ensuring permanent affordable housing in the city. CLTs separate the value of the land from the value of the structure on it by placing the property in a trust, permanently removing it from speculation. After many years of organizing by NYCCLI and New Economy Project, it finally seems that NYC gets it too.

In July, the Department of Housing and Preservation announced a request for information on CLTs for the first time and has partnered with Enterprise Community Partners NYC to offer $1.65 million for the formation of three new CLTs in the city: Interboro CLT, El Barrio, and a brand new coalition CLT through NYCCLI.

Just last week, the City Council passed a law recognizing CLTs in the city’s administrative code, which opens them up to working with city agencies on a more formal basis.

These are modest steps, but incredibly important ones in helping the model take off in the city. The fact that it has taken almost a decade for these measures to happen, shows what a slog it has been. But it also shows how quickly things are starting to happen.

Building off of Cooper Union (the first and longest tenured CLT in the city), the newest CLTs have a long way to go to grow, but the necessary roadmap, administrative tools, and advocacy groups now in place will help to do so.

The hope now is that other community organizations will become aware of the model and have the tools to go forward with their own CLT. I also hope that the city beings to think seriously about turning over city-owned land to CLTs or even forming a municipal land trust as quasi-public housing.

Either way, introducing a model that removes speculation on land values in the city is a major win for affordable housing and sustainable communities.

2. Right-to-Counsel will prevent evictions and reshape housing court

In August, the city radically reshaped its housing court structure by becoming the first city in the US to guarantee legal representation for low-income tenants in eviction fights. For a relatively modest $155 million over 5 years in legal aid, tenants that were previously outgunned in housing court now have a greater chance of avoiding eviction altogether. As of 2015, 90% of landlords had legal representation, while only 10% of tenants did. This rebalancing will have a profound impact on the cost to families facing homelessness.

With the homeless population now exceeding 60,000 people in NYC, keeping families in their current homes also becomes the most important homeless policy tool for the city. Right-to-counsel will reduce the cost of providing homeless services by an estimated $320 million and will hopefully alleviate some of the political pressure associated with homeless shelters and clustering that is crippling the city’s ability to meet the sadly growing homeless population. Keeping families in homes is the key.

The larger hope with this move is to alleviate the equally crippling pressure on the housing court division. There were over 350,00 filings last year for only 50 judges. This backlog locks thousands of landlords and tenants in slow proceedings that ultimately undermine the ability for the city to ensure transparency and accountability. The rule of law is only as good as a government’s ability to enforce it and creating more balance on the tenant side will hopefully recalibrate this dynamic for the better.

3. No Harassment Certification is a small step towards decommodifying housing

The other big development on enforcement occurred at the end of November, when the City Council passed the Certificate of No Harassment (CONH) legislation, largely through the efforts of ANHD. This law, along with the larger Stand for Tenant Safety package also passed this year, aims to stop the common and pernicious practice of landlords harassing rent-regulated tenants out of their units in order to increase profits.

With the skyrocketing value of property across every borough, there is large incentive for speculators to buy a building and force out rent-regulated tenants. The goal in many cases is to either demolish a building or increase the rent-roll in order to flip it. This practice has been difficult for tenants and the city to prevent.

The CONH is intended to disincentivize this speculation by putting the pressure on landlords to prove that they are not harassing tenants. Buildings that fall into certain categories of risk (related to speculation) must receive this certificate if they are to begin construction projects or otherwise impact the quality of life of existing tenants.

It is ultimately still just a speed bump rather than a roadblock against speculation, but it shows that tenants and advocates fighting back against more powerful financial interests can win. Removing the worst actors from the housing market by raising the risk and cost of harassment is a necessary first step in radically reforming the property landscape in NYC.

 

I don’t want to suggest that these three events were the only “victories.” There are other events this year that I could have spoken about, such as Mayor de Blasio’s Housing 2.0 plan for his second term, or Governor Cuomo’s new housing budget.

However, I chose them because these three items speak to the larger hope that we can reduce the suppressive power that “the market” has over our housing discussions. Market solutions have their place in any affordable housing policy discussion but only after we reposition the basic premise of housing as a basic right.

Speculation destroys cities by devouring neighborhoods and dehumanizing housing. It really is that simple. Treating housing as an asset-first policy has led us to the affordable housing crisis and has scarred many communities in NYC, perhaps permanently.

If enough people force the discussion on housing to return it to shelter-first, we absolutely can find practical and lasting solutions to the affordable housing crisis. As many tenants and advocates have shown this year, it is also absolutely possible.

Demand Housing as a Right, then Fight the Tax Plan

 
Mitchel Houses in The Bronx and the rest of NYCHA should be celebrated (homeBodynetwork)

Mitchel Houses in The Bronx and the rest of NYCHA should be celebrated (homeBodynetwork)

 

As the details emerge from the Congressional Republican tax cut plan, housing is one area where there appears to be considerable bi-partisan anger.  The home construction industry and affordable housing advocates both adamantly oppose to the plan, but for wildly different reasons. However, the former is vastly more powerful than the later and has much more of a chance to extract compromises from the final tax plan, which it surly will.

This is because the affordable housing community continues to accept the broken premise that the market is the best way to supply affordable housing.  It isn’t.  Until housing advocates rally around housing as a right as an organizing principle, tax plan after tax plan will chip away at even the limited market-based programs mildly supporting ‘affordable housing’ - and Democrats will keep allowing it.  Only by changing the debate can we change the underlying fundamentals causing the affordable housing ever-crisis.

 

Housers are stuck defending an already failed market-based policy

I don’t make a lot of friends shitting on the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. The truth is, it’s just not a great policy and allows Congress to gaslight Americans on the affordable housing crisis.  Formed after the last big tax policy change in 1986, the LIHTC works by giving tax credits to developers who build a certain percentage of affordable housing units  (which is a dubious term to begin with) who then pass them on to investors (mainly banks) who fund the projects.

The program has maintained popularity with both parties because Republicans see it as a market-based solution (it isn’t) and Democrats see it as an affordable housing solution (it isn’t).  Defenders of the program on either side of the aisle will point to the 3 million units created under the program (which represent 90% of all affordable housing units built in the US over the last 30 years) as a point of success.  Some will cite the number of jobs supported in the construction industry or the estimated $100 billion injected into the economy through the program.  On the face of it, these are entirely fair points to make.

But none of these arguments hold up to the other glaring numbers to consider:

  • In 99.9% of US counties, someone making minimum wage can’t afford the cost of a 1-bedroom house. 
  • 75% of American households who qualify for housing assistance don’t get any
  • 11.2 million Americans are severely rent burdened
  • We are missing 7.4 million needed affordable housing units

Many thoughtful housers with good intentions will argue that LIHTC and associated private activity bonds are good programs and shouldn’t be blamed for these complex issues. They are all working very hard at protecting LIHTC, which is under threat if corporate tax rates go down (offsetting the incentives for the program.) The feeling is, “this is the best we’ve got, we must protect it.”  I get it.

But when you only have one program designated to create affordable housing and the country is mired in a devastating affordable housing crisis, how can you not question LIHTC? How can you not question the underlying premise that allows LIHTC to retain bi-partisan support in the first place? Who actually cares about actual affordable housing in Congress? What the hell did $100 billion over 30 years actually get us?

 

Even the one potentially cool, progressive change in this tax plan suuuuux

Many housing advocates and conservatives agree that the mortgage interest deduction (MID) is a terrible policy that unfairly favors wealthy homeowners.  They are right. 

  • Through MID, the American people spend $134 billion a year (remember, LIHTC did less than that in 30 years) on subsidizing middle class and upper middle class homes
  •  60% of all federal dollars spent on housing policies goes to homeowners making over $100,000.
  • 7 million American households that make over $200,000 receive more federal funding for housing than the 50 million who make less than $50,000

Getting rid of the MID would undoubtedly correct a lot of injustice in the tax system (and in our disastrous support of a homeownership society).  But that’s not why Republicans are limiting the deduction from $1m to $500k.  They are doing it to offset lower corporate and estate taxes.

That’s right. This plan takes money from wealthy homeowners and gives it to even wealthier corporations and rich heirs. The only way something as egregious as the MID was even on the table was because Republicans want to give tax cuts to wealthier, more powerful donors.  When confronted with this giveaway, few Americans seem to support this plan, but Democrats are fighting it because its Trump - not because they have ever supported transferring MID revenue to affordable housing.

 

Reject the premise, change the debate, and make housing a right

I would also argue that few Americans would support the MID in the first place, since it effects so few of us (which is one of the defenses given by Republicans for the plan.) This goes to show how warped the conversation on housing is in this country.  We have been fine subsidizing wealthy housing for generations, but refuse to assist the poor and working class secure affordable housing.

Much of that blame lies with housers letting the Democratic Party off the hook. By accepting the premise that market-based programs are the only viable solutions at the federal level (this in the face of a massive effort to subsidize the top end anyway), they have surrendered the intellectual and moral weight that would otherwise frame the debate on housing as a basic human right.

It must also be said that the Democratic Party implicitly fake-fights the far-reaching racism that has underpinned this “market approach” for 80 years.  When public housing and vouchers became synonymous with urban poor brown and black people, the party abandoned the solid and still-relevant arguments for public housing and housing assistance that defined the New Deal and Great Society eras. 

Rather than fight for these ideas because they are right, because they work, and because they breakdown racial injustice, the party focused on homeownership.  The fear of alienating white homeowners was too strong to fight for principles that would still ultimately benefit them too. Housers have nowhere to go, but haven’t kept Dems honest.

It’s not radical to question the virtue of giving away $135 billion a year on wealthy homes when so many Americans are suffering to afford one (whether they own or rent).  It’s not radical to question the virtue of LIHTC when nearly all of the country is mired in a never-ending affordability crisis.  It’s not radical to question why 75% of Americans who need help affording basic shelter aren’t getting anything.

There is enough wealth and there are enough good ideas to guarantee affordable shelter for every American in this country if we want it.  There are enough Americans from every age, race, and region who are suffering and will continue to suffer to change the political landscape if we want to do it.  And there are enough good people in housing who have the knowledge and passion to lead the way if they want to. Frankly, we need them to.

 

homeBody is the free communication tool for landlords, tenants, and neighbors.

We believe housing is a right and so should you. 

4 Reasons To Be Excited for Community Land Trusts in NYC

Cooper Square CLT shows they already work in NYC (urbanomnibus)

Cooper Square CLT shows they already work in NYC (urbanomnibus)

This past week marked an exciting development in affordable housing policy in NYC.  HPD has announced that it will give $1.65m through a grant program from Enterprise Community Partners to four groups to develop or expand community land trusts around the city.  Though it is a small amount of money, it is a giant step for the city and could serve as a larger evolutionary step in housing policy.  What happens next with these groups will be important, but undeniably a new policy tool has entered into the housing debate.  There are many reasons to celebrate this and I’ll outline four today.

A Community Land Trust is an alternative form of ownership that separates the value of land from the value of the shelter on it. It does this by placing the land in a community-controlled trust that removes it from the private market permanently.  This separation removes the speculative nature of real estate from the cost of shelter, maintaining a consistent level of affordability. 

CLTs have been around, notably in Burlington, Vermont, for decades, but have had limited support and awareness in NYC.  One of the groups receiving funding is Cooper Square, the only current CLT in the city.  Its success over several decades has played a considerable role in getting the city to believe in the model.

Along with Cooper Square, the other three groups are Interboro CLT, a new partnership of organizations, East Harlem/El Barrio, a brand new tenant CLT, and the NYC Community Land Initiative, the long-running regional group dedicated to helping groups form CLTs.  These groups, along with the New Economy Project, have been working on getting to this point for years.

I’ve always believed CLTs could work in NYC (and worked with NEP back in 2012 on a CLT project) because there are so many opportunities with the right combination for success: organized community groups and lots and lots of small, existing properties.  Given how the Mayor has put such a priority on affordable housing and has tried to frame it as a vehicle for community control and inclusive growth, community land trusts are a no brainer. Let’s turn to why.

1. They are Really Cheap

As an affordable housing tool, CLTs are really inexpensive because they rely on existing housing stock (but can still create new development), which is always going to be cheaper than new construction.   The basic model would include a single, upfront subsidy provided through an agency like HPD, or potentially a non-profit like ECP, to purchase a parcel or parcels of land to turn over to a CLT.  After that contribution, CLTs are effectively self-sustaining. (There are legitimate questions about how much subsidy is needed in addition to land costs to make individual units even more affordable, but these are best left to individual cases.)

Compare this model with our current reliance on market-based solutions that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit.  As I mentioned in last week’s blog, the mayor’s plan relies on tax incentives that make each new “affordable housing unit” come in at between $400,000-$600,000.  Spending billions of dollars on building new units at that cost just doesn’t make sense and will never produce the number of units the city needs.

So much focus has been put on new development and the need to create more density that we forget that preserving existing units in many neighborhoods accomplishes the same affordability goals for a lot less money and in a shorter time frame.  It’s estimated that over the next few years, 100,000 affordable housing units will be lost to deregulation and vacancy decontrol.  Think of what a difference putting those units into CLTs would make for overall affordability and think about how quickly and cheaply that could be accomplished. It is stunning.

2. They Prevent Displacement

Another complimentary feature of CLTs in NYC is that they are likely going to be most effective in neighborhoods that are on the brink of gentrification but haven’t seen new development or upzoning yet.  The land will still be affordable in most cases, keeping the subsidy cost low.

More importantly, establishing a CLT will allow existing residents to remain in their communities.  The logistics of converting a market-rate, or even rent-stabilized building, into a CLT is seamless and doesn’t involve tenants moving. 

New construction generally means displacement when an old building is torn down, with very little likelihood of those tenants returning. New construction also begets more new construction, which drives the speculative nature of real estate into new neighborhoods. Very few existing residents benefit under this dynamic (although its complicated.) Even building on empty lots under the current model makes it difficult for existing tenants to have access to new “affordable” units. 

By allowing existing residents to remain in their homes, especially renters who don’t have the benefit of equity gains as neighborhoods gentrify, even low-income residents have the opportunity to benefit from the positive aspects of growth and new development.  Rather than continue with a generally zero-sum development pattern, CLTs allow neighborhoods to have more inclusive growth.

3. They Provide Community Control

Along those lines, CLTs are the ultimate tool for community control.  They allow residents to have a larger say in their neighborhoods through the voice of the CLT.  Renters in particular are generally underrepresented as stakeholders in an area, but as members of a CLT, they become more powerful advocates.

To be clear, I don’t see this as a NIMBY/YIMBY issue.  Community control doesn’t mean community resistance to change.  The dynamic now, and why so many neighborhood groups do resist any change (although with limited success in reality), is that development doesn’t help existing residents.  Who would want to allow massive disruption in their neighborhood that will probably result in having to move at the end of it?

When long-term residents have the ability to be part of the long-term change in their neighborhood, when they can rightfully envision their futures’ there, then it becomes less about resisting and more about shaping.  The end result is a more economically, socially, and politically dynamic neighborhood which is what the whole city should look like.

4. They Compliment Private Development

A big point of supporting CLTs that I want to make clear is that they are a complimentary piece in a larger policy toolkit.  I don’t think they are a panacea or even appropriate in every instance.  But having them as a pillar or at least an option creates more space in housing policy for community control and non-market solutions.  This can eventually allow more resources to go into new construction of private or public housing with government assistance.  It’s all connected.

If we can create a policy frame work for CLTs that allows a significant number of units to be preserved at a very low cost, that leaves more room and potentially more money to drive new development in more targeted ways.

I’d rather see some of those billions of dollars the Mayor has allotted to subsidize private development used to improve the subways and buses.  A better transportation network extends the housing options for all New Yorkers.  I’d rather see it go towards supporting NYCHA, which houses over 400,000 New Yorkers. Pubic housing has been a vastly successful government program that should continue to be a priority. Finally, I’d rather see our public funds going towards building working class and middle-class housing where it is needed rather than subsidizing luxury construction in glitzy parts of Manhattan.

The total amount is modest and the details of how the model could work in NYC still need time to develop, but trying community land trusts in NYC should excite everyone concerned about affordable housing and the future of NYC.  Provided with the right support and deployed in the right areas, CLTs could be a major evolutionary step for the city as it struggles to solve the affordability and homelessness crises.

5 Arguments to Help Change the Debate on Public Housing

A beautiful day at Mill Brook Houses (homebody)

A beautiful day at Mill Brook Houses (homebody)

Despite the unprecedented affordable housing crisis across the country, there is seemingly no popular support for more public housing. President Trump instead reflects the general sentiment in Congress by outlining a budget that would cut billions of dollars from housing assistance for millions of low-income Americans. Though many residents, housing groups, and elected officials are speaking out against these cuts, they are hobbled by a lack of national attention. Frankly, I believe it’s because their message “#nocuts” is hardly a battle cry, as important as it is.

If we are to prevent these draconian cuts from becoming law this year, we must put as much pressure on Congress as we can. It’s likely that some of these programs will be saved if we do. But simply reducing the cuts or saving certain programs is not enough to help the millions of Americans struggling to find affordable shelter.

We must fundamentally transform the discussion about housing in the US and we must once again create a national effort to support, build, and maintain public housing on a significant scale. In the spirit of “#nocuts” I have outlined 5 hashtags that describe where I believe we can succeed in doing so.

1. #HousingIsARight and Denying it is a Crime

We live in a deeply segregated country. This is not an accident. This was not an organic result of natural clustering or preferences. As Richard Rothstein has pointed out in detail in his book The Color of Law, it was the result of direct, explicit federal and local policy decisions to favor white Americans over all other types of Americans. The US Government made housing a de facto right for white people and denied it to black people and other minorities. The consequences have been devastating.

A lot of people, including the Supreme Court, do not know or accept this. This can no longer be tolerated. Just as we are finally taking down statuescelebrating an armed insurgency based on white supremacy and slavery, we must also face the blatant suppression that has been staring us in the face for generations every time we drive from a suburb to an inner-city core. The geography of our built environment must finally be accounted for with proper historic context.

Only by recognizing that housing is a basic human right and a basic obligation of our government, will we ever truly reconcile with and change the accepted narrative that downplays the scale of suppression. The God’s honest truth can tear down more than just statues in this country.

2. #RealTakers and Subsidizing Wealthy Homeownership

Once we accept how awful our housing policy was in the 20th century, we can then take a critical eye to how terrible our current housing policy is in the 21st. The specter of racism undoubtedly hangs over our current policies by the sheer scale of previous decades. However, today the true outrage is more about class.

As Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, has recently written about, the federal government spends $134 billion a year — more than the entire budget of the Education, Justice, and Energy Departments combined — subsidizing homeownership, particularly through the Mortgage Interest Deduction. About 60% of that money goes to wealthy homeowners. The 7 million households that make over $200,000/year receive a larger share of that savings than the 50 million households who earn less than $50,000/year.

This is far from “free market” principles and in fact inflates the housing market to the benefit of wealthy homeowners. It’s estimated that removing such programs could reduce housing prices across the country by 13–17%, making it far easier for many people to purchase a home if they chose.

When a record number of Americans are rent burdened, and over 600,000 Americans are homeless, the fact that we subsidize these homes is a national disgrace. By placing a hand on the scale (again, for explicitly racist purposes) the housing market has exacerbated the economic inequality ravaging all quarters of the country.

Let’s start calling these households what they actually are: takers. Let’s remove the moralizing and euphemisms around how some politicians use that term currently and instead, by placing basic logic and fairness on it, aim it towards those who are actually taking the most from all of us.

3. #PublicHousingWorks and Has Always Worked

Despite decades of discriminatory policies favoring white homeownership (and now more general wealthy homeownership) and systemic neglect against everyone else, we can still point to an obvious truth: public housing works.

During the brief period when there was popular support for public housing and federal intervention in general, the US government built thousands of units. Though some, like Pruitt-Igoe, became shorthand for crime and neglect, the larger truth is that many more continue to be wonderful homes. And the complexed that did fail, failed because the federal government let them fail due to systemic neglect and more racial discrimination.

NYCHA is by far the largest public housing authority in the country, housing nearly 400,000 people across thousands of units. It is a bigger city than Miami and Las Vegas. Despite a rapid retreat of federal funding and larger demographic shifts that decimated NYC in the 1960s and 1970s, NYCHA has endured. Even today, as it faces billions in capital budget gaps and millions more in potential cuts in Trump’s Budget, residents are happy with their communities and the agency. And only 13% of residents receive public assistance.

The idea that Public Housing is a wasteland where people want to get out of, or where they should be encouraged to get out of, has never been true. As Affordable Housing in New York shows repeatedly, even in the hardest times when crime was high and many facilities were in poor shape, these communities survived and in some cases thrived.

NYCHA residents should be proud of where they live. Employees of the agency, past and present, should be proud of the work they did and continue to do to keep it going when no one could or would help.

Public housing residents shouldn’t be pitied or demonized and they don’t need to be romanticized either. They are normal Americans who happen to be part of something bigger than any one person or one building. Their experiences represent just how much the republic can achieve if it follows its values and how many it can fail when it abandons them. We should be telling this story everywhere to everyone.

4. The #FutureOfPublicHousing Will Not Look like the Past

There were many flaws in the design and support of public housing in the US during the 20th century that caused many complexes to fail outright or fail for a period of time. Early generations of complexes were sterile and anti-social. Many of the funding sources were fleeting and easily diverted. Sociological assumptions in design were flawed and discriminatory.

No one is suggesting that we go back and do this over again. Throw out the idea that public housing means tall brick towers isolated from neighborhoods. Instead, we should articulate a new vision for the 21st century that reflects lessons learned from the past and a broader mission for the future.

Instead of building new residential towers on superblocks, repurpose older infrastructure and combine multi-use functionality within existing city and town fabrics.

Instead of designing uniform apartments or complexes with rigid specifications, allow for innovative construction techniques like pre-fab units, modern SROs or shared living arrangements that strive for different, locally desired outcomes.

Instead of subsidizing homeownership (especially for wealthy Americans), invest those resources in community land trusts and land banks to give local communities more agency and sustainability. Take the speculation out of (at least parts) of the housing market by tipping the scale towards affordability.

We should simplify yet broaden HUD’s mission based on housing as a right. Set its goals and budget around lowering the cost of shelter across the country in whatever forms that shelter is needed for local conditions. Make HUD about providing Public Housing whether it’s apartments or a single-family home.

The possibilities of future Public Housing are almost endless when you shed the vision of the past. Let’s start showing the country what the future could look like and how it could help everyone, whether you live in a city, a suburb, or the country.

5. #RebootTheUS Can Start With Public Housing

The polarization of our politics has increasingly bled into all corners of our public policy discussions, crippling our ability to address the challenges facing our rapidly changing nation and planet. The polarization of our economics, in the form of runaway income inequality, has also poisoned our broader civic life and national identity. We were in crisis long before President Trump and will remain so long after him unless we can do what America has always done best — reinvent itself.

As when the Gilded Age spawned the Progressive Era and the Great Depression spawned the New Deal, we must lay the seeds now for a great rebirth of national promise and purpose. We must embrace the core values and aspirations of our republic — freedom, justice, and the public interest — and shed the rot of late capitalist values of commodification, exploitation, and greed. In the digital age, no term better represents what I think we need than a great “reboot.”

And there’s no better place to start than with public housing. Committing again to a massive nation-wide effort to provide affordable housing in many forms not only addresses the moral urgency of our current situation, but it also addresses the economic urgency as well.

Public Housing is infrastructure. Its creation means jobs and economic activity on a scale unseen in decades. Its existence means more take-home income for millions of Americans who are rent burdened or underwater in their mortgages. Its location means more mobility for families and individuals in economically productive regions.

What other effort could so thoroughly demonstrate the power of a great national reboot to inject economic and civic purpose into a country that should never have to sacrifice either. We don’t need to abandon the experiment of national government to do so. We need to reinvigorate our civic intellect as well as our institutions. We start by showing how a focused federal effort in housing can promote our values, help our citizens, and share our prosperity.

None of these ideas are new or radical. They reflect an obvious truth about contemporary America: what we have now is not working. We are ultimately presented with two options. First, we can continue on with our late capitalistic doctrine that we are all consumers on our own or, second, we could revitalize our identity as citizens and recognize that we are in this together. One leads to a brutal, empty society. The other leads to something much stronger and fulfilling.

3 Reasons Why Affordable Housing Isn't Affordable

Via Verde (2012) in South Bronx is beautiful, but 800 families wanted spots for just 151 rental units. Is this a successful model? (inhabitatnyc)

Via Verde (2012) in South Bronx is beautiful, but 800 families wanted spots for just 151 rental units. Is this a successful model? (inhabitatnyc)

There is a crippling lack of affordable housing in the US. That statement is no surprise for anyone who follows this issue (or reads this blog.) Trying to figure out why and how to fix this problem is incredibly complicated, which is also no surprise. This week Joe Cortright had a good article on why affordable housing isn’t that affordable, focusing on the flawed micro-level issues of subsidizing market-rate housing construction.

Though this is fair criticism, I think it fails to address the larger structural flaws of the democratic capitalist model that we’ve relied on for so long. Challenging at least some aspects of this model remains outside of mainstream housing policy discussions, so I’ll focus on three today (though there are absolutely more that can/should be considered). Until we can reframe the debate around these larger philosophical questions, we are simply not going to solve the crisis.

1. Relying on the Private Market is Bonkers

Matthew Desmond just won the Pulitzer Prize for his sensational book, Evicted, which follows the heartbreaking story of scores of residents struggling to get by in Milwaukee. And it is heartbreaking. But Mr. Desmond’s book most importantly calls into question two deeply flawed pillars of our national housing policy (which altogether lacks a focus on renting): 1. We do not consider housing a basic right 2. We rely on the private rental market to house poor Americans.

We have collectively deemed certain government services worthy of being guaranteed to all citizens or as need-based. But, as opposed to social security or food stamps (or even slightly more abstract “default entitlements” like the mortgage interest deduction), housing is not a guaranteed or need-based government service at any level. This means that only 1 out of 4 Americans that need housing assistance receive any. That’s crazy.

Instead, we have collectively placed the small landlord on the frontline of housing the poor. As Mr. Desmond points out, we can’t reasonably rely on these individuals to handle such an overwhelming burden. Yes, there are some villainous landlords, but many more, as demonstrated in Evicted, are trying to do the right thing by tenants, trying to be fair, and trying to survive themselves.

They stand-in as convenient sin-eaters for the rest of us — politicians, advocates, activists — while the reliance on the private market goes unchallenged at the state or federal level. We can’t honestly address the affordability crisis without challenging this basic assumption. This should be easy since it is clearly failing on such a large scale.

The answer is a concentrated public effort to house the poor. I’ve been a big defender of public housing in this blog and it still shocks me how little traction the idea of returning to large public intervention gets, even from housing advocates.

Yes, there were ample flaws in the New Deal and Great Society approaches to public housing. But we can have the same scale of political and social commitment of those past interventions without the same physical and cultural destruction.

Building on examples like the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), where nearly 600,000 (1 in 8 New Yorkers) live in public housing of some kind, we can easily show that the model has quietly been working for 80 years despite systemic neglect and stigmatism. We should be championing NYCHA because it is and always has been a major success.

We have models to work with, we have local stakeholders to lead with — we just need the will to act. There is clearly a groundswell for this type of political realignment. If we finally recognize how much private market fetishization has failed, we can strike a better public-private balance that can affirm the public commitment to housing as a right.

2. Housing is Too Much About Land

Relying on the market also means purchasing land at market rates. Given the fact that most affordable housing is targeted in dense urban centers where land costs are prohibitive, this means that the cost per unit before construction is already an albatross for many developers.

Building farther out from city centers has long been the tried/true answer for affordable housing, and certainly lowers the land cost, but it puts those residents at a severe disadvantage geographically. This system simply can’t work alone.

There are models, like community land trusts, that remove this obstacle. After an initial subsidy to purchase land, it enters a trust that removes it from the market — and from the speculation that can raise its value regardless of the structure on it. The result is permanently affordable housing that doesn’t eat up additional tax dollars annually. This has worked in many areas, even NYC, for decades.

NYC is (sort of) examining the CLT model but has it backwards. NYC Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is looking for proposals from non-profits that are interested in forming a CLT, but most of these groups can’t realistically afford the land cost and most are on scattered-sites that make them hard to rationalize as a cohesive entity. The city also doesn’t have the funding to help with land acquisition for these groups even if they get that far.

However, NYC does own hundreds of vacant lots that it could easily convert to a city-owned CLT. Mayor de Blasio has recently championed cleaning up the 500th vacant lot as part of OneNYC — but then turns them over to private or non-profit developers (though many of these projects are positive developments). Combining city-owned land — small, scattered sites mostly — into a single CLT would be transformative policy shift with far-reaching implications for other cities.

Every city has similar vacant assets already on the books and, even a decade after the Great Recession (caused in part by real estate speculation), many have foreclosed properties that they are still trying to unload. Stop it! Keep those properties out of the market and create cheap, sustainable housing with them. The net benefit of increased affordable housing supply will offset any property tax losses.

3. We Got Rid of Great Affordable Housing Options

I have a lot to say about the flawed regulatory jumble that has created our failing housing status quo, and, unfortunately, there is a lot of blame to go around by a lot of mostly well-meaning folks. Richard Florida has dubbed some of these actors as the “New Urban Luddites.” But the regulations that have raised the cost of housing the most for certain renters are also the quickest and cheapest to change. They are perhaps the least appreciated — occupancy laws.

NYC, under pressure from neighborhood groups and homeowners, has regulated away thousands of affordable housing units over decades by outlawing single room occupancy, outlawing basement/garage apartments, and over-regulating occupancy laws (like square footage and types of amenities) within apartments.

Most of these regulations were done in the name of public health, but many had more nefarious, even racial motivations. The result is not just a loss of hundreds of thousands of affordable rental units but also the total disappearance of an entire flexible, affordable style of living.

These types of units used to house young singles, seasonal laborers, older family members, and extended family that were willing to sacrifice certain amenities for cheaper lodging. Most of the time these were short-term arrangements as these individuals saved money for more permanent housing.

Particularly in NYC, where many single working people live alone or with roommates, and the overall population is aging, reintroducing this type of housing flexibility would quickly address a lot of housing needs without a huge effort, or a large financial commitment, from the city.

By easing the pressure on the housing market for these types of renters, this could free up units for middle-class or working-class families with children — a portion of the population that the private market (or, frankly, a lot of affordable housing development) is simply ignoring with new construction.

There are many other reasons why affordable housing isn’t affordable, but I chose these three examples to show why it is so important for us to challenge the philosophical and cultural assumptions baked into our market + localized approach to housing policy. Of course the biggest assumption that needs to be challenged is the idea that homeownership should be our national housing policy. We can’t realistically address these other issues without first reviewing the costs and benefits to our society of thinking this way. But even if we determine this is still the best course of action, figuring out how to help people towards that goal will require addressing the affordable housing crisis for renters first.

421a Stinks, Here's a Better Use of Taxpayer Money for Affordable Housing

Community Land Trusts to the rescue? (bedford+bowery)

Community Land Trusts to the rescue? (bedford+bowery)

This week, the Independent Budget Office of New York released a damning report on the impact of the 421a tax program. It argues that over the last 11 years, $2.5-$2.8 billion of taxpayer money has been effectively wasted.  Far from encouraging more affordable development, which has been its main justification, the policy has rewarded condo owners and developers (particularly in Manhattan) with significant tax relief. 

In case you haven’t heard, NYC is in the midst of a massive affordable housing and homeless crisis. Rather than simply rebrand 421a, which is what the governor is proposing, and continue to throw taxpayer money away, we need to examine new ideas that can actually address this crisis full on.  Luckily, NYC Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is potentially doing that by exploring Community Land Trusts.

421a has long been criticized for being an incredibly expensive and inefficient affordable housing policy, but the simple truth is that it was never an affordable housing policy. 421a was designed in 1971 during the Bad Old Days to promote development, not affordable housing.  Those goals are not mutually exclusive, but they are not one and the same. The checkered history of 421a shows that.

Originally, the policy gave a 10-year property tax rebate on any new housing development on vacant or ‘underutilized’ land.  After Trump Tower received millions from the program to construct exclusively high-end housing, Mayor Koch revamped the policy in 1985.  It then required any housing development using the program in central Manhattan (but not outside) to provide a certain percentage of affordable housing.  The policy has gone through various iterations and lapsed enforcement since, raising the cost of the subsidy while providing vanishingly small amounts of affordable units.  Given this complacency, the Governor’s revamped 421a plan "Affordable New York Housing Program" would cost taxpayers $400k-$600k per unit and apparently that’s OK.  It’s not and this thinking is not sustainable.

The point here isn’t to keep harping on 421a (or on using tax money to promote development in general). It’s to demonstrate two things. First, that focusing on development first, affordable housing second, has failed spectacularly in addressing the affordable housing crisis.  That much is pretty clear at this point.

Second, it is to show that there are existing models that focus on affordable housing first that are much more cost-effective, community-based, and sustainable.  One of those models, Community Land Trusts, is finally getting looked at seriously in New York City thanks to HPD

Community Land Trusts (CLT) have been around for decades, most successfully in Burlington, Vermont (started when Bernie Sanders was mayor).  The basic concept is very simple – remove the value of land from the value of the dwelling. When a CLT buys a house or building, it puts the land in a trust that removes it permanently from the private market. This of course removes the speculative possibility of the land, which is the main variable in real estate deals.  (It’s why Stuyvesant Town, where I live, got bought for $5.3 billion even though the buildings are 70+ years old and showing it. The 86 acres in the heart of Manhattan is what Blackstone paid for. The tax breaks are a cherry on top.)

HPD, after meeting with community groups like the New Economy Project, the NYC Community Land Initiativehas issued a request for economic interest (FREI) to groups that are interested in forming CLTs in the city.  As reported by NextCity, a group of residents formed the East Harlem-El Barrio CLT to take part in the first wave.  The FREI is a modest proposal to see if a CLT can “improve upon, or fill in the gaps of” existing city programs, but it is a signal that the city is at least looking at CLTs.  It remains to be seen how much HPD understands the model or how committed it would be to pursuing it, but residents and developers alike should welcome this move. 

Community Land Trusts could be a much better use of taxpayer money to address the affordable housing crisis because after the initial investment of acquiring the land, the model is self-sustaining.  A trust controlled by a diverse board of interests still collects rents, it can still do major capital improvements and pass along some of the cost to tenants, and it can even offer transferable equity to residents in co-ops or condos in certain cases. Again, this model already exists and has worked in many cities (including Cooper Square, the first and so far only CLT in NYC, which has been around for decades.)

421a cost taxpayers an estimated $1.2 billion this fiscal year alone. For a fraction of that, the city could purchase foreclosed properties or neglected properties and transfer them into either a publicly administered trust or to private non-profit trusts like East Harlem-El Barrio.  Almost instantly, the city would create thousands of sustainable affordable housing units that wouldn’t require anywhere near the level of operating support currently wasted on 421a and other property tax programs.

This policy might seem like anathema to the real estate dominated political interests of the city, but it shouldn’t.  NYC is an incredibly large city with a lot of property.  Even a large presence of CLTs wouldn’t impact this landscape.

If anything, supporting CLTs would presumably remove the cumbersome requirements of affordable housing that drives up costs for developers.  By creating a separate, robust affordable housing policy, lawmakers could reform current development policies to encourage other priorities, such as mixed-use or transit-oriented development that would allow developers to maximize a development’s potential. Perhaps a developer could receive FAR bonuses or tax breaks by supporting a CLT by providing capital or professional services.

To address the affordable housing and homeless crisis, New York City needs to explore every possible idea out there.  Building new, large public housing developments will never happen again politically. Relying on the private market has made the problem worse economically.  Ungodly amounts of taxpayer money are being wasted every year on poorly designed tax, rent, land-use, and occupancy policies.  Community Land Trusts aren’t the silver bullet to address these seemingly intractable problems, but by supporting them, perhaps we can create space to finally explore truly innovative ideas from the public and private sectors alike.