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YES! PHOTO BY CHRIS MARION

Why Can’t Everyone Have a Home?

There are as Many Reasons for The Housing Affordability Crisis as Ways to Solve It

YES! Photo by Chris Marion

Several households — 11 people total — bought a house in Hartford, Connecticut. “It was the idea of sort of creating a new world we want to live in,” Laura Rozza says. YES! Photo by Chris Marion

For Julia Rosenblatt, the solution to affordable housing was to move in with friends and family — more than 10 people under one roof. Rosenblatt, a co-founder of the HartBeat Ensemble theater group in Hartford, Connecticut, had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in local activist communities. The year was 2003, the United States had launched a war in Iraq, and the post-9/11 environment was making her think differently about what kind of life she was going to have for herself and her family. An initial group of about 20 people liked the idea of creating an intentional community: living together with a shared set of goals and values to have a life that would be more meaningful, less harmful to other communities and the environment — and more affordable.

Chris Winters

Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he covers economic justice and democratic reform. The author lives with his wife and 78-year-old mother in a rental house in Seattle. They are searching for a house to buy. @CWintersWriter

In 2008, six people moved into one house. The big move came in 2014, when those six were joined by five more to buy a 5,800-square-foot 1921 house on tony Scarborough Street in the city’s West End. The nine-bedroom house had been sitting empty for four years.

Rosenblatt, her husband, Joshua Blanchfield, and their children, Tessa and Elijah Rosenfield (a merging of their parents’ last names), now live with Dave and Laura Rozza and their son, Milo, plus another married couple, Maureen Welch and Simon DeSantis, and Hannah Simms. The other original group member left the home when he got married.

Everyone contributed to the down payment. DeSantis and Laura Rozza had the best credit, so the mortgage for the $453,000 purchase price was taken out in their names, while a separate legal agreement stipulates that everyone is a co-owner of the house.

“We couldn’t maintain ourselves as a four-person household,” Rosenblatt says. “There was no way we could have bought this house at all with any less than eight adults pitching in.”

There were additional considerations, too. “It was the idea of sort of creating a new world we want to live in,” says Laura Rozza, a grant writer for a nonprofit serving people with disabilities.

From the Editors

The Affordable Housing Issue

We asked readers what they wanted to see in our affordable housing issue. More than 3,000 of you responded.

Cover of YES! Issue 86

You wanted to know about community solutions — how cities are stopping gentrification, taking the greed out of development, and innovating ownership and financing models. You also told us that living in community was important — that maybe Americans had lost sight of that — and that multigenerational housing was a solution that could address the needs of an aging population along with those of a new generation of adults.

This helped us decide what stories to put in the issue. Something else did, too.

Here in the Seattle area, it’s impossible to find anyone who doesn’t have an intensely personal story about how hard it is to find affordable housing. People are stuck in a rental trap, or in an affordability arms race to buy a house, or teetering on the edge of homelessness. Seattle is a fast-growing city, and rents and home prices are mercilessly high. But this is also happening in cities like Jackson, Mississippi, which as recently as 2016 had thousands of vacant properties — yet also one of the highest eviction rates in the nation. It seems clear: Unaffordable is unaffordable, no matter where you are or what the price.

So what’s going on? The big answer is this: As a nation, we prioritize housing for the wealthy over the poor. And that just reinforces the same racial and economic inequities that we’ve been trying to eliminate since the Fair Housing Act was passed 50 years ago.

The smaller answers are as varied as are the communities struggling with their unique historical, economic, and social issues. Faced with rising housing costs, gentrification, and displacement, and not enough federal help, communities are having to innovate — quickly. And they are.

Here’s one example. A few decades ago, community land trusts were discussed mostly in nerdy economic development circles, and mostly in the context of a successful one in Boston. But now land trusts seem to be everywhere. Cities and neighborhoods are borrowing ideas from each other, putting their own spin on the land trust strategy to protect affordability and put housing back into the commons.

Since homes are a personal issue as much as a national problem, we asked our housing writers to reveal their own living circumstances. Everyone’s story is different. Even as too many of us are scrambling for shelter, there are more alternative housing options than ever. That’s a kind of progress.

Return to the story

“The idea of the American Dream in 2003 was unobtainable for the majority of people,” says Dave Rozza, a math tutor.

The city of Hartford disagreed with their idea of what constitutes a household and sued the group, saying that multiple adults who were not all related couldn’t live together in a single-family dwelling under the city’s zoning laws. The city dropped the case after a year and a half but hasn’t changed its codes, leaving the group in a sort of legal limbo.

Most families make similar calculations involving costs, parenting needs, and how their values are reflected in the living arrangements they choose. For the merged families in Hartford, their choice became a radical declaration of independence from societal expectations, and it’s one small story in an epic housing affordability crisis unfolding across the U.S.

In many ways, this is a continuation of the housing market collapse of 2008, after the mortgage industry took advantage of loose regulations and overextended its lending. A lot of that was driven by Wall Street, which packaged subprime and other loans into exotic financial instruments that concealed the weakness in those debts.

When the financial crash came, it took the housing market with it. A wave of foreclosures arrived — more than 2.3 million properties received foreclosure notices in 2008 alone, according to RealtyTrac, and another 2.8 million in 2009. That was accompanied by home seizures (more than 1 million families lost their homes in 2010), job losses, and the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

A decade later, with major economic indicators on the rebound in many places, the housing crisis has turned into an epidemic of unaffordability: too few homes are available where they’re needed, and those that are, whether for sale or for rent, are increasingly out of reach for people whose incomes have effectively stagnated.

There’s no overall shortage of homes; the affordability challenge is different in each city. According to federal government data, the overall housing market has more than kept up with population growth. What’s happened instead is a split.

In hot markets like the technology centers of the West Coast, competition for housing has driven up both rents and sale prices. Seattle is home to fast-growing Amazon and also the highest annual price increases in the country, 12.86 percent as of January. The median sale price in the city has surpassed $800,000.

What Seattle and Detroit share is a large percentage of the population considered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to be cost-burdened: households spending more than 30 percent of income on housing.

But in cities still recovering from the housing market collapse, such as those in the Rust Belt, there are plenty of vacant houses. It’s decent-paying jobs that are scarcer, and many of those vacant houses are still owned by banks that are unlikely to sell until the market turns around. In Detroit, prices are going up at a more modest 7.6 percent per year, but there are still an estimated 25,000 vacant houses in the city that were lost to foreclosure over the years.

That, topped off with stagnant wages, has resulted in a lack of housing many people can afford either to rent or buy. The average wage for a non-managerial employee at the beginning of 1979 was $22.51 per hour in 2018 dollars. In March 2018, it was $22.44 per hour, essentially flat. In that same 40-year period, housing prices have gone up nearly 50 percent, from a median price of $60,300 ($220,300 in today’s dollars) to $326,800 today.

What Seattle and Detroit share is a large percentage of the population considered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to be cost-burdened: households spending more than 30 percent of income on housing. A study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University estimated that in the greater Seattle area, 33.4 percent of both rental and owner households fit that description in 2015. In Detroit, 31.4 percent did.

These are not unique situations: Nationwide, 1 in 3 households is spending more than 30 percent of income for a home.

With that kind of math working against them, people have had to get creative.

Multiple Solutions

There is no single solution to the housing equation. As communities grapple with housing costs, what is clear is that cooperation and coordination among government, private developers, the nonprofit community, and individuals at all income levels is required.

Solutions will have to be intensely customized by location. What works in a fast-growing city like Seattle won’t work in a city like Detroit, and what helps build more houses to sell is different from what creates more rental units.

Consider all the collaboration, innovation — and compassion — over the Applewood mobile home park in Midvale, Utah, a suburb about 12 miles south of Salt Lake City: 56 homes, reserved for adults 55 or older, mostly seniors. Most of them owned their own single- or double-wides, but they had to pay $320 per month as a lot fee — leasing the spots where their homes sit.

Most of the residents are retired and on fixed incomes, says Shirlene Stoven, 81, who has lived there since 1994.

In 2013, the owner of the park sold to a large developer, Ivory Homes. The site is situated between two TRAX light rail stations, and the zoning allowed for dense development.

First, the monthly lot fees went up by $89. Six months later, they went up by another $89.

Shirlene Stoven

Shirlene Stoven, 81, organized her fellow senior housing residents in the Applewood mobile home park in Midvale, Utah, and formed Applewood Homeowners Cooperative. They fended off developers and were able to work with the city and nonprofits to buy the land their homes sit on. YES! Photo by Austen Diamond

Stoven learned that Ivory had filed plans for a three-story multifamily building there. “We realized what they were up to, to financially squeeze us out,” Stoven says.

But rather than roll over, Stoven got organized. The Applewood residents formed a homeowners association and began a signature drive to try to stop the development and displacement. They swamped city council meetings with neighbors from the wider community.

And the city listened. In the end, the park was downzoned to 25 units per acre, so Ivory decided to sell it. But the land was still attractive to developers, and the competition drove the purchase price up to $4.8 million.

“I thought, ‘Oh, here we go again,’” Stoven says.

But Stoven, who was elected president of the new association, told their story to the new buyers, who decided to give the residents the opportunity to buy their park for $5 million.

How to raise that kind of money? Stoven connected with ROC USA, a nonprofit that helps mobile home owners transform their parks into resident-owned communities. The Applewood residents formed Applewood Homeowners Cooperative and were able to raise the money, much of it from ROC USA and the state’s Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, and buy the land their homes sit on. The deal closed in February.

Stoven said she’s always been tenacious, and thinks that she won the battle because the developers couldn’t intimidate her. Many of the residents in Applewood are homebound and wouldn’t have been able to mobilize for a fight the way she did.

“That’s why I had to fight for them. Because where would they go?” she says.

They’re paying higher pad fees to help with the purchase. But in doing so, they are preserving their affordable homes for the long term in a rapidly growing area.

Efforts to mitigate the affordability crisis fall into two broad categories: providing more money to people to get them into housing and providing more new housing.

Government, especially the federal government, plays an outsize role in financing below-market-rate housing. Rent subsidies, in the form of Section 8 or Housing Choice vouchers, are limited to low- and very-low-income people. Yet only about 1 in 4 households eligible for housing assistance receives it because of chronic underfunding of HUD programs.

HUD also runs the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, which provides incentives for investors to subsidize development of new affordable units. The Community Development Block Grant program also sometimes supports affordable housing projects.

However, the Trump administration has repeatedly floated the idea of eliminating the block grant program, and the LIHTC program may be adversely affected by the massive tax cuts passed by Congress in December. With the corporate tax rate cut from 35 percent to 21 percent, those tax credits just aren’t as valuable, and by some estimates that may translate into a loss of more than 200,000 affordable housing units over the next decade.

“Rental assistance really provides that bedrock of making sure people don’t have to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on rent,” says Janice Elliott, the executive director of the Melville Charitable Trust, a foundation that funds efforts to prevent and reduce homelessness.

“The least little thing and boom! — someone’s lost their home,” Elliott says.

Not Enough Homes

Most people in lower income brackets aren’t in the market to buy a house. Their challenge is finding rental property they can afford.

There are more renters now than ever before: 43.3 million in 2017, nearly 10 million more than just before the recession, according to Pew Research. That rise is driving up prices because developers aren’t building new units fast enough. According to the Urban Institute, for every 100 extremely low-income households, there are only 29 affordable rental units available.

… in no state in the country can someone earning the minimum wage afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment by working 40 hours a week.

Most people in lower income brackets aren’t in the market to buy a house. Their challenge is finding rental property they can afford.

There are more renters now than ever before: 43.3 million in 2017, nearly 10 million more than just before the recession, according to Pew Research. That rise is driving up prices because developers aren’t building new units fast enough. According to the Urban Institute, for every 100 extremely low-income households, there are only 29 affordable rental units available.

It’s not much easier at higher income levels. Because wages haven’t kept up with housing costs, many more people can’t afford to buy.

And in no state in the country can someone earning the minimum wage afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment by working 40 hours a week. Rising homelessness in recent years has been exacerbated by precariously housed people being squeezed out of the housing market altogether. Forestalling that outcome is a challenge for low-income people.

“Homelessness is an indicator not only of what’s happening with people, but it’s also indicative of fundamental problems in the economy,” Elliott says.

On the other end of the spectrum, the city of Seattle has built so much rental housing that rents have flattened out in 2018, says Dan Bertolet, a senior researcher on housing and urbanism at Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank. But homes for purchase are in shorter supply, with the Northwest Multiple Listing Service noting that inventory is well below the normal range.

“What we see in general is there’s a sort of perfect storm of big societal changes happening, putting pressure on housing and cities,” Bertolet says. Everyone wants to live in the city, and technology companies such as Amazon are minting millionaires at a record pace.

It’s a “whole bunch of factors that tell us it makes a lot more sense to put more housing in cities,” Bertolet says.

The greater Seattle area is planning for about 1.8 million more people to move there over the next 30 years, and local policies are aimed at steering much of that expected growth to areas that are already urbanized. But if they all want to buy houses, it’s a competitive market.

“One way we know we’re not keeping up is if you just look at the prices,” Bertolet says.

The city of Seattle has created more than 100,000 jobs since 2010, and a lot of that is fueled by the growth of the well-paying high-tech sector.

“Jobs really are what drives the demand for housing,” Bertolet says.

In hot housing markets like Seattle, which has large single-family neighborhoods with strong neighborhood associations wanting to keep density and growth out, construction hasn’t been able to keep up with the demand. Resistance to density is a hot-button political issue, putting upward pressure on both rent and purchase prices. Even average homes for sale have bidding wars.

YES! Photo by Chris Marion

After buying the West End house — a single-family dwelling — a group of 11 people from multiple families had to battle the city over definitions of family and household. YES! Photo by Chris Marion

But several cities have managed to keep housing prices more manageable simply by allowing developers to build more houses faster, as Sightline reported in 2017. Houston has no traditional zoning in the city, but the cheap prices come at the expense of incredible suburban sprawl. Chicago has enacted policies to speed up permitting and reduce restrictions in zoning. And Montreal’s zoning is dominated by low- and mid-rise apartment buildings. Meanwhile, Seattle has large single-family neighborhoods and a much slower and restrictive development process.

“The fundamental problem is it really is a supply-and-demand problem to a city like Seattle,” Bertolet says.

The result is a housing market like the game musical chairs, only it’s the wealthiest who win when the music stops. In a constrained market, that leaves fewer homes for people with less money. Increasing the overall number of housing units is the first step toward increasing the number of those units that are within reach of the non-rich, Bertolet says.

How to build that additional capacity, whether it’s in the far-flung suburbs or in multifamily buildings in newly up-zoned neighborhoods? Removing barriers to house-sharing could allow for more efficient use of the housing stock available, as the Hartford families have found.

Sightline advocates reducing the cost of building housing to stimulate construction. That includes zoning issues, such as raising building heights, up-zoning single-family neighborhoods, and eliminating parking requirements, which add to building costs and also take up space that could be used for housing. Regulations on building and permitting, Bertolet says, add more to housing costs than most people realize and could be reformed. That will go some way toward filling the gap, but not all the way.

“We don’t think the market will solve this problem all on its own,” Bertolet says. “There will always be a portion that can’t afford to pay for what it costs to build a home.”

What’s Left

Without subsidies, what’s left is people making do and looking for alternatives.

It may be a simple case of finding roommates, an age-old option that’s been rebranded as “co-living” for young urbanites. The Rosenblatt family, the Rozzas, and the rest of their household in Hartford formalized the arrangement by buying their house and forming a limited liability corporation that determines who contributes what toward the mortgage, bills, groceries, chores, all the way down to the Netflix subscription.

The next step up from house-sharing, or co-living, is cohousing, a system of quasi-communal living in separate homes with shared common facilities.

Cohousing developments, however, tend to be composed of no more than a few dozen homes and are often not particularly affordable, in part because of newer construction standards and higher quality materials, and also because they tend to be set up by people of above-average income who aren’t necessarily looking for the cheapest possible housing. Despite a more than 30-year history in the U.S., there are only about 165 established cohousing communities, with another 140 in some stage of formation.

YES! Photo by Chris Marion
YES! Photo by Chris Marion

“There was no way we could have bought this house at all with any less than eight adults pitching in.” YES! Photo by Chris Marion

The more affordable option — at least from a resident’s perspective — is a community land trust. By definition it creates permanent affordability by limiting the resale price of homes situated on land owned by the trust. While it does provide affordable housing and protect against gentrification, that comes at the expense of social equity: It functions as a barrier to speculation but prevents the use of housing the way much of the country uses it — as a place to store and generate wealth.

CLTs also run up against financing challenges.

“One misconception about CLTs is that they’re somehow this magic bullet, that they’re outside the system and come with their own resources,” says Melora Hiller, the former CEO of Grounded Solutions Network, a nonprofit consulting company that helps communities set up trusts and other forms of equitable housing.

Getting funding to buy land, build, or renovate houses is often dependent on local government sources using federal funds. Those grants are limited, Hiller says, and CLTs often have to compete for that money with other nonprofit providers of low-income rental housing or homeless housing programs.

And buyers of property in community land trusts still need to qualify for a commercial mortgage. The two federal mortgage guarantors, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are committed to supporting a higher number of loans to low-income Americans, but that’s only after a commercial lender is willing to lend the money up front. “We still need the lenders for the origination before federal programs take them over,” Hiller says.

CLTs also need a lot of capital to start up and then grow. That tends to limit their size and the speed at which they grow. “Nobody’s figured out how to make it work at scale,” Bertolet says.

The latest trend is tiny houses.

Technically a trailer with a roof and walls, tiny houses are increasingly being used for infill development: bare-bones granny flats in the backyards of single-family-zoned neighborhoods or on vacant city-owned lots. The living space typically ranges from 120 to 400 square feet. The smaller sizes often exempt them from needing a building permit.

An estimate from Ryan Mitchell, the founder of The Tiny Life website, puts the number of tiny homes at 10,000 in North America, but there isn’t much documentation to support that figure. The spread of videos and TV shows like “Tiny House Nation” and “Tiny House, Big Living,” though, shows that the movement has tapped a desire among Americans to try to downsize and live more simply.

Yet despite the lower cost, small carbon footprint, and potential for DIY construction, cities and communities have been slow to change their zoning codes to allow tiny homes as infill development or transitional or emergency housing. Most cities, for example, make it illegal to live in a vehicle outside an RV park.

The Money Gap

In the end, the biggest bottleneck to building more affordable housing is money.

The National Cooperative Bank is likely the largest financial institution that specifically focuses on lending to community projects like cohousing or other forms of cooperatives.

The NCB reported just under $2.3 billion in assets at the end of 2016, a significant amount for the nonprofit sector. But it’s dwarfed by the commercial banks that drive the national housing market. The largest, Bank of America, has 1,000 times as much under management: $2.3 trillion in assets, including $197.8 billion in residential mortgage loans, according to its 2017 annual report.

While lending for affordable housing is part of many major banks’ portfolios, and community development financial institutions focus on all sorts of lending in distressed communities, alternative housing developers find that commercial banks are less likely to make loans outside traditional markets.

That leaves only one source with the resources to fund the wide variety of solutions necessary, at the scale necessary to address the nationwide problem, and that’s the government.

Another reason the government is an important part of the solution: In the face of market forces and housing scarcity, unlike with other commodities, there is little option not to participate. Everyone needs housing, and it’s not very portable. No solution can address the entire scope of the problem without government involvement.

The Trump administration, however, is cutting back on funding for social safety-net programs, putting many local governments under pressure.

“A local community has to have a local housing trust fund. It has to have money,” Lisa Sturtevant, a Virginia-based housing consultant, says. “It can’t do this through land use and zoning alone.”

For now, a patchwork of foundations and charities try to fill in the gap as best they can.

And where institutions fail, people step up.

In choosing to live in community — sharing not just a house, but their lives with each other — they’ve defined a new American Dream.

The extra-large household in Hartford has been an inspiration to other people willing to challenge city laws and give creative co-living a try.

“We wanted to make it so that other people could do this, too,” Laura Rozza says about their battle with the city.

Rosenblatt says that their group has been approached by some other people interested in forming their own intentional communities, and Rozza says she regularly receives online alerts for communities that are looking at loosening their codes to accommodate alternatives to one-house-one-family norms.

It’s a system that’s worked out well for them, especially with raising children in the house.

“If I don’t have one of my own parents around, I’ll have a lot of other people around to help me with something I need,” says Tessa Rosenfield, who is 13. “Also, I’m never alone, and that’s nice to have all those people around you.”

In choosing to live in community — sharing not just a house, but their lives with each other — they’ve defined a new American Dream. They hope others will follow their model, if not by making the same choice, then by being willing to look beyond traditional boundaries.

“That just makes us intentional, as opposed to others who come together because of blood and do not share values,” Rosenblatt says. “I have one marriage to Josh and another one to each and every other person in the house.”

“It takes a lot of time and energy, like, unspeakable amounts of time and energy. To make that happen and be worth it, you have to really have to want that,” Welch says.

“And the payoff is huge,” Laura Rozza adds.

Chris Winters

Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he covers economic justice and democratic reform. The author lives with his wife and 78-year-old mother in a rental house in Seattle. They are searching for a house to buy. @CWintersWriter

Just the Facts

Affordable for Whom?

How the U.S. Supports Housing Wealthy People Over Low-Income People
Photo by Cindy Tang / Unsplash

PHOTO by Cindy Tang / Unsplash

1
Overall, there are enough homes for everyone. The number of housing units has kept pace with population growth.
infographic 1

2
But a decade of foreclosures and priced-out homebuyers have created a historically massive rental market.
infographic 2

3
Lower-income people are squeezed out as developers prefer to build high-rent units.
infographic 3

4
Wages have not kept pace with the cost of housing. 11.1 million renters spend more than 50% of their income on housing.
infographic 4

5
So even if you live in cities with a lot of vacant homes, your paycheck still can’t cover it.
infographic 5

6
Despite housing cost increases, federal housing subsidies for low-income households have been flat.
infographic 6

7
Federal spending prioritizes wealthier people and homeowners over lower-income people and renters.
infographic 7

Sources: Pew Research Center, Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University; The Assisted Housing Initiative, Urban Institute; Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; Eviction Lab, Princeton University; U.S. Housing and Urban Development budget; Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation; Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; U.S. Census Bureau.

After Centuries of Housing Racism, a Southern City Gets Innovative

How community land trusts are helping Jackson, Mississippi, secure land for affordable homes.

Mulberry Tree Guesthouse

Cooperative Community of New West Jackson is a grassroots neighborhood collective trying to create affordable housing. Besides running a community supported agriculture program at the Grenada Street Folk Garden, the cooperative also rents out the rehabbed “Mulberry Tree Guesthouse,” above, through Airbnb. Photo by William Widmer / Redux

Denise Fitzgerald’s property abuts the string of quiet, empty lots that line Ewing Street in Jackson, Mississippi. Recently she was leaf-blowing detritus shed by the enormous sycamore tree dominating the yard of her tidy Habitat for Humanity home. She says she’d cut the tree down herself but knows it’s big enough to take out both her house and the house beside her if she dare try it.

Adam Lynch

Adam Lynch is a freelance writer in Jackson, Mississippi. The author lives in a house that he and his wife bought with a predatory balloon mortgage before the 2008 housing crisis.

Fitzgerald is familiar with the empty lots of Ewing Street, located just a few blocks from Jackson State University. She’s lived here since 2008, and she remembers when Ewing was a series of derelict buildings smeared across the neighborhood.

Only two empty houses remain. The rest is a collection of oak and hackberry trees, with some untamed vines.

There is some human intervention, however. Every other week volunteers with Cooperation Jackson, a local workers’ cooperative that owns the lots, pick up litter. Cooperation Jackson has big plans for the street, and Fitzgerald stands behind them.

“I would like to see all that over there with new homes with people in them,” Fitzgerald says, pointing across the street. “It’s been either a mess or empty over there since I got here, and that would be a nice change.”

Once a thriving neighborhood prior to the 1980s, the area is now CJ’s proposed site of a series of price-capped homes and gardens organized into a community land trust that it hopes will form a tight-knit community. Cultivating an intimate community in Jackson’s neglected western territory is no easy feat, however. The mean annual income in the area surrounding Ewing, according the Census Bureau, is about $22,000.

Concentrated poverty is measured by the percentage of poor individuals living in high-poverty neighborhoods, and for Black people in Mississippi, that rate is 29.7 percent — made possible, in part, by a long history of discrimination. Until the 1968 passage of the Fair Housing Act, U.S. lending institutions restricted Black families from many home loans.

Since family wealth commonly manifests in home value, those discriminatory housing practices essentially robbed whole generations of minority families of capital that White families had access to for decades. Even the Fair Housing Act couldn’t prevent more recent redlining and the roping of middle-class Black families, or “mud people,” as one Wells Fargo employee called them, into subprime loans, despite their eligibility for standard loans.

Cooperation Jackson wants to clear some of that damage by giving people the transferable wealth of affordable homeownership. Officials know they are not up against a series of unlucky social accidents, however. This is the colossus of American apartheid, and they’ll need more than just affordable housing to make real relief stick.

“When you think about shifting an economy away from one of profit to one that’s for the people, you have to think of the whole thing as an ecosystem,” said Sacajawea Hall, operations coordinator for Cooperation Jackson. “People need food, but they also need jobs and housing. The community land trust is a crucial part of a whole ecosystem.”

Sacajawea Hall, operations coordinator for Cooperation Jackson

Cooperation Jackson’s model allows participant homeowners to take advantage of a community environment where often-overpriced goods and services can be made affordable through sharing, says Sacajawea Hall, operations coordinator for Cooperation Jackson. PHOTO from Cooperation Jackson

A community land trust works by reducing the price of property that would otherwise be out of reach for people or families with modest incomes. A CLT typically sets the house price for each subsequent buyer through a formula. Some formulas are based on an average 1 percent annual index, added to the price the last buyer paid for the home, while others are based upon appraisals, or an index/appraisal mix. The CLT retains ownership of the land, thus allowing those price controls to remain in place permanently. In exchange for a more modest return on the sale, the buyer receives a manageable mortgage that a bank or mortgage company is willing to work with at their income level.

The National Housing Institute points out, however, that there is no guarantee that the homeowner will receive the formula-determined price, particularly in the event of plummeting property value. The fixed resale value also means less wealth-building through the sale of the home, which can’t be cashed out at a market rate. The more modest equity resulting from this arrangement could also make the homeowner less eligible for a home equity line of credit for rare family emergencies. (Instead, CLTs generally set up repair and reserve programs for the occasional roof replacement or broken water heater.)

Hall acknowledges that the typical CLT plan comes with drawbacks, but pointed out that many residents would not be eligible for homeownership outside of a price-capped model. She said Cooperation Jackson’s model also allows participant homeowners to take advantage of a community environment where often-overpriced goods and services can be made affordable through sharing.

“The owners get to be a part of a financial ecosystem, a larger web,” Hall said. “There will be resources available through co-ops that provide goods and services, like childcare, and an interconnectedness that keeps resources in the community instead of getting lost outside of the community.”

Even with a percentage of profits from the sale of a home going back into the community trust, however, most CLTs still have to deftly manage the gap between the affordable price they set for the property and the development costs of creating it. That’s where a subsidy, either from private donors, grants, or government aid, typically comes in.

left double quoteWhen you think about drifting an economy away from one of profit to one that’s for the people, you have to think of the whole thing as an ecosystem.” — Sacajawea Hall, operations coordinator for Cooperation Jackson

Hall’s organization, for example, operates the Freedom Farms urban farming cooperative, is expanding its Café and Catering Cooperative, and is developing the Green Team recycling and composting cooperative. Just across the street from Cooperation Jackson’s Capitol Street headquarters lies property that Hall hopes will house a community production co-op with a 3D printing lab. The organization is gathering donations and volunteers, and has brought in pro bono grant writers and legal document preparers to make it all happen, but Hall said she anticipates revenue from the various cooperatives will help sustain the overall effort.

Other organizations get things rolling through partnerships. Working solely with donors, nonprofit organization Revitalize Mississippi raised $150,000 in private donations for Rosemont Human Services Inc. to form a community land trust. Revitalize Mississippi plans to donate demolition and lot cleanup services to a target neighborhood, while Rosemont CLT Inc. will use its seed money during the startup and planning phases. Revitalize Mississippi Director Andy Frame said the CLT model has a proven track record, however long the startup process takes.

“We’re hoping, with the original money we’ve raised, that we can do a couple of houses and sell them,” Frame said. “Then we’ll have money to do a couple of more houses, and grow like that. If we can rehab on a three-month window, then by the end of a year, you might have eight to 10 houses with people living in them. It’s slow growth, but once you prove you can do it, that makes it easier to raise funds and get better at it.”

The Effects of Housing Racism — in Two Maps
The effects of housing racism in two maps

The census map, left, shows mean income distribution in Jackson, Mississippi. The yellow areas show the lowest-income households. The darker the area, the higher the income. The map at right shows the racial makeup in Jackson. The green areas correspond to Black households, blue areas to where White people live. Source: left, 2013 american community survey, U.S. Census BUREAU. right, demographics research group, university of virginia.

With its unhurried progress and low profits, the CLT model holds little appeal to a banking industry dedicated to profit. While homeowners buying CLT property may use traditional 30-year mortgages to finance their homes, CLT organizers themselves have to find inventive ways to buy the land they plan to renovate, largely without bank participation.

In 2015, the Detroit nonprofit Storehouse of Hope’s Community Land Trust financed the purchase of properties with the help of a GoFundMe campaign. The effort raised more than $108,000 to prevent foreclosure on several senior citizen and single-parent households, even as the housing crisis felled whole neighborhoods.

Athens Land Trust, in Georgia, renovates and sells affordable homes, but it also trains independent farm owners and minority farmers in sustainable land management, conservation, and production-boosting farming techniques. While the trust uses the help of donors and the proceeds from home sales to close the gap between home prices and renovation costs, it funds the sustainable farming component of the organization with revenue generated through sales of produce from CLT-owned farms, and by charging fees to vendors at the trust’s West Broad Farmers Market.

“We have about 20 other vendors at the farmers market, producing baked goods, prepared food, crafts, soap, eggs — all that stuff,” says Kelsey Thompson, the education director at the Athens Land Trust.

Many state and municipal governments acknowledge the value of reducing blight and spurring the economy through price-capped land management. The city of Boston bought into the neighborhood revitalization plan offered by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in 1987 and dedicated $134 million to the endeavor. The Florida legislature also got on board with the idea and passed the Sadowski Act in 1992 to commit a 10 cents-per-$100 surcharge on every real estate transaction to a fund earmarked for affordable housing.

Government money isn’t reliable, however. Florida legislators, under Gov. Rick Scott, have annually raided the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund to finance state tax cuts, snatching $1.3 billion out of the $1.87 billion collected over the last 10 years. This, despite Miami ranking as one of the country’s least affordable cities.

Some CLTs, including those in less supportive states like Mississippi, have never enjoyed government participation.

One Mississippi CLT survives.

Nia and Takuma Umoja

Nia and Takuma Umoja are founders of the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson. The group buys abandoned properties and turns them over to a community land trust. Photo by William Widmer / ReduxPictures

“We are existing in a genocidal condition,” says Nia Umoja, lead organizer of Cooperative Community of New West Jackson. “We need to find lasting solutions for the deep-seated social challenges we face within our community — the distrust, the self-hatred, the miseducation, the despondency, the economic disparities — so that the most vulnerable can take advantage of the opportunities we are unable to see now.”

Founded by residents in 2013, CCNWJ quietly acquired 65 properties from absentee owners and slumlords within a sprawling, largely neglected eight-block area of West Jackson containing vacant lots, commercial and residential property, and long-term lease property. Rather than rehabbing through contractors, the association uses “neighbor labor” for “all renovations,” Umoja says. It also operates a community supported agriculture site and manages the Airbnb-listed “Mulberry Tree Guesthouse.” 

The organization successfully assembled itself alone and under the radar, without much intervention beyond the hard work of its members. Still, Umoja admits that “nobody knows yet if the CLT structure will work for communities here in Jackson.”

What seems clear, however, is that the CLT model works best when it’s self-sustaining, like One Roof Community Housing, in Duluth, Minnesota, which also cuts costs in home rehabbing like CCNWJ, except through a subsidiary.

“We handle the purchasing of the land, while our construction company [Common Ground Construction] does the home building and renovation,” says One Roof Director Jim Philbin. “They’re a professional contractor, but we’re able to get better pricing with them rather than a general contractor because they’re, well, a part of us.”

Some CLTs have mastered the art of revenue generation. Jackie Keogh, fund development manager of Portland, Oregon-based Proud Ground, says her group financed its property purchases in 2016 with the help of real estate brokers who donated their sales commissions from market-rate sales. Proud Ground is still the only nonprofit brokerage in Oregon, and it continues to maintain itself through commission fees. This adds up when the CLT has more than 280 homes in its portfolio.

Sacajawea Hall, operations coordinator for Cooperation Jackson

Nia Umoja pushes a piece of plywood against a doorway on an abandoned house acquired by the Cooperative Community of West Jackson, which plans to restore the building to function as a center for folk art. Photo by William Widmer / Redux

“We make about $100,000 annually from that, and it goes to fulfill our mission to subsidize some of our affordable housing. The more homes in your portfolio, the greater number of leases and transactions you collect,” Keogh says.

Some CLTs have to go “way outside the box” to fund themselves, says Jason Webb, a former CLT operator and current training specialist at Grounded Solutions Network, an organization that educates groups looking to create their own CLTs. He predicts that the model will become more sustainable now that federal lending agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have announced their willingness to embrace CLTs. Banks, he says, also are learning that CLT-orchestrated mortgages are astoundingly stable, with very few homebuyers walking away from their financial commitments.

“The demand for affordable housing will always be there, and now, with these additional resources opening up, we’ll be able to get more folks into their homes faster,” Webb says. “Every one of the 100 homeowners that I personally put into a home [as a CLT operator] went through a traditional bank to get a 30-year conventional mortgage, and those mortgages are some of the safest investment vehicles at those banks.”

Regardless of CLTs’ proven track record, Hall says, Cooperation Jackson still has a steep hill to climb over the next few years on funding, however creative the funding options may be. The group learned recently that the soil at Ewing Street isn’t very suitable for gardening, and is now mulling over whether to begin soil remediation to make the farming component of the Ewing community feasible. Still, she says, a groundbreaking shouldn’t be too far into the future.

“Looking at the financing and business planning for property development, I think we’re looking at the end of 2019 or 2020,” she says.

Adam Lynch

Adam Lynch is a freelance writer in Jackson, Mississippi. The author lives in a house that he and his wife bought with a predatory balloon mortgage before the 2008 housing crisis.

5 Ways Communities Are Creating Affordable Homes

1

DISASTER RECOVERY

Maria Cordero and her family in front of their completed RAPIDO home

Maria Cordero and her family in front of their completed RAPIDO home. Photo from Building Communities Workshops

In Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, a pilot program not only seeks to produce temporary-to-permanent housing quickly following hurricanes and other natural disasters, but also points the way to a broader solution for families who out of necessity build their homes a little at a time.

Community Development Corporation of Brownsville’s RAPIDO replaced the disposable FEMA trailers with a small but livable housing “core” — a kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedroom. The structure was specifically designed so additional bedrooms could be added incrementally once a second round of government funding came through. Eventually, 20 such homes — including the extra bedrooms — were completed through the RAPIDO program, each in less than six weeks and for about half the cost of federal replacement houses. The CDCB envisions building hundreds of these temporary-to-permanent houses following disasters, extending limited recovery funds to more residents while getting them into finished homes in weeks rather than years. — Daniel Tyx

2

MULTIGEN DESIGN

Rendering of an urban town house in Fullertown, California

Rendering of an urban town house in Fullerton, California, designed for multigenerational living. Photo from Urban Pacific Group

The growth of multigenerational households in this country — rent-burdened millennials moving in with their parents, older Americans living with their adult children, and growing numbers of immigrant families accustomed to living this way — is creating a unique housing dynamic.

And few in the industry are creating housing to serve those among them seeking affordability in an urban setting. It’s a phenomenon known in the industry as the “missing middle.”

One such builder is Scott K. Choppin, founder and CEO of Urban Pacific Group in Long Beach, California, who, over the last two years, created what he calls the “urban town house.” It’s housing aimed specifically at moderate-income, multigenerational households with multiple breadwinners who together earn about $100,000 a year.

The homes are mostly in working-class neighborhoods where there hasn’t been any new housing built for years, and where many of the families he’s serving already live. His urban town houses are three-story rentals, typically with five bedrooms and 3.75 bathrooms. — Kevon Paynter

3

EARNING DIVIDENDS

Louise Williamston with her grandchildren

Louise Williamston with her grandchildren in the duplex she shares with Rosetta Farrell through the Renting Partnerships program.

A unique housing program in Cincinnati is allowing low-income renters to participate in the management and upkeep of their homes as a way to earn dividends they can cash in later.

Margery Spinney and Carol Smith founded Renting Partnerships in 2013 to help organize affordable housing communities for those with few choices. Renters must commit to a five-year lease, participate in management of their homes, contribute to work assignments and property maintenance, and pay their rent on time. In exchange, they accrue financial equity, or housing dividends, each month — up to $10,000 over 10 years. While these dividends accumulate indefinitely, residents can cash out after five years.

Their first property is a two-family duplex in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Avondale. It was acquired by The Coalition for Sustainable Communities, a nonprofit that invests in development projects in gentrified neighborhoods. The Coalition owns the property and master leases it to Renting Partnerships, giving them control of operating and management of the building — a typical arrangement for Renting Partnerships. — Shaima Shamdee

4

GRANNY PODS

Rendering of an In-Law Cottage

Rendering of an In-Law Cottage by Larson Shores Architecture + Interiors.

Small backyard homes, sometimes called mother-in-law suites or granny pods, are the latest response to the growing housing crisis — at least on the West Coast.

Typically measuring under 1,000 square feet, these so-called accessory dwelling units built on the properties of existing homes offer the potential for generations of families to live in close proximity, for recent graduates to move back with parents without having to be under the same roof, or even as a source of rental income.

But zoning restrictions have long kept them illegal in many parts of the country. Now faced with a housing affordability crisis, cities and counties are easing some of those rules and embracing the granny pod as part of the solution.

In Los Angeles, the number of applications for ADU construction between 2016 and 2017 rose from 80 to 1,980. And in cities such as Portland, Oregon, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia, applications for the units have climbed as restrictions have eased. — Kevon Paynter and Lornet Turnbull

5

LAND TRUST

The City Changing How Homes Are Bought and Sold to Battle Gentrification

Members of the Community First Alliance

Members of the Community First Alliance gather to discuss the idea of creating and maintaining a community land trust to steer neighborhood development. Photo from Open Buffalo

India Walton likes to recall the summers she spent at her uncle’s house on Mulberry Street in the Buffalo, New York, neighborhood of Fruit Belt, when family and neighbors would gather for block parties, barbecues, and picnics. When the 35-year-old mother of four was looking for a home to rent a few years ago, she wandered through streets with names like Grape and Peach, thinking how nice it would be to recapture that long-ago experience for her own children.

Lornet Turnbull

Lornet Turnbull is an associate editor at YES!, where she covers civil liberties. The author lives in Seattle in a rented two-bedroom house with her partner. @TurnbullL

In 2015, Walton moved into a rented house on Lemon Street and into one of the most visible demonstrations of neighborhood gentrification underway in the city.

It had been unfolding for a decade, as Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus expanded on the western doorstep of the neighborhood, leaving developers and land speculators full of anticipation.

And it is taking the collective power of Fruit Belt residents-turned-activists like Walton and a broad coalition of neighborhood-based and region-wide organizations to attempt what communities from New York’s Harlem to Washington, D.C.’s U Street Corridor couldn’t do: push back against development to stem the displacement of generations of residents.

In 2017, the neighbors established the city’s first community land trust, a nonprofit designed to give residents control over the land within the neighborhood boundaries and keep housing there affordable. The city of Buffalo, the largest land owner in the Fruit Belt, has placed a moratorium on the sale of the 200 lots it owns there until a strategic plan for the neighborhood can be developed. And in January, it announced it would dedicate 20 of those lots to the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, to get it going.

“It feels amazing to be part of something that is bigger than myself,” says Walton, who is vice president of the Fruit Belt Advisory Council and a member of Community First Alliance, all part of the coalition. “I’m doing legacy work that will be here long after I’m gone, providing opportunities for both the neighborhood and for my children and their children. That’s a big deal to me.”

A historically Black neighborhood of about 2,600 residents on Buffalo’s East Side, the Fruit Belt is bisected by streets that derived their names from orchards planted by early German immigrants in the 1800s. The area later fell into disrepair. In a city with some of the nation’s oldest housing stock, historic and well-tended homes share space with abandoned and vacant dwellings and urban prairies.

Developers saw opportunity with the continued expansion of the medical campus, which covers 120 acres and has 17,000 employees. While some longtime residents sold their homes and moved out, others were pushed out when their rents rose. More people has meant more traffic and a parking crunch. Fruit Belt residents have listed gentrification and fear of displacement as top concerns, Bishop said.

When she moved there three years ago, Walton, a registered nurse who works at Children’s Hospital on the medical campus, was shocked to find the rent she would pay was double what she expected. Even after she convinced the landlord to lower the price because she was bringing her own appliances, rentals half the size of hers were going for even more, she said.

There was no doubt gentrification had taken hold.

Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen, whose district includes the Fruit Belt, has been a powerful advocate for the project. In his radio program, announcing the city’s commitment of the 20 lots, he said the lots are being put into the hands of low-income and working-class people. “Whatever … the community land trust builds there as far as housing,” Pridgen said, “for 99 years, it cannot be transferred to wealthy people, it can’t be sold to wealthy people.”

With over 250 of them nationwide, community land trusts are not new to the gentrification fight. They were first used in the U.S to protect rural lands for Black farmers in Georgia in the late 1960s. In Buffalo, the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust will acquire and own land, building and rehabbing homes and selling them at an affordable rate. When a house is sold, a cap will be placed on the allowable profit so it remains affordable for the next buyer.

Members of the Community First Alliance speak

Members of the Community First Alliance speak in favor of creating and maintaining a community land trust. Photo from Open Buffalo

The trust is set to seat its full nine-member board in June — six neighborhood residents and three specialists in the areas of engineering, real estate law, and development. Meanwhile, it is negotiating with the city on the location of the 20 lots. Bishop said preference is for land along the commercial corridor — between the residential area and the medical campus — to better control and slow development.

To be sure, the idea of a land trust for the Fruit Belt hasn’t been fully embraced. Whether gentrification has even arrived is still an open debate, particularly within the city, which has started to rebrand the neighborhood as Medical Park. And even within the neighborhood itself, there’s opposition by those who worry a trust will limit the value of their property. Funding is also a concern: While the trust has raised just under $100,000, it will need at least three times that to get rolling.

Open Buffalo, a social and economic justice movement, has been working with the community in its fight against gentrification for three years. But Harper Bishop, the economic and climate justice coordinator with the nonprofit, said that ideally a land trust should have been put in place there a decade ago. Homeownership, he said, is key to generational wealth for many families and he doesn’t blame any homeowner who chooses to sell.

“It’s a mind shift we are trying to create,” Bishop said. “Our hope is we can continue to normalize the idea of a community land trust so people know that community wealth and community control is uttermost, and that we are all stronger together in this fight than we are individually.”

And there’s growing momentum. “Land trust, not land rush” has become a common refrain. It’s less about having a seat at the decision-making table, residents say, and more about community control of the decision-making.

Fruit Belt residents who support a land trust say they are not anti-growth. “What we want is smart development that is inclusive and that allows people who have been here to prosper right along with it,” Walton said.

“There’s a spirit of unity here; that’s the unique thing about the Fruit Belt. The message of the land trust is we are here to promote development without displacement and for the community to have control over the kind of development that takes place.”

She has been an outspoken neighborhood and land trust advocate and is among residents featured in a promotional marketing video. But she knows that as a renter she’s vulnerable and that her landlord can probably fetch more for her home.

“But the work we are trying to do depends on my connection to the neighborhood, especially when it comes to dealing with city officials,” she said. “So I’m going to hang on as long as is possible. And perhaps one day the land trust will make a way for me to have a home here for me and my children.”

Last year she and several community advocates traveled to Boston to visit one of the nation’s most successful urban community land trusts. Dudley Neighbors, in the Roxbury section of Boston, acquired 1,300 parcels of abandoned land in the 1980s and transformed a once-blighted neighborhood without displacing residents. Nearly 30 years later, the trust oversees 225 units of affordable housing, as well as a playground, a mini-orchard, and community garden.

Bishop believes a successful land trust is also possible in the Fruit Belt, particularly given the city’s ownership of so much land in the neighborhood. The Fruit Belt, he believes, could serve as a model for Buffalo. “There’s opportunity to go into other neighborhoods in the city and create … community wealth and generational wealth and community control.”

Lornet Turnbull

Lornet Turnbull is an associate editor at YES!, where she covers civil liberties. The author lives in Seattle in a rented two-bedroom house with her partner. @TurnbullL

How to Protect a Renter Nation

Renters’ rights are based on the belief that housing is a human right, not just for those who own homes.

Members of the Community First Alliance

PHOTO by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Sherri Eddings and her daughter live in South Los Angeles. They’re tenants in a home owned by Invitation Homes, a company that owns and manages more than 12,000 single-family homes in California.

Deonna Anderson

Deonna Anderson is a freelance reporter based in Oregon. She was raised in Los Angeles. Her work has been featured in Next City, The Marshall Project, and Vice’s Motherboard. The author lives in a one-bedroom rented apartment with her fiancé. @iamDEONNA

However, this year she received a letter saying that her rent would go up in the summer. She pushed back as she’d previously done, but come July, she’ll have to pay $2,235 (her landlord also tacked on an extra $35 for her dog).

“It’s one of many reasons why people are homeless. Coming up with rent on time when your rent is increasing and no one is giving you that opportunity to work with you, then you end up out on the street,” she says. “What if Invitation Homes would’ve told me, ‘No, your rent is increasing by $500’? I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I would’ve been another one out there looking for something else, and who’s to say I would’ve found it?”

Some don’t feel like they have the agency to push back like Eddings did. Those people either become more rent-burdened — a term meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing — or pushed out of their homes.

In the midst of negotiating her rent increase, Eddings received a postcard from Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action, a nonprofit working to repeal the Costa Hawkins Housing Act, a 1995 law that prevents California cities from establishing new rent control ordinances. Cities that already had some form of rent control policy, such as Los Angeles’ Rent Stabilization Ordinance, can’t expand it, and cities without a policy — all but 15 cities statewide — have their hands tied, and their renters don’t have many protections.

“The repeal would simply give cities more tools to address the housing crisis,” says Tony Roshan Samara, program director of land use and housing at Urban Habitat, a San Francisco Bay Area-based organization that seeks to advance equitable policies and democratize power.

About 20 miles south of where Eddings lives, the Long Beach Gray Panthers, along with the nonprofit Housing Long Beach, are co-sponsoring a ballot initiative to bring rent control to the city. The proposed ordinance also would set maximum rents on rent-controlled units and establish a rent board that would review increases, and also implement a just-cause eviction policy, so that landlords could only evict tenants if they don’t pay rent, breach the lease, or prevent the landlord from accessing the property.

“It’s almost as if the city wants to build new housing for higher-income earners, bring those people in, and push the existing community out. If that’s not what they want to do, then they could’ve fooled me, because that’s what’s happening,” says Josh Butler, the executive director of Housing Long Beach.

Between 2000 and 2015, the median rent in Long Beach increased 22 percent, according to PolicyLink, a research and advocacy institute. Renters make up about 58 percent of households in Long Beach and more than half of those are rent-burdened. Nationwide, renters make up 51 percent of the population of the 100 largest U.S. cities.

This current resurgence to establish rent control policies is part of a statewide — and national — movement for tenants’ rights. This specific policy is just one part of a larger effort by people and organizations who believe that housing is a human right and that it shouldn’t only be a sure thing for those with a lot of money.

“When I think about what we really need, it’s not surprising that renters are pressing for change and it’s not surprising that high rents and sometimes shocking levels of rent increases lead to a call specifically for rent control,” says Maya Brennan, senior policy associate in the Research to Action Lab at the Urban Institute. “If a city were to enact rent control or rent regulations, I would strongly encourage them to be done with some sort of pilot. If possible, adoption of a policy should be based on research from other jurisdictions with similar conditions,” she says.

left double quoteIt’s a major fight for people of color. This is part of a long history of working-class people of color asserting their right to place.” — Tony Roshan Samara, program director of land use and housing at Urban Habitat

There are movements in Boston, Denver, Oregon, and more cities and states across the country. In Chicago, there is the Lift the Ban Coalition, which is running a campaign to repeal the Rent Control Preemption Act of 1997, that city’s equivalent to California’s Costa-Hawkins.

In 2017, Homes for All, a national campaign launched by Right to the City Alliance, a network of racial, economic, and environmental justice organizations, held a “Renter Week of Action.” Among other items, it advocated for tenants’ rights to organize and bargain collectively, to establish community control over land and housing through land trusts, cooperatives, and non-market solutions for affordable homes, and to support increased funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development so that everyone who qualifies for assistance can get it.

The fight for housing rights is steeped in history that has affected people differently based on their class and race. It’s important to understand that tenants’ rights is not a small, niche issue, says Urban Habitat’s Samara.

“It’s a major fight for people of color,” he says. “This is part of a long history of working-class people of color asserting their right to place.”

Santa Monica and Berkeley were two of the first California cities to implement rent control ordinances, in 1979 and 1980, respectively. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, cities across the state implemented their own rent cap policies, and there are now 15 cities in California with rent control.

In New York City, there are a small number of rent-controlled units. There’s also a rent stabilization policy, affecting many buildings built before 1974, which limits rent increases. That affects many more buildings than are covered by the city’s older rent control policy. As of 2014, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development estimated that there were 27,000 rent-controlled apartments in the city, or about 1.2 percent of the housing stock, which is down from 2 million units in the 1950s. The department estimated there also were about 1 million rent-stabilized units in 2014. When the state began overseeing rent control in the 1950s, it passed several decontrol laws.

Boston and two nearby Massachusetts cities had rent control for almost 30 years, and it was often met with hostility from landlords. In 1994, Massachusetts voters decided to eliminate rent control by referendum. Most established protections eventually ran out in 1997, The Economist reported, and a year later there was an increase in eviction complaints and the number of people on waiting lists for public housing.

As one way of incorporating landlords’ interests into a new housing policy, Urban Habitat advocates legislation that would exempt new construction from rent control, as previous ordinances have done, with the “new” designation removed after some time, allowing rent control to take effect.

Tenants’ rights advocates suggest this approach could help ensure a good supply of affordable housing and that market-rate units become more affordable as they age.

Over the years, economists and those who oppose rent control have suggested the policy creates more problems than it solves, and that while it might be effective in a crisis, it should only be used as a last resort to combat rising rents.

“The other thing about rent control, besides it never building one unit, [is that] you do create this new bureaucracy, and the concern that I have is if people pass rent control, they think they solve the housing problem,” says Tom Bannon, CEO of the California Apartment Association, which sponsored Costa Hawkins when it was first introduced. “And one, it’s counterproductive, but two, they kind of take their eye off really the need to build housing as fast as we can build it because that way everybody gets housed.”

Urban Habitat’s study of the effects of rent control on housing development suggests that it doesn’t function as a significant barrier to development. In the cities of Berkeley and Los Angeles, there are significant numbers of new homes in development, and a slowdown in Santa Monica appears to be driven more by zoning and approval processes than rent control.

That information has been slow to percolate out to counter misinformation that undermines the drive toward rent control. That leaves many renters at the mercy of their landlords until the law gets changed.

Advocates also say they understand that rent control is not a fix-all for the housing crisis.

“It’s going to take a multitude of solutions, and it’s going to take a lot of work from our leadership, our government officials, our residents, and our community leaders. So I don’t think there is a single solution to it, and I don’t think rent control is going to solve the problem,” Butler says. “I think it could help though. I think it could help.”

Lornet Turnbull

Lornet Turnbull is an associate editor at YES!, where she covers civil liberties. The author lives in Seattle in a rented two-bedroom house with her partner. @TurnbullL

Commentary

Make Them Pay: The Global Wealth-Hiding, Ultra-Rich Elites

Down the street from my office, a luxury residential tower is rising, the fifth such project in Boston in the last decade. The 61-story “One Dalton Place” is being marketed as “New England’s tallest and most luxurious residential building.”

Across the coastal cities of North America, cranes are rising to construct similar stunning new glass towers of both residential and commercial properties. Real estate in existing neighborhoods is being bid up by investors and wealthy buyers, pushing up the cost of land and housing for everyone else.

A high percentage of these housing units will sit empty or rarely occupied. In Boston’s luxury Millennium Tower, for example, only 25 percent of the units are considered the occupants’ principal residence. Some are owned by wealthy individuals from the U.S. But they also serve as elegant piggy banks, destinations for wealthy plutocrats from around the planet who are spiriting money out of their home countries and seeking stable markets to hold value.

As global stock markets rise to precariously high levels, more and more wealth will transfer into real estate as a hedge against a downturn in the securities marketplace. Similarly, as economic volatility grows in many countries and the quality of life deteriorates, wealth will flow to safe havens, such as the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., with characteristics uncommon in the developing world: financial system protections, property rights and other legal protections, on top of amenities like high-end restaurants and luxury travel comforts.

These wealthy elites, known in the investment world as “ultra-high net worth individuals” with wealth over $30 million, are in the richest 0.003 percent. They are part of a globe-trotting elite with residences and assets spread across multiple locales, borders, and time zones.

A growing number of these owners mask their identities behind shell corporations or opaque trusts, part of the global wealth-hiding apparatus. The legal owner may be incorporated in Bermuda, controlled by a trust registered in Panama. The funds purchasing the property may come from an account in the Cayman Islands. But the fixed asset is now in your downtown luxury residential tower or residential neighborhood.

The attention to these shadowy practices can be partly attributed to increased scrutiny over Trump Organization real estate properties. The journalists at BuzzFeed found that more than one-fifth of Trump’s U.S. condominiums — more than 1,300 properties — were purchased with cash by shell corporations, effectively shielding the owners from any scrutiny. Many of these shell corporations were based in the British Virgin Islands, Panama, and other secrecy jurisdictions on the U.S. Treasury Department watchlist for money laundering.

We will be told there is nothing we can do to protect our communities from this disruption, that we should count our blessings to have the rich repopulating our city centers. But in exchange for providing a stable piggy bank and environment to protect these assets, North American cities should ask for more than property tax payments.

Municipalities should move with due haste to enact high-end real estate transfer taxes, requirements for the disclosure of beneficial ownership, and regulations aimed at the disruptive impact absentee owner-investors are having on our cities. And cities should act in concert to keep from being pitted against each other, forming compacts to defend themselves against rapacious global capital.

The city of Vancouver has increased taxes on unoccupied properties and the province of British Columbia has just levied a tax on absentee owners. These policy actions were taken in response to dramatic increases in Chinese investors who were treating Vancouver area real estate as offshore piggy banks, with no intention of occupancy.

In San Francisco, voters in 2016 approved a high-end real estate transfer tax on residential and commercial properties sold for over $5 million. It is expected to generate $44 million a year, which has been allocated to fund free tuition for residents at San Francisco Community College and help pay for the city’s tree maintenance program.

Other cities could levy such a tax and channel funds to address the root causes of the affordable housing crisis. Activists in Boston and New York City are exploring steering revenue to programs to expand permanently affordable housing.

While many cities are focused on expanding supply as the solution to the housing crisis, a more strategic approach is to expand the stock of “social housing,” or permanently affordable housing in the form of public housing, nonprofit-owned rental housing, limited equity cooperatives, and homeownership on community land trusts. This ensures that any scarce public resources or improvements — donations of land, grants, and increased density due to zoning decisions — are locked into permanently affordable structures.

In nature, there is the maxim that the solution often grows near the problem. The jewelweed remedy for itchiness often grows near the poison ivy. In this case, taxing high-end real estate transfers, one driver of the affordable housing crisis, also could provide resources to fix the problem.

Chuck Collins

Colonialism and the Lost Indigenous Housing Designs

Developed Over Thousands of Years, Traditional Architecture Can Also Build Climate Resiliency

Sky City village in the Pueblo of Acoma

Sky City village in the Pueblo of Acoma, 60 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. YES! Illustration by Julie Notarianni

Imagine a community where every home maintains a comfortable temperature , without the use of electricity. Designed with local materials and aligned to maximize use of solar energy, these homes are more than just a place to live: They are also perfectly suited for processing food, participating in religious gatherings, and maintaining social relationships. These houses are also incredibly durable to the test of time — so durable, in fact, that they’ve survived thousands of years.

Chelsey Luger

Kayla DeVault is an Anishinaabe and enrolled Shawnee. She’s a certified engineer who has researched land reform on the Navajo Nation and the energy efficiency of traditional housing. The author lives in a Phoenix rental. She previously lived in a trailer and in her car. @htiaf_alyak

Acoma epitomizes intelligent architectural design exactly as described. About 60 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, this community has thrived in its Southwestern desert atop a mesa for what tribal elders estimate to be over 2,000 years.

These days, not everyone lives in Sky City. After centuries of oppression and violence from Spanish and American colonial governments, the Pueblo of Acoma retains only about 10 percent of its original land base. And the federal government maintains a significant stake in the Pueblo of Acoma’s tribal housing programs.

Today, indigenous communities are impacted by U.S. housing practices. In the case of the Pueblo of Acoma, for example, the primary source of funding for the tribe’s housing authority is through a grant program that funds tribal housing projects — so long as they meet standards set by Housing and Urban Development. These standards force projects to conform to Western design principles. As a result, tribal members live in Western-style project homes — homes that don’t incorporate cultural needs, aren’t energy efficient, and undercut community self-sufficiency.

But some indigenous people are fighting back. They’re working to revitalize traditional architecture in Native communities, insert traditional principles into Western architecture training programs, and build housing justice in Indian Country.

In my work as a master’s candidate of American Indian studies at Arizona State University, I’ve studied the impact of housing policy on traditional housing, energy resilience, and culture in indigenous communities in Arizona. This work brought me in contact with Wanda Dalla Costa, an architect who is leading efforts to revitalize traditional architecture in Arizona.

Dalla Costa is a Saddle Creek Cree and visiting professor at ASU. She views housing as not only an expression of tribal sovereignty, but also as a pathway to nation-building.

Currently, Dalla Costa collaborates with the Gila River Indian Community, south of Phoenix, on what she calls “re-operationalizing their traditional homes” in a modern context. As part of this project, students from ASU partner with tribal members to learn about traditional building techniques and the role that architectural design plays in supporting and maintaining cultural values.

One outcome of this partnership is to provide the community with recommendations for architecture that integrates traditional design principles into modern structures. Dalla Costa’s team has gathered information on the role traditional structures played in the daily life and culture of the tribe’s O’otham ancestors. In this process, students have listened to community members tell stories of the important role these structures play in social gatherings.

By gathering this information, Dalla Costa and her team will establish cultural priorities that should appear in the design of modern homes. Currently, Dalla Costa is fundraising to build a housing prototype in 2019 and plans to start co-designing with tribal members soon.

Indigenous architecture

Indigenous architecture is well-suited to extreme Arizonan heat and climate. YES! Illustration by Julie Notarianni

Research shows that architecture that reflects local traditions and heritage provides social and cultural benefits. According to award-winning East Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi in an interview for Reuters, architecture that uses interlocking spaces, colors, and designs rooted in local traditions provides residents — especially those in vulnerable communities — with security, and can lead to social change. Yet, in an interview by Dezeen, Doshi notes that India’s desire to compete globally has led it to construct characterless skyscrapers. This kind of growth reflects a “desire to be like somebody else” rather than a desire to reflect local heritage, he says. In his designs, he seeks to revitalize traditional architecture by incorporating aspects of traditional design, such as architectural elements from Hindu temples.

Traditional architecture can also build climate resiliency. Because it was developed over the course of thousands of years by indigenous people, traditional architecture is well-adapted for local climates. In her work with the Gila River Indian Community, Dalla Costa studied how traditional architecture is well-suited to extreme Arizonan heat and climate. Sandwich housing, for example, is built using adobe materials with a high thermal mass. This means they absorb and store heat, making them energy-efficient cooling structures that not only preserve culture, but increase community self-sufficiency, too.

These cultural and environmental benefits stand in contrast to Western architecture in the U.S. and Canada, where housing laws, markets, and architectural standards have commodified housing and stripped non-monetary values from design priorities — values like community strength and resiliency. A typical suburban home may have a yard to impress the neighbors, but it isn’t designed to invite those neighbors in. Western architects are trained to build housing for “efficiency and mass appeal,” such as the developer homes, or “purely aesthetic,” overly reliant on slick or sexy imagery, says Dalla Costa.

In her work, Dalla Costa hopes to build traditional values into Western architectural training programs while helping indigenous communities begin to revitalize traditional architecture in Arizona. And there are others working to do this, too.

The organization Red Feather partners with indigenous communities in Arizona to increase access to healthy housing. Instead of promoting the creation of new homes and communities, Red Feather works with tribal members to eliminate health risks in traditional — but dilapidated — houses. Also in the Southwest, the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative plans and researches with tribes to design culturally relevant and environmentally friendly projects that promote community self-sufficiency. Joseph Kunkel, the executive director of SNCC, is a Cheyenne tribal member and visiting professor at ASU who has recently partnered with Dalla Costa.

This movement to revitalize traditional housing in Arizona has implications that extend beyond Indian Country.

It calls into question whether Western housing truly serves our needs as a home — not just a commodity. And it forces us to consider the connection between architecture, design, and cultural values. For example, what do homes with large garages and tiny kitchens say about modern American culture? Do the standard models we see in communities today support the cultural and socio-economic diversity of this country — or do they force cultural assimilation?

And how can we create homes that represent the cultural values we want — homes that are sustainable, healthy, and that build strong communities — without appropriating traditional architecture? Perhaps this is where settler-colonial communities will need to think about how they can support indigenous architects. As more and more Native-owned construction firms open, how can non-indigenous people support them?

Beginning to answer some of these questions is a step toward building housing justice for all our unique communities — on the reservation and beyond.

Chelsey Luger

Kayla DeVault is an Anishinaabe and enrolled Shawnee. She’s a certified engineer who has researched land reform on the Navajo Nation and the energy efficiency of traditional housing. The author lives in a Phoenix rental. She previously lived in a trailer and in her car. @htiaf_alyak

A poem by Craig Santos Perez

A Make-Believe Nation

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Winter at Oceti Sakowin Camp

PHOTO By Kekai AhSam

I DRIVE THROUGH the industrial neighborhood: 

ocean blue tarps and colorful tents cluster 

like a coral reef amongst a shipwreck of 

shopping carts and bikes. This encampment 

is one of many across Hawai‘i, the state 

with the highest homeless rate in the nation. 

So many islanders barely surviving beyond 

the frame of a tourist postcard. So many 

families bankrupted by the high cost 

of living in “paradise.” I park in the nearby 

lot of the Children’s Discovery Center, 

then unbuckle my daughter from her car seat. 

After I pay the admission fees, she pulls me 

by the hand to her favorite area: a make-believe 

town with a post office, clinic, library, theater,

television studio, grocery store, and classroom. 

As she plays, I make-believe a nation where all 

of this is a pure public good, non-rivalrous 

and non-excludable. A nation where housing, 

good government, and bread are no longer 

privatized. A nation divested from the public

harms of border walls and military weapons. 

When she tires, we return to our car. I drive, 

more slowly, through the encampment. Soon, 

without warning, real bulldozers, dump trucks, 

cops, and state workers will enforce laws 

that ban sitting and lying in public spaces. 

They will sweep these makeshift homes 

and vulnerable citizens off the sidewalk, 

where a girl is now playing in an inflatable, 

plastic pool, surrounded by her parents. 

She looks the same age as my daughter, 

who has fallen asleep in her car seat, 

as I dream of a future commons.  

Taiaiake Alfred
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A New Generation Finds a Different American Dream — and They’re Happy

Flexible work and make-do housing

Britni de la Cretaz

Britni de la Cretaz, 33, a freelance journalist who lives in the Boston area with her husband and children, didn’t want to give up on the idea of homeownership. But they had to contend with the uncertainty of contract work. PHOTO by Jesse Stansfield

It’s no surprise to anyone that the housing market of 2018 isn’t the same as the one 40 years ago. But what it means for young people piecing together careers is that they can’t expect to afford the same houses and lifestyles their parents’ generation was able to obtain.

A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez

A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist who produces materials relating to mental and physical health, sociology, and parenting. The author lives with her family and recently purchased her first home. @amrothom

Millennials, sometimes referred to as “generation rent,” are having to get creative and find alternatives. And for many of them, it’s working just fine.

Britni de la Cretaz, 33, a freelance journalist who lives in the Boston area with her husband and children, didn’t want to give up on the idea of homeownership. But she and her husband, who works as a consultant, also had to cope with the financial uncertainty that usually accompanies contract work. Instead of opting out, they bought a house, then rented out the ground floor.

“We never wanted to worry about not being able to pay our mortgage, so we intentionally sought out a two-family home so we would always have rental income, even if our job situation became precarious,” de la Cretaz says.

“A consequence of coming of age during an economic recession is missing out on many of the employment benefits seen by previous generations,” says Nancy Worth, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. She uses generational analysis through her project, GenYatHome, to examine how people born at a particular time share experiences. “Their experience is with a job market characterized by flexibility and precarity. Jobs with full benefits are something most millennials have never known.”

The financial burden faced by many young people is formidable. About 1 in 3 millennials lives with their parents due to the combined burden of student loans, a competitive multigenerational job market, and rising mortgage rates, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Rising costs are a barrier to home buying, especially for millennials. As if cost isn’t a big enough obstacle, there’s a significant inventory shortage in many cities.

The problem isn’t just for home buyers; renters are also struggling. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, 11.1 million renters in the U.S. spent more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

Millennials are creating their own version of success, Worth says, even though it looks different from previous generations’ picture of the American Dream.

Lynn Brown

For Lynn Brown, financial stability was a higher priority than having a permanent roof over her head. So, technically, she’s homeless. But happy. “Instead of finding a new place to live, [I] just decided to fulfill my fantasy of traveling constantly.” Photo from Lynn Brown

Lynn Brown, 28, refused to let the housing market and rising costs of living stop her from enjoying life. For her, financial stability was a higher priority than having a permanent roof over her head.

So, technically, she’s homeless. But happy.

She says the only thing she’s had to give up is other people’s timelines. “There’s this idea that in your 30s you should be settling down and having a family and that kind of thing. Like the only thing I feel like I’ve sacrificed is the mentality of where I’m supposed to be at my age and what I’m supposed to be doing,” Brown says.

Before committing to a nomadic lifestyle, Brown sought out more traditional means of cost-effective housing. “In the past, I’ve tried to either live in cheaper areas or live in communal housing.”

While living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she shared a historic house with eight other people. “But I’m not really a fan of roommates, which made it difficult,” she says.

She was always enamored with the idea of traveling constantly, but the end of a relationship finally gave her the push to get started. “Instead of finding a new place to live, [I] just decided to fulfill my fantasy of traveling constantly. I cut down my belongings to eight boxes and two suitcases — put the boxes in storage in my mother’s basement and carry the essentials with me in my suitcases.”

Brown started freelance writing about travel and history as a way to make income on the go.

“For a lot of young people in this generation, work has a new normal, compared to their parents and grandparents,” Worth says, discussing how many millennials have unique and flexible work.

They’re as flexible with work as they are with housing, changing jobs often. A recent Gallup poll found that 45 percent of millennials would change jobs for student loan reimbursement and tuition reimbursement, and 50 percent would change jobs for part-time flex work options.

“Part of the wider story is thinking about how housing, work, and our social lives fit together,” Worth says. “As housing becomes nontraditional in all these different ways, there are lots of innovations of work that are happening, as well as trying to make work possible but also fulfilling.”

Millennials are known for embracing the gig economy, a work style characterized by a series of contract jobs and short-term assignments. Self-employment and fluctuating income make it a lot more difficult to buy a house.

left double quoteI cut down my belongings to eight boxes and two suitcases — put the boxes in storage in my mother’s basement and carry the essentials with me in my suitcases.” — Lynn Brown

Worth believes variations of de la Cretaz’s home-sharing structure are common for individuals doing freelance work. Housing coping strategies, she says, are useful for those with freelance or contract jobs, who don’t necessarily want to be the only name on a long-term lease.

For de la Cretaz, there were other perks.

“It gave us housing stability, allowed us to begin saving for retirement, provided childcare help for us when we had other people living in our home, and gave friends and community members a place to live when they needed it,” she says.

Alaina Leary, 25, works in publishing from home and opted to live in Quincy, a town in the Boston area with a lower cost of living.

“It has no doubt saved me a lot of money and time. It’s time I now spend working and making money, and even the extra 2–3 hours per day five days a week has yielded thousands of extra dollars in my savings account over 2017 and early 2018,” Leary says.

While these approaches are innovative, Worth says, they’re choices being made not just from a cultural standpoint, but also out of necessity.

“If you look at the baby boomers, a lot of them were able to move out by their late teens even and had permanent full-time jobs with benefits in their 20s, but within one generation that’s really changed,” Worth says. “The idea of what’s normal has really changed. Young people typically look to their parents for what to expect, but nothing is the same in terms of wider social conditions around work, housing, and family life.”

The nonprofit policy research organization Generation Squeeze estimates it took five years to save a 20 percent down payment in 1976, compared to 13–27 years today. Many Americans are no longer able to make a 20 percent down payment.

But interestingly, Worth says, millennials seem to be less bothered by communal living situations. “One in three people surveyed responded with ‘I lived at home because I want to stay with my parents,’” she says. “That isn’t necessarily new with the millennial generation, but it’s an unreflected-upon part of why millennials live at home, this idea of generational interconnectedness and helping each other cope in times of economic stress.”

“I’m taking this time of not having rent to save up some money and decide where I want to settle down long term — or if I want to settle down at all,” Brown says.

A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez

A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist who produces materials relating to mental and physical health, sociology, and parenting. The author lives with her family and recently purchased her first home. @amrothom

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