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October 21, 2015; Next City

In NextCity, Erika Poethig and Reed Jordan offer a cogent defense of the need to preserve affordable housing in the face of gentrification of low-income communities in “Cities Where a Big Chunk of Affordable Housing Could Soon Disappear.” Their argument is a nuanced change from the Affordable Housing Preservation movement of the 1990–2010 period (hereinafter AHP 1.0) when advocates mounted a “save everything” strategy. The new Affordable Housing Preservation strategy (AHP 2.0) is informed by a renewed awareness that preservation of existing assisted units can mean perpetuation of segregation. A New York Times editorial from October 17, 2015 makes that argument forcefully:

Elected officials have often reinforced segregation through a range of policies. Among the most pernicious of these is the practice of building subsidized housing mainly in existing ghettos instead of in areas that offer low- and moderate-income families access to safe neighborhoods, good jobs and schools that allow their children to thrive. Good things can happen when the cycle of racial isolation is broken.

By making the case for affordable housing preservation as an anti-gentrification tool, Poethig and Jordan are acknowledging that an influx of younger, more affluent urbanites into formerly low-income neighborhoods can create inclusion if low-income households are not displaced by speculation and rent increases. This is a new strategy niche. Poethig’s and Jordan’s theme is amplified in the Bloomberg news story, “A Lot of Cheap Housing Is About to Get Very Expensive.”

In fact, the displacement of low-income tenants is not the end of the world for the households in these “at risk” buildings. Under HUD regulations, the funding for the project-based rental assistance will be converted to tenant-based rental assistance if the owners “opt out” of their project-based contracts. The households will be offered housing choice vouchers to find affordable housing elsewhere. Poethig and Reed argue: Why move to an opportunity neighborhood elsewhere when that neighborhood is moving in on you? It makes some sense, but the strategy won’t work unless there are owners or developers that can resist the lure of high rents and high profits that can flow from being in the right place at the right time. Sounds like a job for…nonprofit housing developers.

Unfortunately neither the NewCity nor Bloomberg articles offer any suggestions about how nonprofit developers can afford to pay “market prices” for properties and then operate them as “affordable.” (See “Community Protests as Fannie Mae Backs Affordable Housing Sell-off in Boston” for an analogous dilemma.)

Focusing on combatting gentrification is a change from AHP 1.0, when every assisted housing unit, regardless of condition or location, was a precious preservation opportunity. Thus, in the 1990s, an interesting coalition of housing developers (many of them nonprofits) and advocates for low-income people had a common interest in preserving these privately owned, publicly assisted developments. Their advocacy worked. HUD began to design policies to lure owners into long-term renewals of project-based subsidies. And owners in a weak rental market took the bait of a long-term contract (5–20 years) instead of risking the private market options to them at the time. Today, the hot rental market has changed the risk/reward equation.

While creating new preservation programs, HUD was also cautiously creating polices that permitted and promoted tenant mobility. Today, most preservation programs incorporate mobility options. At the same time, HUD’s new commitment to mobility and inclusion, especially since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Texas v. Inclusive Communities undermines the strategy of saving every assisted unit. The new mobility and inclusion policies challenge the preservationists to respond with new rationales for preserving affordable units. The Poethig and Reed story is exhibit 1 for AHP 2.0, but affordable housing preservationists are pushing back on several fronts.

In an article in Rooflines, Michael Bodakan and Ellen Lurie Hoffman of National Housing Trust argue that “Not all of these families can be relocated to affluent communities and many would prefer not to leave their neighborhoods. We favor a ‘mobility plus’ strategy, providing residents the choice to move while also working with other residents to transform distressed urban neighborhoods into diverse communities with access to transit and jobs.” Two missing elements of this “mobility plus” formula are schools and health. As long as public school systems are residency-based, location does matter. Likewise, proximity to hazardous wastes, air pollution and casual violence are other risk factors of some place based subsidized developments. Also in Rooflines, Shelterforce editor Miriam Axel-Lute makes a more passionate defense of traditional neighborhoods in “The Best Thing I Didn’t Hear All Week.” Turns out the best thing not heard at the annual conference of the National Community Land Trust Network was anything about inclusion: “Here’s what I did hear quite often: ‘community cohesion’—as in, they had it, and it was so valuable that the project planners were bending over backward to allow it to be preserved. Here’s another thing I didn’t hear: ‘mixed income.’”

What these two perspectives have in common is that they try to respect the wishes of people who don’t want to leave traditional neighborhoods. Valuable in the short term, but maybe not a long-term solution to persistent poverty. So where from here?

  • Step 1: Preserve what makes sense. Low-income properties in areas of rapid gentrification and in rural communities where there is an absolute scarcity of housing opportunities make sense. Spending more money on dilapidated structures in low-opportunity areas does not.
  • Step 2: Inclusionists need to honor the choices of individuals or households to stay in “traditional” communities. Does that mean creating new programs to “prop up” traditional communities? Well, it’s like the “family farm.” Everyone likes the idea, but nobody wants to invest in one. Politicians will decide.
  • Step 3: Preservationists need to explicitly accept inclusion and mobility as the housing strategy of the future with “more” deliberate speed. They need to build mobility into their practice wherever possible. Simply perpetuating the architecture of segregation must end. The time line of more deliberate speed is derived from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. “Shortly after Warren retired from the Court, he acknowledged that ‘all deliberate speed’ was chosen as a benchmark because ‘there were so many blocks preventing an immediate solution of the thing in reality that the best we could look for would be a progression of action.’”

We’ve seen this movie before. For the moment, inclusionists have the policy momentum in what seems to be a new era, but they should know that the winds of change blow both directions. Affordable housing preservationists don’t need to fear a rapid policy pivot towards mobility and inclusion because the built environment changes more slowly than the policy environment. There’s plenty of room for both strategies over the next generation, with some hope that the arc of change bends toward greater inclusion through that period. In her landmark article “Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law,” Nikole Hannah-Jones charts how the duty to “affirmatively further fair housing” in the 1968 Fair Housing Act languished since the early 1970s. For inclusion more deliberate speed is in order.—Spencer Wells