Affordable Housing is a Scam!

Unlike Hillside Villa, Kingswood rents were tied to “Area Median Income” (AMI), a number set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban …

This demand concludes every story about rising rents, gentrification, and homelessness. Increasingly clear, however, is the vast difference between truly affordable housing — housing that supports the lives of working tenants — and that housing which results from “Affordable Housing” policy.

This rhetorical sleight of hand allows the urgent demand for housing affordability to be co-opted in support of policies which, as we will show, serve to increase rather than alleviate housing insecurity, displacement, and social cleansing.

We want to be clear that we are not calling for an end to public support for housing. Conservatives and progressives alike make such demands in their own proposals for solving the housing question. We flatly reject such demands, having a fundamentally different understanding of the common good. Instead, we understand housing as a human need, and thus we advocate for housing as a human right. Working towards that goal — as we do daily in the LA Tenants Union (LATU) — demands that we unravel the catch-all phrase of “affordable housing.”

In this text, we will lay out the specific history and consequences of “Affordable Housing,” in which “affordable” became the term by which city officials promise housing for the poor and working people and, by those very same housing schemes, take it away. It is for this reason that we refer to “Affordable Housing” as a scam.

We will tell the stories of LATU members living in “Affordable Housing” to underscore the failures of this dominant policy. Then, on the basis of both efficacy and ethics, we will argue that we must make alternative demands, not for “Affordable Housing,” but for public- and community-owned housing, re-imagining the housing system we would need to provide for the needs of all.

  1. WANT HOUSING AFFORDABILITY? SAY NO TO ‘AFFORDABLE HOUSING’

In December of 2018, the residents of the Hillside Villa Apartments woke up to devastating news from their landlord. On June 1 of 2019, in just six months, the building’s “affordable” status would expire, and the cost of rent would increase to match market prices in their rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

Some tenants would see their rent go from $850 to $2,500 per month — an increase of 200%. Many residents had lived in this building for thirty years. They were families with children, elderly couples or siblings, and disabled folks living on fixed incomes. Many of the tenants had immigrated to the U.S. from East Asia or Central America and spoke exclusively Mandarin or Spanish. They could not afford the increases, and they had nowhere else to go.

The construction of “Affordable Housing” developments is subsidized by public funds; in exchange, rents are regulated by covenants, which carry an expiration date. Hillside Villa, a 124-unit building, received $5.5 million of city and federal funding; its covenant was set for thirty years. Once a covenant expires, a building’s owner is not required to pay back any public funds; rather, he is freed from all regulations which kept rents down, able to extract and hoard all future profits. In Hillside Villa’s case, owner Thomas Botz — a wealthy, white resident of Malibu with multiple investment properties across Los Angeles — could force the displacement of dozens of Chinese American and Latinx families.

Hillside Villa is not alone in facing a central failure of “Affordable Housing:” “Affordable Housing” expires. Most covenants last for 15, 30, or 50 years. In the City of Los Angeles alone, there are an estimated 11,771 “Affordable Housing” units which will convert to market-rate within the next five years. Seventy-one percent of these units are owned by for-profit landlords. Across the country, over the next ten years, we will see more than one million withdrawn from the programs that keep them “affordable.” In the hands of private owners, the stability of neighborhoods and the communities who make them what they are will be under constant threat.

But Hillside Villa has organized and fought back. With support from LATU and Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, the tenants formed the Hillside Villa Tenants Association, meeting weekly to strategize and share information, with simultaneous interpretation occurring in three different languages at once (Spanish, English, and Mandarin). Escalating their struggle, they occupied the offices of their City Councilmember and held a protest at their landlord’s mansion.

Through-out their struggle to defend their community, the Hillside Villa tenants made another failure of “Affordable Housing” clear: “Affordable Housing” is Privately-Owned, Publicly-Subsidized Housing (POSH); its incentives of both profit and public good are fundamentally misaligned. The requirement to keep rents down did not prevent Botz from charging exorbitant fees for parking and pets; he didn’t allow children to play in the courtyard; he let his building fall into disrepair. More, Botz has been double-dipping in public subsidies, by filling his apartments constructed on the public’s dime with tenants who currently receive Section 8 subsidies. As this demonstrates, “Affordable Housing” enables a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector, draining public resources for private gain. It relies zero-interest construction loans, enormous tax-breaks, density bonuses, as well as the sale of bargain-priced, once-publicly-owned land. But the policy provides no way for cities to recapture the value of these giveaways. The social benefit is temporary. The private benefit is permanent.

The situation at the Kingswood Apartments in East Hollywood illustrates other limitations of so-called “Affordable Housing,” namely: “Affordable Housing” most helps the least in need. In late 2018, the low- and fixed-income tenants living at the corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Kingsly Drive received notices from their building’s new management company about a rent increase. When increase notices went out again in the spring of 2019, the tenants realized rents would be above what any of them could afford.

Forming the Kingswood Apartments Tenants Association, the residents, supported by LATU, began researching the covenant which regulated rents in their building. Unlike Hillside Villa, Kingswood rents were tied to “Area Median Income” (AMI), a number set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD). Since AMI is adjusted upward every year, the managers of their building, The Michaels Organization, one of the largest owners of “Affordable Housing” in the entire country had the legal right to raise rents, regardless of tenants’ ability to pay. For years, the previous managers had elected not to go forward with an increase, knowing that to do so would displace the tenants, many of whom are elderly and have physical or mental disabilities. The Michael Organization felt no such obligation.

The current struggle of the Kingswood tenants underscores how AMI, the basis for calculating the affordability of “Affordable Housing,” serves to exclude the poor. Area Median Income is calculated by HUD as the median income of an entire County. In Los Angeles, the County includes the City of Beverly Hills (median income $96,312) as well as neighborhoods like Bel Air ($207,938) and Pacific Palisades ($168,008). By contrast, in a neighborhood like Westlake the median income is $26,757.

In an “Affordable Housing” development, or in a market-rate development with a few designated “Affordable” apartments, units are offered to tenants whose incomes match particular percentages of AMI. Under this federal rubric, “low income” tenants are those who earn up to 80% of AMI; “very low income” tenants earn up to 50% of AMI, and “extremely low income” tenants earn up to 30% of AMI. In Los Angeles County, a family of four making up to $83,500 per year may qualify as “low-income” and is eligible for “Affordable Housing.” Numbers from the Los Angeles City Planning department show that 40% of “affordable” units created by LA’s Transit Oriented Communities program have been offered to tenants in this income bracket.

The “very low income” bracket includes families making up to $52,200, and even the “extremely low income” bracket includes families earning up to $31,300 — significantly more money than the median household in many gentrifying neighborhoods like Chinatown, Pico-Union, South Central, and East Hollywood. In Los Angeles County, over one-fifth of households (699,328 total) have incomes below $25,000, meaning they would very likely not be served by most “Affordable Housing.”

Given the competition for affordable apartments with waitlists that turn “Affordable Housing” into lottery housing, landlords have no incentive to offer “affordable” apartments to anyone except those highest earners within an income bracket. By its design, the poorest households will be largely shut out, most benefiting the least in need.

‘Affordable Housing’ Is Gentrifying Housing

Thus, “Affordable Housing” contributes to the very processes it claims to alleviate. “Affordable” apartments are often built in neighborhoods from which resources have been historically divested, where land values are lower, and future returns more promising to private investors. In most cases, long-term residents receive no preferential access to “Affordable Housing” in the neighborhoods they for decades have called home. Applicants are subjected to discrimination based on invasive criminal background checks and reviews of their immigration status — which, in any other circumstances, are illegal in the State of California. More, as argued above, they can’t afford the “Affordable Housing” on offer.

The County-wide AMI standard, combined with the policy’s outcome of producing the most housing for the highest-earning “low-income” category, forces long-term residents of low-income communities into a losing competition with higher-earning residents from elsewhere in the county. As “Affordable Housing” Developments introduce higher-income populations into historically poor neighborhoods, they contribute to the displacement of long-term, low-income residents, inviting price-gouging, harassment, evictions, and the flipping of amenities throughout the neighborhood.

Certainly, developers have come to rely on “Affordable Housing” to grease the wheels of the planning process and take advantage of tax breaks and subsidies. A recent proposal for a 300-unit market-rate building bordering LA’s Skid Row, for example, earmarks thirty-two units for families within the “moderate income” bracket — a bracket which includes tenants who earn up to $125,000 per year by setting aside a tiny number of “affordable” apartments within a new market-rate development project, real estate developers have appropriated “Affordable Housing” policy for their own ends. Thus, “Affordable Housing” not only fails to meet its stated goals of housing provision for those who need it but has also become a tool by which housing becomes less affordable for all.

“Affordable Housing” is often invoked to privatize once-public housing resources, and to skirt rent control regulations. Both for-profit and nonprofit developers as well as city and federal governments use “Affordable Housing” as a tool to remove the poor. The nonprofit developer Abode Communities, for example, plans to destroy thirty-six rent-controlled units in Westlake / MacArthur Park, a majority Latinx neighborhood where the median household income is $26,000. Their replacement “Affordable Housing” project will house families earning up to $50,000. According to Abode’s policies, undocumented immigrants will not be eligible.

Under the Clinton Administration’s HOPE VI Program, twelve hundred public apartments were demolished from Boyle Heights in the 1990s. In the place of what had been the largest public housing complex west of the Mississippi are now a few “Affordable” developments, ninety-three for-sale market-rate homes, and just 300 units of public housing. The beneficiaries of the demolition were obviously not community residents, most of whom were displaced. Instead, its beneficiaries are real estate investors and private owners. One of the “Affordable Housing” developments, Pueblo Del Sol, was built and financed in part by Related Companies, a real estate firm owned by billionaire — and prominent Trump supporter — Stephen Ross. Related Companies is currently involved in the planned demolition-and-redevelopment of the 100-unit public housing complex Rose Hill Courts, in addition to benefiting from $198 million of public money for a massive luxury development in Downtown. These examples are not exceptions but the rule of “Affordable Housing:” “Affordable Housing” is Bait-and-Switch Housing (BASH), used as an excuse to demolish rent-controlled and public housing.

The lived reality of tenants living in “Affordable Housing” reveal the falsity of the promises made by its advocates. With all its limitations, the benefits of “Affordable Housing” to landlords and real estate developers do not match the benefits they provide to tenants, which are short-lived, misdirected, and over-priced. Replacing rent control or public housing with the privately-owned programs of “Affordable Housing” prioritizes private interests over public good. Indeed, as a policy “Affordable Housing” reflects a broad political project of privatization and decades-long attack on socialized alternatives. This becomes all the more apparent when we understand the history of “Affordable Housing” in the context of what it was intended to replace: public housing.

  1. THE HISTORY OF “AFFORDABLE HOUSING”

The term “Affordable Housing” first came into use in the 1970s as U.S. federal housing policy shifted from direct provision of public housing to subsidizing housing for low-income tenants built and owned by private developers. This history illustrates the strategic utility of “Affordable Housing” appropriated by capitalist interests, and simultaneously points to a radical vision for the future, as we will discuss in section four of this text.

The first U.S. government housing programs focused on slum clearance, ostensibly aimed at demolishing substandard housing, and building a supply of safe and sanitary dwellings for the poor. Federal public housing programs began with the Housing Act of 1937 (Wagner-Steagall), after decades of agitation from organized labor, civil rights groups, and women’s organizations. Though its architects imagined public housing as an option for tenants of every income, its compromised implementation was directed only at the poor.

The Housing Act of 1937 subsidized the construction of public housing by local housing authorities, establishing the local managerial system still in use. Importantly, the Act also capped rents for public housing at 20% of tenants’ income and allowed for building of racially segregated projects. In many cities, such as Los Angeles, officials used racially segregated public housing as a way to divide the labor force and guarantee property values by racially segregating neighborhoods.

Under intense pressure from the private real estate and builders’ lobby, Wagner-Steagall established strict maximum cost ceilings that produced highly standardized, minimal public housing, often stigmatized by its appearance. More, as the federal government provided billions of dollars for the creation of segregated white suburbs, public housing increasingly became seen as the housing-of-last-resort for the racially stigmatized inner-city poor.

Over the next thirty years, public housing construction was often paired with slum clearance and “urban renewal” schemes. Across the country, urban renewal — nicknamed by the civil rights movement, “negro removal” — displaced entire communities, particularly low-income people of color, as a way of enabling private development in central business districts. Despite the history of these federal housing programs, public housing provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of families who would otherwise have been ruthlessly exploited by private landlords.

The privatization of public housing began in the 1960s, as policymakers moved away from constructing large, publicly owned and operated housing projects and toward partnerships with private landlords and developers, enabled by new legislation and funding mechanisms. In 1973, the real estate class scored a major victory when President Richard Nixon declared a moratorium on constructing federally funded housing, effectively terminating the project-based phase of public housing.

The 1970s saw the architecting of “Affordable Housing” as a policy tool designed to replace public provision with private ownership, socialization with market mechanisms, and human rights with the profit motive. The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, signed into law by Republican President Gerald Ford, created what became the Section 8 or Housing Choice Voucher program, which gives low-income tenants portable housing certificates, as well as the Community Development Block Grant program, subsidies to private builders for new construction.

Under President Ronald Reagan, the privatization of subsidized housing gained a new tool in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) created by the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which enabled developers to use private activity bonds for housing finance. While LIHTC has been responsible for creating the largest number of “affordable” units out of all these programs, investigations have revealed it to be rife with corruption, and 81% of all LIHTC units are owned by for-profit entities.

With the passage of the Cranston-Gonzales National Affordable Housing Act of 1990 (NAHA), “affordability” became the watchword of a privatized federal housing policy. NAHA launched the HOME housing block grant for affordable housing for rent or homeownership, often built in partnership with nonprofit developers, and direct rental assistance to low-income people.

In the 1990s, HUD’s HOPE VI program (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) initiated a redevelopment program to demolish and replace public housing with low-rise, mixed-income housing, and a separate demolish-only program to solve the supposed physical and social ills of public housing. HOPE VI sponsored public-private partnerships to remake neighborhoods, encourage private ownership of public housing, and substitute housing vouchers for demolished units. A centerpiece in the Clinton Administration’s housing policy, HOPE VIdepleted the stock of public housing by more than 157,000 units and displaced at least a quarter of a million tenants.

Another program, Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), initiated under the Obama administration, continued the trajectory of privatization by allowing private companies to rehabilitate and manage public housing in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. The Trump administration has dramatically expanded this program; it is now at work in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities. Under RAD, 455,000 units, or 38 percent of public housing, have been authorized for transfer to the private sector.

The assault on public housing — which began even at its origins — has resulted in the proliferation of “Affordable Housing” programs that give federal and local subsidies to private and nonprofit developers. Now, U.S. housing policy has become a market-driven, mixed-income program of “Affordable Housing” for carefully selected, mostly middle-income tenants, largely excluding the very poor.

  1. PUBLIC HOUSING FOR THE 21st CENTURY

What does the history of U.S. public housing look like without urban renewal, without marginalization, without segregation? What if governments had simply built new housing in populated areas and allocated enough funds for proper upkeep? What if well-funded schools and stable jobs weren’t directed away from that housing? What if housing was understood as such a necessity that governments had treated public housing with the same respect given to freeways, bridges, transit systems, stadiums, and airports? What if the demolition of architect Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt–Igoe public housing in St. Louis (the largest in the country) was as prominent in the U.S. national memory as that of his World Trade Center towers?

As we critique the system of “Affordable Housing” that we have, and as we examine the capitalist, classist, racist forces that destroyed the public housing we had, we illuminate the need to re-imagine public housing for the future. We begin locally with the laws and policies most immediately affecting Angelenos, knowing that initial steps are just that. Nothing we currently have matches what we need, yet there are paths to consider as we go forward with the task of demanding housing as a human right.

The Hillside Villa tenants are taking an initial step with the extension of their “Affordable Housing” covenant period, which means that their building will remain within the HUD-determined AMI system to calculate rents (instead of becoming market rate). While an achievement only possible through dedicated organizing, continuing this system will only exacerbate the existing problems we described above. Ten years from now the currently gentrifying Chinatown may be an even more threatening place to be “thrown” into when the building flips to market rate. Ultimately, this only slows down the landlord’s speculation project rather than eliminating it.

Tenants of Hillside Villa also demanded that the City of Los Angeles use power of eminent domain to purchase the building from the landlord and keep the building within the “Affordable Housing” system permanently. While the landlord would receive fair-market rate payment for the building, it would end any further speculation around the building. More importantly, such a move would have the potential to establish a precedent citywide, prompting the tenants of those 11,771 units with expiring covenants to insist that the city do the same for their buildings. To date, the city has not acted.

Along similar lines, tenant organizers across the world have demanded local governments expropriate properties to take them off the speculative real estate market. Seizing private property for the public interest is a meaningful, aggressive way to fight back against slumlords, speculators, and scofflaws. For example, if the Los Angeles Housing Department receives more than a certain number of complaints and cites an owner with more than a number of code violations, then the city should move to take possession of that building and convert it to public housing. If someone’s privilege to drive a car or practice law can be taken away, why can’t their involvement in real estate speculation be rescinded as well?

The city of Berlin, Germany, recently repurchased 694 apartments on Karl Marx Allee, a rapidly gentrifying area. The units — built as social housing but privatized in 2004 — were about to be sold to a corporate landlord, Deutsche Wohnen, and many residents rightly assumed that rents would rise and displacement would be rampant. As Berlin has begun to face the same eviction pressures as Los Angeles, the local government decided to pay 90–100 million euros to make Karl Marx Allee publicly owned again, greatly increasing the likelihood that tenants in other neighborhoods and other German cities will demand the same. There is even discussion of banning housing profiteers like Deutsche Wohnen from the city of Berlin, and the local government is also considering implementing a hard rent cap to curb speculation.

Social Democrat Housing

“Public” or “social” housing doesn’t carry the same overwhelming stigma in other cities around the world that it does in the U.S., the product of racist stigmatization and sensationalized media coverage, usually in furtherance of real estate interests, over decades.

In the city of Vienna, Austria — always high ranking on lists of “best” and “happiest” cities in the world — 62% percent of residents (almost 1.2 million people) live in public housing. These tenants pay a maximum of 20–25% of their incomes in rent. If a person earns €3,300 a month or less, they are eligible to apply for a public housing unit. Residents are never required to move out, even if their income increases. The local government adds 5,000 new units annually in areas all around the city.

Planners work with architects producing new models and ensuring that public housing is never isolated from the rest of Vienna. About 200,000 units are owned outright by the city and 220,000 units are public-private. In the case of the latter, the city purchases land and solicits proposals from developers who then build and own the units (after a collaborative process with designers and community members). The private developers work with the stipulation that half (not mere fractions, as in Los Angeles) of the apartments are rented by the city as public housing to low-income tenants.

The other half go to middle-income tenants for higher rents, but still fall under the public housing rubric and are subject to rigid oversight. Such a system appears completely incredible when compared to the U.S. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to note that the Vienna model still makes room for housing to be treated as a commodity, allowing for private profit from the housing its citizenry.

Public housing has been absolutely integral to the development of the wealthy city-state of Singapore since its founding in 1965. Over 80% of the housing stock is public, built by the government’s Housing and Development Board and home to approximately 3.2 million people. Primarily built for ownership rather than renting — and thus described even by corporate media like Bloomberg as the “envy of [the] world” — the system increasingly operates alongside a growing private market, which then impacts homeowners’ equity and a unit’s value and/or desirability. After publicly funded construction, units are bought, sold, valued, and profited from, thus creating some commonality between Singapore’s model and the preeminence of “property values” that have myopically guided U.S. planning housing policies to the detriment of our public housing.

Both Vienna’s and Singapore’s public housing practices nonetheless create new and enduring neighborhoods among adjoining residences, free from the gentrification tormenting Los Angeles. In the case of Singapore’s estates, each becomes a multicultural complex with markets and hawker centers; however, community self-determination is not a factor beyond the appointment of Town Councils to act similarly to homeowners’ associations. At their core, both cities’ models are still hierarchical.

Socialized Housing

An example more in line with the grassroots organizing and demands of the LA Tenants Union is found throughout the entire country of Venezuela, where the government housing model remains entirely outside of the private profit system. The government’s La Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela (Great Housing Mission) has mandated the construction of 5 million homes around the country by 2025. Since the plan’s commencement in 2011, following an initial plan to build emergency housing for flood victims, over 2.8 million homes have been constructed to provide housing for around one-third of the population over 300,000 in 2019 alone. Either the state constructs the units and opens them to the poor (asking only a very low, income-based payment), or they provide materials and land for people — organized into officially recognized autonomous comunas — to build themselves.

The Venezuelan model thus does not offer public housing for rent or for sale from the top-down. Instead, the purpose of public housing is to stimulate self-governing settlements through public investment. The comunas are recognized within the Venezuelan constitution, with over 3,000 such groups registered. Each comuna elects delegates to state-level confederations with their own parliaments — a network of true bottom-up organizing supported by a government that emphasizes full ownership by working-class people and their corresponding empowerment. About 72% of inhabitants possess a title to their homes.

But unlike ownership in Singapore, there is no concern for a local housing market: Venezuela hands land and titles to the comunas to encourage their functioning as independent small towns. Each comuna hosts a number of cooperative, community-focused businesses and enterprises operated by residents, such as bakeries. In 2018 alone, 93,898 land titles were given away, allowing residents and comunas to move toward true autonomy, rather than only stability. Despite economic attacks through U.S. sanctions, Venezuela continues to prioritize and subsidize new construction.

Housing as a human right requires that we turn our search for solutions far away from market-based models and toward tenant-centered ones.

  1. CONCLUSION: FROM ‘AFFORDABLE HOUSING’ TO HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT

Writing about the rise of homelessness in the 1980s, progressive social critic Jonathan Kozol cited a HUD deputy assistant secretary in the Reagan administration as saying, “We’re getting out of the housing business, Period.” This led Kozol to famously conclude, “The cause of homelessness is lack of housing.”

Thirty years later, the inaccessibility of housing has dramatically worsened, but not for the lack of development. Today, the U.N. estimates that 60% of all global investments are in real estate and 75% of that number is in housing. In cities around the world, downtown skylines are a forest of construction cranes. Single-family neighborhoods are now dotted with small-lot developments and generic luxury apartment buildings. Investors stealthily convert rent-controlled apartment buildings in historic neighborhoods into boutique hotels and short-term rentals for tech-industry contract workers. And the process of social cleansing follows everywhere nearly the same templates engineered for up-zoning, upscaling, and uprooting.

The crisis of housing access is driven by the commodification of housing, which we define as the need to increase real estate investment value through planned scarcity, waste, and monopoly ownership. For all the promises of “opportunity” and “improvement” that accompany gentrification, the result for tenants is rent-gouging and social cleansing. “Affordable Housing,” while held out as the solution to the affordability crisis caused by real estate speculation, only further accelerates the crisis of displacement in the ways we’ve outlined.

The history of “Affordable Housing” is part of a decades-long assault on non-capitalist housing alternatives illuminates where our debates about housing solutions should begin. We need to start the conversation at a different place than that of housing supply, especially when the actual meaning of “Affordable Housing” is predetermined to serve the interests of a for-profit housing system (even in those instances where the “Affordable Housing” developer is part of the nonprofit housing developer industry). The failure of “Affordable Housing” has been carefully detailed here in terms of affordability covenants that expire, AMI income categories that exclude the poor, and the use of “Affordable Housing” to privatize public housing, remove rent controls, and accelerate both real estate speculation and displacement.

To build tenant power, we believe we must articulate a different vision. For that reason, we put forward three challenges to our movement:

  1. We challenge the tenant movement to center discussions around public housing in its analysis and demands. Let’s have lively debates about what public housing can mean and be, learning from the past while holding onto what we’re imagining as a movement today.
  2. We challenge the tenant movement to reject the slippery language of “Affordable Housing” and to openly demand social housing solutions outside of the market. The commodification of housing is fundamentally incompatible with the human right to housing. There can be no reconciliation of the two.
  3. Finally, activists must demand housing solutions that build on the political vision already manifest in the autonomous tenant power movement, pushing for housing that supports local autonomy. LA Tenants Union organizes collective struggles at the level of apartment buildings and neighborhoods. Our housing should support neighbors working together to build community.

Since the founding of the LA Tenants Union in 2015, members have argued that ours is not a housing movement but a movement of tenants — empowering tenants in the fullness of our lives, not just around housing. Thus, we need a housing system that encourages autonomous collective ownership of public apartment buildings, that channels resources to tenants to build and maintain their own housing as a social context for autonomous collective action at the level of the social, political, cultural, and economic. And we need to see social housing as part of all aspects of our lives. “Supportive housing” should be a universal concept integrating medical care, childcare, education, cultural expression, cooperative economic endeavors, environmental justice, food justice, and justice in terms of race, gender, sexuality, class, and immigration justice.

A primary component of the commodification of housing is to alienate our need for accommodations from the fullness of our lives. A radical housing vision rejects that separation and restores to our notion of housing the experience of social life. We propose this is the vision of the future whose seeds already exist in spaces where LATU members organize mutual support and put community into practice through tenants’ associations and local neighborhood chapters.

Why demand “Affordable Housing,” when we could demand the whole city?

(This essay is written by the “Affordable Housing” is a Scam! affinity group made up of members of the LA Tenants Union. The essay is intended to promote critical debate as our movement advances the larger struggles for housing justice and tenant power. Anthony Carfello (LA Tenants Union Media Committee), Patricia Morton (Media and Cultural Studies Department, University of California, Riverside), Dont Rhine (LA Tenants Union Hollywood Local), Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal (LA Tenants Union Vermont y Beverly Local), and Jacob Woocher (LA Tenants Union). This is the link [[[ https://medium.com/@LATenantsUnion/affordable-housing-is-a-scam-9a4c43ba8149 ]]] to the original essay, with full references.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Housing in America: What’s at stake in the 2020 presidential election

Diane Yentel is the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing … We were already in the middle of a severe affordablehousing crisis …

Diane Yentel is the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a membership organization dedicated solely to achieving socially just public policy that ensures people with the lowest incomes in the United States have affordable and decent homes. She is one of America’s leading voices on housing and homelessness.

The veteran housing policy expert’s footprint can be found in every part of the country. From testifying in front of Congress on behalf of low-income renters to educating the wider public on how to support a broader housing justice movement on major TV news outlets and on social media, Yentel and her organization’s work are a force of nature.

International Network of Street Papers North America spoke with Yentel about the eviction and housing crisis in America, what’s at stake in the upcoming presidential election, the intersection of racial and climate justice with housing, and what readers can do about it.


FINDING HOME:A new Street Roots series of in-depth articles on America’s housing and homeless crisis


Israel Bayer:Tens of millions of Americans now find themselves facing both a public health and housing crisis. Can you paint us a picture of how we got here, what’s happening on the ground and what the answers are?

Diane Yentel: To understand the eviction crisis now, we have to recognize where we were before COVID-19 emerged in our country. We were already in the middle of a severe affordable-housing crisis — where we have a shortage of 7 million apartments affordable and available to the lowest-income people. Another way of saying this is that for every 10 of the lowest-income renters in the United States, there are fewer than four affordable apartments available.

As a result of this shortage, we have 10 million very low-income households, or about 25 million people that are paying at least half of their income towards rent each month. Many are paying much more. In some cases, people are paying 60% to 80% of their income just to have a roof over their heads. When people have a limited income to begin with, and you’re paying so much for a place to call home, you’re always one financial emergency away from missing rent and potentially being evicted and, even worse, becoming homeless.

For many of these same renters, the coronavirus is that financial emergency. They’ve lost jobs, they’ve lost hours at work, and they’ve lost wages. It’s harder than ever for people to cobble together enough money to pay the rent.

The recent national moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent is long overdue and badly needed. As we have said for five months, the very least the federal government ought to do is assure each of us that we won’t lose our homes in the middle of a global pandemic. The administration’s action would do so and will provide relief from the growing threat of eviction for millions of anxious families. The eviction moratorium is an essential step, but it’s still a half-measure that extends a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when the moratorium expires and back rent is owed. This action delays, but does not prevent, evictions. Congress and the White House must get back to work on negotiations to enact a COVID-19 relief bill with at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance. Together with a national eviction moratorium, this assistance would keep renters stably housed and small landlords able to pay their bills and maintain their properties during the pandemic.

If Congress doesn’t act, as many as 30–40 million renters are still at-risk of losing their homes at the end of the year. The federal government must ensure that individuals and families aren’t going to lose their homes at anytime during a public health emergency.

Bayer:What’s at stake in the upcoming election in November?

Yentel: The housing crisis can’t be solved without intervention at all levels of government. Many of us have asked for many years: What’s it going to take for policymakers to actually prioritize the needs of low-income renters?

When you look at the difference between who votes in elections, it’s very obvious what it’s going to take. Higher-income homeowners vote at a much higher rate than low-income renters. It’s a stark difference. It’s not enough to say I’m a constituent, or an advocate. Policymakers know who votes in their community and who doesn’t. That’s who they listen to, and that’s how they prioritize the policies they are going to advance. Until we change the equation of who votes, we will never get policymakers to prioritize at the scale we need them to for solutions to end homelessness. Changing that equation changes everything.

There are a lot of reasons why low-income renters don’t vote at the same rate of higher income homeowners. Outright voter suppression — Election Day being on a workday and election sites in low-income communities oftentimes being understaffed — all contribute to lower voter turnout for low-income renters. No one should have to face the loss of hours and wages to wait in a long line to vote.

There are structural changes that need to happen to our country’s voting system to actually make it possible for low-income renters and people experiencing homelessness to really participate in democracy. Still, there is a lot we can do now to get people to register and vote. We have to find a way to empower and enable low-income renters to register and show up to vote. We have to be seen as the powerful voting block we are to accomplish the change we seek.


DIRECTOR’S DESK:Democracy must reach the unhoused — and that includes voting


Bayer:Knowing the country was already facing a housing and homelessness crisis prior to the pandemic, you become president of the United States in January 2021. What do you do both practically in the short term and systemically long term to support housing justice in America?

Yentel: The most important and consequential thing a president can do to impact housing in our country is adequately staff the agencies responsible for overseeing housing systems in our country with people that care about low-income housing and renters. This administration has shown the consequences of when that doesn’t happen. When you have somebody that doesn’t have the expertise over the programs they oversee, you know those things can be overcome and learned, but this administration has outright disdain for the people our housing programs serve. It’s had tremendous harmful consequences.


STREET ROOTS NEWS:How the Trump administration has reversed U.S. housing policy


The first thing the president should do, if I were president, is to make sure we have someone in charge of housing systems that cares about the people who need affordable housing and that are homeless and understands the changes that are needed for people to have access to that housing.

The next most consequential thing a president can do is make the case to the country of why affordable housing is so essential, and why housing justice is achievable, and to really educate the country about supporting individuals and families having decent, safe and affordable housing. Then putting out a budget that actually meets those needs by requesting from Congress the level of funding we actually need to end homelessness and the housing crisis in our country.

Bayer:Can you talk to readers about the intersections of housing and racial justice?

Yentel: Housing justice and racial justice are deeply intertwined. They are two sides of the same coin. We can’t achieve one without the other. We have in our country a history of racist housing policies from redlining and restrictive zoning that have purposely put homeownership out of reach for Black Americans. These policies have helped create a massive wealth gap where the average white household has 12 times the wealth than the average black household. It’s created enormous housing disparities in our housing systems where Black and brown people are disproportionately likely to be renters, to be rent burdened, to be low-income, and to be homeless.

Black people make up 13% of the American population yet make up 40% of the homeless population and 50% of families experiencing homelessness. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s decades of purposeful and racist policies that had led to these outcomes.

In order to reverse the harm that’s been done, we have to center racial equity in our solutions to homelessness and poverty. For example, with COVID-19 — where tens of billions of dollars are going to local communities — how do we ensure we are centering racial equity in response? We do it by directing those resources to people experiencing homelessness and to extremely low-income renters and people experiencing homelessness.

Bayer:Climate change continues to have a disproportionate impact on poor people around the globe. We continue to see an enormous uptick in natural disasters in America. Can you talk about the connection to housing and climate change?

Yentel: The connection to housing and climate change is very clear. Disaster after disaster, low-income communities and the most marginalized people are those most harmed. They are least able to evacuate prior to a disaster, and they are least able to recover afterwards. Many people sometimes don’t have the social network to be able to get back on their feet. The list goes on.

The federal government consistently leaves low-income Americans behind in recovery. This has tremendous long-term impacts on individuals and families. As disasters become more and more frequent due to climate change, we must have recovery systems that center racial equity and low-income renters, or the country will just continue to lose ground as we leave more and more people behind.

Our recovery system has been designed to meet the needs of white middle-class people who have money in the bank. It never even contemplated low-income and marginalized people and the many needs people have for recovery, not to mention the potential loss of already-existing housing stock from the disasters themselves. Our disaster recovery system in America is broken. We need change.

Bayer:Are there ways people can be talking to their family and friends who may not always agree that housing is an important public infrastructure to maintain a healthy society?

Yentel: It really depends on who you talk to and knowing your audience. There are a lot of different ways to approach these conversations.

I think especially right now during COVID-19, many people understand the connection between our own lives, health care and housing in a new way. It’s a good entry point. Some people who may have understood the connection intellectually in the past can now see and feel it in a much more intentional way.

We know our collective health depends on our ability to stay home. Many people recognize the stake that we all have to ensure that tens of millions of people don’t lose their homes in this pandemic. I think starting there can open a new conversation about how all people should have the ability to be affordably and safely housed, regardless of their circumstance.

Some people are moved by the moral argument, and it’s a really strong one to make. Housing is human right, and we should continue to say so. Still, that’s not going to bring everyone in.

With others, there’s a very strong economic case to be made. Again, in this moment, we understand just how important the idea of home is. We know not having a home not only harms the individual, but it also harms the community. We all pay for things like evictions and homelessness in the long term. Inaction is expensive. We pay to allow homelessness to persist. We pay for it through increased health care costs; we pay for it through lower educational attainment; we pay for it through less lifetime earnings and less taxes paid. We pay for it in all sorts of ways. What if we paid for it by keeping people stably housed?

Bayer:What can everyday people be doing right now to engage and support a housing justice movement nationally in America?

Yentel: They can call their member of Congress. It’s the first and last thing I would ask everyone to do, and to not be afraid to do it. You don’t have to know everything. You are an expert and have your own experience, and that’s the most powerful thing to share with your member of Congress.

That may mean you’re calling to talk about your own housing insecurity, or the housing insecurity of a friend or family member or someone you know. That’s a powerful story in itself that your members of Congress need to hear, and they need to hear it frequently. Ask them to do something about the housing crisis; in this case, ask them to pass $100 billion in emergency rent assistance. Call them again the following week and ask them what they’ve done to follow up, and then call them again. Now is the time to hold Congress accountable!

Israel Bayer is the director of the International Network of Street Papers North America, a regional bureau of the International Network of Street Papers representing street papers in Canada, Mexico and the United States. He is also the former executive director at Street Roots. Twitter @IsraelBayer

Courtesy of INSP.ngo


Street Roots is an award-winning weekly publication focusing on economic, environmental and social justice issues. The newspaper is sold in Portland, Oregon, by people experiencing homelessness and/or extreme poverty as means of earning an income with dignity. Street Roots newspaper operates independently of Street Roots advocacy and is a part of the Street Roots organization. Learn more about Street Roots. Support your community newspaper by making a one-time or recurring gift today.
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Letter: Affordable Housing in Cranford

As a former candidate for Township Committee one of the issues I made a point of learning about was affordable housing and its impact on Cranford.

To the Editor,

There’s been a lot said about Affordable Housing in Cranford and unfortunately, not a lot is relying on fact.

As a former candidate for Township Committee one of the issues I made a point of learning about was affordable housing and its impact on Cranford.

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In the mid 2000s under the Democratic majority of Jorn, McDonough and Aschenbach, the Township Committee refused to apply for substantive certification for Affordable Housing. Substantive certification would have allowed Cranford to put together a realistic housing plan and be protected from builder’s remedy lawsuits while the plan was reviewed. Republican Commissioner Ann Darby argued for the application as the only way to prevent builders remedy lawsuits. The Democrats refused and two builder’s remedy lawsuits were filed. One by Lehigh Acquisitions for Woodmont, and one by Hekemian for Birchwood. This information is available in minutes of the Cranford Township Committee.

The courts gave Lehigh over 200 units and Hekemian 366. Lehigh Acquisition negotiated with the town and reduced the number of units to 167, but Hekemian wanted to fight. That fight lasted 8 years and cost the taxpayers over one million dollars.

While this was taking place, several Township Committees and Planning Boards had to come up with a plan to meet the numbers required by Trenton.

In 2016, under a Republican majority, the Township Committee purchased the Birchwood property to reduce the density at that site and have greater control over design standards, quality of construction and financial terms. Cranford offered the property for sale at the purchase price. The offer capped the number of units at 225 garden style apartments, instead of the block apartment dwelling style offered by Hekemian. The only vote against the plan was then Commissioner Patrick Giblin.

The reduction in density at this site, meant a reconfiguring of the affordable housing numbers, but several other apartment and group home credits had become available. This allowed Cranford to balance numbers and reach the same affordable housing goals. The negotiations to make this work have been going on since the Birchwood deal was finalized.

Providing affordable housing to low and moderate income families and individuals with physical and mental disabilities is a worthy goal and Cranford should do everything it can to do our share.

But the numbers being forced on Cranford by Trenton make no sense. According to Trenton, and we all know it’s the Democrats that control Trenton, Cranford needs to supply over 1000 affordable units over the next rounds of the Affordable Housing rules. We would need to build almost 8000 units. Does that make sense to anyone? Our infrastructure, schools and public safety will never be able to handle that. The typical taxpayer in Cranford will probably not be able to afford the increases that are sure to follow. People will say let the developer make up the difference. That’s unrealistic.

Our housing plan is still in the hands of the courts. I hope they agree with Cranford’s plan and allow us to move forward.

No local candidate can influence affordable housing, but they can determine how we use development tools to reach our affordable housing goals. Eminent domain and condemnation is not the way to go. Riverfront, the most successful redevelopment project in Cranford’s history didn’t need either one.

I know this is a long explanation, and it is still not complete. But there is a way to provide affordable housing without placing an additional tax burden on people who have raised their families and supported Cranford for many years. There needs to be a middle, common ground. We need people who will fight for that in Trenton, and we need to have local leaders here in Cranford working towards that goal. What we don’t need to have is redevelopment plans that take away private property and small businesses to make it happen.

Chrissa Stulpin and Gina Black are the only candidates who seem to really understand this important issue, and have a plan for moving forward with the right approach to development in our town.

Sincerely,

Phil Siliato

Home City Development to begin $19M housing project at former Brookings School

affordable housing project at the former Elias Brookings Elementary School, aided by millions of dollars in public funding, tax credits and loans.

SPRINGFIELD — Home City Development Inc. announced Monday that construction is slated to begin in early 2021 on a $19 million affordable housing project at the former Elias Brookings Elementary School, aided by millions of dollars in public funding, tax credits and loans.

Construction of the 42-unit housing project, to be known as Elias Brookings Apartments. should begin in January or February and will take approximately 12 months to complete, Home City Development said. The former school was severely damaged in the tornado of 2011.

The housing rehab project on Hancock Street in the Six Corners are will serve a range of income levels including extremely low-income housing, low-income households, and workforce housing, officials said.

“During these difficult times, as Springfield’s tenants’ housing becomes increasingly insecure and the ranks of the homeless grow, we are grateful that we can offer decent, affordable apartments to them and the community in which they belong,” said Tom Kegelman, Home City’s executive director.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced last week that his administration is investing more than $158 million into rental housing initiatives statewide including the Elias Brookings project. The state’s investment includes direct subsidies and tax credit allocations.

The funding sources for the Elias Brookings project as outlined by Peter Serafino, director of real estate for Home City, include:

  • The state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) will provide $1 million in low-income housing credits (to generate more than $9 million in equity.
  • DHCD will provide $4.4 million in soft debt loans, and project based rental vouchers for some of the housing units.
  • State and federal historic tax credits that should generate about $4.1 million in historic equity.
  • A federal HOME funds grant of $100,000 from the city.
  • A Community Preservation Act grant of $250,000 from the city.
  • Construction and permanent loans, including MassHousing loan funds.

Home City Development is a nonprofit developer of multi-family and mixed use properties in the region.

Kegelman thanked local, state and federal elected officials for their assistance in getting the public funding assistance, along with support from the Maple High-Six Corners and and Old Hill neighborhood councils.

The contractor for Elias Brookings Apartments is Allegrone Construction of Lenox.

The City Council had granted its approval in 2017 for a special permit and zone change for the project.

The school had been closed and vacant since the 2011 tornado.

A new Brookings School was built in that area and was fully funded by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Commentary: Vote ‘yes’ to expand Charleston County affordable housing efforts

The incredible demand for just one unit of quality affordable housing is yet another window into our region’s well-documented housing crisis.

Recently, Metanoia had an affordable home come open for rent. Within a week, we had 722 email inquiries, more than 100 phone calls and 35 applications. The incredible demand for just one unit of quality affordable housing is yet another window into our region’s well-documented housing crisis.

According to a Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce study, Charleston outpaces nearly every city in the country for the number of homeowners spending more than 30% of their income on housing expenses. The situation is worse for renters, with average rents having risen 42% in the past decade.

Our region’s housing costs are rising at twice the pace of income growth. A 2019 study found that Charleston County needs 2,600 affordable units each year for the next 10 years to keep up with the projected economic growth of our region. We are falling well short of this number, with fewer than 100 new affordable units being built last year.

An inability to afford a decent place to live once affected a relative few in our community. Now it affects many — and not just those who have trouble finding a home. If you sit in traffic on a regular basis, you’re affected since attainable housing often can be found only in outlying areas.

The lack of attainable housing also stunts our business growth. New businesses are opting not to relocate here once they see what their employees will need to pay for housing. This is why our local Chamber of Commerce is working hard on housing attainability in our region.

Charleston County voters will have a chance to help Nov. 3 by voting for a property tax increase to fund affordable housing efforts. When coupled with other efforts such as zoning reform, this new funding not only would lead to more working families being able to obtain housing. It also would reduce sprawl, improve our environment, create jobs and attract investment. More than 700 similar housing funds exist nationwide, including ones in Greenville, Asheville and Charlotte.

When properly stewarded, these new public dollars can attract private investment and create construction-related jobs. For example, Metanoia has been grateful to steward a public investment for affordable housing from the State Ports Authority that we were asked to operate in partnership with the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities. In three years, every dollar contributed by this group attracted another $9 of additional public and private investment to build housing that working families can afford.

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We are pleased to partner with the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, the Chamber of Commerce, the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors, the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities and the South Carolina Community Loan Fund among others to support Charleston County’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund effort.

We are grateful to Charleston County Council for unanimously agreeing to put this question up for a vote. We also support a thorough and transparent vetting process that would allow both nonprofit and for-profit developers to use this new funding to construct housing for many of our neighbors struggling to find fair-priced homes.

Such an effort should prioritize using this money efficiently and encourage leveraging existing expertise to identify, qualify and oversee projects countywide. When well stewarded, the fund can attract four to five private dollars for every public dollar spent.

Our partners are committed to working with the county to ensure that this money does the most good for the most residents as possible. The state’s Mescher Act will help because it constrains local governments to spend housing trust fund money strictly for affordable housing.

The family that moved into the Metanoia rental home with so many applicants moved out of a leaky and mold-ridden structure with high rent. As the massive application pool testifies, many others can benefit directly from a “yes” vote in the Housing Trust Fund Referendum. And all of us will benefit, if it passes, through better traffic, more jobs and a cleaner environment.

The Rev. Bill Stanfield is CEO of Metanoia, a North Charleston nonprofit.