Partnerships Key to Twin Cities Light Rail

This post was written by Roger Williams and Mark Weinheimer to introduce a new case study from NLC about the partnerships that contributed to the construction of the Central Corridor light rail line in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

St-Paul-light-rail

One of the ways cities have tackled challenges to their resiliency has been to undertake transformational projects. These cities have recognized that staying the same, or doing small things, don’t necessarily bring about transformation. But strategically placed projects involving the key challenges of efficient transportation, economic development, community preservation, and job creation can make a difference.

But, given the scope, size and impact of such projects, cities have had to build partnerships and relationships with a diverse group of stakeholders and residents to get these efforts moving. Quite often, they also have had to work to overcome a legacy of past missteps that have eroded community trust and devastated communities.

Despite concerns that partnerships take time and large projects consume resources, study after study shows that  transportation alternatives that are regionally focused, cost effective, located close to affordable housing, and that get residents to their jobs help make cities more amenable to innovative industries and more resilient.

The relationships that were forged by the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, as they undertook the Central Corridor light rail project connecting their downtowns, is an example of how municipalities are coming together with a wide range of partners to overcome obstacles and make these transformational projects a reality.

Working with the philanthropic community and a broad spectrum of civic organizations that serve the communities impacted by the project, local leaders in the Twin Cities developed a template for planning that other cities can learn from.

Far reaching strategic alliances and the “plan-full” approach that involved diverse groups, along with the leadership roles played by various actors and sectors, are the key elements that have enhanced this project’s chances for success. The leaders were able to successfully create a shared vision for vibrancy, economic viability, and neighborhood resilience.

The result is not only a new light rail line, but an increased number of affordable homes nearby, preservation of other homes, new arts and cultural offerings, and a vital retail sector that reflects the ethnic diversity of the communities along the rail line.

The Central Corridor light rail line which is scheduled to open in mid-2014 will also provide cost effective transportation for the residents to connect them to jobs in both cities and in the region, and in general strengthen the attractiveness of living in these communities.

Community Partners Support Baltimore Neighborhood Growth

What makes a great neighborhood? Why do millennials for example, or any other demographic subgroup, choose one city over another or one neighborhood over another? Several factors that are consistent across many research studies include affordable housing, safe and walkable streets, access to employment and mobility networks, options for entertainment and recreation, and the often intangible characteristic known as buzz.

Baltimore_SIBaltimore city leaders have set a goal to attract 10,000 new families (some 22,000 individuals) by 2021. In addition to place-based strategies targeting downtown and neighborhoods, the city is seeking young knowledge workers and demonstrating its openness to immigrants. Extensive investments in education and new school construction are designed to lure families with children. Similar to other cities, it is the character of neighborhoods – solid housing stock, parks and open space, proximity to jobs and entertainment – that will have a significant influence on whether or not Baltimore can achieve ambitious growth goals.

A diverse set of partnerships lie at the heart of efforts in the City of Baltimore to revitalize neighborhoods, grow population, and support community prosperity. The coalitions across the city draw expertise and support from philanthropies, real estate developers, educational institutions, church congregations, community development stakeholders, business owners, housing advocates, and city officials. “Big tent” mobilizations are emphasized.  Whether in East, Central, or West Baltimore, partnerships focus on holistic approaches that address challenges of housing, neighborhood stability and vitality, human capital development, commercial improvement, and grass roots empowerment.

The city government does not lack for allies.  Among the most prominent (detailed in a related NLC case study) are: Southeast Community Development Corporation (SECDC); East Baltimore Development, Inc. (EBDI); Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP); BRIDGE Maryland; and the University of Maryland BioPark at the West Baltimore medical center campus.

There is considerable room for optimism in Baltimore. Driving around the city, whether in Hampden or along Charles Street, or the revitalized 36th Street commercial corridor, there are reminders that the city has good bones. Its iconic buildings, broad avenues, and promising neighborhoods constitute a firm foundation for prosperity and growth. Although challenges remain, the community partnerships are a formidable force for positive change in Baltimore.

Brooks, J.A. 2010
About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

For the Love of Eminent Domain

The City of Richmond, California has been abandoned and cast adrift by all those partners who might logically be expected to support local governments facing severe challenges to the local economy and the real estate market. Into the void stepped the private firm Mortgage Resolution Partners (MRP) peddling a grand solution to solve a prolonged and severe disruption in the housing market – use of eminent domain to acquire mortgages with negative equity.

Millions of homeowners have been foreclosed upon in the last six years. California cities have borne a disproportionate share of foreclosures. City leaders in Richmond naturally want to help their residents either by using their own resources or acting in concert with other partners (federal, state, nonprofit, etc.). But everywhere the city looked for timely, serious, and long-term help, no credible partner could be found.

From the Administration came the priority to bail-out banks under TARP, as well as the minimalist Neighborhood Stabilization Program. NSP was so inadequate to the task that its impact proved to be very small indeed. Congress took its pound of flesh in the form of large budget reductions in the Community Development Block Grant program. This is one of the few remaining sources of flexible spending at the local level – spending designed to serve critical housing needs for low and moderate income families. CDBG has become the whipping boy for Members of Congress more interested in centralized control than they are in innovative problem solving.

At the state level, California eliminated the 400 local redevelopment agencies (RDA’s) in 2012 following a state Supreme Court ruling. For decades, those funds had been used successfully to eliminate urban blight and support affordable housing. When he was mayor of Oakland, Governor Jerry Brown used RDA funds to restore the historic Fox Theater. Now those funds are used to help the state balance their mismanaged budget on the backs of cash-starved localities and their low- and moderate-income residents.

And finally, we come to Mortgage Resolution Partners, the white knight galloping to the city’s rescue with a plan to save homes and secure the future of neighborhoods. MRP’s plan however, takes the much cherished and highly valuable power of eminent domain and contorts its purpose and operation to such a degree as to be unrecognizable. Make no mistake, MRP’s advocacy of this strategy will have consequences for cities generally and for Richmond in particular.

If anything was learned in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case of Kelo v. City of New London, it is that state legislatures and Congress will look askance at local efforts to overreach on use of eminent domain. Mortgage Resolution Partners does a disservice to cities in urging them to take this approach to help borrowers at risk of foreclosure.

James Brooks is NLC’s Program Director for Community Development & Infrastructure. Follow him on twitter at @JamesABrooks.

Strategies for Transforming the “Rust Belt”

Many cities, especially the old manufacturing centers hardest hit by economic transformation and demographic shifts, are developing and implementing strategies to attract new residents and new investment. Options that have been or are being deployed to once again grow these cities include targeting immigrants and knowledge workers (“creative class”) as well as place-based initiatives focusing on downtowns and neighborhoods or on amenities like the arts, open space and transit. Leveraging the capacity of so-called anchor institutions – partners including foundations, universities and health centers – continues to be an important part of these efforts.

Economist Jeremy Nowak, who also is the Chair at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia, argues that there are several trends that should help older “legacy cities” grow. Factors he and others view as significant include:

• Suburban and exurban empty nesters seeking urbanized spaces with amenities;
• Adults in their 20’s starting to form new households, albeit often households of one;
• Cities as critical gateways for new immigrants;
• The value of academic and health centers and other “growth nodes” found mostly in cities;
• Knowledge workers and those connected to the arts and to cultural institutions arts and culture congregate in cities;
• Societal trends in support of sustainability, walkability, dense social networks and place making are aligned with the values of the urban environment.

Even a casual observer of cities will agree that challenges remain. Research by NLC and other institutions acknowledge that cities must work through issues of poverty, crumbling infrastructure, low quality schools and general conditions of blight as well as perceptions about the ineffectiveness of government institutions in general. Most importantly, says Jeremy Nowak, “a city must come to terms with the cost of public benefits and the actual worth of those goods or services.”

In order to attract middle class families, a city must provide amenities that have broad public value – great public spaces, transportation systems that connect to jobs, residences and recreation opportunities, places that are safe and clean, and services that are fairly priced. City leaders also must embrace the shared governance and management models (partnerships with CDC’s, neighborhood associations, nonprofits and private sector firms) that offer innovations in delivering public goods and services toward the goal of achieving prosperity for all.

Practical Examples

Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seeks to grow the city’s population by 10,000 in 10 years. Efforts include the Vacants to Value program, which is rehabilitating vacant housing and offering home buyer incentives, demolishing 4,000 blighted structures, and leaving some land vacant as green space, urban agriculture plots or adjunct yards for existing homes. The mayor wants to cut city property taxes by 20% (reducing the cost of government in the process) and invest in core infrastructure including mobility strategies. A partnership with the state will invest $1.1 billion in new school construction (10-15 buildings) and rehabilitation of others.

There is useful data to help the city target resources. Research from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance discovered that 35% of neighborhoods in the city (19 of 55) experienced some recent growth. Historic preservation tax credits were an especially critical incentive bringing older houses into prime condition for habitation. Neighborhoods that grew were accessible to roads and transit networks allowing residents to get to jobs, shopping and recreation easier and faster. By contrast, little growth occurred where there is blight and vacant properties. Even where there is good access to mobility networks, neighborhoods with vacant properties are not growing.

In the Idora neighborhood of Youngstown, Ohio, keys to future growth were upgrading the image of neighborhoods, strengthening the real estate market, and engaging large numbers of residents in the renewal process. The goal was to rebuild confidence so that property owners again would be willing to invest both dollars and time in owning and managing a quality home and community. The city’s Lots of Green program acknowledged the need to manage empty space in neighborhoods and encouraged the active role for residents.

Geneva, New York undertook image building initiatives to first create and then strategically market a dozen unique neighborhoods. Working through the city’s Office of Neighborhood Initiatives and in partnership with volunteers from the Geneva Neighborhood Resource Center, residents are engaged in a process of setting standards they expect from their blocks and houses.

Some revitalization tasks are symbolic like creating a neighborhood mural or new place-centric signage. Other tasks strengthen the real estate market through rehabilitation and sale of formerly vacant houses, aggressive promotions of neighborhoods with the help of real estate agents, and targeted first-time homebuyer incentives.

Other, more tangible efforts, such as strengthening grass roots community associations that engage in problem identification, assessment and solution, often depend on support from city government. That support may take various forms such as advocate, facilitator and champion. I believe that an essential role for city government is to help make recoveries possible by using grants, special lien programs, and clean-up assistance to support confidence-building efforts implemented by residents in concerts with local nonprofits or other community-based institutions. Through such actions, cities create an enabling environment for actions by community stakeholders.

Future Thinking

The analysis presented here was gathered during a forum that brought together thought leaders from the cities of Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia. These leaders were convened by the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities and four of the Federal Reserve Banks, with NLC as a supporting partner. Three more such gatherings will be organized during the balance of 2013 and into 2014. In our role of knowledge partner, NLC will contribute to these cross-city discussions but also facilitate the dissemination of knowledge beyond the four target cities.

Financing Housing

A number of discussions were held during NLC’s Congress of Cities on the topics of housing, housing finance and home mortgage foreclosures.  From these discussions a picture emerges that is hopeful at one level but deeply troubling at another.

Despite the improvements in the housing sector in the form of sales prices, construction permits and foreclosure declines, mortgage financing remains a complex and risk-prone proposition.

The S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index is up for 18 metro markets (New York and Chicago excepted). Prices are up 7 percent through the first nine months of 2012 which is the strongest performance since 2005.

However, mortgage financing through FHA still accounts for a much higher proportion of mortgage loans than is desirable or sustainable over time. The status of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac remain unpredictable and are a source of continued anxiety in the market.

More disturbingly, the massive losses from securitized mortgages in the portfolios of the GSE’s are an ongoing drain on Federal resources and the taxpayer. The Federal Reserve is buying up on average $40 billion per month of Fannie and Freddie mortgage backed securities.

Mainstream financial institutions need to return to the market for mortgage origination for the average consumer. Improvements in the housing and real estate markets and rising demand may eventually lure banks back into this business. But the unknown and unpredictable disposition of a fully functioning secondary mortgage market will inhibit increased private sector involvement.

Until some kind of reform is implemented for the GSE’s the Feds will continue to be the lender of first resort and the great and powerful guarantor of all risks in the market. That is, and will continue to be, an untenable position.

Foreclosure Fatigue Sets In as Housing Market Improves

Imagine my surprise at how quickly the attention paid to mortgage borrowers suffering through foreclosures, short-sales and default notices is quickly abandoned as good news continues to arrive in the form of rising home prices and sales. As with wars, famines, natural disasters and celebrity meltdowns, issue fatigue is finally sweeping the mortgage foreclosure crisis into a neverland of footnotes and asterisks.

It’s fine to celebrate positive housing news. Sales of new single family homes surged 5.7 percent in September to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 390,000, the highest level in 2 ½ years. September year-over-year increases were 27 percent. Census figures earlier in the month reported a 15 percent increase in new housing starts during September and an 11 percent increase in building permits.

Nearly all the numbers focusing on housing show improvement. But the experience of the 21st Century’s most significant economic recession ought to remind us that numbers are inherently selective. By the time this housing debacle finally ends nearly 5 million Americans will have lost a home and be left with credit so badly damaged they won’t qualify for a mortgage until well after the next Presidential election. And if rules are adopted that demand larger down payments and smaller debt-to-income ratios, the Millennials won’t be buying houses until they reach their 40’s.

Arguably, the “crisis” has abated and it’s hard to focus on housing when confronted with World Series baseball, Dancing with the Stars and a new Tom Hanks-Halle Berry movie. Fatigue is real and if we get tired of floods and wildfires and famine, the plight of the “dislocated homeowner” hardly warrants any greater attention.

But while fatigue may be understandable, the out and out thieving actions by state governments of the funds dedicated to housing from the National Mortgage Settlement is not only intolerable but possibly criminal. In a report from Enterprise Community Partners researchers discovered that nearly half of state governments are bleeding off portions of the funds allocated to help states pay for housing counseling, mortgage mediation, legal aid and other housing programs to instead address shortfalls in state general fund budgets.

Among the worst offenders are Alabama and Georgia, the latter which sent its entire $99 million share of funds to economic development programs. Missouri used its $39 million to prevent higher education cuts. California used $410 million from its share to fill budget holes for its $15 billion deficit which did include some old debt service on affordable housing bonds. The South Carolina legislature, over the veto of Governor Nikki Haley, and sent its $31 million share to business attraction programs and to the general fund.

The mortgage settlement intended that a modest $2.5 billion, out of $25 billion overall, go to help distressed homeowners facing the calamity of losing a home. In the absence of more federal money to stabilize neighborhoods and preserve communities this sum offered a considerable level of assistance. If the well of sympathy as indeed gone dry, the very least that can be expected is that those who have been provided for in the mortgage settlement get what is due to them without any interference by revenue-hungry states.

Development, Housing Affordability, and Gentrification: Utilizing the Tools (Part 3 of 3)

This is the final post in a three –part series that explores gentrification as an ‘unintended consequence’ of the (re)development of a place, and identifies innovative tools that cities are using to address the overlapping issues of mobility and affordability.

The previous blog posts (part 1 and part 2) in the series highlighted some of the consequences of place-based economic redevelopment on long-time residents in city neighborhoods, specifically calling for a re-examination of how and with whom we plan the future of our communities.  In this post, I highlight a few priorities, as well as tools that are already readily available to local governments and community organizations to realize a vision based on equitable development.

Guiding Priorities:

The types of stakeholders, community conditions, and market potential for each neighborhood within a city varies, so no single strategy works everywhere.  Regardless, certain universal priorities help to ensure that equity and affordability are comprehensively addressed in the development process.

 

  • Housing affordability and variety. If an end goal is to see that long-term residents are also able to stay in the neighborhood and enjoy the fruits of development, ensuring the affordability and availability of housing – at a variety of incomes levels- is critical.  Given the potential for development to very quickly drive up the cost of surrounding housing, local governments must use a variety of tools to make sure that future housing needs of low- and middle- income residents are met as well.  Similarly, it is important to provide a variety of types of housing (i.e. to accommodate families as well as single, young professionals) and an adequate mix of owner vs. rental housing that responds to the dual characteristics of long-time and future residents.
  • Job diversity and quality. The creation and/ or retention of short- and long-term jobs for current residents is as vital to guaranteeing that they  are able to stay in the neighborhood as quality, affordable housing.  Jobs that require diverse skillsets, pay living wages, and offer opportunities for growth ensure that all residents are able to stay and actively participate in the local workforce.
  • Community amenitiesA (related) negative consequence of redevelopment is the potential to displace critical community services such as neighborhood centers and social services. These facilities often foster a sense of ownership and attachment to the neighborhood and should be preserved during and after development. In her book, Root Shock, Dr. Mindy Fullilove uses the consequences of Urban Renewal to illustrate the importance of preserving and cultivating social networks and institutions as a critical aspect of vibrant, healthy communities.

This report, produced by Puget Sound Sage, discusses these priorities (and others) through an in-depth assessment of transit investment and the threat of gentrification in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. 

Proven Tools:

Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs)In instances where a proposed development does not have a direct positive effect on a community, local governments may choose to use a CBA, which requires developers to follow additional requirements in order to  be able to build their project. CBAs are project-specific, legally-binding agreements that ensure that the needs of local stakeholders (such as municipal infrastructure) are addressed in return for approval of the development of a new project in the neighborhood. These agreements, which are the outcome of a negotiation process between the developer and the community coalition and/or the local government, create additional requirements that the developer must adhere to. Local governments can encourage CBAs in order to increase community engagement and support for an economic development effort, and meet specific needs of current residents.

The Bayview- Hunters Point CBA in San Francisco is an example of how the community worked with a housing developer to incorporate affordable housing requirements, housing assistance funds, and job training funds as part of the CBA.  (developed by The Partnership for Working Families)

Transit- Oriented Development (TOD) Fund: Given that (re)development often takes place along transit nodes, local governments can use a TOD fund to preserve land for a specific purpose such as affordable housing. TOD funds are often revolving loan funds that provide capital to purchase and hold sites strategically along corridors that are either under development for public transit or are scheduled for transit construction.  By utilizing TOD funds to preserve affordable housing along such central areas, local governments can also help minimize the transportation burden placed on low- and moderate-income workers.

Several partners from the Mile High Connects initiative- including Enterprise Community Partners and the Urban Land Conservancy, as well as the city and county of Denver- have worked together to create a TOD acquisition fund.  Denver’s TOD Fund will help create and preserve over 1,000 units of affordable housing along current and future transit corridors.

Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) Policies:  Local governments adopt inclusionary zoning (IZ) policies to ensure that new developments provide affordable housing units, either within the development itself or elsewhere, in return for (non-monetary) compensation to developers. IZ policies are flexible– they can be either mandatory or voluntary and their structure is largely determined by the needs and demands of the jurisdiction, allowing them to be responsive to a community’s particular needs. IZ policies are attractive tools for local governments because they rarely require funding from a jurisdiction, and although local governments eventually take on the burden of affordable units from developers, inclusionary zoning has proved to be a cost-effective strategy in the long run.

PolicyLink has developed a comprehensive toolkit to further explain IZ programs; outline financing opportunities; and highlight policy challenges and opportunities.  The toolkit includes case studies from various jurisdictions- including the City of Cambridge- that have successfully utilized IZ policies to retain affordable housing in developing areas.

‘Sustainability’ is quickly catching on in small, medium, and large cities throughout the country—and, undoubtedly, the environmental and economic results of sustainability initiatives have proven extremely successful. My hope is that, as we (re)invest in our neighborhoods and corridors, in our transit system, and in our small businesses, we don’t lose sight of the fact that truly sustainable communities will only emerge from the inclusion of diverse narratives and visions for the future.  The threat of gentrification is very real; however, local governments can utilize a variety of strategies (and a dose of creativity) to cultivate healthy, quality communities for all residents and encourage place-based economic development at the same time.

Is your city utilizing any of these tools already? What do you think about these issues? Feel free to email vasudevan@nlc.org and/or comment below!

California’s Homeowner Bill of Rights Provides Solutions

Political leaders at the state and local levels in California have delivered not one but two aggressive efforts to address the home mortgage foreclosure crisis. One effort, the Homeowner Bill of Rights, is likely to be a powerful stick which will help borrowers negotiating a loan modification from nearly all banks and mortgage servicers. The other effort, an attempt by San Bernardino County and nearby municipalities to use eminent domain powers to modify mortgages, has run into opposition from several quarters and may prove unfeasible.

The recently signed Homeowner Bill of Rights law does a few things that even the national mortgage settlement agreement between 49 states and the nation’s five largest loan servicers does not. First, the law applies to all banks (with a few exceptions for very small ones) not just the big five. Second, the law provides a private right of action for borrowers against banks who demonstrate “significant, material violations of the law.” Hopefully, this will eliminate any vestiges of the “dual track” practice where servicers continued a foreclosure process even while at the same time negotiating a loan modification with the borrower. Coincidently, this dual-track practice already is illegal under the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), but it continues nonetheless.

The proposal concerning eminent domain is an effort to render some further assistance to underwater borrowers. Legal scholars are now dissecting the reasoning behind this proposal. Questions surrounding issues of public purpose and just compensation valuation are only the most obvious matters for attention. The partnership with Mortgage Resolution Partners (MSP) needs explanation since this firm will ultimately receive the mortgages in some as-yet-unknown transfer process. Finally, the necessity of protecting investors in mortgage backed securities, while unpopular with many, is nonetheless an underlying principal of contracts which cannot be ignored even to help underwater borrowers.

One only needs some awareness of politics as opposed to law in order to understand why the eminent domain proposal is facing so much opposition from banks, real estate agents, title companies and chambers of commerce. Following the rightly-decided U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs New London, which upheld an eminent domain action by a local government, various states tightened the laws under which local governments could exercise eminent domain authority. The victory handed to localities by the Court was very quickly curtailed by many state governments because of the perceived lack of public purpose evidenced in the Kelo case.

The desire on the part of local officials in San Bernardino County to help homeowners has led them down a path which while creative in the near-term may run counter to the longer-term interests of local government autonomy. In short, by taking a broad reading of eminent domain powers there is some risk to local governments in California and elsewhere. The possible consequence is mobilization of opposition to such a viewpoint within state legislatures and in Congress resulting in action to eviscerate local eminent domain authority across the board.

Development, Housing Affordability, and Gentrification: Knowing Your City (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second in a three–part series that explores gentrification as an ‘unintended consequence’ of the (re)development of a place, and identifies innovative tools and strategies that cities are using to address the overlapping issues of mobility and affordability.

In the first blog post of this series, I outlined my concern with the effects of place-based economic development on long-time residents in a neighborhood. With a growing interest in creating transit-oriented developments, vibrant corridors, and walkable communities- generally environmentally and economically intelligent choices for cities- it is increasingly critical that we understand the implications of such efforts for all members of a community.  In this post I explore strategies used by cities to ensure that all residents, newcomers and long-timers alike, benefit from these developments, while the final post will describe specific tools available to cities to preserve an affordable housing stock.

I assert that the first and most critical step to avoiding displacement is a re-examination of the intention behind planning for such developments. While the resulting increase in the tax base that comes from a ‘successful’ redevelopment effort is often necessary for cities to remain economically competitive, a broader set of factors including social, cultural, demographic, and economic diversity is equally necessary to create healthy and sustainable cities. In her presentation at NLC’s 2011 Congress of Cities,’ Emily Talen, a professor at Arizona State University, similarly illustrates the importance of various types of diversity to create vibrant, resilient cities.

Given that gentrification is often regarded as an ‘unintended’ consequence, or an unfortunate after-effect of an otherwise successful redevelopment effort, perhaps the most effective intervention is one of intentionality during the earliest stages of the process. Rather than waiting to see how redevelopment efforts may or may not result in the gentrification of a neighborhood, I suggest embedding inclusive planning practices from the start to actively integrate and understand the needs and visions of current and future residents of the community.

I outline here three basic principles that, albeit straightforward, radically alter the ways in which we understand, prioritize, and plan redevelopment efforts. While these principles represent only the first steps in moving towards the creation of economically diverse, ‘sustainable’ neighborhoods, they are important to set us on a path of altering where and how redevelopment occurs:

Know What Matters.  The vision shapes the product.  Gentrification ends up being an ‘unintended consequence’ of development primarily because nothing in the vision of a development project states otherwise.  It’s simple—a vision for a project that explicitly prioritizes the preservation of affordable housing (as an example), in addition to economic vitality, is the first step towards ensuring that affordable housing becomes a reality.  Purposefully crafting a vision statement, for a neighborhood or corridor redevelopment, establishes which priorities will guide the project.

For their long-term strategic plan, the City of Portland explicitly stated that “advancing equity” was the foundation of the plan.  Read what that means to them, and how they engaged the community to advance their equity goals.

Know All Sides. A story changes depends on who tells it. It’s a simple concept, but one that has great implications for the planning of neighborhoods. It is often challenging or time-consuming to make sure that all critical stakeholders in a community—local businesses, residents, and potential developers—are at the table.  However, these small businesses and residents who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time have unique local knowledge that would help to inform future development. Additionally, if it is a priority to retain current residents and businesses, then future development has to respond to their needs and visions for the community as well. A heavy outreach effort including the use of social media as well as community meetings that foster inclusiveness and embrace diverse opinions and stories, are critical to gain community support and ensure that plans incorporate their valuable local knowledge.

Check out this case study of a redevelopment process in the City of Albuquerque as an example of how to effectively build community consensus around a project.  Additionally, this report highlights twenty innovative city programs aimed specifically at integrating immigrant communities.

Know What You’re Working With.  Many cities have mastered the art of economic analyses and economic projections (NLC, in partnership with Northeastern University, offers assistance on this front). However, we still have a ways to go with using equity measures to understand the current conditions of our neighborhoods and the implications of future development.For example, if a priority goal is to maintain housing affordability, then we need to better situate ‘affordability’ based on specific neighborhood conditions.  Luckily, emerging technologies —including an array of mapping tools —have made it much easier to get a sense of current conditions and understand some of the ‘equity effects’ of our development decisions.

In a webinar hosted by NLC last month, Stefanie Shull of the Center for Neighborhood Technology presented on their Housing and Transportation Affordability Index, a comprehensive way to measure true housing affordability by incorporating transportation costs and neighborhood characteristics.  Check out their interactive map here. 

The next and final blog post for this series will focus on specific tools – such as community benefits agreements, inclusionary zoning, and design strategies – that communities have successfully used to ensure housing affordability in the midst of redevelopment efforts. Stay tuned and email vasudevan@nlc.org if you have a great example!

Development, Housing Affordability, and Gentrification: Exploring the Issues (Part 1 of 3)

This is the first in a three –part series that explores gentrification as an ‘unintended consequence’ of the (re)development of a place, and identifies innovative tools that cities are using to address the overlapping issues of mobility and affordability.

A few weeks ago, a blog post announcing the 50 “fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States” went viral. With Washington D.C. holding 3 of the top 25 slots, and my zipcode placing 10th overall, I was flooded with the hyperlink to the original post and several follow- up commentaries from family and friends who know that this issue – and my neighborhood – are close to my heart.

Shaw neighborhood in Washington, DC

Having lived in the Shaw neighborhood of northwest D.C. for several years now, I admit to being one of the earlier ‘gentrifiers’ of the neighborhood – one of those mid-twenties professionals who moved in because of cheap rent, proximity to work, and access to transit. Over time, I’ve witnessed the rapid transformation of the U Street corridor into a thriving commercial center and weekend destination spot for all ages. Anecdotally, I know the author’s claim about my neighborhood to be true – the construction of condominiums, the disappearance of vacant houses, and the popping up of small businesses, restaurants and bars are difficult to ignore.  Successful economic development strategies, especially after the construction of the metro line and the convention center devastated many existing small businesses, has meant a very sudden change in the neighborhood’s demographics. And so, while some may argue with the methodology used to produce this list of 50 zipcodes, the article certainly raises several critical implications about the intersections of development and affordability.

Interestingly, a recent Urban Land Institute forum, “Moving Out: How Future Demand Will Impact Housing Opportunity,” discussed a related phenomenon.  Researchers are trying to better understand what particular housing amenities my generation of roughly 85 million ‘unpredictable’ Gen Y-ers (about 4 million more people to account for than the preceding baby boomer generation) will seek in the coming years.  Will it be access to transit, smaller housing units, proximity to work, availability of rental housing, location of retail, or something else that is the driver for location decisions?

The only clear answer is that there isn’t one, and more than likely some combination of all of the above (and more) will affect where and how folks in my generation, specifically those who can afford to be mobile, choose to live.  However, a more pressing issue is to understand the present and future tradeoffs of this fluctuation in housing demand on populations that are typically less mobile—populations that often are inevitably forced to move out of homes they can no longer afford as their neighborhood or surrounding areas become the focus of a city’s redevelopment efforts.  In other words, as neighborhoods are ‘gentrfying’ in cities, or as new businesses create vibrant corridors (such as U Street) and nearby residences become hot commodities, what is the true burden placed on those who can no longer afford to live in their homes? What are the housing costs for long-time residents who either choose to stay in these neighborhoods or are pushed out to the suburbs or to other neighborhoods in the city?  And what can city planners and elected officials do to ensure that both new and long-time residents are able to reap the benefits of a city’s (re)development and subsequent economic growth?

In the next few weeks, stay tuned to hear about tools, strategies, and programs that several cities around the country are utilizing in order to preserve affordable and workforce housing in neighborhoods that are economically benefiting from development strategies such as main streets initiatives and transit- oriented development.  The next post in this series will further examine the challenges in preserving a mix of housing types in rapidly developing neighborhoods and identify tools and mechanisms to address this issue, followed by a final post providing successful city-supported examples of such redevelopment efforts.

Has your city faced similar challenges and/or identified effective strategies to encourage redevelopment while preserving affordability and equity in neighborhoods? If so, please email vasudevan@nlc.org to share.  Also, follow us on Twitter @SustCitiesInst to hear when we post the next blog!