Five Ways Your City Can Benefit from the “Solar in Your Community” Challenge

Offering $5 million in cash prizes and technical assistance over 18 months, the Challenge supports local teams across the country in their efforts to develop programs or projects that bring solar to their communities.

There are 19 megawatts of solar installed in the city of Portland. Pictured is the Oregon Convention Center. (Jeremy Jeziorski)

This is a guest post by Odette Mucha.

In 2016, solar energy was the largest source of new generating capacity in the United States. With more than one million solar projects now operating across the country, the U.S. has over 35 gigawatts of total solar installed capacity – enough to power the equivalent of 6.5 million average American homes. This is an industry that is growing fast.

Despite this rapid growth, however, solar energy remains inaccessible to nearly half of American households and businesses, as well as many local governments and nonprofits. There are several reasons for this:

  • Nearly half of all rooftops cannot host solar due to insufficient roof space, lack of control over the roof (renters, condos), or shading.
  • While the federal Investment Tax Credit has grown the solar market, it excludes individuals and organizations with no federal tax liability, such as cities, nonprofits, low income individuals, and retirees
  • Low income populations face even greater challenges, often due to poor roof conditions, lower than average credit scores, and lack of access to affordable financing.

And yet, these communities stand to benefit the most from going solar – from stabilizing their energy costs to reducing air pollution. Cities go solar through the Solar in Your Community Challenge, a program launched by U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to expand solar access to those who have, to date, been left out of the growing solar market.

The Solar in Your Community Challenge encourages the development of innovative financial and business models that serve low and moderate-income communities, local governments, and/or non-profits. Offering $5 million in cash prizes and technical assistance over 18 months, the Challenge supports local teams across the country in their efforts to develop programs or projects that bring solar to these segments of their communities, while proving that these business models can be widely replicated and scaled up.

Why should cities participate in the Solar in Your Community Challenge?

  1. Save Money on Municipal Electricity Bills

Local governments, which own approximately 10 percent of commercial buildings (schools, office buildings, public assembly buildings, etc.), spend approximately $14.7 billion on electricity – 12 percent of total commercial building expenditures (EIA data). Solar energy can cut cities’ monthly electricity bills and make funds available for other priorities.

  1. Create Local Jobs

The solar industry is a proven driver of job growth. As deployment has soared, so have solar jobs – there are nearly 209,000 solar workers in the U.S. today, with more than half of them in installation jobs that can’t be outsourced. Further, these workers are paid competitive wages, with installers making a median wage of $21 per hour.

  1. Help Low Income Residents

Low income households pay a large portion of their income towards electricity bills. An analysis by Groundswell found that the lowest income households spent nearly 10 percent of their income, over four times more than the average consumer. Access to low cost solar can provide price stability and bill relief to low and moderate income households.

  1. Improve Resiliency

Cities around the country are facing increased threats from natural disasters and are taking steps to plan for them. During extreme weather events, solar energy can help prevent outages, provide energy for critical facilities, and aid in recovery efforts. Solar can also provide energy to remote areas.

  1. Meet Environmental Goals

Using solar power instead of conventional forms of energy reduces the amount of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and other pollutants that are emitted into the environment. Reducing the amount of pollution translates into cleaner air, reduced water consumption, and improved health.

Cities can participate in the challenge in two ways – as part of a program team or a project team.

Program teams create new programs that enable the installation of solar for use by low income households, governmental organizations and/or nonprofits. Program Teams will be led by governments, utilities or financial institutions.

Project teams develop and install a new solar system or a portfolio of systems that benefit low income households, governmental organizations and/or nonprofits using innovative and scalable business practices. Project Teams can be led by anyone, but should include a combination of key organizations like cities, solar developers, utilities, financial institutions and community organizations.

The application deadline to participate in the Challenge is March 17, 2017. Click here to learn more about the Solar in Your Community Challenge and apply today!

odette_mucha_125x150About the author: Odette Mucha is a Technology Manager at the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative. She is the manager of the Solar in Your Community Challenge.

Cities Remember Homeless Deaths, Commit to Creating Solutions

December 21 is marked as Homeless Persons’ Remembrance Day. More than 100 communities across 39 states will hold memorial services and provide personal remembrances for those that have been lost. 

Poverty

In 2016, an estimated 2,675 homeless people have died in the United States.

On a bitterly cold winter morning in Boston nearly 15 years ago, I arrived at work to start my day doing outreach to women and men living on the city’s streets. As I approached the office, I saw someone huddled under a blanket leaning against the front door. After trying to wake them, I realized the man had died from exposure.

I did not recognize the man and he had few belongings. He died alone and nameless.

Tragically, this is an all too common occurrence. While there are no comprehensive data collected on the number of homeless men and women who die on our streets each year, in 2016 an estimated 2,675 people are reported to have died so far.

In an effort to honor the humanity of these individuals and draw attention to the deadly reality of homelessness, December 21 – the first day of winter and the longest night of the year – is marked as Homeless Persons’ Remembrance Day.

Tonight, in collaboration with the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, 112 communities across 39 states will hold memorial services where the names of those known are read and attendees provide personal remembrances.

These events offer cities an opportunity to reflect on the collective and individual tragedies, while recommitting to the necessary work of ensuring all people have a safe place to call home. Specifically, these events offer cities the chance to earnestly review what is happening in their response systems to ensure that homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring.

Here in the nation’s capital, less than three blocks from NLC’s office, there is an example of how local leaders can come together to implement known best practices for housing the homeless.

Developed by Community Solutions, an internationally recognized provider of technical assistance on homelessness, the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence is a 124-unit complex with 60 units of permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless veterans, 17 units for tenants referred by the District’s Department of Behavioral Health, and 47 apartments for low-income residents making 60 percent or less of the area median income.

Access to permanent supportive housing is at the core of a community’s Housing First response to homelessness and the Conway Residences equally illustrates the importance of such housing and the challenges to affordable housing development.

During the 2016 Point in Time count of the District’s homeless population, 579 veterans were identified. Thanks to Community Solutions’ commitment to working with community stakeholders such as the local medical center of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the District’s Department of Housing and Community Development, units made available by the development have been prioritized for veterans who have been assessed for housing and services in a coordinated manner as part of The Way Home campaign.

The Conway Residences come as the District builds on progress that has housed 505 veterans between January and August 2016. Community partners estimate that 284 veterans still need to be housed to reach the goal of ending veteran homelessness.

Despite the critical need for units like those offered by the Conway Residences, the development’s eight-year timeline shows there are substantial areas in need of improvement to build and preserve the necessary amount of housing.

The Home Depot was a key partner in the development of the Conway Residences, providing capital and associates volunteered as part of Team Depot to prepare apartments for area veterans.

The Home Depot was a key partner in the development of the Conway Residences, providing capital and associates volunteered as part of Team Depot to prepare apartments for area veterans.

Thanks to the dedicated support of philanthropic partners such as The Home Depot Foundation and the William S. Abell Foundation, the Conway Residences continued to make progress as Community Solutions held numerous rounds of negotiations with a variety of funding entities and municipal departments.

The number of stakeholders with their own processes and timelines included: the Board of Zoning Adjustment, Department of Behavioral Health, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Department of General Services, Department of Housing and Community Development, District Department of Transportation, District of Columbia Housing Authority, District of Columbia’s Housing Finance Agency, Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, DC Council, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Streamlining funding structures and coordinating municipal processes related to the development of affordable housing is a central role that cities can plan to support efforts to end homelessness. In cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles, state, county, and city officials have established an “affordable housing pipeline” to address these complexities and expedite the overall process.

Beyond streamlining, a persistent challenge for developers of affordable housing is a lack of resources. In the ongoing climate of dwindling federal resources, cities are increasingly turning to investments in affordable housing trust funds and rental subsidy programs resourced with local dollars.

In recognition of this need, in October, the District’s Mayor, Muriel Bowser, announced a $106 million commitment to produce or preserve more than 1,200 affordable housing units across the city.

With thousands of people dying annually on city streets, it may be difficult to not see homelessness as an intractable problem that will always plague cities.

But this is not the case.

A growing number of communities are achieving a functional end to veteran homelessness as defined by a series of criteria and benchmarks established by federal partners as part of the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Since 2010, veteran homelessness nationwide has declined 47 percent.

In addition, since 2010, cities report a reduction in chronic homelessness by 27 percent. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, chronic homelessness declined by 7 percent overall and in smaller communities the decline was 13 percent.

By committing to work with community stakeholders through efforts such as the Mayors Challenge, city leaders can turn the somber occasion of this year’s Homeless Persons’ Remembrance Day into lasting and meaningful action that can improve the lives of the most vulnerable among us.

To learn more about what you can do in your city with the National League of Cities and our national partners through efforts like the Mayors Challenge, visit www.nlc.org/mayorschallenge.

 

Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

New NLC Task Force to Focus on Expanding Economic Opportunity

Launched by NLC President Matt Zone, the task force will pursue a three-pronged strategy over the next year that will include municipal engagement and peer learning, documentation of promising and emerging city approaches, and education and training for city officials.

(Getty Images)

Cities on the NLC task force are already taking action to expand economic opportunity in many ways, such as focusing on housing affordability in high poverty neighborhoods. (Getty Images)

This post was co-authored by Courtney Coffin and Heidi Goldberg.

“Cities are where hope meets the streets.” – Mayor Kasim Reed, City of Atlanta

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s insightful words in his opening reflections as Chair of NLC’s new Task Force on Mobility and Opportunity last month recognize the vital role that city leaders must play to address the growing economic gaps that plague our cities.

NLC President Matt Zone, a Cleveland councilmember who has committed to making economic opportunity his key issue for his year as NLC’s chief elected officer, launched the task force comprised of 22 local elected officials from across the country in November. Under the leadership of Mayor Reed, the inaugural meeting marked NLC’s commitment to address economic disparities and the beginning of a three-pronged strategy over the next year that will include municipal engagement and peer learning, documentation of promising and emerging city approaches, and education and training for city officials.

As shown by discussions throughout the recent election process, although unemployment is at an all-time low, millions of financially strained families are desperate to find ways to increase their economic stability. Growing economic disparities in communities across the country highlight the need for access to well-paying jobs, housing and assets for families struggling to achieve the American Dream. These challenges are a key concern for city leaders as the financial health of a city depends on the economic security – and mobility – of its residents.

City leaders can prioritize expanding economic opportunities for residents while also balancing municipal budgets. Research from the Urban Institute has found that financially healthy families are more likely to be able to contribute consistently to local government revenues and are less likely to need city supports. City revenue streams depend on utility payments, sales and property taxes generated by residents and local businesses. If the local economy isn’t thriving and residents are not financially stable, the city as a whole suffers.

The solutions for these issues are increasingly found at the city level as policy action is often stalled at the federal and state levels. In this environment, city leaders are well-poised to stabilize their cities by serving as champions for expanding economic opportunity.

Cities are already taking action. In Pittsburgh, for example, task force member Mayor Bill Peduto is working hard to ensure that all residents can participate in the city’s revitalization and newfound prosperity. Partnering with PolicyLink, the city developed a five point plan focused on housing affordability in high poverty neighborhoods, equitable economic development, expanding employment and asset building opportunities, addressing racial inequities, and working with coalitions and community organizations to build community power.

Task force member and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is committed to addressing poverty with an agenda focused on economic equity and inclusion. His agenda includes increasing wages and employment opportunities, business development strategies for low-income residents, wealth creation strategies including financial empowerment services and children’s savings accounts, as well as strategies to build economic mobility for youth.

These strategies and many more identified during the first task force meeting will be examined during the group’s year-long tenure. The task force is charged with identifying recommendations for local action to address common economic barriers keeping many families from sharing in our country’s prosperity.

In his first speech to members as president of NLC, Councilmember Matt Zone challenged cities to make economic mobility “a pillar that supports our work for America’s cities.” He added, “Now more than ever, the economic well-being of our families is at risk, and we, as local officials, can be the key instruments of change and economic mobility. We must build a future where every one of us has economic mobility and opportunity… we must be intentional about promoting equity in all of our policies and projects.”

About the authors:

courtney_coffin_125x150 Courtney Coffin is an associate for Economic Opportunity and Financial Empowerment in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Contact Courtney at coffin@nlc.org.

 

heidi_goldberg_125x150Heidi Goldberg is the Director for Economic Opportunity and Financial Empowerment in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Heidi on Twitter at @GoldbergHeidi.

Affordable Housing is the Real Issue Behind the Oakland Warehouse Fire

Clutter, code enforcement, and safety regulations are simply distractions. Here’s how city leaders can prevent tragedies like the Ghost Ship fire in their own communities.

(photo courtesy of oaklandghostship.com)

The social, cultural, and psychological links between living spaces and their inhabitants are real; spaces often reflect the values of their inhabitants. Beyond just displaying a preference or style, spaces like the Ghost Ship warehouse are built forms for a shared identity that is usually overlooked in most communities. (photo courtesy of oaklandghostship.com)

The tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland earlier this month may be a difficult one for cities to absorb. How much was the fire a result of the underground activities and unsafe conditions in the Ghost Ship? How much responsibility does a city – through its building and safety code adoption and enforcement power – have for tragedies that occur in structures those codes are designed to help keep safe?

Code violations and safety hazards were diverse and numerous at the Ghost Ship. The warehouse was home to stairs made out of wooden pallets, cluttered collections of found furniture, no real fire walls separating the spaces of the several tenants who lived there. It’s clear from the photographs of the Ghost Ship that some level of this arrangement was by design, contributing to a bohemian aesthetic with an eclectic collection of East Asian sculptures and furniture, mannequins, paintings by local artists and friends, fabric hung over light fixtures, and an immense collection of pianos, organs, speakers, and other musical instruments. The electrical system posed a hazard as well; reports claim that occupants of the space siphoned power off neighboring properties with a system of ganged extension cords connected to aging fixtures and appliances.

The nature of counter-culture communal living spaces like the Ghost Ship is in opposition to dominant social norms, so it can be easy for people to view he Ghost Ship photographs with an air of smugness and think how different that type of living scenario looks compared to the relatively less cluttered homes many people occupy. But rather than counting the number of unsafe conditions in those photos and pinning blame for this tragedy on the victims themselves, we should focus on education efforts like this public safety video, which was produced by occupants of similar communal living spaces together with fire safety experts involved in the famous Burning Man festival. The video includes numerous safety tips such as locating bars and dance floors near exits, ensuring that battery-lighting signs are placed at two or more exists, and testing fire safety equipment before major events.

For city leaders who are already working to increase fire safety education in their communities, the next question may be: How much blame lies at the feet of code inspectors or fire officials in these scenarios? The city of Oakland’s planning and building department had investigated the warehouse as recently as last month following complaints about trash outside the property and illegal internal structures, but their role is limited and underfunded. In fact, the Oakland firefighters union made several public statements blaming the Fire Chief for understaffing inspection functions in the department.

But Oakland, like its peers, has overlapping agency responsibilities for building inspection and enforcement. In many cities, the fire department works in partnership with departments of planning, public health, public works, and building inspection to inventory, inspect, and enforce code compliance in man-made structures. Given this complex matrix of authority, an incident like the Ghost Ship fire might not represent the failing of any one agency or department but rather a lack of communication among them. In this particular tragedy, no city agency had any record that the Ghost Ship was being used as anything other than a warehouse, and its officially unoccupied status meant that a state-mandated fire inspection was never called. No city official had conducted a formal inspection of the building in more than 30 years.

Ultimately, though – and this represents the largest challenge, systemically, for cities – the fire at the Ghost Ship is a reminder of the costs we pay as a society when we do not provide affordable housing options to artists and other creative types living in communal settings or at society’s margins. Years ago, I lived just four blocks from the Ghost Ship when I rented a room from a sculptor who owned a warehouse she used as her home and studio. The neighborhood was fairly rough-and-tumble at the time, and despite the fact that many considered its buildings incompatible with residential use, artists moved into the area because industrial neighborhoods like that offer creative types the opportunity to live in an affordable setting with less interference when it comes to musical performances and eccentric lifestyles.

But the fact that artists are often drawn to edgy neighborhoods and affordable co-living spaces with ramshackle interiors doesn’t absolve us from a collective duty to provide better housing options to all city residents. Consider what would have happened if code compliance inspections had been completed at the Ghost Ship and the findings showed violations. Former residents as well as associates of the Ghost Ship’s founder and master tenant, Derick Ion Almena, describe him as mercurial and unresponsive to the complaints of his tenants – and the building’s owner, Chor Nar Siu Ng, has a long history of building violations that have caused the city to place liens against her and partners. So, if the city had exposed code violations, it seems likely that either Ms. Ng would have evicted the entire Ghost Ship operation, since their residency was not a legally permitted use of the building to begin with, or Mr. Almena would have evicted several of his tenants to avoid the risk of losing his occupancy altogether. And in those cases, given the white-hot San Francisco real estate market, the individual artists living there would likely have few affordable housing alternatives. Already, residents of other similar spaces have begun receiving eviction notices.

Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area have seen rents and home sales prices rapidly escalate in concert with the local technology boom centered in nearby Silicon Valley. Real estate service Zillow shows that the average monthly rent in the area is $2,899, up about 70 percent from five years ago — the fastest increase in the nation. In this context, renting a space in a co-living situation for $700 is attractive – even without consistent heat, water, or power. California is home to roughly 13 percent of the nation’s population, with a population growth rate slightly higher than the national average. But somehow, the state has accounted for only 8 percent of all national building permits in the past twenty years.

Just days after the Ghost Ship fire, the City of Oakland announced a $1.7 million philanthropic grant to help arts groups stay in Oakland. Even large gifts like that are stopgaps in the scheme of the region’s viciously competitive real estate market, though. And research shows that many affordable artist housing programs end up subsidizing white, non-poor artists. Diverse neighborhoods like Oakland’s Fruitvale have already experienced decades of displacement of communities and artists of color by marginally more resourced artists who see cheap living conditions among the industrial spaces of the neighborhood. Individual artists, artist communities, and the other residents of dramatically changing neighborhoods like Fruitvale all deserve more comprehensive approaches.

California’s dramatic housing shortage has hit the Bay Area hard, and Oakland is especially vulnerable to displacement and gentrification pressures stemming from the region’s rising wealth and dismal housing production. Oakland has long appealed to artists, musicians, and those interested in alternative, Do-It-Yourself culture – even more so since the Silicon Valley boom fueled a frenzied real estate market in neighboring San Francisco. The sky-high costs of living there have pushed artists across the bay to Oakland where they compete with existing residents as well as low-, middle- and even upper-income San Franciscans driven out of the city for limited housing. Many of the displaced are people of color, being pushed out of neighborhoods formed in the aftermath of white flight and blockbusting in the 1960’s.

The devastating fire at the Ghost Ship may have gained speed from the kindling of unsafe Bohemian clutter, or allowed to spread through some neglect in proper inspections – but even without those factors, an astoundingly unaffordable housing landscape is always going to drive some segment of the market into off-the-books, unpermitted and fundamentally unsafe spaces.

City leaders must educate residents in similar living situations about basic fire safety and prevention strategies, such as how to check smoke detector batteries. We also need to hold inter-agency meetings to see how we can better coordinate inter-agency responses and code inspections. These are perennially worthwhile endeavors. Most importantly, though, we need to develop comprehensive, well-considered solutions to housing affordability. Not just a measure here, or a program there – I’m referring to the kind of throw-everything-at-it approach that leaves no idea untested and no possible funding source unexplored. The city of Oakland suffered a devastating loss in the Ghost Ship fire. Working together, we can prevent a similar tragedy in our own communities.

About the author: An architect and city planner, Jess Zimbabwe is the Executive Director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, a program of the National League of Cities in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. Follow Jess on twitter at @jzimbabwe and @theRoseCenter.

A Crash Course in Urban Development

The Urban Land Institute has recently developed a day-long training geared specifically towards elected officials to help them better understand the nuts and bolts of municipal real estate projects and how they’re financed.

How can city leaders know if they are getting the wool pulled over their eyes or if they are negotiating a mutually beneficial deal that will leverage private dollars towards a community renaissance? (Getty Images)

How can city leaders know if they are getting the wool pulled over their eyes or if they are negotiating a mutually beneficial deal that will leverage private dollars towards a community renaissance? (Getty Images)

Community activists sometimes decry market-based urban development projects (and their managers) using words like monstrosity, Satan, and scumbucket. But any public official will tell you that it is impossible for a city to accomplish its development or redevelopment goals without private sector investment in the community.

To that end, the nonprofit Urban Land Institute (ULI), an NLC partner, has recently developed a day-long training geared specifically towards elected officials to help them better understand the nuts and bolts of municipal real estate projects. The training is called UrbanPlan, and it will be offered next month at the 2016 NLC City Summit in Pittsburgh.

UrbanPlan is a realistic, engaging, and demanding curriculum in which elected officials learn about the fundamental forces that affect development in the United States. Participating officials will experience the challenges, private and public sector roles, trade-offs, and fundamental economics of complex urban development projects.

The workshop was originally designed for university-level economics courses, and is now taught at colleges and high schools across the country. In 2015, ULI redesigned the curriculum specifically for city officials. The Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use (an NLC program in partnership with ULI) acted as an adviser in the curriculum overhaul. The revamped workshop is offered in a single day as one of NLC University’s pre-conference seminars in Pittsburgh.

Participants in the seminar will develop proposals for a hypothetical urban neighborhood. Each attendee will take on a real-life role, such as site planner, financial analyst, or marketing director.

During the process, team members will learn firsthand the intricacies of urban renewal projects – and because profit is often a primary goal, the seminar will also include some down-to-earth lessons in financial reality. Accordingly, the proposed developments created in the seminar will need to address diverse issues such as affordable housing, transit needs, open-space beautification, historical preservation, and the district’s retail requirements. Once a project plan is hammered out, the teams will construct a preliminary model of their design – using Legos – and then go before a “city council” of volunteer land-use professionals to pitch their project. After a detailed analysis, participants will tweak their product for a final presentation.

ULI, NLC University, and the Rose Center recently held a pilot session of this seminar. Two of the participants described their experience:

“Land use decisions are among the most difficult that elected officials face. The Urban Plan Workshop illustrates that a development project can be a financial success for the developer and locality as well as meet the community’s goals for sustainability, inclusion and aesthetics. The Urban Plan Workshop is fast paced and hands-on, and elected officials will gain and retain insight into their role in finding the balance between the needs of the developer, locality and community.”

– Sandy Spang, councilmember, Toledo, Ohio

“Elected officials often hold biases, even if unintentional. But today, achieving great projects requires creativity and compromise. UrbanPlan lets you participate in that process. As someone that both serves on an elected body and has gone through the UrbanPlan workshop, I would encourage my peers to do the same.”

—Michael Wojcik, councilmember, Rochester, Minnesota

We are pleased to offer a special discounted registration rate to CitiesSpeak readers for the upcoming UrbanPlan seminar in Pittsburgh. Register here using the discount code NLCUL13 and save $100 off the registration price.

About the author: Jess Zimbabwe is Executive Director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, a program of the National League of Cities, in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. She’s an architect, city planner and politics junkie. Follow Jess on twitter at @jzimbabwe and @theRoseCenter.

Mayors Aren’t Just Talking About Housing and Homelessness – They’re Doing Something About It

For the third straight year, mayors have identified housing as a fundamental challenge facing their communities, according to our 2016 State of the Cities report.

(michaeljung/Getty Images)

Recognizing the unique role that housing plays in the fabric of cities, 40 percent of mayors in our sample dedicated significant portions of their State of the City speeches to the issue. (michaeljung/Getty Images)

Nearly a decade since the housing and financial crisis, one of the cruel ironies continuing to grip many cities is the lack of affordable housing – even as they continue to struggle with large numbers of foreclosed or abandoned properties.

To address both of these issues in their State of the City speeches, the mayors of Baltimore and Nashville highlighted recent efforts. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake emphasized the city’s Vacants to Value initiative that has quadrupled demolition funding to $100 million over 10 years. “It makes me proud that Vacants to Value was recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative, and honored by the Financial Times as an original idea that has made life better for people living and working in cities,” said the mayor.

In Nashville, Mayor Megan Barry touted the launch of a Metro Property Donation Process for housing development. “Nearly 60 infill lots will be available for housing development throughout Davidson County. More than half of them are in the urban core. For the first time, we’re making Metro’s own property available for affordable housing,” said Mayor Barry.

The need for affordable housing has been underscored by an increased prevalence of “tent cities” in many communities. While some cities have attempted to address homeless encampments through ordinances banning sleeping or lying in public spaces, others such as Indianapolis have taken the route of proactively outlining how they will handle them.

In Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor John Tecklenburg has recognized that a part of the city’s solution involves improving access to existing housing stock owned or managed by private landlords. The mayor partnered with NLC to recruit landlords to house homeless veterans, and in his State of the City address he said his goal was to bring the area’s encampments to “a humane but clear and final end in the near future.”

Recognizing the need to take action on homelessness in a strategic manner, 883 local leaders across 45 states and the District of Columbia have joined the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. As a result of the increased focus, veteran homelessness has fallen 47 percent nationwide since 2010. Most notably, for the first time in history, federal partners have defined what it means to effectively end veteran homelessness and certified that 29 communities and two states have achieved those benchmarks. Last Friday, Austin was announced as the most recent city.

Like Mayor Tecklenburg, Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler has also been actively involved in the recruitment of private landlords. Acknowledging the need to stop gentrification or forced displacement, he used his annual State of the City address to stress the need to develop housing “in a way that will actually achieve opportunities for permanent affordability.”

Our 2016 State of the Cities report found mayors acknowledging the unique needs facing veterans as a whole. When analyzing specific demographics mentioned in speeches, 20 percent discussed veterans. Notably, seniors emerged as another frequently mentioned special needs population. This should not be surprising, since we are now five years in to the “silver tsunami” in which 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 years old every day.

Given the central role that affordable housing plays in the health and vitality of a city, it is easy to see why the topic is a consistent feature in mayoral addresses. However, given the depth of the affordable housing crisis in all communities, mayors are taking innovative and strategic approaches to address the issue by focusing on key demographics. As recovery from the Great Recession continues, the cautious optimism expressed by mayors in all regions of the country is well grounded.

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about public safety.

Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

3 Ways Cities Can Navigate the ‘Silver Tsunami’

Cities are now five years into a demographic change that will impact nearly every family in America from now until well beyond 2030. In the face of this change, how can city leaders meet the challenge of connecting available resources to the elderly?

(Photo courtesy of the Home Depot Foundation)

Team Depot volunteers are key partners with nonprofits that rehabilitate homes in the Miami area. (The Home Depot Foundation)

The so-called ‘silver tsunami’ has become a relatively well-known form of shorthand for the demographic fact that roughly 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 years old every day. This reality began in 2011 and will continue until 2030. For key lessons from an area with a large population of senior citizens, let’s look at the area around Miami, Florida.

In the City of Miami Gardens, Navy veteran Gary Brown illustrates the need facing seniors and their communities. Mr. Brown served in the Navy during the Vietnam War as an engineer. Trained as an air-conditioning technician and electrician, he worked as a handyman and carpenter until he was forced to retire due to numerous disabilities including hip and knee problems that led to replacements, limited vision in his right eye and complete blindness is his left.

Mr. Brown’s disabilities left him unable to maintain his home, resulting in substantive safety hazards. Most notably, the home’s roof had been leaking since 1992, causing extensive interior damage. Thanks to the support and partnership of Rebuilding Together with The Home Depot Foundation and the Team Depot from a near-by store, Mr. Brown’s home received a new roof, kitchen and bathroom renovations, plumbing repairs, new flooring, doors and drywall, as well as painting and landscaping.

With many seniors facing circumstances like Mr. Brown, how can cities more systematically ensure services are delivered in a coordinated and collaborative manner?

  1. Use data to identify gaps in service.

The primary funding that supports seniors comes due to the Older Americans Act through Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs). In Miami-Dade County, the AAA is the Alliance for Aging. Their work provides a “no wrong door” approach for seniors. To better understand what seniors needed, the Alliance not only held public hearings, but they surveyed front-line staff and looked at client assessments. It was recognized that a quarter of elders reported “problems” with their home, and like Mr. Brown, more than half of these seniors identified issues related to major or minor repairs, including roofing or plumbing issues.

At the core of ensuring we meet the needs of seniors is access to safe and stable housing. Cities must be able to provide seniors with the ability to not just “age in place,” but to “age in community.” The installation of wheelchair ramps, grab-bars, the lowering of counters and cabinets, widening doorways and modifying bathrooms with roll-under sinks can help seniors stay in their homes, remain as independent as possible and avoid costly long-term care facilities.

  1. Build and support partnerships that reflect your community.

To most effectively meet these housing needs of seniors, the area’s leaders recognized the needed to strategically cultivate relationships based on key population characteristics. For example, local leaders recognized that a significant number of veterans lived in the area, so they connected with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center around the VA’s Veteran Directed Home and Community Based Services program. In addition, it was recognized that low-income seniors were over-represented in specific geographic areas. To help reach these individuals, connections were made with community action agencies to help leverage resources such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the Emergency Home Energy Assistance for the Elderly Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Finally, the diversity of the community was reflected through partnerships with immigrant organizations and faith-based groups such as Catholic Charities and Jewish Community Services of South Florida. Through these partnerships, the AAA identified three groups to provide home modifications and/or repairs. The experience and histories of United Home Care, Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Centers, and 1st Quality Home Care uniquely reflect the area’s population.

  1. Understand and document the cost-savings.

In the ever-present reality of limited resources, it is critical for communities to work together so they can document the cost implications of their service coordination. Not only can this information be used to show the fiscal implications of program investments as a means of educating state and federal officials, the data can also be used as a way of exploring the potential of innovative financing mechanisms. Through its services alone, the Alliance for Aging reports the prevention of 50,359 months of nursing home care at a savings of about $201,435,168 and a rate of nursing home use per Medicaid eligible elder that is 33 percent lower than the state average.

By working with AAAs to document these impacts, cities can better target their resources to ensure they are being as effectively used as possible. In April, the Older American Act was re-authorized. Importantly though, a key section for services has received level funding ever since overall cuts that were implemented as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. This is particularly concerning in the face of the rising number of seniors in communities.

If funding is not administered through your city, it is essential that local leaders connect with the administrating entity so area residents can be directed to the existing systems in place to meet their needs. To learn what organization is the Area Agency on Aging for your community, visit www.eldercare.gov.

Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

Houston Becomes Largest City to Effectively End Veteran Homelessness

Last week, Houston Mayor Annise Parker joined hundreds of service providers, community members and business leaders to announce that the city had built the system necessary to effectively end veteran homelessness.

Mayor Annise Parker discusses how Houston effectively ended veteran homelessness.

Mayor Annise Parker discusses how Houston effectively ended veteran homelessness at the official announcement event on Monday, June 1. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

“Too often those that answered the call of service still find themselves struggling long after leaving the military. Houston is there for our heroes, and just like on the battlefield, we will leave no one behind,” said Mayor Parker. “From regular provider coordination meetings and aligning local and federal resources, to dedicated street outreach teams and a coordinated assessment system that identifies, assesses, refers and navigates homeless veterans to housing, the Houston region has come together as a team to transform our homeless response system to effectively end veteran homelessness.”

Joining Mayor Parker were Representatives Al Green, Shelia Jackson Lee and Gene Green, as well as the Secretaries of the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Labor and the Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). The senior Administration officials attended the announcement as part of a three-city tour urging cities to mirror the success seen in Houston.

Houston is the largest city to make historic progress on veteran homelessness. In January, New Orleans announced it had reached a similar milestone and previously, Phoenix and Salt Lake City had announced an end to chronic veteran homelessness in their cities.

As the nation’s fourth largest city, Houston also has one of the nation’s largest veteran populations. During her remarks, Mayor Parker noted that Texas is one of the largest states contributing men and women to the military and that many veterans come to Houston following their service because of its economic opportunities.

Both the mayor and federal officials used their remarks to recognize the unfortunate reality that some veterans will experience housing instability and may become homeless. However, because the city has now built a coordinated system, once a homeless or at-risk veteran is identified, the community has the resources and ability to rapidly place the veteran into housing.

To make this system a reality, over 35 local agencies worked together under a collaboration called The Way Home. Collectively, in just over three years, this response system has housed more than 3,650 homeless veterans.

To help cities better understand what it means to meet the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, USICH has developed 10 Strategies to End Veteran Homelessness and issued criteria that communities who have joined the challenge can use to determine if they have built a system that effectively ends veteran homelessness.

One year ago, Mayor Parker was among the first mayors to join the Mayors Challenge. During the June 2014 launch of the challenge at the White House, Mayor Parker spoke about the progress already being seen in Houston. Twelve months later, Mayor Parker joins Mayors Becker, Stanton and Landrieu as local leaders who understand what the end of veteran homelessness looks like and have rallied their communities to make similar historic progress.

With only six months to go until we reach the ambitious timeline set to end veteran homelessness nationwide, local leaders have a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the landscape of how we understand and deal with homelessness.

Through the Mayors Challenge, elected officials across the country have stepped forward to give their support to ending homelessness for our veterans. Community stakeholders have more than 600 officials waiting to hear specific and pragmatic requests that can help house our veterans more rapidly.

This show of support by elected officials has never happened before and may never happen again.

In the remaining months, community partners must make tangible requests and engage elected officials with local data on progress being made and the needs moving forward. By illustrating the success that can happen with the active support of elected officials, communities can better partner with local leaders to advocate for the resources necessary to continue the progress seen on veteran homelessness and extend the progress to other homeless sub-populations.

Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix and Salt Lake City have recognized these facts and seized this opportunity.

Make your city the next to create history.

To read Houston’s announcement, click here.
To read NLC’s press release on the achievement, click here.
For more information on how to end veteran homelessness in your city, visit www.nlc.org/veteranshousing or email harig-blaine@nlc.org.

Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

An Interview with NLC Executive Director Clarence Anthony on Race, Equity & Leadership

Clarence AnthonyNational League of Cities CEO & Executive Director Clarence Anthony, seen here speaking at NLC’s Congressional City Conference in March. (Jason Dixson)

The tragedies that have occurred in Ferguson, New York City, Baltimore, and other communities throughout America have rightly sparked conversation about the social, cultural, racial and economic factors that affect the everyday lives of city residents – particularly minorities, at-risk youth, and the poor. What can cities do to promote equality and economic opportunity for people of all races, ethnicities, ages and economic backgrounds?

When tragedies like this occur, it not only erodes the relationship between the police and the community, it highlights the fact that there is a growing economic disparity that city leaders in America must recognize and address. High unemployment rates and low graduation rates among citizens in cities, towns and villages shows that certain neighborhoods have prospered while others have not. It’s important that city leaders understand that you have to engage with, and design initiatives for, all constituents in every neighborhood.

For example, city leaders must focus on creating vibrant downtowns while developing inclusive and affordable housing in neighborhoods. This type of approach to public policy will create more engaging cities where citizens can live, work and raise their families within the community that they call home. One way we can accomplish this is to create incentives so that the private sector will hire from within the community. When city leaders promote this type of growth, cities benefit and residents become vested in their community.

Cities should also examine the appointment process for city advisory boards and councils. For example, a planning and zoning commission that doesn’t reflect the ethnic, racial or gender diversity of the city is not truly representative of that city. From parks and recreation departments and advisory councils to tourist development councils and workforce boards, every policy board that advises the elected leadership should represent the diversity of that city. It can be done, but you’ve got to be very strategic and intentional, and have a real commitment to making sure that every segment of the population is represented.

These are just a few of the concrete steps that cities can take to ensure that their communities are equally represented in government. If a community is under-represented, and its needs are not served, then its residents will not be vested in the city as a whole. They won’t feel like the city is their home. And then you’ll see the tragic events that have happened in countless cities across the nation continue to occur. All of these cities have people who feel that they are not part of a community; that they are not “real” citizens with a voice in government. And they will find other ways to make their voices heard.

So there can’t be a disconnect between municipal authority and the people it represents.

You have to have that connection. You have to include them in the governance process, in the community process. I was just at a conference in Philly – Cities United – and it had a panel of young African American men, and their message was “Don’t talk at us; talk to us, and with us.” Many of them were in their mid-twenties, and public policy and programs are being designed for them – but without their input. That has to change. You have to include them in the development of the community in which they live.

The root causes of the recent tragedies are complex and nuanced. Two distinct events consistently stand out, however: the death of a young black male as a result of an interaction with police, and the violent public response that subsequently occurred. What steps can city leaders and local elected officials take to address the potential for these tragedies to occur in their cities?

There has to be an acknowledgement that there are still challenges in communities throughout America when it comes to race relations – specifically, race relations with police departments. Something must occur to strengthen trust between the minority community and police in cities throughout America. At this point, unfortunately, we are starting to see police being targeted in reprisal; community trust continues to erode. We must start a conversation of understanding and partnership – and that conversation must be led by city leaders. The elected officials who are members of the National League of Cities are exactly that type of group; they’re city leaders who strive to create a bridge between police and communities, so that real conversations can occur.

In addition, I think city leaders should start to re-examine – and implement, wherever possible – community policing policies that provide for a real understanding of the communities they serve; there must be understanding to have a relationship with the community. Once you have that relationship, you’ll be able to engage. So city leaders must be able to look at how they’re investing their resources and what kind of progress is being made throughout the community as a whole. When city leaders acknowledge that they have diversity in the community, and they create opportunities to bring people throughout the community together, that creates relationships and real conversations.

This is happening in some communities, but we need it to happen everywhere. The questions involving black males in America focus on more than just police relations – they take into consideration the high unemployment rate, the low high school graduation rate, and the level of poverty that exists in cities throughout America, among other factors. The takeaway is this: city leaders have to focus on improving engagement and relations in their communities. We have to look at how we provide creative and innovative techniques to reach the African American community so that we can achieve our goal of making true connections that are lasting and productive. It will take hard work and partnerships with our educational system and the private sector – and on the law enforcement side, those same partnerships need to develop, focusing on education and training on how to value diversity and how to communicate across cultures.

The change we need will not occur overnight; it will take patience and time to build the trust that our cities deserve. We need to spur conversation, in an effort to reach a certain level of trust and understanding between police and communities. The National League of Cities is quickly becoming a nexus of conversation about race, equity and leadership in American cities. That conversation is long overdue.

Do you see the Cities United event in Philadelphia as one of the forums for that conversation?

Yes. I think Cities United is not only a forum for that conversation, but an excellent tool to help elected officials get the technical expertise they need to deal with the larger issues involved. For example, Cities United provides consultants that help city leaders respond to the challenges faced by American cities that we’ve discussed today.

How does the National League of Cities’ lead that conversation?

Our REAL initiative is a very important tool and resource for city leaders. It’s designed to help them address racial tensions in their communities and create meaningful conversations around racial diversity and equity issues. REAL stands for Race, Equity And Leadership – and the piece that we really have to elevate is the piece on leadership, because our members are the ones who are responsible for governance in American cities.

Earlier, you posed the question, “What should city leaders do if something like this happens?” The challenges we’ve spoken about today are especially difficult challenges for any city leader to face, and it’s the responsibility of the National League of Cities to develop best practices around these issues, give city leaders the space to discuss the challenges they face with a network of peers, and then provide them with the tools they need to manage the situation if something like what happened in Baltimore or Ferguson occurs in their community.

I wish I could sit here and tell you that this will be the last time that tragedies like these will occur. But the reality is that, until a systematic strategy is in place to bring about full economic participation as well as improved relations between police and the communities they serve, these tragedies could happen in any city in America. City leaders are standing up and saying, “we need to fix these issues before something like this occurs in our community.” That’s a conversation that needs to be had. We’re going to start seeing city leaders begin to deal with the injustices, the inequality, and the creation of opportunities for all of their citizens.

And that’s what we have to do: we have to build a city in which everyone is a participant, where all citizens feel like they can raise their kids, and live and work and play in a safe and vibrant environment. You don’t call a place home when you don’t have a system of governance that supports you. Right now, I think that’s one of the biggest challenges American cities face. But if we can rise to that challenge, I think we’ll have more people out on the streets saying “Hey, this is our neighborhood; we own this.” We have to create cities that all citizens can call home.

Paul Konz headshotAbout the Author: Paul Konz is the Senior Editor at the National League of Cities.

First Lady Honors New Orleans for Ending Veteran Homelessness, Announces New Resources

On Monday in New Orleans, first lady Michelle Obama joined Mayor Mitch Landrieu and community members to congratulate them for becoming the first city in the nation to achieve the goal of the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. To help other cities reach the goal of ending veteran homelessness this year, the first lady announced three new resources.

First lady Michelle Obama speaks at the Mayor's Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness event in New Orleans. (photo credit: Office of Mayor Landrieu)

First lady Michelle Obama speaks at the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness event in New Orleans. (photo credit: Office of Mayor Landrieu)

As part of celebrations marking the fourth anniversary of the Joining Forces initiative, Mrs. Obama highlighted the progress seen on behalf of veterans on employment, education, health care and mental health. Recognizing that veteran homelessness is at the intersection of these elements, the first lady said the issue “cuts straight to the core of what it means to support those who serve our country.”

“When we have tens of thousands of veterans who don’t have somewhere to go when it rains – that is a stain on our nation,” said Mrs. Obama. “That’s why, as President, my husband has vowed not to simply manage this problem but to end it. And overall, since 2010, we’ve housed nearly 230,000 veterans and their families.”

In January, Mayor Landrieu announced the city was the first to reach the historic milestone of achieving functional zero for homeless veterans. The city’s progress accelerated after Mayor Landrieu became one of the first mayors to join the challenge.

“This isn’t just an extraordinary achievement for the city, this is a call-to-action to our entire country,” said Mrs. Obama. “You all have proven that, even in a city as big as New Orleans, veterans’ homelessness is not a reality that we have to accept. It is not an impossible problem that’s too big to solve. Just the opposite – you’ve shown us that when leaders make this problem a priority and bring the right folks to the table, we can find a solution.”

Noting the importance of mayoral leadership, Mrs. Obama highlighted the actions taken by some of the other 570 mayors, governors and local officials who have committed to ending veteran homelessness by the end of this year.

  • Los Angeles housed more than 5,000 veterans last year.
  • New York City has cut the number of homeless veterans by more than half.
  • Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle and Mayor Rusty Bailey of Riverside, Calif. have supplemented federal funds with city funds to provide rental subsidies and rapid rehousing services.
  • Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy has invested nearly $3 million for homeless veterans, plus even more for veterans’ security deposits

New Resources

To support mayors who have joined the challenge, Mrs. Obama announced that the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would begin regular conference calls to discuss proven best practices.

In addition, the first lady announced the availability of nearly $65 million to help more than 9,300 homeless veterans find permanent housing with HUD-VASH vouchers.

Finally, Mrs. Obama announced a commitment from Blackstone Equity to provide “Welcome Home Kits” for veterans when they transition into new housing. Blackstone’s portfolio of companies, such as Hilton, Motel 6, and La Quinta Inns and Suites, will be working with local leaders in 25 cities to provide furniture, appliances and other supplies.

Following the first lady’s remarks (which can be viewed in full here), Matthew Doherty, recently named Executive Director of USICH, spoke with Mayor Landrieu about some of the city’s keys to success.

Matthew Doherty (left) and Mayor Mitch Landrieu. (photo credit: Office of Mayor Landrieu)

Matthew Doherty (left) and Mayor Mitch Landrieu. (photo credit: Office of Mayor Landrieu)

The mayor noted that many of the lessons applied to ending veteran homelessness arose from the city’s experiences following Hurricane Katrina. Among these lessons was the importance of convening stakeholders to facilitate vertical and horizontal communication among local, state and federal agencies.

Mayor Landrieu pointed to his unique ability as mayor to convene and ensure that all stakeholders were “pulling in the same direction.”

As collective conversations were held, the community recognized the need for help identifying homeless veterans throughout the region, as well as a need for more housing. To meet these challenges, the mayor reached out to area landlords and property management companies, particularly those that were already working with the city and local housing authorities.

In addition, the community engaged the area’s active duty military personnel and veteran service organizations, such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. With the participation of other veterans, more of their homeless peers were identified, engaged and connected to services.

Throughout the day, the first lady and Mayor Landrieu urged participants of the Mayors Challenge to bring together key representatives to better understand what is happening to end veteran homelessness in their community. To help mayors identify where to start their conversations, the National League of Cities (NLC) has developed Three Steps & Five Questions, the National Alliance to End Homelessness has published Five High Impact Steps, and HUD has compiled numerous resources as part of the Mayors Challenge Desk Book.

For more information about how NLC can support your city’s work to end veteran homelessness, visit www.nlc.org/veteranshousing or contact harig-blaine@nlc.org.

Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.