Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Housing as part of Detroit’s future

by Ethan Handelman, National Housing Conference

On Feb. 4, NHC partnered with JPMorgan Chase in a Detroit Revitalization Forum designed to share insights from elsewhere in the country with Detroit and inform national efforts from Detroit’s experience. National policy experts and practitioners gathered with Detroit-based counterparts for a wide ranging exchange of ideas led by NHC’s President and CEO, Chris Estes. Participants also had a chance to hear about some of the latest efforts by public- and private-sector organizations dedicated to reviving the city’s economy and housing market.

The day‘s conversation occurred in four parts—innovative solutions to blight, using multifamily housing to transform neighborhoods, creative homeownership strategies and the Detroit showcase—each drawing comments from most of the participants in the forum. Here are highlights from each:

1. Innovative solutions to blight in the one-to-four family property space.
2. Using multifamily housing to transform neighborhoods.
  • The Community Builders used mixed-use multifamily development to create a sense of place in communities in distress. The Boston-based nonprofit developer operating in 14 states has affordable housing properties anchored by, for instance, a grocery store, an arts and rec center and a medical center. They are currently working with Henry Ford Hospital to develop in Detroit. 
  • Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing is a nonprofit syndicator of Low Income Housing Tax Credits that reinvests its profits in neighborhoods. Recent examples of their revitalization work include the Partners Achieving Community Transformation (PACT) on the east side of Columbus. It pulled together LIHTC investment, support from Ohio State University, city resources, a federal Choice Neighborhoods grant and more to address not only housing but public safety, child care, social services and more.  
  • MassHousing, one of Massachusetts’ network of state housing agencies, has invested patient subordinate financing in down markets and down cycles. Addressing public safety is the first concern, since people won’t worry about schools and other things if they’re worried about walking outside. Not all investments have been successful, in part due to overly rosy predictions, but those that are run into the challenge of gentrification and displacement. The agency is interested in policy change, such as proposals for flexibility in LIHTC income targeting, to allow more mixed-income development. 
  • Baltimore has had to take aggressive action against a few Section 8 properties that were magnets for crime, going so far as to close down some properties. The forum had a spirited discussion of the tradeoffs involved with aggressive enforcement, focused primarily on the effects on property residents, neighbors and surrounding properties.
  • Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) sees great opportunities in Detroit, especially in the New Center, Midtown and Downtown areas. The agency uses LIHTC, HOME, Hardest Hit Funds and more for multifamily development and single-family homeownership. Several lessons from their experience: 1) A need to communicate better about what MSHDA can and can’t do, since it depends on developers to propose projects on particular sites; 2) Work better with the city of Detroit to unlock capacity; 3) Increase developer interest in Detroit outside of the handful of already committed developers; and 4) Address the stigma of low income housing that doesn’t match actual property performance and resident experience.  
  • Southwest Solutions, a Detroit CDC, emphasizes wellness of people and wellness of place in its work. They stressed that lack of subsidy resources limits development and service provision.
  • Rock Ventures is a major developer and investor in Detroit real estate. They are seeing very high occupancy rates, above 97 percent, in the highest-demand areas of the city and are adapting property developments to meet the demand. 
  • Invest Detroit, a CDFI, is getting traction in the city through a combination of leverage and leadership. They have engaged in their own mapping exercise to select sites as they seek community leadership to ensure success. 
  • The forum discussed how multifamily properties can be transformational in neighborhoods by creating the density to break through the vicious cycle of lack of amenities and investment. Participants emphasized strong property management as essential, particularly to creating decent, safe places to live that can gain community support and foster residents’ aspirations. Multifamily housing is also an essential resource for vulnerable populations that need housing and services in places that are integrated with the rest of the community.
3. Creative homeownership strategies.
  • Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago helps people and neighborhoods through housing counseling pre- and post-purchase, homeownership lending, down payment assistance and home improvement loans. They are part of a city-wide collaborative working block by block to track vacant buildings, stabilize neighborhoods and revive investment. A wide range of efforts includes a block program for façade improvements to create better curb appeal, a forthcoming initiative with JPMorgan Chase to provide home improvement loans for underwater borrowers, block beautification in cooperation with residents and marketing and branding to create neighborhoods of choice. 
  • Boston Community Capital’s SUN Initiative structures short sales of distressed mortgage loans to keep people in their homes with a new 30-year fixed rate mortgage. They have already helped about 500 families with default rates that look like the national average. There are many state by state differences in statute that have made expansion difficult, but the program operates in four states and may spread to others. 
  • The National Community Land Trust Network helps its members create permanently affordable homes through inclusionary housing programs, deed restrictions, shared equity, land trusts and more. Many members also do rental housing, community gardens and commercial space, all under community control. The long-term property restrictions can adapt to stronger or weaker real estate markets and can be essential for preserving affordability before markets heat up.  
  • National Community Stabilization Trust offers a Quick Look program (a variation of First Look) to enable nonprofits to quickly secure control of distressed properties and keep the existing owner in place, either with a restructured mortgage or a rental arrangement. It’s just one of several niche programs in this space that together can make a difference in struggling neighborhoods.
  • The Skillman Foundation has begun investing in housing surrounding education and youth development centers in its six Detroit neighborhoods of focus as a way to improve educational outcomes for children.  
  • PolicyLink noted the connections between home lending and finance of small business. The Office of Management and Budget is part of a federal task force focused on Detroit. The city and the rest of the country will likely see major changes come to small business lending, making it look more like private-sector risk capital. More credit scoring and automation will change how small business capital flows. 
  • The forum discussed homeownership as an essential mechanism for wealth-building and as a validation of people’s right to belong. An extended discussion of lease-to-own strategies explored the challenges of trying to use the difference between rental and homeownership costs to create stable housing solutions. Other topics touched on include energy efficiency, green building, disaster resiliency, predatory vs. non-predatory lending and health and educational outcomes affected by housing.
4. Detroit Showcase
  • Loveland Technologies has built a regularly updated database of every parcel in the city including ownership, blight indicators and condition. Maps and data available at Detroit.whydontweownthis.com.
  • The Detroit Land Bank has ramped up quickly to many thousand parcels under its control, and it expects before year’s end to control many more. Daily property auctions are moving properties into productive use with a requirement to rehab within 6 months. See more about their efforts at www.buildingdetroit.org.
  • Liberty Bank described its Detroit Home Restoration Program to finance acquisition and rehab of single-family homes for new owner-occupants in Detroit. 
  • The Detroit Blight Task Force described their vision for the city and the results of efforts to create homebuyer and renovation requirements and training in the city.
  •  Southwest Solutions described their work connecting the wellness of people to the wellness of place in southwest Detroit and beyond, drawing on lessons from other resident-led community development initiatives.

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