Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mass. agency awarded two national housing honors

by Andrea Nesby,
National Housing Conference

MassHousing, an NHC Leadership Circle member, was awarded two national housing awards by NHC member National Council of State Housing Agencies (NCSHA). One honor was for their Purchase and Rehabilitation Program, which is the only formal mortgage program in Massachusetts that provides financing for both the acquisition and repair of neglected properties suffering from deferred maintenance.

MassHousing’s Purchase and Rehab program mortgages are heavily concentrated in the state’s 26 “Gateway Cities,” defined as having populations between 35,000 and 250,000 residents with both average household income and average educational attainment rate below the state average.

The MassHousing loan program is unique in that the rehabilitation work is supervised by a qualified bank loan officer or rehab specialist and rehab funds are advanced on a predetermined schedule structured to have work completed within six months of the original loan closing. Over the past six years, the program has helped nearly 350 families purchase and repair homes in at-risk neighborhoods with $60 million in overall financing. The program has succeeded with the support of local municipalities and community conscious non-profit organizations and MassHousing-approved lenders.

“The MassHousing Purchase and Rehabilitation Program not only helps qualified homebuyers buy homes in need of repair but it helps stabilize neighborhoods by reviving blighted and abandoned properties,” said MassHousing Executive Director Tim Sullivan. “This award from NCSHA also highlights the commitment of our municipal, non-profit and lending partners who work closely with us to provide homeownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income homebuyers who are being underserved in the traditional mortgage market.”

Through its Restoring Neighborhoods Task Force, NHC lifts up best practices for comprehensive community development like the MassHousing Purchase and Rehabilitation Program to help those neighborhoods still struggling to recover from the foreclosure crisis, the recession and for some, many years of underinvestment and neglect. For more information or to participate in the task force, contact NHC policy and research associate Kaitlyn Snyder

Zoning and land-use regulation offer potential for unlikely partnerships

by Rebekah King, National Housing Conference

On Nov. 29, I attended a Policy Forum at the CATO Institute exploring the question of how to keep housing affordable and if cities should grow upward or grow outward. One key takeaway for me was the broad agreement, at least at a high level, that land-use regulation increases the cost to build housing. While conservatives and progressives may disagree on the costs and benefits of specific regulations, this event highlighted that we can start from a place of agreement and find areas to explore together.

All three panelists (Randall O’Toole, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute, Emily Hamilton, Policy Research Manager, Mercatus Center and Gerritt Knaap, Professor of Urban Studies and Executive Director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education) agreed that land-use regulations increase the cost to build affordable housing, and that local jurisdictions need to consider how to lower regulatory costs. This discussion comes after the White House proposed a development toolkit and exploration of this topic by the American Enterprise Institute. All have come to some shared conclusions like reducing parking requirements for transit-oriented developments and implementing density bonuses as ways to remove barriers to affordable housing. While the panelists disagreed about specific regulations like growth management boundaries and inclusionary zoning, the need for appropriate land-use regulation where the benefits outweigh the costs, for regulation appropriate to the regional housing market, the importance of streamlined approval processes and removing barriers to developing affordable housing could be areas where unlikely partners can work together.

Removing barriers related to land-use regulation could be very helpful for affordable housing. In an era of declining federal resources, forming new partnerships and exploring opportunities at the state and local levels are two increasingly important ways we can move affordable housing forward.

Looking to the future of affordable housing and broadband

by Rebekah King, National Housing Conference

On Nov. 30, I attended “Transforming Communities, Broadband Goals for 2017 and Beyond” to learn about efforts to support greater broadband access and adoption. Because broadband expansion has bipartisan support and because of groups like the Senate broadband caucus and interest in infrastructure, 2017 holds potential for new policy activity in this space. NHC has been encouraging broadband in affordable housing through research, policy and our Connectivity Working Group. Our focus is to expand at home broadband access, especially for low-income households who otherwise may be left behind.

Speakers at the event discussed how the U.S. has made significant progress in improving broadband access and adoption, moving from a 68% adoption rate in 2009 to a 75% rate in 2016. Internet speed has increased 300% in the past six years, and schools connected to the internet have increased from 30% to 78%. As we’ve made these strides in broadband access, home broadband access has become increasingly important and is now a necessity. However, the digital divide in terms of geography, income, age and disability status is still significant and needs to be addressed.

While the digital divide was certainly a focus of this event, the connection to affordable housing was barely mentioned. Unless we commit to ensuring the most vulnerable residents, including those in federally assisted housing are connected to broadband, inequity will increase. Partnerships among housing providers, technology providers and digital inclusion organizations are necessary to bridge this divide. Creative thinking about how to finance broadband infrastructure and service as well as how to fund equipment and digital literacy programs will be essential. The FCC’s Lifeline Modernization can offer some new opportunities for housing providers because of the expanded individual subsidy for broadband as well as opportunities to aggregate and to become a Lifeline Broadband Provider. And housing providers could join and network with existing collaborative efforts like HUD’s ConnectHome program, Next Century Cities, Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance to find new ideas and solutions.

Home broadband is only going to become more important and NHC looks forward to further engagement in this work. Please reach out to me if you want to learn more or join NHC’s Connectivity Working Group.

Friday, December 2, 2016

How to counter community opposition in the age of Trump

by Amy Clark,
National Housing Conference 

On Nov. 8, voters across the country heard the affordable housing message loud and clear and approved numerous state and local housing funding measures that will make it possible for more of our neighbors in both “red” and “blue” states to live in safe, healthy affordable homes. This was a fantastic achievement in housing advocacy, but the work is far from over: Developers, local governments and advocates must now move to convincing the neighbors of proposed housing developments to accept more affordable homes into their communities.

The election cycle that brought over 37 affordable housing measures to the ballot in eight states also elevated toxic rhetoric about people of color and other minority populations.  The public discourse has changed, and that’s likely to affect our efforts to build support for affordable housing development and counter community opposition. Here’s what I anticipate you may hear about affordable housing in your community, and how to prepare for it:

Opposition based in racism. In the wake of the election there have been many reports of hate-based harassment and intimidation across the country. A segment of our population feels newly empowered to use racist language as a weapon. While racism and fear of difference have always been at least an undercurrent of some kinds of community opposition, in recent years it’s largely been implied, not overt. You may see an uptick in overt racism in siting conversations.

What to do? While it would be satisfying—and, arguably, right—to call out racist language directly when you hear it, research tells us that this is likely to backfire, causing the speaker to defensively double-down on the prejudiced belief. Instead, a study this year found that “a short conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice.” This argues for holding small-group conversations, and for facilitators trained to listen and find common ground.

Misinformation about your work. You’ve likely heard much about the success of fake news on Facebook during the presidential campaign. Misinformation this election cycle may have had a distinctive rightward bent, but don’t bother patting yourself on the back if you lean left. All of us are susceptible to information that confirms what we already believe, regardless of its factual accuracy. Don’t be surprised to see an increase in the misinformation about your work being posted online and handed around in anonymous flyers around the neighborhoods where you work.

What to do? Don’t write up a “frequently asked questions” page that restates all the lies being told about your work. By emphasizing the misinformation—even when you later correct it—you’re just driving it deeper into peoples’ consciousness. Instead, use proven debunking techniques. First tell your truth (“Our apartments increase neighborhood safety.”), then signpost the misinformation and explain the motive behind it (“There is a myth circulating that affordable housing increases crime, promoted by a small new neighborhood group formed to fight our proposal.”), and finally give a brief, clear alternative explanation, repeated in graphics if possible (“In fact, by starting a neighborhood watch program and installing security cameras, we’ve helped create a 13 percent decrease in property crime in another neighborhood where we work. We want to work with you to have a similar positive impact here.”).

Opposition driven by ideological difference. Research into persistent opposition to affordable housing has shown that spatial ideology—an individual’s set of beliefs around who can live in and use a particular place, and who has the right to participate in decision-making about a place—can be predictive of opposition to, or support of, affordable housing. The recent push to disenfranchise groups of Americans through voter ID laws and other restrictions is an example of a narrow conception of spatial rights, and the electoral contest was rife with rhetoric supporting a conscribed idea of to whom America truly belongs. Opposition may now more frequently focus on delegitimizing prospective low-income residents, perhaps as “not American” or simply “not from here.”

What to do? Similar to racist language, addressing spatial ideology head-on might not be effective. But at the same time, there are likely to be people in your community who believe lower-income people have an equal right to live in a place. Find these potential supporters by emphasizing the values of diversity and inclusion, and give this group a clear way to take action to support your work.

Distrust of institutional authority. The success of populist presidential candidates from both parties points to, among other things, Americans’ growing distrust of institutions. Whether it’s in banks, the news media or government itself, people across the political spectrum have lost faith. As it happens, affordable housing development connects to all sorts of things many of our neighbors have come to doubt: taxation, finance systems and entities, and zoning, just to name a few.

What to do? First, people who have lost trust will hear a developer mention “partnering with the government” and immediately hear an attempt to paper over a profit-making arrangement. Step away from the marketing talk and use plain language to explain how your work works. Second, reframe the role of these suddenly suspect institutions. A new paper from Enterprise Community Partners and the FrameWorks Institute recommends that we help people understand the role of government in affordable housing by explaining “the role of systems in shaping outcomes for people and… communities,” and by “zooming out” to tell broader stories that explain the impact of having more affordable homes on everyone in a community. You know your work is about more than units; help others understand this, too.

Countering community opposition has never been easy, and I hope to hear from you that my predictions have not come true. Even if they do, our work has long-term impact, both for strengthening local economies and decreasing bias. There is evidence that white people living in diverse neighborhoods “endorsed fewer negative stereotypes, and [feel] closer to blacks as a group.” When we create diverse, inclusive and economically thriving communities, we help decrease prejudice and division. That’s something truly worth fighting for.