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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Housing policy really could get done next year

by Ethan Handelman, National Housing Conference

Housing didn’t feature prominently in the 2016 campaigns.While I might wish it had gotten more attention, I’m glad it wasn’t the focus of hyperbolic campaign promises. With the campaign behind us and the work of governing ahead, we could see federal action on housing along several fronts, potentially with bipartisan cooperation. Don’t mistake this for a prediction of harmony—I expect bruising appropriations battles, chaotic tax reform debates, and many filibusters in the Senate.  The Trump Administration is also a big unknown at this point. With Dr. Ben Carson the nominee for HUD Secretary, the other top appointments at HUD and USDA will do a lot to shape the direction of housing policy.  We could see anything from a huge curtailment of housing assistance and regulation to a pro-building boom led by HUD and USDA.

That said, there are several housing issues a Republican Congress and president are well-placed to tackle with help from Democrats in the minority:

Flood insurance. The National Flood Insurance Program is due for reauthorization in 2017. It is must-do legislation because without a functioning flood insurance program, people can’t buy or sell houses in the many places where flood insurance is mandatory (among other reasons).  The last two major flood insurance laws were bipartisan, so there’s real prospect for the same happening in 2017. From a housing perspective, the key to success will be reforming the program to encourage people to build more resiliently and in less flood-prone places while keeping costs manageable, especially for low-income households.

Rural housing and revitalization. The Trump administration arrives with a mandate from rural and Rust Belt America to bring jobs and prosperity to places that have long suffered from declining population and deindustrialization. This may well be the time that the federal government pays real attention to oft-ignored places like Appalachia, the Gulf Coast, the deep South, the rural Midwest, and long-distressed areas closer to urban centers.  Housing investments are an essential part of revitalization, both as job creation directly and as housing for workers of modest income. Preserving existing rental housing, making housing healthier, repairing homes for low-income older adults, and creating new housing near emerging job centers are all part of meeting the needs our country just heard expressed.

Poverty. Speaker Paul Ryan has been beating the drum on poverty alleviation for quite some time now, gradually putting detail behind his proposals. For most families in poverty, housing is the single biggest expense, which makes housing affordability and quality central to any effort on poverty.  Bipartisan engagement on the details of poverty and housing policy will help to get those details right, so that housing can be a platform for individual and community success.

Housing finance reform. Remember that temporary housing finance system set up in 2008 in the wake of the financial crisis?  Yes, that’s what we still have.  A new Congress brings a new opportunity to find a sustainable path forward for housing finance that harnesses the creativity of the private sector to ensure reliable access to mortgage credit everywhere in America, for rented and owned housing alike.  Past efforts that progressed furthest were bipartisan, as will be any likely solution in the future.

Broadband access. Having a good internet connection at home is a gateway to education, job opportunity, small business start-ups, better health care, and reduced social isolation.  But only half of very low income renters have broadband at home.  The FCC recently opened the door to allow housing providers to bring internet connections home using the Lifeline program, and there are many steps HUD and USDA can take to build on public-private partnerships already in progress.  Bipartisan action to close the connectivity gap could be a powerful start to 2017. 

Public housing. You’d be hard-pressed to find an area of housing with worse funding cuts or more micro-managing regulation than public housing. Yet there are also great examples of public housing authorities becoming entrepreneurial, pioneering new financing models, and crafting housing solutions in education, health and economic development. 2017 presents an opportunity to recapitalize and reinvent public housing to serve the great need it faces. Indeed, that’s why we’re having a session on the future of public housing at our Solutions for Affordable Housing convening on December 14.

None of these issues are easy, and none of the solutions are free. The new Congress and administration that come in January will need to get into the details quickly to make sure that the inevitable partisan battles over budget and appointments don’t get in the way of much needed housing policy. They will also need the political will to bring stable housing within the reach of more people in this country—and that’s very much an open question.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Receiving a paycheck doesn’t always mean you can afford housing

by Andrea Nesby, National Housing Conference

Growing up in D.C.  I saw public housing developments be replaced with new luxury apartments, cafes and eateries. “Wow, it’s so vibrant now,” I would tell myself. But it wouldn’t take long before I saw someone wrapped up in ragged blankets outside of a business, and I would think: What cost, and to whom, does transforming a neighborhood come with? Maybe these changes would give vulnerable persons another chance to have a job, so that they’re not displaced. They would have a place in the neighborhood like anyone else, not be shut out.  It would be a chance for them to start over and get back on their feet. But over the years, I’ve learned having a job isn’t a single solution to prevent homelessness or for someone to end their homelessness. Instead, it starts with keeping housing affordable for individuals and families with low and moderate income levels.

While working at a homeless organization for four years in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the most wealthiest counties in the nation, I gained insight on what it means to afford housing cost. For the first time, I learned about the average cost of housing in the D.C. area, and it was startling. The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Montgomery County is over $1,400. How many workers could afford it?

Now a week into my new job at NHC, I’ve had the chance to look at our Paycheck to Paycheck 2016 report and view the webinar. And it really hit me. Someone doesn’t necessarily have to only make minimum wage or be extremely low income for housing to be unaffordable. Even a professional, like a school social worker, would have trouble being able to afford living near where he or she works. Out of the 210 metropolitan areas assessed in the report, only 52 percent were affordable for the average school social worker.

What if someone’s check went to cover car expenses, an unforeseen medical expense, an unexpected legal expense or a family emergency? What if their work hours decrease? What if someone is only making minimum wage? The scenarios can be endless, but the solutions aren’t— and one solution is increasing the supply of affordable housing.  I remember hearing people can be one paycheck away to being close to experiencing homelessness. And for me, “Paycheck to Paycheck” has put this in even greater perspective. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What's next for the housing community post-election

by Chris Estes, National Housing Conference

It has been a week since the election, and we have had some time to reflect on the outcome and how we at NHC see the landscape ahead for affordable housing and community development policy. The presidential results surprised most political and
media observers, and congressional races resulted in larger Republican majorities in Congress than many predicted. What is also unusual is how much we do not know at this point.

Regardless of election outcomes, I believe that affordable housing and community development must be a bipartisan issue to be successful.  Broad-based public support will be part of creating the political will required for adequate funding and other legislative solutions. 

Over my past four-plus years at NHC, I have focused on building a governing board balanced by members of both political parties and on being a respected source of information across partisan lines. We have also been committed to improving the communications strategies of our sector as well as making the case for the interconnectedness of the spectrum of housing and community development and the need for us to work together more effectively in our education efforts.

President-elect Trump arrives with no prior governing or military experience, but rather business experience and a mandate for change. His positions during his campaign gave us little direct evidence as to his views on housing and community development, but his campaign messaging around the need for a major investment in infrastructure suggests a way to connect housing as part of the vital infrastructure for community economic success and sustainability.

President-elect Trump also focused a lot of energy (and had success in voter support) in areas of the country that have experienced long-term economic decline or are still struggling to recover from the recession. These rural and urban areas in swing states that went majority Republican, like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, create important coalition opportunities with other rural states, including majority Democratic states like Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine and majority Republican states in the middle and south west regions.  We believe that developing a bipartisan coalition around revitalization through housing can be a major opportunity to position affordable housing and community development work.

Housing is a bipartisan issue and the challenges in both rental affordability and access to homeownership are vital to economic sustainability and growth for the country. Affordable housing programs create vital infrastructure for vulnerable populations like persons with disabilities and seniors, as well as improve workforce sustainability and economic development. We hope the whole spectrum of affordable housing and community development organizations will come together to make this case in a united voice to the new administration and Congress.

We have followed the names put forward for HUD Secretary and are pleased that several are people with strong histories of work on and support for affordable housing. There are also other candidates we know much less about and at least one who has been very hostile to HUD efforts to deconcentrate poverty through Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. This appointment will be the first signal from the new administration of its support for housing issues. A second important appointment for housing will be Treasury Secretary. This person will play an important role in both rental and homeownership affordability, potential changes to the Dodd-Frank law and potential reform of the housing finance system.

Housing finance reform is a long-unaddressed issue NHC has focused on since the financial crisis. We plan to work in coalition in the coming year to help move housing finance reform forward along the consensus principles our task force developed two years ago. There are several other issues we think are particularly ripe for attention with the new administration and Congressional makeup. 

Reauthorization and reform of the National Flood Insurance Program is much needed to help people sustain homeownership affordably without being in harm's way. When disasters strike, the federal costs for emergency assistance quickly outstrip actual housing and community development funding. We remain hopeful that movement on this issue can be achieved that can allow for predictability and move the country towards more sustainable development in flood-prone areas while not exacerbating housing affordability challenges.

President-elect Trump has laid out some initial priorities already that may have funding implications for housing programs indirectly because of overall budget pressures. The proposal to raise the sequester cap on defense spending will put immediate pressure on non-discretionary spending (where housing programs reside) to be reduced to balance out those increases. Additional ideas like repealing or reforming parts of the Affordable Care Act could also place additional pressures on the non-defense discretionary budgets.

These pressures will be balanced against the new administration's desire to invest in areas experiencing decline and the need for large-scale infrastructure investment noted above. When we see specific proposals in Congress, we will be quick to share information on how they will impact housing funding, as well as the best strategy and framing to position housing and community development.