#090 Nov/Dec 1996 — Saving Affordable Housing

Research Components

Six case studies are at the core of this report. Other sources of information include previous research, facts and ideas generated in an all-day conference, and several round table discussions […]

Six case studies are at the core of this report. Other sources of information include previous research, facts and ideas generated in an all-day conference, and several round table discussions with expert academics and housing practitioners.

Case Studies

In addition to prior research, our study analyzes and draws lessons from six successful efforts by nonprofit community-based groups that preserved low-income housing. We chose two projects in Boston, two in Denver, one in Chicago, and one in New York City. Ellen Shoshkes, an architect and planner, was director of the research team. Cindy Wong was research assistant.

First, NHI identified the types of properties that can and should be captured as permanent affordable housing. These units (single family and multifamily) fell under one or more of the following broad categories:

  • Federally Subsidized Projects with expiring affordability restrictions
  • HUD foreclosures
  • Projects with private owners opting out of Federal Section 8 subsidy contracts
  • Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) properties
  • Subsidized projects with state or local expiring affordability restrictions
  • Department of Defense surplus property
  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac foreclosures

Some of these properties were already within a regulated environment where the ownership transfer and affordability procedures are tightly prescribed (e.g., prepayment projects with expiring federal use restrictions). Others, such as RTC properties, are more loosely regulated through statutory requirements, and still others have benefited from public assistance that carries no such regulations. We realize that some of these inventories will be shrinking in the near future, and others will increase. RTC takeover and disposition has ended, and its responsibilities are being taken over by the FDIC. Expiring federal use restrictions are in the forefront, while the expiration of state and local use restrictions is not yet fully upon us.

Criteria Used To Choose Case Studies

When we began the search for successful projects, we looked for housing groups that:

  • at a minimum, maintained their units as decent, safe, and affordable
  • were not previously studied
  • represented a diversity of geographic regions and ownership types
  • committed to retaining most of the residents when substantial rehab was necessary
  • were preparing for future financial expenses and preparing future organizational leaders
  • nourished a sense of community by encouraging neighborliness and participation of residents in decision-making
  • cultivated shared expectations of public behavior – such as respecting one another’s rights and responsibilities, caring for each other, and acting not solely for one’s own benefit but in the interest of the community

The NHI staff and research team selected cases after conducting a literature search and preliminary surveys and consulted housing experts across the country.

We know there are many additional successful efforts, and this will not be the last word on the subject. Others will build and improve on what the pioneers in our study have done.

Previous Research

Since one ignores past experiences, failures, and successes at one’s peril, we need to learn from past efforts to preserve low-income housing. This report has reviewed previous research that focused on HUD’s attempts to sell endangered housing to other private developers, and other HUD property disposition strategies; the expiring use legislation; the Resolution Trust Corporation; and CBO efforts to save and build low-income housing.

To our surprise, we found very little previous in-depth research that took a close look at why community groups succeed. We did find three excellent studies: one is a detailed 1983 study of New York City co-ops by Ron Lawson; the second is Strategies and Saints, a book by Langley Keyes, which examines seven federally subsidized inner-city housing developments – including three run by CDCs and one co-op – that in the late 1980s initiated promising strategies for confronting drug trafficking. The third is a 1994 study, “Confronting the Management Challenge: Housing Management in the Nonprofit Sector,” by Rachel Bratt, Langley Keyes, Alex Schwartz, and Avis Vidal. We have relied on some of these studies’ findings to supplement our understanding of the groups we examined.

Study Advisory Board

NHI convened an advisory board of affordable housing advocates, researchers, and practitioners from around the country. Various members of the panel assisted NHI in identifying possible organizations for examination. Following on-site research, NHI held two roundtable discussions with members of the advisory panel. Panel members continued to review research findings through the completion of the study. (See Appendix C)

Saving Affordable Housing Conference

To help prepare this report, National Housing Institute also invited 100 housing experts and activists who have been involved in saving affordable housing to a conference to discuss and analyze this problem. Attendees included members of our advisory board and leaders of organizations that successfully saved affordable housing. Here we had a chance to test some of our findings and preliminary conclusions and gather ideas and suggestions from other housing experts before drafting this report. (See Appendix D)

Key Assumptions

This report assumes an ethical and caring government committed to an honest affordable housing policy. The report explores efforts in which the long-term affordability of housing depends not upon abandonment of the federal role, but upon the federal government helping state and local coalitions take decisive action to save this important national resource.

Another basic assumption of this report is that the for-profit sector cannot serve as the primary vehicle for preserving troubled affordable housing. These housing units face tremendous financial burdens, and the tasks involved in preserving them are too great and too varied to be performed well by those with financial motives. The profits in saving this housing accrue to residents, local communities, and society as a whole. That is why long-term solutions must rely on community-based nonprofit groups and residents themselves.

Some Caveats

This report explores why some community-based groups have succeeded in saving troubled affordable housing, seeks to record the elements of success, and draws its conclusions from common themes. Yet, since our case studies differ considerably from those of Lawson and Keyes, and from each other, a one-size-fits-all message is not so obvious. While each effort has strong leaders who do a remarkable job saving affordable housing, the barriers they face differ.

Tenants of the Marksdale project in Boston transformed a moderately deteriorated property into more than safe, decent affordable housing, while Denver’s Mercy Housing Inc. (MHI) and Chicago’s ACORN Housing Corporation (AHC) have dealt with seriously troubled housing. No person or organization was even willing to try to save the neighborhood AHC is attempting to save in our Chicago case study. MHI and AHC started with a disaster and made the housing safe, dry and affordable.

The institutional, socioeconomic, and political contexts in which these heroic people work are quite different. The heroes in Boston and with the Atlantis group in Denver have a very supportive environment in which to perform. The co-op tenants in Harlem have the unenviable task of trying to negotiate in a place as large and complex as New York City.

Notwithstanding these caveats, we believe our research project will provide a clear outline of the common denominators among these successful efforts to save affordable housing. We hope our study will serve to expand local capacity, and these local efforts will help inform and shape national policy.


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  • Foreword

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      Saving Affordable Housing Foreword The National Housing Institute, with funding from the Ford Foundation, has made available Saving Affordable Housing, a practical review of selected examples of community-based groups […]