A Meeting of Movements

In New York City the mayor tries to cast destruction of community gardens as a gain for housing advocates. Along the west coast, on-going battles pitch preservation of old-growth forests against retention of logging jobs. These struggles reflect an age-old assumption that open space preservation and affordable housing and job creation are mutually exclusive goals. Although many voices have spoken up over time to say it’s a false choice, the perception still prevails. However, across the country some state-level coalitions of open space and affordable housing groups are not only refusing this divisive bait, but are actually linking issues into common platforms. They are changing not only the policy debate, but the way their members see themselves.


To anyone concerned with both affordable housing and open space, the 12-year-old Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund is seen as a model. Continuously funded and supported by Vermont legislatures and governors since its inception in 1987, this “dual goal” fund has made possible affordable housing for over 10,000 people and saved 165,000 acres of farms and valuable open space. A map showing towns in which the fund has financed projects is almost a solid swath of color. Mark Snelling, president of Shelburne Corporation, writes in the fund’s 1997 annual report, “My sense is that the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund has made a dramatic difference. I think if people recall that feeling of loss that we shared in the late 80’s there’s no question that the situation is different now.”

The need for the fund, and the coalition that made it happen, arose out of the 1980’s real estate market in Vermont. Rapid growth was driving up the cost of housing; Section 8 owners were pre-paying mortgages and displacing low-income tenants with no warning; the same forces were pressuring farmers into selling land, gobbling up the farms and woods that to most Vermonters were the very essence of their state. Faced with a common enemy, and discovering a common interest in permanent solutions – permanent housing affordability and long-term land conservation – the state’s land trusts, housers, historical preservation groups, and environmentalists joined efforts to form the Housing and Conservation Coalition (HCC). HCC hired an attorney, drafted language for a bill that would create a joint trust fund, and launched a successful lobbying effort to pass the bill.

But that’s the thumbnail story, says Gus Seelig, current director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), the quasi-public corporation whose role it is to distribute the resources available from the trust fund. He says, “The realities that went into it took a lot of time and a lot of trust building.” As James Libby Jr., a lawyer from Vermont Legal Aid who was present throughout the process wrote in an article for the February 1990 issue of Clearinghouse Review:

During the first meeting two housing advocates joined a roomful of environmentalists, conservationists and rural planners who were on a ‘first name’ basis. At first, the housing advocates were fearful that affordable housing was being added because of its popular appeal and worried that conservationists, sometimes referred to as the ‘green sneaker bunch’ would not be able to understand or address poverty and homelessness. At the same time, the conservationists and farmers were afraid that the housing and low-income advocates would be too radical and too dogmatic to join the coalition.

These fears were slowly dispelled by the process of working together on a common goal, at least partially because their existence was not ignored.

Throughout HCC’s work, balance has been paramount. The enabling statute for the fund stipulates “balance” in how the funds are spent, plus a requirement that VHCB justify itself if it spends more than 70 percent of the money on either housing or conservation in any given year. It never has. The composition of VHCB also addresses concerns of balance; two of four ex officio members must be heads of conservation groups, the other two must be heads of housing groups, and the five citizen members must include a low-income advocate and a farmer.

In fact, concerns of balance continue to be so strong that HCC, which still exists to see that the trust fund gets funded every year, has resisted any moves to go beyond that very limited function. “We often get asked to comment or take a stand on policies that come up in low-income or environmental areas, but we don’t. That would risk divide and conquer,” says Elizabeth Kulas of the Rutland County Community Land Trust, who has been active in the coalition since 1992 and served for three years as its co-chair. “The success we’ve had has been because we have stuck together even when people have tried to divide us. There are other coalitions [within each movement] that are better situated to take a stand on those things.”

Their resolve has been impressive. Seelig describes how on a number of occasions state legislators have said things like: “Housing is not the issue of my party, but we’ll give all the money to conservation” or “How can we possibly spend any money on conservation when people don’t have housing?” But, even when millions of dollars have been offered to these causes separately, coalition members have have chosen the benefits of long-term cooperation over short-term gain, and stuck to the original design of letting the VHCB, not the legislature, divvy up the money. After all, working together got them this funding source to begin with. “Separate funds wouldn’t fly,” says Elizabeth Humstone, a former member of the VHCB and current director of Vermont Forum On Sprawl. “What allowed this fund to pass was one concerted effort.” That unexpected cooperation is what got the attention, and eventually support, of then-State Senator Scudder Parker, says Humstone, who remembers him “saying something to the effect of ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing all of you sitting at this table together. This is really incredible.'”

Taking a Unified Stand

Unlike HCC’s tight focus on a dual funding mechanism, one of the primary functions of New Jersey’s Coalition for Affordable Housing and the Environment (CAHE) has been taking stands on certain public issues. But they too know the importance of being unified and the danger of divide and conquer. For example, over the past several years, a number of public officials turned to a superficial environmentalism to try to circumvent and undermine their town or district’s requirements under New Jersey’s fair-share affordable housing provision, known as “Mt. Laurel” after the court decision that established it [see Shelterforce #93]. These local officials and state legislators, mostly from rural areas, tried to blame affordable housing, rather than proliferating luxury housing and commercial strips, for the loss of New Jersey’s remaining open space. But when New Jersey State Legislators began considering some bills in 1997 that would seriously weaken Mt. Laurel’s fair housing measures, they found not only affordable housing advocates, but also environmentalists opposing them. “It definitely surprised some of the legislators,” says Diane Sterner, director of the New Jersey Affordable Housing Network (AHN) and co-chair CAHE. The bills were defeated.

The unity opposing these bills wasn’t serendipitous. It was one of the areas of common ground agreed upon by the fledgling CAHE. In the face of the attempts to pit them against each other, several housers and environmentalists in the state had figured there was strength in numbers and decided to pull together somehow. “It would be wrong to say there wasn’t some mistrust between the two movements,” says Paul Chrystie, the coalition’s coordinator. “Not between the individual people, but the movements.”

Therefore, the coalition has been deliberate and careful about trust building from the start. It began in Spring 1997 when members held a two-day retreat at which representatives from affordable housing advocacy groups, local CDCs, statewide environmental lobby groups, and local environmental groups aired previous baggage, respectfully discussed differences, and most of all explored common ground. “We discovered that we share a lot of the same goals,” says Betsy Russell of Camden Lutheran Housing. One of the common themes that arose was how reinvesting in cities would help preserve open space, and how certain policies and practices were encouraging the opposite. Those participating in the retreat decided to create a formal coalition to explore ways of working together on the areas of agreement. And today, members of the coalition are quick to point out that what disagreements there are don’t always split down a housing/environment fault line; often they arise from within one movement.

Current CAHE projects include defending the Mount Laurel doctrine, encouraging the State Planning Commission to pay attention to urban areas (and vice versa), advocating for property tax reform, and suggesting brownfields policy changes. As they suspected and hoped, there has been strength in numbers and unity. When a group called the New Jersey Coalition to Preserve Natural Resources was working to get a public question on open space preservation on the November 1998 ballot, CAHE held a press conference in support of the measure, pointing out its benefits for all locations, including the possibility of urban riverfront parks or tot lots. “Who knows for sure what part that played, but it showed the public and the legislature that this is not just for wealthy people out in the sticks who want to preserve the piece of space next to them,” says Arnold Cohen of AHN. And while the coalition can’t take credit for the measure passing, members can certainly take credit for the number of affordable housing groups who signed on in support of it. “That never would have happened without us,” explains Chrystie, “because we were the meeting point.”

That bridge building function has been one of the coalition’s strong points, as the work of its State Plan committee shows. NJ’s State Development and Redevelopment Plan designates growth centers, aims to control urban sprawl, and at least tries to take a comprehensive view of sustainable planning for the state. But once the plan was adopted in 1992, it fell off the radar of most CDCs and urban development folks in the state, and has been championed primarily by environmental groups. “There’s a whole set of planning issues that we had not been following very closely,” admits Sterner. “Affordable housing groups have their little geographic communities, and they generally work project by project.”

But there was also good reason CDCs weren’t enamored of the state planning process. They saw it as was weak on urban issues and not committed at all to involving them. So in February 1998 CAHE held a conference called “The State Plan: What’s in it for Cities?” Attended by almost 175 people, the conference resulted in a series of recommendations for the State Planning Commission, including: fitting state agency expenditures to planning priorities, providing resources for urban areas to get involved in the planning process, and fostering regional and public/private partnerships, as well as specific recommendations on affordable housing, economic development, environment, and transportation. These recommendations were presented at the Planning Commission’s April 22 meeting by co-chairs Diane Sterner and Sally Dudley. Their introductory letter says in no uncertain terms, “There is a real concern that the plan does not work, that its implementation lacks ‘teeth,’ and that to the extent that the plan works, it is solely a suburban exercise.”

Despite these strong words, their presentation was enthusiastically received, and CAHE has continued working closely to build up the relationship between the planning commission and urban areas. It hasn’t been an entirely smooth process. CAHE members often mention that not one of the first round of public meetings held in Spring 1998 as part of a rigorous process of state plan “cross-acceptance” was held in an urban area or accessible to public transportation. But once the coalition fired off a letter, which Chrystie describes as ‘snippy,’ the locations of the next round of cross-acceptance meetings included a few urban sites. “It’s a small step,” says Dudley, but she sees it as part of a definite trend.

Smart Growth

In many other states, environmental groups and housers have recently found themselves together in a different kind of coalition. Part of a national Smart Growth Network, these coalitions organize specifically around combating urban sprawl. They encompass business, environmentalists, housers, civic groups, government, and more. Since Smart Growth assumes agreement on a shared goal from the outset, the relation between housing and environmental groups in these coalitions has been managed in a less deliberate manner than the processes the Vermont and New Jersey coalitions went through. However, Smart Growth groups have been able to be very proactive about pushing policy changes.

Grow Smart Rhode Island is one place where the balance seems to be working. When the state’s largest environmental group, Save the Bay, teamed up with preservationists to hold a conference on Smart Growth, the need to broaden the coalition even further was clear. “It’s very important to have housers in the Grow Smart coalition,” says Curt Spalding, Save the Bay’s director. “We need housing, and a place for business to do their thing. The question is how. If Smart Growth doesn’t meet those needs, it’s not going to be effective.” He doesn’t see Smart Growth, however, as a collaboration of two or more agendas looking for common ground. “It has its own agenda,” he says firmly.

And that agenda is working across the country to link practitioners in specific fields into a larger picture. Brenda Clement, director of Housing Network, Rhode Island’s state association of CDCs, says she got involved in Grow Smart because as CDCs have “evolved and matured, we’ve realized that housing isn’t enough. You have to look at transportation, jobs, the environment” Although Grow Smart’s work so far may not have included much emphasis on specifically building bridges or balancing the two movements, it has provided a space to sit down and discuss the issues and intersections, a theme echoed by all participants. “It’s going to be more and more important to be talking,” says Clement.

The necessary talking isn’t automatically happening in all Smart Growth endeavors, however. Take for example, Maryland, a state in the vanguard of Smart Growth, but without a formal working relationship between the state’s CDCs and environmental groups. In Spring 1997 Maryland actually passed Smart Growth regulations that eliminated state subsidies to development outside cities and other county-designated growth centers. But the laws, meant to stop sprawl by eliminating subsidies for infrastructure, also have the effect of limiting the locations of affordable housing, thereby preserving suburbs for the rich, says Becky Sherblom of Maryland Center for Community Development. Agreeing in principle with Smart Growth, but worried about reconcentration of poverty, Sherblom tried to raise the issue of affordable housing’s treatment under the regulations during the campaign to pass Smart Growth. The result? “We got a lot of abuse from the environmental groups,” she says. “They thought that any questioning of Smart Growth was ‘pro-sprawl.’ We were rebuffed; slapped in the face.”

It’s a sticky issue, one of the many that those working at the intersection of these two movements deal with every day. Spalding uses it to reiterate the importance of having everyone at the table. “Everyone charges that Smart Growth is about protecting the wealthy and putting walls around communities,” he says. “You need to make sure the approach is sensitive to housing, and to communities that need some development.” On the other hand, he doesn’t agree that affordable housing should be exempt from Smart Growth regulations. “We still don’t want to pop affordable housing into to farm fields with no services accessible to them,” he says. “If that’s the agenda, I believe it’s misdirected. Those with the wealth have always been able to build their country estates. But the other 95 percent of us have had to live near urban centers to be near the services. We need to understand that we can live in density and have healthy communities.”

Nonetheless, the dangers are also clear as Sherblom recounts the suburban Maryland county council member who responded to a presentation on Smart Growth by saying “You mean if we just don’t designate a growth area you can’t build low-income housing here? Great!” “I thought ‘Oh my God,'” Sherblom recalls. “We’ve sanctioned NIMBYism with Smart Growth.”

Building Trust

These kinds of questions lie below the surface everywhere, but the coalitions in existence are betting that their formal working relationship, their cooperation where they have common ground, and their process of learning about each other will help diffuse the differences in the long run, or at least make them less acrimonious.

“People really do believe that we can disagree on some things and still work together, and then maybe we can come closer on the things we disagree on,” says Sterner. She admits that in New Jersey, CAHE started from an easier point than groups in Maryland, since in New Jersey both sides were “equally frustrated with the way things were going. And we had a state plan and the fair housing acts in place.” But it was also a very deliberate process that made the coalition work, beginning with the retreat, professional facilitation of the first several meetings, and consensus on a platform up front. Sally Dudley, coalition co-chair, and director of the Association of NJ Environmental Commissions (ANJEC), prefers this to other coalitions where “there hasn’t been a formal agreement on goals until you’re well into what you’re doing. That gets messy.”

One of the most essential things keeping the trust alive all along has been the membership setting the agenda. “If you had somebody come in,” says Chrystie, “from one of the member groups or the outside, and say, ‘these are what we should be focusing on’ that would be a danger.” Sterner agrees. She recommends that the first thing any similar coalition should do is establish a clear process for raising issues, making decisions, and taking stands. “We had a few flare ups early on because there were a few times when the steering committee thought it had the authority to act upon something that hadn’t been worked through the full group. You have to make sure you don’t lose your membership by getting out ahead of them,” she says. “There’s nothing to replace people being face to face in a deliberate process to really hear what other people are saying,” concludes Cohen.

The benefits of face-to-face interaction have gone beyond specific policy and funding victories. The more intangible goals of learning and networking and exchanging perspectives have already begun to be a reality. In NJ, coalition members often contact each other for ideas before writing their own position papers. CDCs that manage property have learned about Integrated Pest Management from some of their environmental colleagues [see IPM resources below], and have thus been able to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals they use. The Affordable Housing Network did a workshop on infill housing for the Association of NJ Environmental Commissions. “Now [ANJEC] has learned that the whole idea of redirecting growth into the cities isn’t quite that simple,” says Cohen. In Vermont, just lobbying for the trust fund has really deepened the members’ understanding of how the other groups work. After all “you have to know what you are talking about when you go into the legislature,” says Kulas.

Regionalism

These coalitions have not only joined environmental and housing groups, but they have also brought together urban, suburban, and rural constituencies. “In NJ, not many other groups have been able to bridge that gap,” says Chrystie. Regionalism wasn’t CAHE’s original goal, but in the process of making clear the relations between urban disinvestment and loss of open space, and of showing how certain policies hurt both environmental quality and the quality of life of low- and moderate-income people, suburban and urban groups have been talking to each other. They are beginning to see themselves as linked. (See Shelterforce #98) In fact, despite its name, some of the Coalition for Affordable Housing and the Environment’s members talk about it as an urban/suburban coalition, never mentioning housing or environment as categories.

However, while a focus on fighting sprawl is a clear one with which to build regional cooperation, it may prove to be yet too narrow. Madeline Hoffman, director of Grassroots Environmental Organization, a member of CAHE, sees the emphasis on urban development vs. suburban open space as counterproductive. “It’s easy to say ‘they’re bulldozing our farmland while we have abandoned sites in the city and that doesn’t make sense,'” she says. “In the abstract there’s a lot of agreement on that. But I remember saying initially that that made me very uncomfortable, because most of the undesirable development was going in the cities anyway. From an environmental justice point of view it’s not a solution to build an incinerator in Newark just so we don’t chop down a forest in a pristine suburban area. We need not to have incinerators.” Hoffman points out that while the coalition managed to support the open space referendum, it failed to take a stand on another question on the ballot that amounted to a bailout of several incinerators.

Hoffman doesn’t see these as fundamental flaws in the coalition. “I have a lot of faith that the people involved in this process can do this, and will do this. The fact that a coalition got together around this at all gives me hope,” she says. But she wants the coalition to push itself to pay more attention to grassroots activists in both movements, (“have fewer meetings in Trenton,” she suggests), and to remember that there are urban environmental groups that are working on questions such as toxics clean-up and environmental justice.

Despite the many challenges left ahead, these pioneering coalitions have brought affordable housing and environmental groups into dialogue. And in some cases, as Betsy Russell of Camden Lutheran Housing says, not only are there more people on each side of the table, but “it’s not even like opposite sides anymore.” That’s an impressive step for two movements that not long ago didn’t have a meeting point at all. The assumption that affordable housing and jobs are incompatible with environmental conservation may finally be on its way out. Now we can get to work.


Contacts:

  • NJ Coalition for Affordable Housing and the Environment; Paul Chrystie, coordinator;
  • PO Box 22194, Trenton, NJ  08607, 215-563-1927
  • Vermont Housing and Conservation Coalition; Conservation co-chair: Jim Shallow,
  • Audobon Society; 802-434-3068;
  • Housing co-chairs: Connie Snow, Brattleboro Area Community Land Trust; 802-254-4604; Meg Pond, Vermont Community Loan Fund; 802-223-1448
  • Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, 149 State Street, Monpelier, VT 05602, 802-828-3250, fax 802-828-3203
  • Grow Smart Rhode Island; Sheila Brush, coordinator; 300 Richmond St Suite 200, Providence, RI 02903, 401-273-5711, fax 401-751-1915
  • Affordable Housing Network of New Jersey, One West State Street, PO Box 1746, Trenton, NJ 08607; 609-393-3752.
     

Additional Resources:

  • Coalition for a Livable Future; Jill Fuglister, coordinator; 534 SW 3rd Ave Ste 300, Portland, OR 97204, 503-294-2889

IPM

Integrated Pest Management is an approach to pest control that minimizes unnecessary pesticide use by using all available methods. This includes prevention, careful observation, bio-active or less toxic remedies, knowledge of pest life cycles, and appropriate timing of pesticide applications. It is used in agriculture, landscaping, schools, homes, and industrial settings. For more information:

  • National Science Foundation’s Virtual Center for Integrated Pest Management, The National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia 22230, 703-306-1234; http://cipm.ncsu.edu/index.html
  • IPM Practitioners Association, PO Box 10313, Eugene, OR 97440; 541-343-6969, www.efn.org/~ipmpa

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