#109 Jan/Feb 2000

Shelter Shorts

Portland Wisdom Spreads, If Slowly It took a while, but Denver has become the second city in the country to pass an ordinance aimed at preserving subsidized housing that has […]

Portland Wisdom Spreads, If Slowly

It took a while, but Denver has become the second city in the country to pass an ordinance aimed at preserving subsidized housing that has expiring federal contracts. Portland, OR put such a law in place in 1988. About 15,000 Denver residents live in subsidized projects, and most of their contracts will expire in the next four years.Denver’s law is relatively simple. Owners of subsidized housing must give the city seven months notice if they plan to opt out of their federal contract, which would mean converting their apartments to market rate, almost always displacing existing tenants. They must also give the city the right to inspect and appraise the building. The city then has several options: persuade owners to renew, help them refinance, find a buyer, condemn the building, or buy it themselves and turn it around to a nonprofit.

The bottom line, according to Mayor Wellington Webb, is to save as much low-income housing as possible. “We cannot become a city that only caters to the wealthy,” he told the Denver Rocky Mountain News.

Journalism of Note:
Pollution and Public Housing
Nearly 46 percent of US federally subsidized apartments are within a mile of factories that produce toxic pollution. Forty percent are within a mile of a toxic waste site. A special series in the Dallas Morning News this October took an in-depth look at the relationship between environmental hazards and publicly funded housing. It found that there is a serious racial component to the problem, and reported that some people are questioning whether HOPE IV, by rebuilding ‘distressed’ projects on the same sites, is perpetuating a pattern of environmental injustice. The report includes case studies from several cities, and a database from which you can look up air pollution sources within a given distance by public housing project or by address.

California Housers Rift In 1999, the Southern California Housing Development Corporation, a $130 million nonprofit affordable housing company, formed the National Housing Development Corporation (NHDC) to preserve at-risk affordable housing by purchasing large portfolios of expiring subsidized properties, refinancing them, and selling them to local nonprofits. NHDC secured direct appropriations of $2 million in FY00 and $10 million in FY01 from the federal government, and is using $8 million to create equity pools in targeted regions: CA, NY-NJ, and PA-WV. They made their first portfolio purchase in Los Angeles this summer.But the young ambitious organization raised the hackles of more than one California housing advocate this year when it appeared to by-pass a collaborative organizing effort among housers around the budget. Many say it even by-passed the usual legislative process when it requested a direct appropriation from the state comparable to what it received from the federal government.

This year’s California budget devoted a record amount of money to housing, thanks to an unprecedented and extensive cooperative lobbying and grassroots effort. “We started very early, and did a lot of heavy lifting within the capitol,” says Rob Weiner, director of California Rural Housing Coalition. “Only much later in the game, [after the budget had been proposed and revised once] did we first begin to hear about NHDC. They hired some lobbyists and began making the rounds in the capitol, pushing for a $50 million sole source appropriation directly to them. They did that without any kind of outreach to groups that had been working to achieve [housing] appropriations. It came at the 11th hour.”

NHDC director Jeff Burum dismisses the idea that NHDC wasn’t collaborating. “We were involved from the very beginning when it was a bond campaign,” he says. “But when things happen quickly, it leads to misperceptions. People were concerned because a direct appropriation isn’t normal. But to get more money for housing, we need to get new ideas out there.”

Those who were upset emphasize that it’s the process that concerns them, not NHDC’s aims. Mike Herald, of Housing California, which circulated a sign-on letter against the direct appropriation, says “The idea of giving $50 million to a single concept that is untested and untried is unfair, although I still think [NHDC’s approach] is a valid option.” Michael Bodaken of the National Housing Trust adds, “We welcome them to the work we’ve been doing. [But] we disagree with direct appropriation to any single organization. People should be able to compete for the funding.”

But that shrinks the pot of money available says Burum. “I made a commitment that I wouldn’t take funding away from local organizations,” he says. “So I needed to get a direct appropriation, or I’m forced to compete with others. Elected officials won’t just add money to existing pots. We need to convince them they can increase the total amount.”

Weiner points out that member groups in his coalition were already working on expiring contract preservation purchases that were not being offered as part of portfolios. He says NHDC’s proposal would have taken up all of the money being proposed for preservation, effectively preventing those properties from being preserved.

In the end, although a record amount was allocated to housing, neither NHDC’s requested appropriation nor the general set-aside for preservation funding made it into the final budget. The questions of funding and organizing strategies are still open for debate.

  • NHDC, 909-291-1400, www.nhdc.org
  • CA Rural Housing Coalition, 916-443-4448
  • Housing California, 916-447-0503
  • National Housing Trust, 202-333-8931, www.nhtinc.org


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