Shelter Shorts

Pocketbook Voting

As part of a strategy designed to increase annual take home pay by hundreds of dollars for Florida low-wage workers, and potentially increase voter turnout, ACORN and Floridians for All (a coalition of congregations, unions and community groups) have successfully placed the Minimum Wage Initiative on the November Florida ballot.

Last July, the Florida Secretary of State validated over 570,000 petition signatures from citizens across the state, which allowed the initiative to be placed on the ballot. If passed, the Florida minimum wage would be $1 higher than the federal minimum of $5.15, directly raising wages for 300,000 workers and indirectly raising the wages of more than 550,000 other low-wage workers.

While the goal was to improve the income of low-wage workers, the additional benefit of the strategy may be increased voter turnout, similar to a living-wage referendum in Washington state in 1998 that increased turnout by four percent, with most of the additional votes helping the Democrats.

While the strategy is not new and certainly not exclusive to progressives (there are anti-gay marriage referenda in 12 states this November), it may have a significant effect coupled with the aggressive registration and Get Out the Vote efforts during the past year. (www.acorn.org)

Hot Market Kills CDC

High housing prices and competition from private developers have led one Boston community development corporation to lay off all of its staff. Tent City Inc. had developed hundreds of low-income units on a former parking lot in a high-end section of Boston during the late 1980s. The organization’s name, and the housing development, came from a protest of urban renewal policies that took place in 1968 on the then-vacant land. Skyrocketing land costs and a recent vote by Massachusetts lawmakers to cut the annual subsidy to the state’s CDCs are among the reasons cited for Tent City’s decision. Affordable housing developers in other states are facing similar challenges; in New York, even middle-income housing is becoming tough to build as sale prices make land acquisition prohibitive. (Boston Herald, 10/1/04 and City Limits, 11/04)

On The Agenda

In a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation, two former housing secretaries – Henry Cisneros (Bill Clinton) and Jack Kemp (George H.W. Bush) – along with Kent Colton, former president of the National Association of Home Builders and Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and former HUD official, have jointly authored the forthcoming, Opportunity and Progress: A Bipartisan Platform for National Housing Policy, which they hope will put housing on the domestic agenda of the presidential candidates and the country.

While the individual solutions are not new, taken together they form a cohesive framework that includes support for rental housing, the National Housing Trust Fund Act, strengthening access to capital and financial protections, making homeownership more affordable and ending chronic homelessness.

The platform seems to be getting little attention in the national press, despite good intentions, but should help advocates promote housing at the state and local levels and with their congressional representatives, no matter who wins the presidential contest. (www.jchs.harvard.edu)

City Pays for Discrimination Against Disabled

People with physical disabilities sued successfully in federal court to force the Baltimore Housing Authority to make room for them. The authority admitted a pattern of discrimination and agreed to build 1,850 new units that are accessible to non-elderly people with disabilities who have Section 8 vouchers. The authority will also make 755 existing units accessible to people in wheelchairs, and it agreed to respond within 10 days to a tenant who requests improvements to a unit to make it easier to access. People who believe they were discriminated against in the past will be able to make a claim for a share of a $1 million victims’ fund. (Baltimore Sun, 9/30/04)

It Takes More Than Affordability

Holders of Section 8 vouchers receive two benefits. The vouchers pay the difference between 30 percent of their income and the local fair market rent, making their apartments affordable. But the vouchers also provide tenants with a choice of communities, should they wish to leave their current location. While many choose to stay in their communities, others move, if they’re not prevented from doing so.

A recent study found that there are apartments affordable to families holding vouchers in 68 of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods and in more than half of the towns in the county in which Chicago is located. In the larger metropolitan area, the study found there are over 132,000 affordable apartments of two or more bedrooms, many in low-poverty neighborhoods. And yet, of the 56,000 voucher holders in the region, more than 64 percent live in high poverty areas.

The Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, which commissioned the study, cites insufficient counseling and information to voucher holders about region-wide housing opportunities; ongoing resistance by some landlords to rent to voucher holders; and insufficient oversight and accountability by HUD and cooperation between area housing authorities. (The Chicago Sun-Times, 9/13/04; www.cafha.org)

A New Round of Zones – But No Capital

A careful listen to President Bush’s address at the Republican National Convention last summer would have caught mention of Opportunity Zones, the latest in a long line of zones that began with Enterprise Zones in the 1980s and continued with Empowerment Zones the following decade. Like these earlier programs, which were intended to encourage economic development in low-income areas, Opportunity Zones would provide tax incentives to encourage job growth, in this case through small business development.

But unlike its predecessors, the so-called OZ’s arrive without the promise of any government investment. The program depends entirely on tax breaks, while Empowerment Zones grew with the aid of federal grants and opportunities to leverage private investment. Moreover, to become an OZ, a community might have to give up its current designation as an Empowerment Zone or, for smaller cities, as an Enterprise Community. While OZ’s would bring new perks, such as lower income tax rates for businesses, most of the zones’ features were put into place by zone-makers of the past. (www.gothamgazette.com, 9/9/04)

Living at the Library in St. Paul

The site of a former porn movie theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota has been transformed into a library as well as housing. The new library will be the city’s second-largest, and with 98 units of low-income rental housing, community leaders are hopeful it will become a community gathering place. Model Cities, a social service and community development agency, took the lead in developing the land after it sat vacant for six years. The project represents one of a few library/housing combinations in the country; others opened in 2002 in Portland and Seattle. (Minneapolis-St.Paul Star-Tribune, 9/16/04)

Housing and Welfare in New York: The Hidden Link

Some families who made it out of New York homeless shelters (thanks to a combination of housing and welfare assistance) are now finding that help came with a big catch. When clients find a job or hit the two-year welfare time limit, they don’t just lose their welfare assistance. They also lose the rent subsidy that enabled them to get their own housing. The subsidy program was created when then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was under court pressure to open up space in the city’s homeless shelters. It looked good to shelter residents who were sleeping with their children on shelter floors, but suddenly some of those families are facing steep rent increases. (City Limits, 10/11/04)

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Shelterforce is the only independent, non-academic publication covering the worlds of community development, affordable housing, and neighborhood stabilization.

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