Reconnecting Jobs and Housing

National community development leaders discuss making the case for housing in a "jobs above all else" political environment.

Photo by Trevor Huxham CC BY-NC-ND

The following are excerpts from a conversation with Shelterforce editor Miriam Axel-Lute and publisher Harold Simon at the semi-annual meeting of the The Shelterforce Community Development Leadership Editorial Advisory Council.

Participants: Rachel Maleh, National Community Reinvestment Coalition; Chris Estes, National Housing Conference; Nancy Wilberg Ricks, National Council of La Raza; Ed Gramlich: National Low Income Housing Coalition; Leslie Strauss, Housing Assistance Council; Stephen Seidel, Habitat for Humanity; Frank Woodruff, National Alliance of Community and Economic Development Association; Patrick Maier, Innovative Housing Institute; Michael Bodaken, National Housing Trust; Marcea Berenger: NeighborWorks, Harold Simon, National Housing Insitute; Josh Ishimatsu, National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development

Miriam Axel-Lute: How do jobs and economic development relate to housing and community development?

Chris Estes: Typically, when you get into a discussion around housing, the first thing we all try to do is talk about how many jobs we create or our economic development impact. We really need to clarify what really creates jobs and for whom, because the national political landscape is in this job-centric focus. How do we differentiate economic and community development from job creation? We’ve gone down a job creation path, not an economic development or community development path, politically and philosophically.

How do we really focus in on the issue of job preparedness and the educational implications of that? I sit on a board for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, and when you are in these discussions about unemployment, it’s really all about “Where are the people we want to hire?” not “Why is unemployment 23 percent in these certain census tracks?” People don’t really get their brains around what’s failed there and what should we be doing to make sure folks in those communities have access to jobs.
And then, how [do we] re-assert that housing is an essential piece of the economic success of this country? The entire narrative, from the day Obama was elected to today, has never really been about housing. It’s always been about jobs. We’ve got to figure out how housing and investment in housing and the value that housing brings to successful community development, and equitable community economic development, gets reinserted into that narrative. Without it, we can’t ever compete on the job creation track with tax cuts for Exxon and other companies that could add 2,000 people in a fell swoop. I mean, our entire affordable housing industry’s just not going to stack up in that range.

Nancy Wilberg Ricks: I think that that’s the exact angle we should go. Jobs is such a sexy topic, and housing is never connected to it. And we think it’s an obvious no-brainer that the economy can’t prop itself back up again without a healthy housing market.

Ed Gramlich: Our primary focus is on getting housing built that is affordable to extremely low-income people, but part of the sell, too, for certain people is that this can create a lot of jobs. If you’re going to develop a bunch of affordable housing, there’s a lot of construction, and that can also then have spillover effects in neighborhoods where there’s a lot of deterioration and abandonment.

The current administration came in right away and said, OK, we’re going to finally make Section 3 [local hiring requirements for public housing construction jobs] work, and they’re really the first ones that have said that since 1968. And I believe that they intended to do that, but here we are, almost four years later, and we still don’t have improved regulations, and I wouldn’t even say marginally improved performance.

Leslie Strauss: I certainly agree with what’s been said about connecting housing and jobs. We haven’t done that in any concerted or organized way. When we talk about why the housing programs should be paid attention to, it’s usually in terms of people need better housing, not so much what the economic effect for the broader community is.

Stephen Seidel: For those of you who might have a notion about Habitat, you probably are thinking about our work as heavily carried out by volunteers, which is true. But when you boil it down, we actually do spend money on people who get paid to do the work, some portions of the work on the house, whether it’s plumbing, heating, electrical, roofing, foundations, those kinds of things.

For many years, we haven’t had many metrics that we collect from our affiliates in the field related to job generation, economic impact, and the like. But that is obviously changing in this environment. Our Dallas affiliate has generated within the last six months or a year or so a pretty detailed economic impact report on the work that that very large operation generates in the Dallas metropolitan area. That is increasingly common, and I think our larger affiliates are better positioned to respond. But I think one of the limitations that we have is just what are the right metrics to be collecting. What kind of systems do we need to set ourselves up to be able to help our local affiliates gather data that we haven’t been asking them really for in a concerted way.

Related to that, Habitat worksites have often been, in many places, great sites for apprenticeship programs. So we do a lot of apprenticeshipping with the trades, whether it’s drywall or electrical or whatever, and that’s a great partnership. But we, again, haven’t tracked that and followed those apprentices into what’s happened with them employment-wise.

And among many of our 1,500 affiliates we have this thing called Re-Stores, which are retail operations that sell donated or salvaged building materials to the general public. We have about 750 of them around the United States, and we’re looking at growing that unit of the organization both as an income-generating feature, but also as an employment venue, where we can bring people in as an employment setting for folks, again, in this very hyper-sensitive jobs environment that we’re operating in.

Frank Woodruff: We’ve all seen trends where local organizations that have typically relied relatively heavily on developer fees for housing construction mostly are looking for other opportunities to gain financial independence. In the south, particularly in South Carolina, they’re looking at on-bill financing for home and commercial energy independence in construction and partnering with electric cooperatives in order to do that. And you notice how I framed that as an economic and energy issue and not as a housing issue, and that’s very intentional.

Patrick Maier: In Maryland, under the last version of the DOT bill, you’re allowed to set aside up to a half of one percent of DOT money for job creation, training, and employment access by underserved people. In addition to having, the avenues to jobs, I think there needs to be a role for CDCs, NGOs to push for the access to them.

Michael Bodaken: The tax credit program, according to most sources, creates somewhere between 140,000 and 150,000 good jobs per year. The Section 8 program, according to the administration, creates over 100,000 jobs per year and puts over $500 million in local economies. And the Trust where I work has preserved over 24,000 apartments, and we’ve helped put together about 30,000 jobs.

But Chris is quite right that that is not enough. The Trust is part of what’s called the Opportunity Finance Network. Mark Pinsky, who heads up the Opportunity Finance Network, found out that [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz was upset with Obama for not creating enough jobs, and he said, “I’ll give your organization $5 million and we’ll raise another $5 million.” And we are part of that group, and we are keeping very close track of the jobs we’re creating with the loans and grants from this. I think they’ve raised about $13 million so far.

And what’s interesting about this campaign is that there are stories that are associated with each one of the loans—short, two-minute videos. I’m not saying that’s the only answer, but I think it’s closer to where we need to be, because I know that our story is better than the other stories.

Marcea Berenger: Housing construction and rehab does create jobs. We look at that every year when we’re telling the story of the 235 NeighborWorks affiliates, and I don’t think I heard anyone say this particular point, but we often make the point that those construction jobs and rehab jobs can’t be exported overseas, and that seems to resonate with people.

In terms of how we get metrics for measuring those jobs we actually are moving to use a different system, which is called InPlan, and does a very complicated, locally-based analysis of the jobs that are created in different communities, and also looks at other kinds of economic impacts.

We also have some members that are focusing on energy efficiency jobs. One of the NeighborWorks affiliates is Community Housing Partners Corporation, based in Christiansburg, Virginia. And they have something called the New River Center for Energy Research and Training, where they train people in how to do things like home performance testing and how to test for efficiency in heating and cooling systems. We also have other groups that are running similar training programs.

Josh Ishimatsu: Our members are not universally housing developers, although we do have some, but we have lots of organizations who are just sort of social service providers and/or who do job development or small business counseling. We shouldn’t just limit the conversation or limit the issue areas to housing issues, because community development can also encompass micro-enterprise, small business development, job development, and job training.

Miriam Axel-Lute: What’s the difference between job creation and economic development? When we think about economic development in our neighborhoods and job creation, what’s the range of things we’re looking at and what do we need to take into account? When we look at a neighborhood, should we be trying to think beyond it to things that connect it to a wider economy? Is something like a grocery store economic development, or do we need to be focusing on export-oriented industries that actually bring in new money to the community?

Patrick Maier: If we use housing as a driver right now, I think we may be playing a zero sum game. If you’re building a strong city that people have access to new jobs in, you may have a better chance at building a place where people are able to sustain and where the housing stock is strong.

Leslie Strauss: People want to live where they can get services and where the services are of a certain standard, education, grocery stores. You don’t want to drive far if you don’t have to. If you have the grocery store there and people stay in their community, they are contributing to an economy. And they may not work in that economy, but the grocery store is driving money, may even eventually, in the long-term, driving people to that neighborhood who don’t live in that neighborhood to invest more dollars there.

Chris Estes: I think our strongest argument is that community stabilization and enhancement angle, and there’s a way that you can then talk about job creation inclusive of that, but it allows for a much more comprehensive conversation. Whether it’s rural areas or historically disadvantaged areas, it’s about investment that would not happen otherwise.

If it’s about preservation or development in changing areas, it’s about preventing both the loss of previous investmentm but also preventing gentrification and displacement. There’s the access to jobs and schools, the balancing of deconcentrated poverty and the sort of macro example about why free market economies don’t work equitably, and so we have to intervene in them. And whether it’s Habitat producing homes that stabilize a neighborhood or a CDC, there’s this community benefit that has multiple ripple effects of that that allows for more investment.

I think the philosophy of community empowerment and keeping things local is a useful lens. It may not be that we’re going to train a whole bunch of people to start their own business and start selling stuff, but if we got everybody in the neighborhood to really think differently about how they spent their money and where it goes and what that investment is, then you really are getting at this different framework of community economic development. The people who live in the wealthier parts of Baltimore have the same stake in Baltimore’s success that those that live in the abandoned row house areas, and we are all sort of in this together.

And I think that framework is really where housing does its best work, because where we’re not just plopping down some homes and saying, look, we built some great stuff, and we put the financing together and then we walk away, we really are thinking about how does this all fit together. It’s almost more about philosophy than it is just the actual construction in some ways. It’s not just that we did something good. It’s how did we do it, and how did that fit into this other work? How does it fit into a conversation about school choice or energy efficiency, or transportation or access to jobs and employment and the public transit system?
We need to talk about the jobs we produce, but we need to be framing it in these much more comprehensive ways.

Miriam Axel-Lute: There’s an entire movement out there that you make me think of, the “buy local” movements. How connected are we, or how connected could we be to those movements?

Chris Estes: We’re really trying to have a pretty comprehensive community benefit conversation, and too often, there are people focused on different segments, whether it’s jobs or transportation or education or public health, and they aren’t ever talking about housing. They’re talking about their piece. And there’s certainly a bridge needed for that conversation. But again, if we are doing our jobs well, we really are putting this larger community well-being framework out there that really ought to integrate well with what other folks are doing.

I think the challenge of those kinds of networks is that they often get so locked into what counts [as local] and what doesn’t that it doesn’t allow them to have as much bridge as they want. And from my experience of having worked with many of those groups when I was at grad school and coming out of planning school and sort of getting into housing, it felt like there was this sort of disconnect where the conversation didn’t continue, because there was this framework of “That doesn’t qualify because you didn’t have a locally owned, minority-run CDC build this house and hire people who were formerly homeless to do it, with financing from the CDFI.”

Frank Woodruff: Just a thought about bridging. I mean, we could try to create a nice little Washington, DC-based meeting once a month of all the housing, the transportation, education, and the Good Jobs First people. But there will be a lot of meetings.

But maybe more practically, the first thing that really came to my mind was community organizers in the neighborhoods, because community organizers don’t just deal with housing. They don’t deal with just jobs. They take whatever the issue is of the moment, and they grab on to an opportunity. So if it’s a job opportunity, they’ll galvanize the community to work toward those jobs. There’s housing opportunity, great, or maybe we need a grocery store—we’re in a food desert. So maybe we ought to figure out how to get the community organizers talking to all the different larger interest groups that are at the national level.

Michael Bodaken: I actually think it’s simple. Doesn’t make it easy. But I am reminded of those Fannie Mae ads for home ownership and they were very compelling. And I once went to Franklin Raines, and I said, “Why can’t we do that for rental housing?” And Frank was very honest about it. He says, “You know, we’ve tried and tried. We just can’t find people who want to be renters. Everybody wants to be a homeowner.”

But I’ve thought a lot about that since that conversation, and that message about homeownership had really nothing to do with homes. The word mortgage wasn’t mentioned. The income wasn’t mentioned. You saw an African-American couple or a white couple or a Hispanic couple who were happy with their kids, and they mentioned homeownership about 15 times in 30 seconds.

And I’ve often wondered if now what we really need to do is do a similar kind of thing about jobs with housing. If you take a look at the success stories that create jobs, it’s about one woman in New Orleans, about her life being transformed by getting this job through this—it’s all about her, right? The whole point of storytelling is we’re hardwired for success, and we want people to succeed.

It’s not complicated. It’s expensive to put this together, and how we put it together is key, but I think there’s a lot of good two-minute videos out there that we could start with. And I think the question is how we could put it in front of policymakers and others. I think the real question is how do you show that housing creates jobs.
Harold Simon: Maybe the question for this forum is how good are we at it? How good are we at creating sustainable work? How good are we at creating good jobs? Are they living wage jobs, are they sustainable, do they have mobility? How are your organizations able to have these conversations about job creation and job growth?

Stephen Seidel: The beauty of housing is that it’s so versatile. It has so many different tentacles and so many different kind of sectors and industries and impacts and it’s such a fundamental need that, no matter what emerges as kind of the issue of the day, housing should be able to speak to it in some meaningful way. But that takes some kind of nimbleness and agility to be able to kind of shift our narrative and collect data that enable us to do that in a meaningful way.

If jobs is going to be kind of the dominant theme for us to really delve into for the next five years then there’s some duty on our part to be able to speak to it more currently, with more current data. But there’s obstacles to that. I think there’s training. There’s tools. There’s capacity. But I do think that there is a story to tell. The jobs are, by and large, decent paying. They’re not exportable.

But they do have a temporary [aspect] to many of them. I mean, it’s a job that doesn’t necessarily last for years and years and years. It’s project to project to project, and I think that might be an issue that we need to be able to speak to perhaps by saying we need a level of capacity and output in our sector that can be a viable, ongoing, steady job creator for lots of communities for the foreseeable set of years.

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