The CARES Act that was passed last week contains an additional $12 billion for HUD programs, including $1.25 billion for the Housing Choice Voucher program, $1 billion for project-based rental assistance, and $685 million for public housing agencies.
This is sure to be a huge relief to those public housing authorities and owners of HUD-assisted housing that had quickly moved forward with canceling evictions to keep residents in their homes because it was the right thing to do, and were crossing fingers that federal help would come to make up the difference.
However, eviction moratoriums and that federal funding are only part of what public housing residents and HUD-assisted tenants need in order to survive the economic fallout of COVID-19.
What they need right now, say tenant advocates, is for HUD to use its authority to make sure all tenants’ rents go down to match any changes to their incomes, by April 1.
Although an eviction moratorium allows people to shelter in place right now, James Grow of the National Housing Law Project points out that “getting the underlying rent obligations calibrated is really important, because when the emergency ends, people will still owe their rent.”
Tenants in income-based programs like public housing and housing choice vouchers already have the right to have their rents changed if they can prove a reduction in income. However, that income adjustment process must be initiated proactively by a tenant, and involves significant documentation and in-person meeting requirements.
However, with the first of the month imminent, and the pandemic causing so many unexpected income losses and medical crises, the three organizations argue that the usual process is nowhere near sufficient to prevent a nightmare of back rent, administrative headaches, and unwarranted evictions down the line.
“They need to clear away the administrative underbrush, immediately,” says Grow, “with clear directives to owners and notices to tenants that income adjustments should be automated.” And if an adjustment can’t happen by April 1, says Grow, which is understandable given the short time frame, there needs to be assurance that it will be made retroactive.
In their letter to HUD, the three organizations suggest that “if rent is not paid when due for April and other months during the emergency (and a reasonable period thereafter), [public housing authorities] and owners should presume that the cause is a reduction in income (a “constructive request”) and begin the interim recertification process.” They also suggest that public housing authorities and owners should accept whatever documentation of loss income the tenant is able to provide, including their own verbal statement, with verification to come later, and call on HUD to waive deadlines on the annual recertification process, requirements for in-person meetings, and documentation standards in order to process these interim income recertifications quickly. Tenants and and owners should also be notified of these changes swiftly and clearly, the letter says.
The advocates are also calling for a reduction of the minimum rent to zero. “The minimum rent requirement was always punitive,” says Michael Kane of NAHT. “Just do an across-the-board waiver. Don’t make people humiliate themselves [with hardship exemption applications] and have owners spend the time trying to evaluate them.”
Allowing an “adjust first and document later” income adjustment protocol would bring standards for renter and homeowner pandemic relief somewhat closer together, since the guidance issued by the GSEs for mortgage forbearance states that no documentation is required at all to set up a mortgage forbearance plan.
Finally, to be meaningful, HUD needs to not only allow these changes, but require them.
“They have the money, they have the authority,” says Grow. Owners “need clarity from the top. Generally it’s a check-the-box kind of system, where people are very afraid of violating rules. They need permission to do the right thing. And they need to know that the housing assistance payment will be adjusted retroactively [to cover their expenses]. That’s what the extra money put into in those systems [by the CARES Act] is for.”
Advocates note that another, administratively simpler, option would be to reduce tenant rent obligations for the coming two months to zero, giving the system time to process all the income recertifications.
NAHT sent a separate letter to HUD earlier last week on this subject that also asked HUD to formally withdraw proposals it has made to Congress to institute work requirements and raise rents to 35 percent of income. “In light of the national emergency, HUD’s proposals appear inappropriately punitive and harsh,” NAHT wrote. “This is not the time to squeeze marginal amounts of income from poor people. . . . It is particularly absurd, if not cruel, to condition the award of subsidies on meeting a work requirement when the economy is contracting by 30-50 percent due to the emergency. We ask HUD to notify Congress it is withdrawing these proposals now.”
A HUD spokesperson said today that the Office of Public and Indian Housing “was granted blanket waiver authority with the supplemental [appropriations legislation] for the first time. We are considering a number of blanket waivers, and other options that will lighten the burden for [public housing authorities] and their residents.”
COVID-19 is a combined health and economic crisis poised to further devastate rural communities already suffering severe economic stress. Already, rural health care systems are strained by the outbreak, and workers across the country are facing increasing precarity as the crisis unfolds.
The outbreak exposes an already uneven geography of development. Large swaths of rural America had already been left behind by our last economic recovery: 86 percentof U.S. counties that are in persistent poverty are rural. While the overall population living in distressed zip codes has declined since 2007, it has increased in rural areas. This “ruralization of distress” has taken a tremendous human toll. Rural counties have higher rates of premature death, with one in five getting worse. Rural residents also incur higher healthcare costs, and nonwhite rural residents face even greater health disparities.
As we move into our new reality with the COVID-19 pandemic and its rippling economic effects, these disparities are on track to become even more stark. Clearly, we need new approaches to economic development to reverse these longstanding trends.
Fortunately, there is already a wide body of literature to draw from on rural revitalization. Two publications released late last year offer insights into the state of the field: Wealth Creation: A New Framework for Rural Economic and Community Development, by Shanna Ratner, a rural community development expert, and Rural Development Hubs, published by the Community Strategies Group (CSG) at the Aspen Institute. Both build upon the WealthWorks framework, an asset-based approach to economic development put forward by the Ford Foundation. Taken together, these works distill important insights from the last decade of piloting the WealthWorks approach.
Wealth Creation puts forward a vision for rural development that is focused on cultivating underutilized place-based assets and building greater connectivity to market opportunities. Ratner emphasizes the importance of moving beyond using the number of jobs created as a primary measure of economic success, to instead focus on cultivating the eight forms of capital: individual, intellectual, social, cultural, built, natural, political, and financial. It is by investing and cultivating these assets that rural geographies can develop wealth creation value chains; Ratner presents examples from affordable housing development to stream remediation.
The Rural Development Hubs report shifts the focus from overall framework to implementation. The report focuses on these intermediaries, defined as place-based organizations working across sectors and regions to “build inclusive wealth, increase local capacity and create opportunities for better livelihoods, health and well-being.” Using interviews with staff from 43 existing rural development hubs, the report articulates the defining criteria and key activities of hubs, identifying emerging best practices. Like Wealth Creation, the authors emphasize the importance of cultivating the eight forms of capital, as well as expanding local ownership of those assets. There is also an emphasis on inclusion, noting that hubs must “include low-income people, places and firms in the design of their efforts—and in the benefits.”
On the one hand, these publications point toward an opening in conversations about economic development. One of the most important elements of the WealthWorks framework is the explicit focus on local ownership and control. Neither publication shies away from the drivers of rural disinvestment, discussing the impact of financialization and absentee shareholder ownership, and histories of racial exclusion. With a focus on cultivating local assets rather than relying on attracting corporations, both publications use the language of systems change and “doing development differently.”
However, the most transformational implication of the WealthWorks framework—democratizing ownership and control—is not fully carried over into its recommendations. The recommendations focus primarily on improving the funding landscape for intermediaries and capacity building for practitioners, both important actions, but on their own, insufficient. While both publications discuss the need to increase local ownership, questions of power and distribution are relatively absent, and there is a heavy focus on market-based approaches over public investment. This is a missed opportunity.
Rural community economic development practitioners can learn from the Green New Deal, the popular policy framework that addresses the climate crisis and rising inequality. Just as the original New Deal was in large part designed to address the dire challenges rural America faced in the 1930s—and led to everything from rural electrification to the Tennessee Valley Authority—similar large-scale investment can help revitalize rural economies. In particular, the legacies of democratic regional planning and robust public investment can help scale the strategies put forward in Wealth Creation and Rural Development Hubs.
Democratic Regional Planning
Both Wealth Creation and the Rural Development Hubs report emphasize an important point: revitalizing rural economies requires regional action. Rural and urban geographies are inextricably tied, be it through supply chains, watersheds, or commuting patterns. However, it is assumed that rural geographies’ planning capacity is insufficient, necessitating intermediaries like hubs to step in. While the Hubs report demonstrates that hubs can effectively fill this role, the New Deal provides another model.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), created by New Deal legislation, persists to this day as the largest public power company in the U.S. But more than generating power, the TVA was established as a regional planning agency, charged with additional activities like flood control, supporting area agriculture, improving river navigability, and promoting economic development in its service area. It is important to note that the TVA was, and is, far from perfect; authors and organizers have documented how many of its aims around democratic participation were never realized and how exclusionary practices and land dispossession disproportionately impacted black communities. However, the TVA can open the political imaginations of what could be possible with regard to democratic regional planning should elements of community control and equity be baked into the design.
This reimagining is already taking place. The Detroit Democratic Socialists of America chapter launched a campaign to establish a Great Lakes Authority, which would “be a regional planning agency designed to funnel federal resources (under local control) to the Rust Belt.” The GLA could be the start of a system of new regional authorities across the U.S. to help scale and provide resourcing to existing organizing efforts. These bodies can work with rural development hubs to connect local efforts to regional plans and help to seed new ones. By combining democratic planning with public investment, planning agencies can help rectify gaps left by the market, respond quickly in times of crisis, and expand access to critical goods and services.
Public Investment to Democratize Ownership
Another innovative element of both publications is the focus on enterprise ownership. Wealth Creation includes an entire chapter on broad-based ownership models, and the Hubs report includes worker cooperatives, municipal enterprise, and other democratic forms of ownership in its list of examples and hub typology. However, the degree to which these entities are actually integrated into economic development seems left up to chance. One way to strengthen the WealthWorks approach is to leverage public investment to scale these ownership models so that democratic ownership is a central driver, not just a potential fringe benefit.
Public investment to catalyze democratic enterprise is also not unprecedented. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA), a flagship program of the New Deal, demonstrates this. The REA provided low- to no-interest loans for utilities to expand into rural areas. In practice, it turned out that private utilities still deemed establishing infrastructure in rural areas as unprofitable, which then led to the creation of rural electric co-ops and public utilities to fill the gaps in service.
Gaps in access are not just an artifact of the past; rural residents continue to face barriers to service. Internet access is an example. Despite 28 years of tax credits and incentives to telecommunications companies to expand into rural areas, one in four rural residents and one in three tribal jurisdiction residents lack access to high-speed broadband. Many communities are increasingly taking measures into their own hands and creating public and cooperatively owned broadband networks.
As the COVID-19 crisis progresses, it has become even more clear that broadband is a critical utility, necessary for telehealth and schooling as well as agricultural production and other essential functions. Public investment in municipally owned broadband networks can meet this growing need while ensuring long-term public benefit.
Democratic public ownership can unlock a new vision of what is possible in areas, including patient transportation to homecare to improving climate resiliency. New public enterprises can not only ensure equitable access to critical services for rural residents, but can also create opportunities for family-sustaining employment. In essence, this approach employs the principles of the value-chain approach, but through proactive investment rather than waiting for private enterprise or market conditions to shift to fill the gaps.
In addition to establishing new public enterprises, public investment can support worker and employee ownership. The federal government already provides employee ownership resources through the Small Business Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the Rural Cooperative Development Grant program. In addition to expanding these existing programs, policies like a federal loan guarantee for worker ownership conversions; a Democratic Ownership Fund policy, which would require large companies to issue shares into worker-controlled funds; or a Right-to-Own policy, which would provide a right of first refusal to workers to purchase sites and companies that are being closed or sold, can leverage public investment to scale worker ownership.
Broadening ownership brings forward another critical tenet of rural revitalization: reparative action. Rural economies cannot be understood outside of a history of state violence, forced dispossession of Indigenous land, enslavement, and discrimination. Efforts to broaden ownership must contend with this legacy, or else they threaten to exacerbate gaps in ownership and wealth. Indeed, many rural development measures already have. For instance, there is extensive documentation on how discriminatory loan practices at the USDA have negatively impacted Black farmers. While the Pigford class action lawsuits in the 1990s and 2000s established a precedent for monetary recompense, the settlement amount is widely considered insufficient and many farmers have yet to receive payment. Any effort to broaden ownership would be incomplete without a concurrent program for reparations and dedicated resourcing for the Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities that have experienced dispossession and discrimination.
New Directions for Rural Economic Development
As federal policymakers start to assemble elements of a COVID-19 crisis response and recovery package, rural geographies clearly cannot afford another round of business as usual. Both Wealth Creation and the Rural Development Hubs report outline a vision of rural revitalization that puts the well-being of local residents over corporate bottom lines. But just as the last decade of the WealthWorks approach speaks to the efficacy of these strategies, it also speaks to the fact that we need to accelerate our timeline for action. Instead of tinkering around the edges of existing grant programs, now is the time to think about bold new tools for investment. Rural community economic practitioners can join the coalition advocating for a Green New Deal, unlocking new tools and levers such as democratic regional planning and democratic enterprise development. Instead of relying on the existing architecture and institutions that make up our current system for economic development, we can instead advance new forms of democratic enterprise to stimulate rural reinvestment.
Throughout my life, I’ve been fortunate to work with practitioners and leaders who have always known that we have a shared responsibility to eradicate inequality. We fight hard for what we know to be right—equitable communities that have good schools, are free of crime and disinvestment, and that are affordable, accessible, healthy, and happy. On most days, our fight already feels like an uphill battle.
Then, history puts a cherry on it. An unprecedented outbreak happens, and our fight is dwarfed by a public health emergency. Overnight, everyone’s priorities change, millions are out of work, and we all try to adjust to life and establish some semblance of a new normal. Yet while we do this the work refuses to wait.
Right now, I, like many of you, don’t need to be CEO as much as I need to be Mom.
But, the fact is that I am both—and I’m not taking any days off. The fight for equity still looms large, and COVID-19 is increasing its relevance. If we treat this crossroads like an opportunity, and not like an Armageddon, perhaps we can make advances in that fight as we make our way through the recovery.
Laying Bare the Need for Equity
The worst pandemic since the 1918 influenza outbreak has us having discussions and asking questions most of us have only read about or seen on movie screens. Phrases like “social distancing” (or the newer, more accurate “physical distancing”) and “shelter in place” are now part of our lexicon for the foreseeable future. These phrases ignite real, tangible fear for the majority of Americans who live close to the financial edge. When 12 percent of U.S. adults don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency and 28 percent are likely to revert to leveraging high-interest credit cards during this time, the crisis we face envelops much more than health alone.
The COVID-19 retrospective will also reveal that the act of “sheltering in place” is more of a privilege than a guarantee for the American family. History will see that in the early stages too many had to choose between securing space and securing their bodies, with more than 30 million people experiencing housing insecurity.
Will it also reveal that these facts enabled those who had already been fighting for equity, workers’ rights, and healthy homes and communities? Will it say that, through it, they gained new traction for their work and advanced proven solutions that move us toward a more just society? That depends on whether those organizations themselves survive the pandemic and are invited to the tables where we are crafting recovery.
What Community Development Needs from Our Funders
The pandemic has amplified issues that community development organizations have been struggling with regarding the funding environment for our work for ages. To help realign America’s social contract, reimagine communities of opportunity, and endure this COVID-19-affected environment, we need our supporters to:
Fund community “responders” with more general operating dollars. Today’s needs are both critical and evolving. Our ability to respond will be limited in reach without budgets that ensure community development can stay afloat and assist.
Adapt existing grants to engage the unknown. The world has changed for all of us, especially those with restricted grant dollars earmarked for convenings and other fixed deliverables. As our needs are changing, consider converting those dollars into general operating dollars to help us effectively tackle the emerging needs on the horizon.
Respond. This virus is quickly changing our world. If we’re going to stay ahead, we need you to pick up the phone and be as expedient as possible with funding and grant amendments so our work can go on uninterrupted.
Create new latitude when it comes to reporting for the next year. Organizations need flexibility. If we spend our time filling out cumbersome applications and reports from a world that no longer exists, it’s going to negatively affect our impact. Together, let’s come up with faster and more efficient ways to communicate. Give us new opportunities to share and show our work and progress.
Check in. Nonprofit leaders, like all people, are going through a lot and have to be strong for ourselves, staff, and constituents with a smaller probability of a break. We need you to check on us; we need to talk to people who “get” the challenge of leadership. Your support matters more than ever in times like these.
Provide patient capital. The effects of this won’t be resolved in 12 months. We need your support for the long haul—beyond the headline moments, outside of narrow fiscal years, and with confidence that you are there for us in the ways that we are there for communities.
Don’t leave, but continue to lean into community development. In times like these, philanthropy may want to shift foundation resources to deal with immediate needs exclusively. While we understand the urgency, know that your funding commitments have made strides in affordable housing, land banking, generational wealth creation, and neighborhood stability. The way this crisis is highlighting the connection between health and housing points out that the work community development already does is not only a crucial part of the recovery, but of being better prepared for the next one. This is important work and it needs more funding opportunities for the hard road ahead.
If we want to emerge from this, we need funders to see us, hear us, and to respond in the ways we all know will lead to organizations that are ready to be responsive and innovate.
Seize the Policymaking Moment
One of the most humane policies instituted recently is the suspension of evictions (many mortgage holders have implemented this including HUD, Fannie and Freddie Mac) and water utility cut-offs for the next 60 days. These are steps in the right direction and give many American workers the peace of mind they need to comply with national recommendations to stay put in their homes.
This policy response demonstrates what is possible when community development voices are heard. Organizations including Americans for Financial Reform, National Consumer Law Center, and the National Fair Housing Alliance have been fighting for these kinds of assistance for vulnerable families and communities of color for generations.
While eviction moratoriums and mortgage payment suspensions provide relief in the short-term, they are not sufficient answers to the long-standing, and now magnified, questions of housing access and affordability. If these moratoriums and suspensions are implemented without a stimulus to people and nonprofits, American communities will remain in danger. Community development voices should be heeded as longer-term policies are crafted as well.
What Does Life Look Like Outside of the Danger Zone? We Get to Decide
We don’t have to live in fear. For our children, for our neighbors, for our families, and for each place that people give purpose, we can make the change that decides how much better we will be when this crisis is over. This crisis has the power to show the best of us and what real collaboration looks like in the face of need. Policymakers, changemakers, parents, neighbors—let’s get it right this time.
There is an extreme, persistent lack of affordable housing in the U.S. There is also an accelerating host of climate-related changes to our landscape—severe heat and drought, increased violent storms, rising sea levels, and worsening flooding. Each is a significant challenge on its own, but the lack of affordable housing and the increase in climate-related changes are related in many ways.
While there are cities, states, and municipalities that are doing their best to make all sorts of buildings resilient, officials are usually responding to weather-related events rather than preemptively looking at issues like expected sea level rise, says Guillermo Ortiz, who formerly served as a researcher with the Center for American Progress and now works as the sustainability and diversity educational programs manager at the University of California. And when it comes to affordable housing development, the main concern is still about building more units. This is shortsighted thinking, says Ortiz. If you build 100 affordable units and then lose them in the next storm, you haven’t improved the situation.
Officials in areas like North Miami, Florida, and Princeville, North Carolina, are taking a different approach—they’re deciding not to rebuild on land that has seen its fair share of flooding and instead, they are focusing on buyouts, building on higher ground, and other mitigation efforts.
Flooding in North Miami
There is a growing realization that not every area can be saved. Towns are being wiped off the map due to regular flooding, says Ortiz. But a large-scale managed retreat—a coordinated movement away from areas that are prone to hazardous conditions—has significant challenges. “Florida, for example, has some of the most expensive homes in the country,” says Ortiz. “Imagine the panic and concern if there is acknowledgment that some areas are not fit for human settlement?”
While wholesale retreat is a tough pill to swallow, there are other options— targeted buyouts and the addition of natural water retention measures, for instance—that could be beneficial to areas that repeatedly flood. Those options have been the focus of officials in flood-prone North Miami, where the median household income is $40,661 and the percentage of people living in poverty is 21.5 percent.
North Miami is located in the Arch Creek area, which was built in the path of natural waterways, says Tanya Wilson, planning, zoning, and development director for the city. Sixty-five percent of the city is located on low-lying land that naturally collects water and floods.
Last year, with the help of the Van Alen Institute, a New York-based nonprofit design and planning organization, the city asked design firms to compete in a contest called “Keeping Current: Repetitive Loss Properties.” The aim of the competition was to find ways to reinvigorate underused public areas in North Miami, promote climate-conscious behavior, and reduce the cost of flood insurance.
The winner of the competition—a design firm called Department Design Office—received an $80,000 city contract to reengineer an 18,000-square foot, flood-prone lot located in a low-income neighborhood.
After an unnamed storm swamped a home and yard with several feet of water, making the property uninhabitable, the city purchased the lot in 2000, according to the Miami Herald.The city used federal funding that was dedicated to purchasing properties in flood-prone areas in order to prevent them from being redeveloped. Over the years, the city has purchased a considerable number of flood-prone properties, according to a report by the Van Alen Institute.
In December, the newly designed site was unveiled to the public—it’s now half retention pond, half community education project, complete with landscaping to soak up excess water. “It can now absorb 20 times as much water as it did as a site for a single-family home,” says Wilson.
“The idea [behind the reengineering of the site] is to return surface water to the water table. We want to replicate this type of flood mitigation in other places in the city,” says Wilson.
By creating these types of small parks, Wilsons says water can “go where it needs to go” and the area can be preserved for habitation.
While South Florida has never ceased to attract developers and speculators, rural areas tend to have a dearth of interest from developers, and often lack the resources to upgrade their properties, build new resilient affordable housing, or otherwise deal with threats from climate change.
North Carolina has some of the most vulnerable areas along the East Coast, says Tara Kenchen, former president and CEO of the North Carolina Community Development Initiative (NCCDI), which supports affordable housing, small business, and community revitalization throughout the state.
Hurricanes and the devastation they unleash are a fact of life in North Carolina, but exacerbating the situation is the fact that 80 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are considered rural, and rural towns don’t usually have an economic development staff person to “jump through all the hoops that state and federal level bureaucracies require” to get disaster aid, says Kenchen.
Princeville, North Carolina—the first town in the U.S. to be incorporated by African Americans—was founded just after the Civil War. It was built on very low-lying land that the white people of the area did not want, says Kenchen. In 1999, Princeville—a town of about 2,200 people—was devastated by Hurricane Floyd, a Category 4 storm considered to be a 100-year-event. Hurricane Matthew hit the area in 2016, and though the storm was technically weaker, it was still fairly destructive. A total of 450 homes were destroyed, according to the Coastal Resilience Center, which is part of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and about 80 percent of the town was under water.
Many residents who lived in and around the town were forced to leave after the storm because they couldn’t return to their homes due to the enormous amount of damage it caused, says Kenchen.
Some homeowners were offered FEMA buyouts, but not all applications were accepted. One of the reasons for rejection, says Kenchen, was that many people did not have a clear title to their land.
FEMA, through its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, has approved $8.9 million for mitigation and reconstruction in Princeville, says Laura Hogshead, chief operating officer at the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency. This allocation will cover the cost of buyouts, elevations, and mitigation construction, which involves tearing down a house and building it back at a higher elevation.
So far, FEMA has approved 22 homeowners for acquisition of their properties, says Glenda Knight, interim town manager for Princeville. Of those, 10 have accepted offers and nine purchases have closed. To qualify for a buyout, the occupant must have lived in an area that flooded and they must have clear ownership of the property. Once a property is bought out, a deed restriction is placed on the property prohibiting redevelopment.
Another 75 homes were approved for elevation, and three were approved for mitigation construction. Knight didn’t know how many homeowners applied for the program. In December of 2017, the state purchased 53 acres of forestland five miles from Princeville, on higher ground and outside of the flood plain, in order to expand the town. Hogshead says there are preliminary plans to build new affordable housing on the new land, which will probably be held in a community land trust.
There is also $168 million in Community Block Grant Mitigation (CBG-MIT) funds that the state of North Carolina will receive, “although HUD is vague about what it approves as mitigation,” says Hogshead. “It is anything that reduces future risk from any storm.
“We’ve submitted an action plan to HUD explaining how [the $168 million] will be spent, but it has not been approved yet. The money will go largely for buyouts.”
Whatever money is received from government sources to help in hurricane recovery, it is slow in coming. “Last August, HUD released guidelines for receiving the $168 million in [CDBG-MIT] money,” says Kenchen. “The funds were first awarded to North Carolina in the spring of 2018 even though Hurricane Matthew struck in October of 2016.”
Wealthy residents who have insurance are made whole after a disaster like Matthew, so they can rebuild or recover more quickly and without having to rely on government largess, says Kenchen. “But even those with insurance can face delays or denials because of technicalities,” she says. The insurance company “may say that your damage was caused by a flood, not the hurricane . . . People who are poor, on the other hand, tend to lack insurance, or have owned a property whose market value isn’t enough to cover the cost of rebuilding or buying elsewhere.”
Of course just receiving money to rebuild, by itself, is not enough, says Kenchen.
“For all the talk about affordable and resilient housing, there must be a comprehensive approach for any of it to work.”
Chris Canfield of the Raleigh-based Conservation Trust of North Carolina, a land conservation organization that seeks to help build more resilient communities, agrees. It doesn’t work to just build back the way a property was built before, nor can disaster recovery be done piecemeal, Canfield says. All conditions on the ground need to be taken into account, including the hydrology and typography of the area.
“Traditional conservationists just look at the land, but we’ve hired a design group associated with North Carolina State University that focuses on disaster work in order to do community-based planning,” says Canfield, the organization’s executive director. “We are partners with the town of Princeville.”
Canfield assesses the situation this way: “Rather than telling everyone they have to leave because flooding has become chronic,” he says, it may be possible to restore the flood plain function, which can be a matter of allowing a lake or river to over-flow its banks, if there is land and vegetation nearby that can absorb the overflow.
The recovery process in Princeville is taking place on a lot of fronts, says Canfield. People in the town are raising homes and buildings, but where there is not an option, there may be wet proofing. “That involves taking out dry wall, putting in concrete floors and moving vulnerable equipment, such as air conditioning, to the roof,” he says.
The second week of January, Princeville received a welcome surprise from the federal government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would spend $39.6 million to install levees around the Tar River near Princeville, and increase the elevations of highways in the area. The money comes from $740 million that was allocated to the Corps in a disaster-relief funding bill approved by Congress in 2019.
At the Policy Level
Since 1980, the U.S. has had over 250 weather and climate disasters, with increasing frequency in recent years. According to NOAA, the cost of these events has exceeded $1.7 trillion. From 2016 to 2018, the U.S. experienced 45 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, an average of 15 per year.
Given the enormity and the urgency of the problems caused by these disasters, there is pressure from the affected populations to make the recovery process go faster and help more people, especially the most vulnerable. That is why the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition of more than 800 local, state, and national organizations support the The Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019, which would permanently authorize the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG–DR) program. CDBG-DR provides states and localities with flexible, long-term recovery resources needed to build affordable housing and infrastructure after a disaster.
The CDBG grant program is usually associated with distributing funds to take care of an existing problem, but the CDBG-DR program includes hazard mitigation grants that offer help before storms happen.
The Reforming Disaster Recovery Act is moving through the legislative process in a normal fashion, and there are signs of bipartisan support, says Ortiz of the University of California.
One reason for that may be that both parties’ elected representatives appear to acknowledge that disaster recovery is not a red or blue issue, says Ortiz. What has become obvious is that all states are being hit by climate disasters today, regardless of their political affiliations.
To protect the public and slow the spread of the coronavirus, countless schools, businesses, and offices have been closed across the country. Several states have issued shelter-in-place orders and many more will likely follow. Many courts have stopped hearing non-emergency matters, including evictions. All of these urgent actions are being enacted in order to “flatten the curve.”
If we are lucky, these measures will reduce the rate and incidence of COVID-19 infections. But there is no way around the fact that our efforts to flatten the curve have already sharply increased the unemployment curve and are setting up a steep increase in evictions. Last week’s unemployment figures (which come out a week behind) already showed an astounding increase in claims, and next week looks exponentially worse. The longer businesses are shut down and shelter-in-place orders are in effect, the higher the total unemployment numbers will climb. Moody’s Analytics recently estimated up to 80 million U.S. jobs face some level of risk due to coronavirus, with 27 million at “high-risk.” Without income, millions will be unable to pay rent (or mortgages). As a result, millions of people are at risk of losing their homes during and in the aftermath of the pandemic.
In addition to bolstering workers with paid leave and stabilizing local economies, federal, state, and local governments must also protect Americans from the threat of eviction and homelessness. Every government branch with the power to do so must take steps immediately to protect the public health by: (1) adopting moratoriums to keep tenant households from being evicted throughout the duration of the crisis; (2) advancing social distancing goals by eliminating unnecessary interpersonal contacts for non-emergency inspections, meetings, moves, serving notices, lawsuits, hearings, physical evictions, and other such purposes; and (3) developing policies that enable tenants or mortgagees who fell behind in payments due to the pandemic to resolve their arrearages over time and remain in their homes once the moratoriums are lifted.
Halting Evictions Flattens the Curve
Each stage of the eviction process has the potential to increase COVID-19 transmission. Tenants, landlords, juries, attorneys, judges, court personnel, process servers, and sheriffs’ departments are all at increased risk. And, of course, anyone infected during this process could then spread the novel coronavirus in other clusters.
At the same time, any tenants who are evicted and lose their housing during the pandemic will have a reduced ability to practice social distancing—and most definitely cannot comply with shelter-in-place orders. For these families and individuals, contagion risk will increase. Their health will be further compromised as eviction almost always results in increased instability and homelessness, or a downward move to a disadvantaged neighborhood and/or substandard conditions. Many families and individuals who are evicted are forced to double up, reside in poor-quality housing, or become homeless, which have all been linked to poorer health outcomes.
What Eviction Moratoriums Must Include
All states and local jurisdictions should take steps immediately to ensure that evictions processes are halted. While many states and local jurisdictions have taken steps to halt evictions, others have yet to do so. Those who have taken action have often taken steps that are incomplete or inconsistent, creating a risk of increasing barriers to justice. Here are the components that would be required to truly have the public health effects needed.
Cover All Phases and Facets
An effective eviction moratorium must cover the five key phases of an eviction.
Details may vary between states, between local jurisdictions within states, and even between courtrooms within a single jurisdiction, but generally eviction entails five key phases:
First, the landlord gives the tenant an eviction notice, directing the tenant to vacate the dwelling unit by a specified date.
Second, the landlord initiates a judicial eviction lawsuit (often called “unlawful detainer” or “forcible detainer”) against a tenant who has remained in the premises beyond the date specified in the eviction notice.
Third, the court holds a hearing (or series of hearings) to receive evidence and legal arguments (from the landlord, the tenant, and other witnesses or relevant persons) that will be used to decide the case.
Fourth, the court issues a ruling. If the ruling is to evict the tenant, this will include a judgment directing the tenant to vacate the premises (and, often, to pay back rent or other damages and costs to the landlord), and will include (or authorize the court clerk to enter) an order directing the local sheriff to physically remove the tenant.
Fifth, and finally, the sheriff will execute the order to remove the tenant by conducting a physical eviction.
Stopping any one phase will tend to prevent eviction cases that have not yet reached that phase from proceeding during the moratorium period. However, stopping only one phase of eviction does not affect cases that have already passed that phase, and does not prevent cases from being processed through the stages prior to the one that is halted.
For example, a moratorium on court hearings would prevent any tenant whose case has not already been heard from being evicted (since without a hearing, the court cannot enter an order directing the sheriff to remove them, and without such an order the sheriff will not conduct a physical eviction). But such a moratorium would not prevent the physical eviction of tenants whose cases have already been heard. And it would not prevent landlords from issuing eviction notices, with which many tenants would likely comply to avoid being sued (and thus risking liability for court costs and attorney fees and likely acquiring eviction records that could harm their ability to secure housing elsewhere). A restriction on hearings would also not prevent landlords from filing new cases, potentially building up an avalanche of pending evictions for when the moratorium expires.
While state legislatures have power to implement moratoriums that reach all five steps, many have yet to act. Where state legislation is not forthcoming, addressing all five aspects of the eviction process may require multiple, overlapping acts by different officials and levels of government, as each may control different aspects of the eviction process. For instance, a state emergency management statute may authorize the governor to restrict the issuance of new eviction notices or the physical execution of eviction orders, while an order restricting new court filings or canceling eviction dockets may need to come from the state’s supreme court or other judicial official. Local legislative bodies may have similar powers in their jurisdictions, especially in home rule states, but may be constrained by state landlord-tenant and judicial procedure laws.
Prohibit Late Fees
In addition to freezing evictions, government officials should prohibit the imposition of late fees and similar charges. These provisions are necessary to ensure that no tenant is involuntarily displaced from her home during the pandemic, that tenants do not become powerless to avoid eviction at the end of the moratorium through accumulated fees they could not avoid, or the waiver of legal rights and protections they could not exercise. Halting these fees also helps to keep the eviction curve flatter than it would otherwise be.
Some jurisdictions are limiting their eviction moratoriums to nonpayment cases caused by COVID-19 matters. In adopting eviction moratoriums, policymakers should avoid limiting coverage to certain types of cases or making exceptions for particular types of lease violations. Any such limitations and exceptions create ambiguity, inviting litigation, counteracting social distancing goals, and undermining the security and peace of mind that many renters need when being asked to stay home, often at significant financial cost.
While jurisdictions may be tempted to include exceptions for truly violent or destructive criminal activity, criminal law enforcement or civil protection order proceedings promise a faster and more expedient means of removing such a perpetrator than eviction. Should political circumstances make the inclusion of such a provision necessary, advocates should work to ensure any exceptions are narrowly drawn and carefully detailed to eliminate ambiguity and minimize the need for interpretation or opportunity for creative application.
Adjust Landlord Access to Units
During the crisis, critical conditions—like mold, leaks, lead hazards, or essential service terminations—that could threaten the health of occupants must be addressed in a timely manner and units be maintained by owners in a safe and habitable state. However, states should set reasonable limits on landlord access to rental units during this time so that public health objectives are not undermined. Limits should include halting routine rental inspections or other non-essential unit entry and allowing tenants to refuse access when they are or believe they may be ill or are in a group that is at high risk of complications from COVID-19.
Eviction moratoriums should remain in effect at least throughout the duration of the public health crisis, and ideally long enough thereafter to allow tenants whose incomes were disrupted during the pandemic to apply for and obtain any relief benefits that may be forthcoming or otherwise work out payment plans. States should not lift or cancel moratoriums without clear and well-publicized notice, at least 14 days in advance.
As vital as it is to ensure that the eviction process and related systems do not contribute to spreading COVID-19, it is also essential that leaders plan now for what happens after the health crisis is over. As with the medical system, there were known stress fractures in the system that are now being broken wide open.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the eviction system was already stressed in many areas across the United States. Unless we plan for how the eviction system will evolve after the pandemic, courts everywhere will be clogged to a stopping point and our collective goal of securing access to justice will be delayed.
COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the United States’ affordable housing crisis and its deep socioeconomic divide. As we look ahead to the pandemic aftermath, it is paramount that any strategies to repair the country include improving health equity and ensuring safe and decent housing for every one of us.
The COVID-19 outbreak threatens the lives of many Americans and the livelihoods of many more. It is an urgent public health crisis of unprecedented scale, and one likely to disproportionately affect those with the least. Doctors, scientists, front-line service workers, and local government officials are making heroic efforts to flatten the curve. And nearly everyone is making sacrifices to try to curb the spread of the disease. Still, the number of cases will clearly grow, and the evidence from other countries suggests that those with lower incomes are more likely to catch the virus and to die from it. Our housing policies must adapt to address this reality.
The Equity Dimension
In the first stage of this pandemic, the people in the United States most at risk were those with the resources to take cruises and otherwise travel abroad. But as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, it will likely have disparate impacts on low-income households, low-wage workers, and those who are housing insecure. Consider that experts advise that the best strategies to protect oneself from COVID-19 are washing hands frequently, avoiding close contact with other people, and sheltering in place. For those fortunate enough to live in comfortable and safe housing, such sheltering is relatively easy. It may be inconvenient, but people with comfortable homes and adequate space in which to work and live can indeed largely minimize their risks, and conduct their day-to-day lives, by staying inside.
People living in crowded homes, however, may find it more difficult to work and learn remotely. Older adults in congregate living situations may be less able to distance themselves from others to minimize the odds of getting sick. People with front-line service jobs or lacking broadband internet access are unable to work remotely, putting both workers and their neighbors at greater risk of contracting the virus. The concentration of particular occupations in low- and moderate-income areas thus creates community risks.
To the extent that people living in poor-quality housing are able to protect themselves from the virus by staying indoors, they risk exacerbating other health conditions like asthma due to poor ventilation, erratic heating, or the presence of lead paint, mold, or vermin.
And most troubling, many people without homes cannot shelter in place at all. Returning citizens who are currently incarcerated face complex challenges in securing housing and employment even during times of prosperity, conditions that will be exacerbated in the months to come. San Francisco’s homeless individuals are exempt from the city’s recent shelter-in-place order, though public officials are encouraging them to seek shelter or other spaces, like churches and closed school campuses, where they can safely stay indoors. And New York City’s shelter providers are struggling to find ways to separate the many homeless individuals sleeping in dormitory-style shelters.
Housing Policy Is Health Policy
The epidemic also reinforces the critical role that housing plays in protecting our health, safety, and well-being. Major housing policy reforms have historically grown out of health crises. Progressive reformers successfully pushed for regulations to improve the sanitation and ventilation of crowded tenements at the end of the 19th century after two major cholera outbreaks and concerns about high rates of other contagious diseases like tuberculosis in U.S. cities. During the 1930s, members of Congress highlighted public health as a central justification for the federal public housing program. This epidemic will offer its own lessons that could spur a new wave of thinking and a set of policies to advance housing security and equity.
Unfortunately, in the near-term this epidemic will compound the pre-existing economic pressures households face, and may create a renewed housing crisis. As more people are laid off or see reduced hours, they will face difficulty making their monthly rent or mortgage payments and, consequently, may worry about their ability to stay in their homes. Most people, hopefully, will only face temporary job disruption and proposed federal aid may help to mitigate the financial distress. But it is unclear how expansive that aid will be, and those working in industries that will be hit hardest by the economic fallout from the virus, such as food and hospitality, tourism, and entertainment, are likely to suffer longer-term income reductions.
Housing providers may, in turn, struggle to keep their properties safe, clean, and well-maintained while their tenants are unable to make rental payments. Reductions in revenue are likely to be compounded by increased operating costs: as people spend more time at home, they cause more wear and tear in their living spaces and rack up higher utility bills. It will take more work to protect building staff and keep common areas clean at the same time that more staff will be forced to stay home to recuperate from illness or to take care of sick relatives or children home from school. Meanwhile, any needed capital repairs are likely to be deferred, which can both increase short-run operating costs and also put properties at longer-term risk. Nonprofits may face particular risk, but smaller for-profit operators are also unlikely to have ample reserves. Those managing housing for low-income seniors and people with disabilities face even greater challenges.
Current policy discussions center, appropriately, on the unprecedented steps taken now to prevent the worst-case scenarios of the COVID-19 crisis. But we should not lose sight of the need for housing-related measures that could mitigate the severity of the epidemic’s effects. On the heels of what is hopefully a short-lived health crisis may come a wave of evictions and foreclosures that undermine the physical and economic recovery of our nation. The nation’s housing system has never before faced these extraordinary conditions—being pressed into intense service even as economic conditions collapse. It will take creative thinking and decisive action now to prevent the additional, avoidable damage a renewed housing crisis could bring.
How Housing Policy Must Change
There are several critical actions to take immediately to prevent the additional, avoidable damage a renewed housing crisis could bring.
First, government must act soon to ensure that families and individuals can get access to housing if they are not already housed and stay in their homes in the event of illness and/or economic hardship. Much has been done already. For example, the Federal Housing Finance Agency recently announced that it would suspend foreclosures and foreclosure-related evictions on homes with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for at least two months, a step that will temporarily protect 8.1 million homeowners. It also required that multifamily owners seeking mortgage forbearance must agree not to evict tenants for the length of the forbearance. Meanwhile, local governments across the country are institutingeviction moratoriums to keep renters in their homes. But more assistance will be needed.
Second, we need to provide property managers with the tools and information they need to keep their residents healthy, and to act quickly and efficiently to confirm and contain outbreaks that do occur. This is particularly essential for those managing developments with large numbers of vulnerable seniors.
Third, we need to address our existing homelessness crisis with renewed urgency, recognizing that street homelessness and poor shelter conditions now represent an enormous risk to both individual and public health. Resources to conduct homeless outreach and offer safe, clean temporary housing, possibly in now-empty hotels, schools, and college gyms and dormitories, could make a substantial difference both in flattening the curve and in minimizing economic damage.
This crisis shows the need to think about housing as a strategy to prevent or abate future pandemics by alleviating overcrowding, reducing homelessness, and addressing unsafe conditions. Policymakers should consider fully funding housing choice vouchers for all eligible families, a universal renter tax credit, or alternatives that place housing assistance in the same category as health care and nutrition: a fundamental tenet of our social safety net.
We should also be actively drawing lessons from current public and private efforts about how housing policies and programs—including rapid, short-term housing assistance, rent forbearance, and other protections against income and expense volatility—can do more to help people navigate short-term emergencies.
Transformational thinking is necessary to help our housing system to mitigate, rather than magnify, the harms of intense economic disruption, and keep vulnerable populations—and all Americans—healthy and safe.
Want to read more about housing policy and practice as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic? Check out our COVID-19 page, and sign up for Shelterforce Weekly so you don’t miss the latest.
Joe Kriesberg of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC) recalls the feeling on Saturday, March 14, “the day the world changed”: the stock market plummeting, the National Basketball Association postponing their season. That week, tenant advocates across Boston—likeCity Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU)—started pushing for a moratorium on evictions, and affordable housing management groups began discussions about implementing a voluntary freeze of their own.
On that Saturday at 2 p.m., Mayor Martin Joseph Walsh’s office reached out to MACDC.The mayor and council had passed a home rule message last year petitioning the legislature for the ability to make decisions related to affordable housing for the city, but they had not yet received those powers. The situation had escalated and timing was urgent, and so they wanted to announce a voluntary moratorium on evictions, which was in their power to coordinate immediately.
Cities across the country are grappling with skyrocketing unemployment as residents are being urged to take shelter and avoid public places. In Jacksonville, Florida, evictions and foreclosures were placed on hold by a chief judge. In Miami-Dade County, the police departmentannounced it would halt eviction enforcement. In New York, a chief administrative judgeannounced a halt to eviction hearings and evictions enforcement.
As with many of these jurisdictions, Boston’s response to the crisis created by COVID-19 evolved quickly and has played out in a variety of venues.
That Saturday, MACDC, activist groups, and some large affordable housing owners had some quick back and forth about what a voluntary eviction moratorium should look like. MACDC, for example, pushed to have an exception added: a stipulation that evictions of tenants endangering public health through conducting dangerous criminal activities, including domestic violence, could still be pursued. “We didn’t want something that was so locked down that we couldn’t deal with a situation,” says Kriesberg.
Boston’s largest landlords of affordable housing—Trinity Financial, WinnCompanies, and The Community Builders—signed on to the 90-day moratorium on evictions. MACDC, a statewide membership organization of nonprofit housing organizations, signed on as well, encouraging all of its members to participate. The moratorium will be reviewed every 30 days.
But some of the details are still unclear. “Inherently, a voluntary freeze on evictions should be a great thing,” says Helen Matthews, communications director for City Life/Vida Urbana. However, Matthews was concerned about whether all evictions would be covered, or just those spurred by a COVID-19-related loss of income. CLVU remains confident that a comprehensive legislative solution would be better for tenants.
A statement by WinnCompanies CEO Gilbert Winn contains similar language: “We have instructed management staff to temporarily suspend implementing evictions for residents in our management portfolio across the Commonwealth in cases where a resident is unable to pay rent due to a loss of income.”
Asked for clarification as to whether their moratorium had to be COVID-19-related, Ed Cafasso of WinnCompanies said, “It applies to all eviction actions stemming from a loss of income.”
Kriesberg of MACDC, however, says he also supports a halt to evictions that were in process before the coronavirus pandemic, except for cases where public safety is at stake. “The people facing eviction from job losses sustained due to coronavirus have probably already paid the rent this month, but they haven’t paid April. But we don’t want to evict anyone right now, given the circumstances we all face. They shouldn’t get evicted.”
The Massachusetts Apartment Association (MAA), whose members are primarily for-profit landlords and not limited to affordable housing, also indicated its support for the voluntary moratorium. “We understand the pressure residents are feeling during this crisis, and ensuring Bostonians have a safe, stable home is always our goal,” says Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, where the MAA is housed. Their recommendation is that the halting of evictions “apply to those who are directly impacted by economic loss due to the coronavirus outbreak.” MAA’s support means members are encouraged to follow these guidelines, but MAA can’t require its members to adhere to the advice. As of March 23 it was not mentioned on the organization’s COVID-19 resources page.
But in Massachusetts, CLVU notes that some landlords have not signed on and have taken to posting language that seems intended to intimidate tenants into paying or moving out before any legislation may be passed that protects them, regardless of why they are unable to pay. For example, LaCourt Realty, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent an email to its tenants on March 17 that read “CORONAVIRUS POLICY Please note that LaCourt Realty cannot permit any late rent payments from tenants due to the COVID-19 situation! (LaCourt has large mortgage payments due).”
With the voluntary moratorium in place, housing advocates continue to press for more comprehensive action. Initially, momentum began building to get the housing courts to halt eviction hearings. A petition on the topic acquired 7,500 signatures early in March and a protest, organized by CLVU and other legal aid groups, was held inside the court on March 12. On March 14, Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan ordered the postponement of most eviction hearings until April 21.
Advocates, however, see problems with the order. They say it does not prevent the execution of evictions that have already gone through during a time when it is especially dangerous for families not to have a home. “People who have been evicted are waiting for the constable to show up to make them leave their home,” says Matthews of CLVU. “People with pre-existing executed evictions have [been given] 48 hours’ notice and they are waiting on pins and needles.”
Another concern is that Sullivan’s order suggests landlords and tenants should negotiate an agreement outside of court. “Legal services are operating at very attenuated resources right now,” says Matthews. “And we’re concerned people will enter into agreements that are bad for them. That they will agree to move out.”
Finally, Matthews says the moratorium on hearings simply doesn’t last long enough, given the circumstances.
A Legislative Answer?
Feeling the voluntary moratorium and the court moratorium were inadequate, advocates pivoted quickly to working with state representatives Mike Connolly and Kevin Honan on a legislative solution. “A moratorium on evictions and foreclosures will protect public health and safety by keeping vulnerable residents housed, thereby reducing crowding within the courts and in shelters,” said Connolly in a statement. “This will in turn limit further disruptions and additional strain on our already fractured social safety net and healthcare system. We have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable and mitigate the impact of this pandemic, which is why Rep. Honan and I filed this legislation.”
The legislation would enact a statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until the end of the governor’s declared state of emergency. The bill,HD. 4935, which currently has 60 cosponsors, was eligible to be voted on March 20, but representatives from Connolly’s office say it will likely go before a legislative task force on COVID-19 first, possibly by today, March 23, where advocates hope it will pick up even more support.
“Unfortunately, some landlord groups have predictably come out of the woodwork against it and there’s some incendiary language going on,” says Matthews. The organization Mass Landlords has published a top 10 reasons not to pass a moratorium, which claims that provisions of the proposed bill are “encouraging violence, harassment, and hate speech against housing providers and lenders.” They recommend a basic income guarantee instead.
“We are not blanketly trying to stop evictions,” says Matthews. “We need them to stop during this crisis so everyone can stay in their homes and shelter in place. We need to keep people out of places where they can be exposed, especially people with the least resources, who are the people who are facing evictions in this city.”
The Bill Will Come Due
Even with the moratorium and legislation, Kriesberg of MACDC says the bill will come due. The economic impact of the loss of rent could lead to deleterious effects on the entire housing system.
“The economic impact is going to last longer—a lot longer—than the pandemic,” he says. “If the pandemic lasts three months we might not really start to see the economic fallout until early next year. So we should not see any of the actions we’ve already taken as a substitute for the state to offer financial assistance, or as a replacement for philanthropy and assistance to renters. If we don’t want people evicted in the long run, someone has to come up with the money.”
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and an associated economic catastrophe, cities across the country are now acting quickly to try to minimize the fallout. One idea that’s rapidly spread, and is being acted upon, is a moratorium on evictions.
The details differ across each city, but the basic idea is simple: nobody should be evicted if they can’t pay rent due to the coronavirus, whether because they are sick and cannot work, or because they’ve lost their job or had hours cut back by their employer.
The best of these measures put a moratorium on all evictions, so that it doesn’t matter if you’re being evicted for non-payment of rent or for some other reason, nor if your situation is actually related to COVID-19 or not. We are in a massive public health crisis, and nobody should be put out onto the street or be forced to find a new apartment right now.
But even the best of these eviction moratoriums are not good enough. What tenants really need is a suspension of rent—that is, rent should no longer be owed at all, period.
This is what’s required to keep potentially millions of people in their homes during this historic crisis, and it’s being demanded by grassroots organizations across the country.
Imagine you’re a tenant and you’re already paying $1,500 per month. Then you get laid off, like scores of other workers right now. OK, you’re protected from eviction for the next six months, or as long as this pandemic continues.
But then what? Will you be forced to pay $9,000 in back rent? (For context, 6 in 10 Americans don’t even have $500 in savings.)
Under almost all the proposals being discussed, tenants will still be responsible for all the rent they cannot pay during the crisis—they’ll have massive rent debt. This will ultimately just delay huge numbers of evictions until a few months after the state of emergency is officially declared to be over.
Other cities’ measures don’t even provide such grace periods. In Seattle, for example, according to the Seattle Times, “when the moratorium ends, tenants will owe whatever debts they’ve incurred and landlords will be allowed to evict them for non-payment.”
Demands From the Bottom
This is an obvious recipe for disaster. In response, grassroots organizations across the country are demanding a suspension of rent collection.
A petition going around already has over 100,000 signatures.
A coalition of 21 community groups in Chicago have signed onto a letter demanding “an indefinite freeze on collection of all rent, mortgage, and utility payments throughout the duration of the crisis.”
Several local chapters of the LA Tenants Union have signed onto a broad list of demands that includes the following: “An immediate suspension of all rent collection (‘rent holiday’) … to ensure that tenants do not lose their homes in the event of loss of work.”
Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is on board, tweeting: “Eviction, foreclosure, & shut-off suspensions are good but they are nowhere near enough. People don’t want to be in the position where the moment the orders are lifted there will be a marshal at their door. They still feel like rent is due unless a payment moratorium is called.”
Is a Rent Suspension Legal?
That all sounds great, but would it actually be legal for the state to literally suspend rent? Possibly, yes, because governments have sweeping powers in times of emergency.
According to the LA Times, “[law professor John] Sprankling also believed that courts would also allow a blanket ban against evicting people from their homes without compensation to landlords, since judges have long recognized that emergencies allow for exemptions to constitutional protections afforded under the Fifth Amendment,”—that is, the part of the constitution that protects property owners against uncompensated takings.
For example, in the 1922 case Levy Leasing Co., the Supreme Court upheld a New York law mandating that tenants could not be evicted as long as they paid a “reasonable rent,” to be determined by the courts. New York’s law was an emergency measure in response to a severe post-war housing shortage, and the court reasoned that constitutional protections for property owners may be suspended where there is a crisis “so grave that it constituted a serious menace to the health, morality, comfort, and even to the peace of a large part of the people of the state.”
Foolishness as an Antidote
The current pandemic certainly sounds like the type of crisis described just above by the Supreme Court. But so does the pre-pandemic status quo, where on any given night over 500,000 people are forced to sleep on the streets of one of the richest countries in the history of the world.
Popular struggles may again point the way forward for housing policy in a post-COVID-19 world.
For example, the Hillside Villa Tenants Association in LA’s Chinatown is fighting for the city to use eminent domain to take over their expiring affordable housing development. They are now explicitly making the argument that the overlapping health and economic crises would not so easily induce an eviction crisis were there more robust public and non-speculative community ownership of land.
“If the city owned our building, rent could be suspended very easily,” they tweeted. “If we ourselves owned our building, nobody would be forced to pay rent this month. But because Tom Botz still owns our building, many of us don’t know what to do come March 31.”
Capitalist land tenure rests at the heart of the American political project. The concept of vast public ownership, or even just the possibility of the state stepping in temporarily to halt rent payments—and perhaps mortgage payments, too, which make many landlords vulnerable to the even more powerful financiers—seem to be the stuff of Marxist fantasy.
The idea popularized by political theorist Mark Fisher that it is “easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism” certainly still rings true today.
But crises are also times of radical possibility. If today’s social movements have their way, we may come out of this pandemic finding it impossible to return to what we thought to be normal with respect to land and housing. And that might be just what we need.
As the historian and intellectual Vijay Prashad has written: “The common sense of our times will lead us to a bad end. Foolishness is needed as an antidote.”
Mike Brickner, the head of the Ohio arm ofAll Voting is Local, organizes dozens of initiatives, call-ins, town halls, and voting drives a year, but he recalls being especially moved during a 2018 sign-up visit to the Painesville jail in Lake County, just northeast of Cleveland. That year in Ohio, a proposal to reduce criminal penalties fordrug crimes and channel more money into rehabilitation and mental health treatment was on the ballot. The measure clearly struck a chord with Lake County detainees, who were legally allowed to vote if they were awaiting trialor serving a sentence for a misdemeanor. “It was amazing to see people practically climbing over one another to register,” says Brickner, who for 14 years worked as a policy director for the state chapter of the ACLU before joining the voting advocacy groupin 2018. “They knew the issue, and I have to say it was powerful to be there and to witness how they felt theywere voting for their own freedom.”
Regina Tillman, a volunteer program director for the League of Women Voters of Albany County, New York, had a similarly inspiring moment after organizing a 2018 drive to register people awaiting trial in a facility in her hometown.
“One story is emblazoned on my memory,” Tillmansays.“At the end of one of our sessions, I asked the attendees how things went and one man responded that he was 35, had never voted, but now saw how important it was.” Tillman believes her efforts helped change life for the manand his family. “He said that he was going to convince his two brothers at the same age to vote as well.”
Voter Registration: Albany, New York
Tillman started contemplating a registration effort at the Albany County Correctional Facilityas a result of a discussion she had with the director of the nonprofit group Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration, who asked her if the League conducted drives to target people who had not yet been sentenced andconfined in county jail. In the U.S.people who are jailed and awaiting trial for misdemeanors or disenfranchise felonies are legally allowed to vote, according to the ACLU.
“When I looked, the numbers certainly made this worthwhile to investigate,” she recalls. Albany County’s correctional facility is one of the largest in New York. At any given time there are an average of 600 inmates in the facility, with 7,000 there during the past year.
Tillman says the groundwork, including preparation and approvals for the registration program,was completed in less than three months. “We’re lucky that we have a sheriff who is supportive of education and who saw that what we had in mind was in alignment with what he wants to do,” says Tillman, who points out that studies have drawn a direct link between education programs and reduced recidivism.
Tillman got things started by putting togethera proposal. She sent it to the county sheriff who assigned a liaison to work on the project with the League and the facility’s program director. An ongoing dialogue between Tillmanand the jail administrators helped pave the way to several important steps, including creating aguide and FAQs for volunteers, working out a schedule, and thinking about handouts to get inmates interested in the drive.
The job of recruiting volunteers came next. Tillman called on a variety of organizations—the local NAACP, community outreach center, a sorority, and apro bono program at Albany Law School. She solicited the expertise of leaders, law professors, and college students to hammer out a guide.
The League scheduled four voting drives, each lasting four or so hours spread over two days. Sessions at the Albany facility began with a presentation covering not only the civic responsibility of voting but also the history of struggles by women, African Americans, and others to gain and secure suffrage. “There is an explanation of the levels of elections, but we also stress the connection between their votes and how tax dollars are applied to the social safety net, healthcare, and schools,” says Tillman. “We don’t miss out on reminding them about the ‘power of one’ as a member of a greater collective, especially in light of recent close votes for the presidency, for instance.”
Even so, Tillman says not every one of the 40 detainees who attended a session registered to vote on the spot. Instead, she says the goal was to answer as many questions as possible, on topics such as absentee ballots, which permanent address to list, and mailing the ballot.
“This wasn’t a hard process once we had the approval of leadership, and particularly the sheriff,” says Tillman as he reflectedonthe work she and other volunteers put in. She is hopeful that the League will hold drives again soon now that important national and state elections are fast approaching. At the same time, Tillman got an appreciation of how difficult setting up such a program can be. For example, her attempts to reach out to neighboring Rensselaer County to start a similar drive have gone nowhere to date.
Ball of Confusion
A surprising number of people—whether they are in jail, prison, on probation, or on parole—don’t know their rights and often assume they cannot cast a ballot, so education must be a priority for community groups working with them.
One result of the predicament of being unable to vote is that people feel pushed out of society. Tillman and Brickner say a sense of powerlessness can grip not only individuals, but their families, too.
Local leaders, however, can take concrete steps to battle disenfranchisement and rebuild a better understanding of civics, rights, and in the end rebuild a sense of inclusion.
State by State, Controversy by Contention
Prison and jail voterregistration is at the nexus of several highly charged issues, such as criminal justice, bail reform, and vote suppression. That makes it a multilayered, nuanced, and unavoidably controversial matter.
The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that works to secure the rights of current and former prisoners, estimated that 6.1 million peoplewere disenfranchised as of 2016—23 percentwere currently incarcerated, while 77 percenthad completed their sentences. From a different perspective, those figures mean that roughly 2.5 percent of the voting-age population in the U.S. was barred from voting.
Needless to say, the same disproportionate racial ratios that characterize prisoner populations carry over to voter disenfranchisement. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund estimates that 36 percentof the people kept from voting, or 2 million in raw figures, are Black Americans. One specific example is Florida, which had disenfranchised more potential voters than any other state—over 10 percentof the rolls, and more than 21 percent of the potential Black voters there. Before 2019, Florida had barred citizens who had served time on felony convictions from voting.
For context, in 2016, 418,000 African-American Floridians, or 18 percent of the Black voters in the state, had finished sentences but were ineligible to vote at the time.
The questionsconcerning which incarcerated people can vote, which crimes and sentences bar people from voting, and whether and when a person regainsthe right to vote are up to states to decide, and frequently all 50 approach the matter quite differently, resulting in a patchwork of varying laws.A map of jail and prison voting rules and restrictions across the country would showa wide amount of variation between the states—not to mention a considerable number of gray areas.
While disenfranchisement is very real, many people who are or have been involved in the criminal justice system often believe they are not eligible to vote when they are. And they aren’t the only ones who are confused, as Brickner, Tillman, and other organizers will tell you. Their work tends to be an educational experience for every party involved—detainees, courts, correctional officials, and even voting authorities. Moreover, it doesn’t help that inmates are also in the dark about issues that appear on ballots, since access to news media, whether through computers, newspapers, or television, is limited.
Where and What
It is possible to start a review of voting rights with the outliers—Maine, Vermont, and Puerto Rico—where all prisoners can vote, no matter what the charge underlying their conviction. (Residents of Puerto Rico, like those in the four other U.S. territories, cannot vote in federal elections.)
For the remaining 48 states, people who are being held in jail pre-trialhave the right to vote. In many cases, this includes people who failed to post bail,often because of a lack of financial means. This group numbers roughly 750,000 people in the U.S. at any given time. As recently as 2015 in Ohio, Brickner’s group reports, about 64 percent of the people in state jails, 11,100 of 17,350 incarcerated, were being held awaiting trial without having been convicted of a crime. Brickner says poor people who cannot afford to pay bail make up the solid majority of this group.
Getting people who are awaiting trial registered if they aren’t already, and getting absentee ballots to them in time to cast a vote are big challenges.In Ohio, for instance, a class-action suit was recently decided to push the state to help. Similarly, people serving sentences for misdemeanors retain the right to vote while incarcerated. In some states people convicted of certain non-disenfranchising felonies do as well. But in both cases they generally need support to realize this right, and the rules about registration and legal addresses vary.
States differ widely on what happens to the voting rights of people who were convicted of felonies and have completed their time in prison. In 11states—including Arizona, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky—some or all people convicted of some or all felonies lose their vote beyond all the terms of their sentences, and sometimes permanently.Another 18 states revoke voting rights during prison, parole (early release with supervision), and probation (supervision usually offered as an incarceration alternative). Three—California,Connecticut, and New York—revoke voting rights during prison and parole, though New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recently used his power of clemency to restore the franchise to people on parole. Andas of December 2019, the remaining 16 statesand the District of Columbiarevoke voting privileges only during prison terms.
Perhaps nowhere have the stakes—and disagreements—been more momentous than Florida, where during the November midterm ballot in 2018, 65 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated once they finished their sentences(except for some people convicted of murders or felony sex charges, who have an additional five-year waiting period). The move effectively paved the way for 1.5 million state residents—roughly 9 percent of Florida’s voting-age population—to return to the voting booth once more. The measure did not go unchallenged. In March, the Republican-controlled Florida legislature tried to block the same measure voters had approved four months earlier. Legislators later added stipulations to the law requiring that those who are formerly incarcerated pay stiff restitution fines to be set by courts in each county before being allowed to vote again, a requirement the state Supreme Court recently upheld as constitutional despite accusations that it is a “poll tax.” It has been reported that some counties—Dade and Broward, as two examples—have set up quick reviews or “rocket dockets” in order to set aside the fines and allow people back onto the voting rolls as soon as possible. Other counties have refused to budge.
A Nation Distanced from Others
If you were to survey democracies around the world, you’d see that most U.S. states are holding steadfastly to policies that set the nation quite a distance apart from most industrialized countries both in Europe and elsewhere. A 2009 study, for instance, examined how European countries approached prisoner voting. It found that 17 nations placed no ban on voting in prison. In Belgium, Lithuania, and Romania, more than 60 percentof inmates voted, while in Italy and the Netherlands between 20 percentand 60 percentcast ballots. Court cases in Canada, South Africa, and Israel have upheld the voting rights of prisoners.
Cook County Vacuum
Illinois is an interesting case study, one that is reflective of the current state of jail voting rights and howthey apply to people who have been convicted of a felony. State law there stripsthe incarcerated of their vote while they serve time. The same individuals automatically recover the right to vote once they have completed their sentences. Illinois, meanwhile, allows offenders on parole or probation to vote. The problem is that of the 4 million Illinoisans who have a felony conviction on their record, 80 percentare unaware that they have the right to vote, according to Chicago Votes, a nonprofit organization.
The potential impact this has on election outcomes is staggering. In the massive criminal justice system in Chicago, for instance, 100,000 people are detained annually or put under “community corrections,” an umbrella term for probation or parole—while awaiting trial. Those figures translate into a population of 6,000 on an average day at the massive Cook County Jail in Chicago, with another 2,000 held in community corrections. On any given day an average of 170 men and 25 women are admitted. Statistics compiled by the sheriff’s office found that the mean daily number of nonviolent, low-level offenders who were being held because they couldn’t afford bail of $1,000 or less was nearly 190.
Despite the benefits of educational programs, 85 percentof Cook County’s budget of $226 million is earmarked for the salaries of over 4,000 staff members, which leaves little for rehabilitative programming. The activist organization Chicago Votes sees its mission as helping to fill the vacuum. According to Jen Dean, deputy director of Chicago Votes, the organizationhas registered over 4,000 detainees since it started registration efforts in Cook County jail in 2017.
Deansays sign-up drives are typically held once a month, but are stepped up to a bi-weekly schedule a few months before important elections since early absentee voting is allowed up to 43 days before ballot days. In 2018, Chicago Votes recruited about 400 volunteers, most between the ages of 24 and 32, although Dean says there are participants as young as 18 and as old as 78. While anyone can sign on, volunteersmust gain clearance, starting with a background check to verify recruits are over 18 and haven’t been convicted of a felony in the last 10 years. Next comes two training sessions; one on how to become a deputy registrar is held by the Chicago Board of Elections. The other, conducted by Chicago Votes, covers sensitive issues volunteers should keep in mind on visits and the right way to conduct themselves.
In looking back at the work Chicago Votes has done, Dean says she was struck by a response over and above the feedback she has received from college, community, and high school registration drives. “It’s the best I’ve ever been treated, says Dean. “The people there were overwhelmingly grateful and thankful. The enthusiasm was clear in conversations we had with participants and employees about civics or building social capital.”
By the Book(s)
The steps to register voters while they await trial within prison walls are intricate and delicate, calling for equal parts diplomacy, tact, and aplomb, as spelled out in a national guide the ACLU has published. A localguide published by the Ohio chapter of the ACLU goes so far as to list strategies. It first recommends that registrars make inroads with administrators at a local jail—even before mobilizing and training volunteers—and building coalitions with community groups. Another important consideration is working to draw up a security plan along with corrections officers, who are often overworked and themselves confused about the rules.
A handout Chicago Votes includes a checklist of basics like voter forms, identification, a clear bag to hold forms and pens, to a more–detailed summary of visitation dress code. Volunteers are to leave cell phones, headphones, drugs, gums, and eye drops stashed at home, in their cars, or in lockers before they enter the facility. They have to dress conservatively.
More importantly, Dean stresses that trainees steer clear of partisan sloganeering orentreaties and words that might make pre-trial participants feel singled out or inferior. Volunteers are told to remind registrants the date of the next election and that along with national positions, they can vote for governor, mayor, alderman, and judge.
By comparison, the rules in Albany are relatively more relaxed. Participants must be at least 19 and have completed voter registration training within a year prior to volunteering. The training must benonpartisan and stick to a factual explanation of the laws and voter rights. At the jail entrance volunteersmust show ID, but don’t need an orientation to the jail or a background check. They can wear jewelry at their discretion. Volunteers can serve even with a prior record, the exceptions being those on parole or probation.
All Voting is Local, the League of Women Voters in Albany, and Chicago Votes stress the importance of remaining nonpartisan and avoiding conflict with guards and administrators. Often, in fact, the jail staff sees the value in registration drives. “We even saw officers in the jail get excited about this type of work and [feel] a bond with the volunteers and their efforts,” says Dean.
Brickner of All Voting is Local says the reward for his work and that of other groups lies in the transformative power of the vote. “This is a great experience, because during these efforts when we talk to people in jail, we hear how many feel that one time in their life they just didn’t matter their rights stripped away from them, to tell them they have a say makes them feel like a part of society,” he says. “The takeaway from our effort, they say, is that ultimately they still indeed matter and have a role in our society.”
Gerrymandering Behind Bars
While pushing to get jail detainees’ and former prisoners’ votes to count is one matter, there’s a separate but related ongoing struggle: ensuring that the Census accurately reflects an incarcerated person’s home community, and not where they are incarcerated.
The underlying problem is called prison gerrymandering. The Census form expressly instructs households to leave out family members who are in jail or prison; the Census counts them instead when collecting numbers from correctional facility administrators. This affects how representational districts are drawn, because prison gerrymandering inflates the headcount in rural towns and counties where prisons are often built.
Because inmates cannot be counted in two places at the same time, there is a zero-sum seesaw in effect. The densely populated urban areas where convicted people lived before they were sent away (and where they frequently return) are undercounted, and as a result, cheated of representation. That’s gerrymandering.
Prison districts count inmates as residents and benefit by getting outsized legislative representation, and as a consequence more say in laws, policymaking, and government budgets. Compounding the problem, even though incarcerated individuals on average spend three years in prison, the numbers are tilted for an entire decade between Census calculations.
To fully appreciate the magnitude of the problem, look at the numbers. The U.S. prison system concentrates large groups of people in a relatively small number of facilities. According to the activist group Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), 1.4 million state and federal prisoners in the U.S. are held in just 1,000 locations. That means shifts in population figures between urban areas and counties that have prisons can be dramatic. In Illinois, for example, 60 percent of the state’s prisoners resided in Cook County before sentencing, but 99 percent of prisoners appeared in Census tallies outside of their place of origin. In one rural district in Texas, reports PPI, the population was close to 12 percent prisoners. In real terms that meant the district needs only 88 non-incarcerated residents for every 100 residents in cities such as Houston or Dallas, which tend not to have large prison populations, to get the same representation in the Texas House of Representations.
Progress toward blocking prison gerrymandering has been made in the past few years. Most state constitutions expressly state that incarceration does not change a citizen’s residence, according to PPI. While the Census continues to lump incarcerated people in with the population nearby a prison or jail, six states have insisted that redistricting be based on figures that count prisoners as residents of the address where they lived before confinement. The Census has made provisions for this, although states will shoulder the responsibility and expense for collecting previous addresses.
In January, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill to end prison gerrymandering, making the state just the seventh in the U.S. to do so.
The Disaster Recovery Housing Coalition (DRHC) has put out a set of recommendations for what housing provisions should be included in a federal public health response. The recommendations include provisions to support the homeless population, who are extremely vulnerable to this virus, such as funding for shelter (space and supplies), services, and medical care, and a moratorium on sweeps of homeless encampments. “Sweeps are disruptive and damaging to people’s health and to the ability of service providers and outreach workers to find people,” said Alison Eisinger of Seattle/King County Coalition for the Homeless on a national call on March 16, which was put together by the DRHC. “People lose their medication [in sweeps]. [Sweeps] are dangerous under ‘normal’ circumstances. We need to see local government halt those activities and shift 100 percent to a public-health informed approach.”
Also on that call, homeless service providers in multiple locations spoke of the urgent need to get unhoused people into shelter, and spread those who are already in shelter out to safe distances and create places where they can quarantine.
Referencing the urgency of the need to increase capacity, Eisinger recounted that one of her board members who works with homeless veterans told her, “We don’t need the right space. We need all the space, right now.”
DHRC’s recommendations also include ways to prevent a new wave of homelessness as people lose income by focusing on stability for low-income renters through a nationwide moratorium on evictions, rental assistance, legal assistance, and additional emergency funding for public housing agencies and other HUD providers of housing.
Erin Burns-Maine, from the office of intergovernmental relations for the New York City Housing Authority, spoke urgently to the need for additional funding for public housing authorities. NYCHA, which is famously struggling with a large backlog of needed capital repairs, houses 400,000 residents in one of the first places in the U.S. to be hard hit by COVID-19. NYCHA ceased evictions as of the week of March 9 (many other housing authorities have followed suit), and are expecting additional losses of income as resident incomes drop and their hardship program serves more households. Meanwhile, NYCHA’s costs have risen as it has contracted for special cleaning services at senior-only buildings and is covering sick pay even for staff with no accrued leave. These are all the right things to do, but NYCHA is redeploying operating funds that were intended for other, non-optional things. Federal help “would not be a day too soon,” said Burns-Maine.
HUD has so far recommended but not required that all public housing authorities institute eviction moratoriums, said Diane Yentel, on the March 23 Disaster Recovery Housing Coalition call, because it says it believes it doesn’t have the power to do so. Yentel, the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, says her organization believes HUD does in fact have that power.
On Monday, March 23, FHFA issued further guidance that said that multifamily property owners would be offered forbearance only if they agreed to an eviction moratorium for the entire duration of the forbearance. “Renters should not have to worry about being evicted from their home, and property owners should not have to worry about losing their building, due to the coronavirus,” said Director Mark Calabria.
“This is a scary time for many of our residents and we echo the governor’s sentiment that no one should fear being kicked out of their home,” wrote the New Jersey Housing and Community Development Network (NJHCDN), in a statement praising action by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.
New Jersey’s moratorium on foreclosures and evictions will remain in place for “no longer than two months following the end of the Public Health Emergency or State of Emergency … whichever ends later.” Local advocates who were on a call hosted by New Jersey Citizen Action (NJCA) Wednesday, March 18, expressed the need to have moratoriums on mortgages, foreclosures, and evictions last for longer than two months.
“In addition to the moratorium on foreclosures and evictions, New Jersey has had one of the most robust rental assistance programs in the country. We know that people will need additional help and are already working to identify mechanisms to increase this assistance as we move forward,” according to the statement from NJHCDN.
However, the kind of permanent mortgage debt relief seen in Italy would be difficult in the United States because of the secondary mortgage market and bond holders who expect interest payments, reports HousingWire.
It seems, in any case, that it will be up to the servicers to judge whether someone qualifies and how much relief they get. Given the nightmare scenario of attempting to get a mortgage modification from servicers in 2008-2009, it seems highly likely that a flood of housing counseling funding and bank accountability organizing will be necessary to support homeowners who need this provision. I wonder how much of the amazing housing counseling apparatus that was looking for ways to survive the ebb of stimulus funding five years ago can be quickly revived.
Note to Readers: Like everyone else, Shelterforce is pivoting our plans to try to best be of use during this difficult time, while information is shifting by the hour. We’ll be getting into more depth on all of these topics and many more in the coming weeks, and we welcome reader stories about the challenges, the moments of hope and collaboration that you’re seeing on the ground, and questions you want answered.
Everything non-essential is being canceled right now (as well as quite a few things that have felt pretty essential to many, such as school). Most of those are canceled because unnecessary in-person gatherings are a public health danger.
That’s not to say that advocates are not still submitting comments, because many are, but advocates and Congressional leaders are making the point that everyone—bankers and community organizations alike—are going to increasingly have other priorities, which means the agencies shouldn’t proceed with the rulemaking as if nothing has changed.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, sent letters yesterday to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and independent financial regulators such as the OCC and FDIC demanding that they suspend non-essential rulemaking that is not furthering the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The COVID-19 virus threatens both the health of the public and the economy. It presents immediate challenges to real households and every entity in the housing market, from frontline homelessness providers to homeowners. In light of this crisis, we urge you to implement an immediate moratorium on rulemakings not related to the virus response or other imminent health and safety concerns,” wrote Sen. Brown, according to a press release from his office.
“Expanding or strengthening [the Community Reinvestment Act] is part of the long-term solution to stabilizing communities and making sure that a large percentage of our population is not so vulnerable economically and health-wise,” says Jesse Van Tol, CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. “But it’s not in the short-term critical to move forward on rulemaking right now in a declared national emergency. There was already a lot of data and information we didn’t have about the impact of the proposed changes [to CRA], and in this moment the ability of both community groups and banks to comment will be compromised.”
Van Tol noted that the FDIC had previously indicated a willingness to extend the April 8 deadline again if it didn’t feel it had sufficient information as the period drew to a close, so he was hopeful that the agency would see the clear need to do so at this time.
“In light of the Coronavirus / COVID-19 crisis, leading to the shutdown of some courts, shelter in place orders and regulatory extensions even by the SEC,” the OCC and FDIC comment period be extended for months, wrote Matthew Lee of Fair Finance Watch in a formal comment to the OCC.
The FDIC declined to comment on Sen. Brown’s correspondence, or whether they would extend comment periods or suspend non-essential rulemaking.
An OCC spokesperson said today, “The OCC continues to conduct ordinary business and will consider rulemakings and other regulatory [sic] in due course to maintain the safe, sound, fair operation of the federal banking system.”
Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defenders Association,is a 2019 MacArthur fellow. Daugaardwas key in developing theLaw Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in King County, Washington.LEAD diverts people who have been stopped for low-level offenses resulting from behavioral issues or extreme poverty into harmreduction–style case management, rather than a punitive law-enforcement approach. According to the Public Defenders Association (PDA), LEAD participants are 58 percent less likely to be arrested after enrollment in the program, compared to a control group that went through “system as usual”criminal justice processing. PDA also has preliminary data that indicates,“LEAD improves the health and well-being of people struggling at the intersection of poverty and drug and mental health problems,” LEAD has been replicated in many cities around the country. Shelterforce spoke with Daugaard about how work on homelessness set her on her path, and how diversion programs can build political will to increase support for affordable housing and public health.
Miriam Axel-Lute: How did you get into working with diversion programs?
Lisa Daugaard:I was in New York for four years working on issues of homelessness and police violence.I was at the Coalition for the Homeless, and then at the Urban Justice Center, where I started a project focused on leadership development for homeless activists. We focused on police abuse of people who were living in public, [through] litigation and a lot of organizing with people who were homeless or formerly homeless.That was during the first Giuliani administration.
One of the great ironies of my work life is that back then, we commissioned a poster that is a picture of a giant riot cop with a big belly and a visor and a billy club, and it says“Rudy Giuliani’s idea of a social worker.” And thenit goes on to make fun of the idea of using police to do outreach to homeless people.The tag line of the poster was “Out of the shelters, into the streets.”
The whole concept of using police to be a conduit to support structures was something that I and all of my colleagues were attacking back then.And now I use that poster sometimes in talks about the odd arc of my work because, in a way, that is actually the structure that that I have ended up promoting.I would say it’s radically different, though. The Giuliani administration used NYPD officers to do “aggressive outreach,”which was coercive in nature; didn’t involve any intentional training around behavioral health, substance use disorder, trauma recovery, or harm reduction; and was strongly directive in terms of where officers were telling individuals they needed to go [into the shelter system]. In contrast, law enforcement partners in LEAD programs attempt to use trauma–informed practices, emphasize that engagement with the social services component is voluntary, and typically engage in a sustained relationship with the individual referred, which requires establishing common interest and an atmosphere of support.
The early ’90swas a period of intense unemployment for people with a criminal history in particular.The people that I worked with were brilliant, emerging activists, [and] incredibly talented.I’m thinking of this one man in particular, who would keep a diary of all of his employment efforts.He documented more than 500. I vividly remember him reading out loud excerpts from his journal to the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus of the New York State Assembly.It was just not possible for somebody who was ready to work, able to work, super-motivated, to crack that ceiling of criminal history and lack of work history.
Then, under Giuliani, broken-windows, [and then–police chief] William Bratton, our members and leadersstarted disappearing. They would be not at a meeting, and [we would] find out later that they were in the Tombs [Editor’sNote: the Manhattan DetentionComplex, a municipal jail] for turnstile jumping.It was wrecking any progress, any forward momentum that they were able to put together.
By the time I moved back to Seattle in the mid-’90s, I was extraordinarilyfocused on this sort of low-level, high-volume public order offense. When I became a public defender, the idea of a reform prosecutor was not even on the horizon.What prosecutors in America did was just push people [with] low-level offenses through misdemeanor courts, through pre-trial detention, through plea mills, securing enormous numbers of convictions regardless of whether people’s underlying circumstances would have supported a conviction.
The incredible accumulation of additional obstacles that people are facing as a result, that was what I was going to spend my career working on.Whatever the behavior or situation was that brought somebody to the attention of law enforcement, it tended to be the product of other systems failing people—structures of opportunity being closed, failures of healthcare, failures of schooling, failures of the foster care system.Already, people have been harmed, and then the justice system [is] compounding that.Oftentimes, those initial harms themselves were the product of the hyper-incarceration of parents and family members and caretakers.
That was the puzzle that I along with many, many other people began to grapple with in the mid-’90s. It was like the civil rights crisis of our generation.
And how did you get police and prosecutorsto buyinto the idea of diverting people away from conviction for these type of offenses?
I got to the table through adversarial confrontation.Sitting down and talking was the price of ending a long litigation fight.
My office had a small but tenacious project called the Racial Disparity Project that was, from the late ’90s on, tackling the extreme racial disparity in Seattle drug arrests.We were following a pattern that had been laid down by the Gloucester County Public Defender in New Jersey.In the early days of discussion of “driving while black,” they represented a bunch of folks who had weapons charges or drug charges [that] resulted from traffic stops.They set out to prove that traffic enforcement was racially disproportionate.
We modeled our work on that, but we directly attacked the drug charges themselves.In our case it was harder.Who actually commits law violations while driving is a matter of open observation.If you set it up right, you can do a study of who’s speeding and their race.Who actually commits drug crimes is much more difficult to prove because it’s covert, and while there is public health data on drug use, there wasnot at the time available data on drug sales, and enforcement was concentrated on delivery or sales.
We worked with a really innovative researcher at the University of Washington who later was part of taking down capital punishment in Washington State based on racial disparity.She ultimately concluded, from all available data sources, that white people were the largest racial group involved in drug sales as well as drug use, but were only microscopically present in the population getting arrested. Black folks were overwhelmingly the focus of arrests.So, we were litigating motions to dismiss groups of cases as a result.
The prosecutor[Dan Satterberg]who was newly in office is now one of the leading reform prosecutors in the country.But at the time, this was his first tentative step in the direction of doing things differently. He reached out—he was a Republican at the time—and said, “Look, we could keep fighting this out, but what would you say if we were to jointly approach the police department about whether they would like to take a different approach to drug enforcement?”
And we accepted that offer because, unbeknownst to him, I knew that we had finally drawn a bad judge.We started meeting seriously in 2008, and those meetings ended in an agreement to try this in 2010, and funding to launch in 2011.
The Seattle Police Department [was open to this] for their own reasons, not because they agreed about [our] racial discrimination [claims], but because they felt what they were doing was ineffective.Today, there is a lot of discussion about public order issues on our streets, and that exists, and we have mass homelessness in a way that we didn’t then.But what people forget is that visible crime, including drug dealing and drug use on the street, was much worse 10 years ago than it is now. There was a lot of arresting going on, and so there was a plausibility to the idea that maybe we needed to try something different.The status quo was not working.
So, we built a broad base of support for theconcept that no matter what your ideological stripe, you were dissatisfied with the status quo, open to trying something new, and willing and open to the argument that you can’t arrest your way out of whatever the problem is that you think is going on.
We also had a strong mandate from civil rights organizations in Seattle who, while they did want to see an end to mass incarceration of people of color, and particularly Black folks due to drug activity, were not excited about the idea of just leaving people out there.They’re really interested in a positive agenda of care and support and high-qualityresponse of the sort that middle-class white folks generally acquire for themselves through insurance or health-based interventions.
No one thinks that it makes sense for cops to respond to issues of public health, but because we live under a criminalization paradigm, they get called, and they get called in a racialized way.We start from that point, which is all a product of many broken systems and a lot of historical dynamics into which discrimination is embedded. Nonetheless, if it’s possible to radically shift outcomes, we should.And we have maintained that common ground ever since, which has been a really big eye-opener to me.
I always assumed that the people who were calling the cops wanted to see my clients go prison.I have since had the realization that what they want is a response.They are willing to agree that incarceration probably doesn’t make sense, but if that’s all they’re offered, they’re going to choose that.If they’re offered something that makes more sense and does less harm and re-establishes the connection between people and community, they’re even more excited about that.
I kind of felt stupid.It was like allthis time we had this potential base of support that we failed to enlist. Ever since then, I’ve been really adamant that we should not assume that there isn’t widespread agreement that just needs to be mobilized in favor of a new response.
The same thing probably holds true for criminalization of homelessness?
Yes.At present here in Seattle, I would say criminalization of homelessness is a thing of the past.It certainly was present 20 years ago. When I was a public defender,probably [one-third] of my clients were being prosecuted for stuff like failure to pay a citation for sitting, drinking, or urinating in public or trespass in a park.
Now, those arrests are not made.Those cases are not filed.That said, people are still living in public, and the new sort of criminalization is just forcing people to endlessly move and confiscate their stuff.All the courts have been able to stop is a literal threat of taking somebody’s liberty away.That doesn’t translate into providing an actual channel to an alternative place to live.
If you take away criminalization [and] don’t offer a positive plan, you build a deep pool of resentment and backlash, which we’re cooking up nicely here, especially on the West Coast, where the 9th Circuit decision in Bell v. Boise that says you cannot prosecute people for the activities of homelessness unless they have an alternative in full effect.When cities stop using those tools of criminalization, they leave an increasingly frustrated public that is wonderingwhat is the plan, and there’s a real void there.
You’ve gotten support, at least locally, for the LEAD program.But the next step, it would seem, would be to have sufficient treatment and sufficient housing to refer people to.What’s the potential for political will around getting that?
One of the advantages of marshalling all of these partners who are typically not on the same side to be part of the same team is that then you have cops, prosecutors, business leaders, neighborhood leaders, human services providers, and directly impacted people all singing from the same sheet of music—that we are not going to get very far unless we have a channel to permanent housing, particularly for people who face highest barriers, and that that group should be prioritized.
We are building different allies than have been available in the past for those policy initiatives.One of the pledges that we made to one another when we started LEAD was that we would see how far we could get by,No. 1, stop doing stupid things, stop intentionally breaking people.Step two [is]providingrelationships[with] skilled case managers, who are often peers and have lived experience[and] can meet people where they’re at. And we give case managers money to spend.
However, we anticipated that you would slam into a low ceiling that was the product of system gaps and resource deficiencies.Those are not as visible when you’re working with a small pilot project, with 50 people or 100 people.In any system, really skilled case managers can often claw their way to an apartment for 10 people, right?But you really expose the system gaps when you’re working with a larger group.And with LEAD in Seattle, we’re big enough now that those gaps are really glaring.Lack of housing in particular is stalling many participants’progress.
And so, we made this promise to one another that we would not only do the best we could with case management and protecting people from inappropriate use of the criminal legal system, but we would also call out the big policy shifts that are needed in order to give people what is needed to really thrive.
People have to overcome the consequences of multi-generational harm. This is going to be a long recovery arc.It’s our job to make sure that if folks are struggling, it’s not because the necessary pieces were not available when they were ready to use them.
Some of the moves to support affordable housing in Seattle have been fairly politically controversial, such as taxing certain large organizations.Do you feel like you’re at a point where you could get police support, prosecutor support, and business support for measures of that size?
We have just turned a corner with our local business groups.We’ve long had an alliance with businesses that kind of fell apart two years ago over the employer head tax.They spent 18 months trying to teach a lesson to policymakers about “don’t take us for granted, and don’t leave us out of the conversation,” which I think is a legitimate point, actually.But they didn’t succeed in toppling the city council, and I think that there’s a new pragmatism around really the only way forward is forward. In late capitalism, and withimmense wealth inequality, we all have to line up together to have a prayer of having a cityscape that is tolerable for everyone and not a playground for the rich with casualties.I’m hopeful that we will get back to the business of putting all of our shoulders to the wheel and getting behind approaches that are good for everybody.In general, we do have a progressive business community that is front and center in efforts to increase revenue in order to fund human services.I don’t think there’s any reason to expect that we can’t have that again as long as the point isn’t to harm them, which kind of was the rhetoric [with]which some people brought the head tax forward.
What should our readersknow about diversion programs?
Diversion can be done well, or it canbe done badly. [It’s] an ongoing struggle to make sure that people aren’t handed off from one dehumanizing system to another. Typically, it is done badly, in a way that will be frustrating and disappointing for both the people who are sent into that new system and for the public that is being told that there’s an alternative.That alternative has to be real.It has to be scaled up, and it has to work.And we’re very far in any community from achieving that.That, to me, is where the work lies—in getting very serious about building alternatives that are universally accessible, that are always open.The jail is always open. One of the great attractions of the justice system is that it doesn’t say no to anyone.
We need to make sure that our alternatives are as easy to access and really don’t disappoint.I would urge people not to assume that the major work is to just get the justice system to let go of people.The main thing we need to do is make a compelling alternative so that it would be obviously idiotic to keep doing what’s been the past practice.
This article appears in the Winter 2020 edition of Shelterforce magazine.
I’m in love. When you wake up every day knowing that what you do helps improve people’s lives and where they live, it’s one of the best feelings on earth. After witnessing years of hollow promises from political and business leaders who promised to “make communities better,” I get a deep satisfaction from being a part of this important work.
Daily, I’m reminded about both the fortune and the pressure. It’s never lost on me that I am part of the new wave of Community Development leaders, and rarity as a Black woman in this cohort. Regardless of race, across the spectrum we are all facing an enormous opportunity and urgent responsibility to get the notion of “community” right.
We don’t have the luxury of falling into the trap of iterative change or making mistakes that don’t move the field forward. Today’s stakes are just simply, too high.
Almost seventy years after the start of the Civil Rights movement, people are looking for positive results. They’re no longer satisfied to hear about “fairness” and “justice” when, for generations, Black and brown folks have suffered from poorly thought-out urban development strategies that left communities in worse shape.
Today, the field is being looked to for a new approach—new thinking, new funding, and new programs that grow healthier communities. And for us, the new guard, these pressures could easily make one’s head ache. And they would for me if it wasn’t for the new joy I find every day.
At the top of this decade, I feel an urgency to reflect and speak up about the future to make sure the value of our work doesn’t get lost. For a long time, we’ve been too quiet about what’s working and what’s fueling us. We’ve been so quiet that even the most essential causes are struggling to find resonance and affirmation in today’s society, sometimes entering meetings defending why they should exist.
Our field has major reasons to be proud; reasons you could miss in the cacophony of daily news. But there are real innovations and compelling work that our colleagues, partners, and the residents we serve can’t afford to miss.
We Have New Allies in the Fight
One of the inspiring forces is the creativity I’m seeing in our collaborations and who we’re bringing to the table. I know that I’m not the only CEO who has lost a little sleep over the continuing changes in our political, legal, and funding environments. When history looks back at this period, it will show the “dollars and sense” challenges we’ve faced and the new agility we’ve had to develop to keep our operations going.
Twenty years ago, we would have never thought of hospitals and universities as vital community building partners. Today, we’re engaging them, anchor institutions, and even media entities to drive progress that is just, scalable (read: well-funded), and engaging.
An example of this is how our conversations about financial institutions have evolved into more than just sales-like pitches of the newest widget. When I look at the National League of Cities’ (NLC) City Financial Inclusion Efforts overview, I see data and examples of how nationwide nonprofits, banks, and localities are collaborating to bring new options for communities in need and of color to life.
Innovative partnerships that include the Cities Endowment Fund’s collaboration with the Citi Foundation have created positive outcomes from growing the employment rate to helping thousands achieve homeownership. The design of classes, lending programs, and job programs are just some examples of how we are leveraging our influence to drive integral, expansive impact. And when I say “expansive,” I’m speaking of more than money, which is secondary to the real value I see: influence.
Our reality is that If we are serious about changing our world, we have to partner with those who have both the resources and influence on the power structures that we seek to change. Those include the media.
One inspiring example of galvanizing allies to change a narrative is last summer’s NLC’s #LoveMyCity public relations and social media campaign. Out front, we saw headlines nationwide highlighting positive stories from a diverse array of thousands of cities. Behind the scenes, we saw NLC partner with AARP, Acella, and communications giants like Clear Channel and the Out of Home Advertising Association of America (OAAA) to expand its reach.
This viral, immersive campaign showed us what it really looks like when we get serious and build a bench of partners who can help us tell our story and win. Seeing this partnership was one of my top “love” moments that I’m hoping will inspire more narrative influence in the next generation.
The “Possible Generation” is Breaking Barriers in Equity Measurement
In 1998, I was a 20-something when Tupac’s “Changes” dropped and he said that we weren’t ready for a Black president. I was also one of those voters who showed up ten years later to make what seemed impossible possible.
In the same way that Black presidents, watches that track your heart rate, and doors that unlock with fingerprints seemed impossible in 1998, for decades, a concerted effort to center our work equity in seemed like a far-off dream.
Today, as a part of what I’ll call the “possible” generation, the innovations we’re working on that amaze me aren’t flying cars, they are the creativity I see in centering on our commitment to truly equitable development.
Their work, which started in 2015, was a massive effort to demand and realize more data disaggregation which, through the Census, will make it possible to fight disparities in our communities with better intelligence.
This is real progress in measuring equity in a way that carries meaning for generations to come.
I’m also seeing equity baked into our work with invaluable research and tools like The Competitive Advantage of Racial Equity (CARE). CARE offers private and public sector organizations tools for quantifying the value of racial equity for organizations and businesses – something previous generations wouldn’t believe.
The CARE work adds validity to the fundamental idea that “opportunities to create shared value by promoting racial equity occur at every point along a company’s value chain.” For the first time in generations, these tools are helping operationalize the reparative healing work we need, attaching undebatable value to its importance, and establishing it as our new normal.
This new normal is making room for people of color at important tables, and not just to sit at. We’re now realizing our opportunity to lead – whether as grant makers, consultants, CEOs, or vendor-entrepreneurs. Yes, there is a lot of road ahead, but in more places than ever, we, the possible generation, are more active in leading the change we seek – partly because we’re growing how we track and share equity’s value.
The Pipeline from the Block Has New Support
I was onboarding a new hire last year who is newer to our work, and casually uttered a phrase that stuck. It was one of those, “do you hear yourself?” moments I had to make note of.
I said, “I believe the future of community development looks like its foundation—when we started, we weren’t an institution. We were just ordinary people working on behalf of folks in our neighborhoods.” Before there were 86 credentials and a litany of letters adding “validity” to our roles, there was Dorothy Mae Richardson, an inspiration for the creation of NeighborWorks America, who knew it would take partners and money to change her Philadelphia street.
Today, we’d call her a “grassroots” leader, not a pillar of the field or architect of an influential government agency. But the fact is the foundation of our work and the progress we stand on is built on the contributions of “grassroots” leaders who ultimately began trying to create positive change on their block, or road, or town. And that fact isn’t just our foundation—it’s our future.
When I met Devin Hall from Gary, Indiana last year, she was excited to join our Community Revitalization Fellowship and learn how other communities were fighting vacancy. Less than 12 months later, she was an active voice for underrepresented residents in Gary, contributing to community meetings and an early-stage effort to help youth in need.
Her peer-to-peer contributions at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference in 2019 was what I like to call a real-life instance of Sankofa, a West African principle that means going back to the past and fetching what you need for the future. Witnessing Hall share her experience reminded me of a time when residents weren’t just engaged, but could always be found leading the work. It affirmed my belief that these resident–peer learning experiences are essential to nurturing our next leaders and turning resident engagement into innovation that scales.
The Biggest Reason I’m in Love: People Still Come First
When I envision the next ten years, I see these innovations growing. If this past decade is an indicator, we will make history. In all of the progress we’ve achieved, putting people first is what makes me love the work today. Whether through better, more detailed data or fellowship programs that make it so the next generations have a pathway to future leadership seats.
All of our work, from creativity with funding, leveraging new partners, or tracking our equity commitment, is going to help us carry that proverbial torch forward and will make it shine even brighter.
I see us championing policy reform that closes the loopholes that have caused displacement and disinvestment. I see us taking risks and catalyzing new thoughts, not just to be disrupters for disruption’s sake. I see us bringing to life the sustainable, healthy, just communities our children need. I see an army of change agents that includes you, whose innovations can’t all fit into one article; but continue to fill our ecosystem with bold actions and ideas.
For this vision and this hope, thank you to my friends in this space. Your wins are our wins and there’s more progress on the way. You are keeping my heart full.
Over the past two decades, criminal justice reform has focused on evidence-based interventions to prevent arrests and incarceration and to facilitate community reintegration. These initiatives represent a movement toward a less punitive, more holistic approach to public safety, targeting critical social factors that lead to and perpetuate criminal justice involvement. Because housing problems are often a key underlying factor for people’s involvement with the criminal justice system, there are ways housing interventions can help lessen criminal justice involvement. Decriminalizing homelessness, for example, can reduce rates of initial arrest and incarceration, especially for people with low-level, nonviolent offenses. A sufficient supply of affordable housing and supportive services could help people stabilize after their release from jail and reduce the likelihood of recidivism. Policymakers, advocates, and practitioners in housing and criminal justice systems can partner to promote and evaluate housing strategies that divert people from the criminal justice system.
A lack of suitable housing puts people at risk of arrest and incarceration, so could access to better housing be a justice policy solution?
Help Prevent Criminal Justice Involvement
The relationship between housing and criminal justice involvement is complex and can vary from place to place. Additional research demonstrating the extent to which housing instability is a pipeline to incarceration is necessary to accurately inform policymaking. But many state and local governments that employ housing strategies for their most vulnerable populations have experienced reduced criminal behavior among some subpopulations.
Research shows that families living in high-poverty areas are more likely to be associated with crime-related activity, either as a victim, as a witness, or as the person accused or arrested. Although there may be other neighborhood variables, such as unemployment and peer influences, exposure to the risk of being either a person who commits a crime or victim is high. When people are stably housed, they have fewer recorded non-violent offenses. For instance, people commit fewer survival crimes (offenses like theft, robbery, trespassing, loitering, and prostitution), which are chief reasons people with low-level offenses are incarcerated. A 2008 report on survival crimes in Canadian cities saw an increase in poverty-related crimes because of a lack of services, such as affordable housing, to alleviate families’ financial burdens. In particular, for people with co-occurring mental or physical health disorders, housing can be a factor that leads to diversion from entering the jail system.
Many youth experiencing homelessness may also spend time in the juvenile or adult justice systems. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice found that 1 in 10 young adults ages 18 to 24 experience homelessness, and nearly half have also been incarcerated. Often, this is because of fines and fees that stem from a lack of housing. Like adults, youth experiencing homelessness might be incarcerated for violating curfews, loitering, or sitting or sleeping outdoors. Without stable housing, it is nearly impossible for youth to avoid these ordinances.
Using housing as a preventive strategy for justice involvement requires more than access to stable housing—it also requires decent quality housing. Decent-quality housing refers to housing in good repair that is free of safety hazards and unsanitary conditions. Living in inadequate housing can cause children to miss school, increase mental health issues, and create other challenges that increase their likelihood of becoming disconnected from formal systems. Research has demonstrated the effect of housing quality on youth, whereby children who suffer from lead poisoning are six times more likely to become involved in juvenile delinquency as adolescents. A recent study in Rhode Island found that boys with high blood lead levels were the most likely to have increased antisocial behavior and to become incarcerated. Exposure to lead is much higher in public housing than other developments, which puts low-income families disproportionately at risk, increasing the likelihood that these youths become justice involved.
Help After Criminal Justice Involvement
Exiting jail is a major risk factor to housing stability. There is a large overlap in populations experiencing homelessness and prior involvement in the criminal or juvenile justice systems. Formerly incarcerated people are 10 times more likely than the general public to become homeless. This revolving door of incarceration is perpetuated when people are not connected to the housing services they need after release. In addition, when people cannot find stable housing, they are more likely to recidivate. Findings from the Returning Home Ohio Pilot Project showed that participants receiving supportive housing services were 40 percent less likely to be rearrested. Women of color are also disproportionately more vulnerable to becoming homeless after incarceration and were thus susceptible to recidivating.
People who were formerly incarcerated face barriers to accessing and staying in stable housing:
People who were formerly incarcerated are more likely to suffer from substance use issues, mental health disorders, and other challenges that can impede their search for safe, stable, good-quality housing.
Landlords and property owners often discriminate against applicants who are formerly incarcerated. In high-cost markets, the demand for affordable housing is great, and landlords can legally limit lessees’ opportunities to secure housing.
Housing security extends beyond getting people off the streets and into a home—it also means ensuring they can stay in that home. For every 10,000 formerly incarcerated people, 570 were housing insecure, demonstrating that more needs to be done to leverage community resources for supportive services.
Promising Strategies: A Focus on Milwaukee
Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, like other jurisdictions, implemented the Housing First approach to reduce reentry to jail. Milwaukee found that after a year of service delivery, municipal violations decreased by 82 percent, and the number of people experiencing homelessness decreased from 1,521 to 900. Results showed a decrease in the use of jail beds and a decrease in homelessness, housing instability, and overall costs to the system. Milwaukee also instituted homelessness outreach teams staffed by police officers to divert violations that could be addressed through housing-focused solutions. This focus on joint cost savings is a key component of how the county has approached the connection between justice system involvement and housing.
The dual challenge of reducing housing instability and incarceration is no easy feat.
Although employing Housing First approaches and addressing discriminatory practices can help alleviate the problem, these complex issues require comprehensive solutions.
Officials should think critically about how to begin or expand justice and housing partnerships to ensure that sufficient housing security and services are available. This approach could include developing collaborative programs, leveraging joint funding opportunities to maximize resources, and increasing communication for criminal justice systems to better understand supportive housing services and opportunities. Ensuring that suitable long- and short-term housing options exist can help jurisdictions effectively reduce jail populations.
This piece was originally published on Housing Matters, an Urban Institute initiative.
This article appears in the Winter 2020 edition of Shelterforce magazine.
Narrated and co-directed by Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, Decade of Fire tells the story of a 10-year period in the history of the South Bronx when 80 percent of the community’s housing, home to around quarter of a million people, was lost to fire. The documentary’s power comes from Vázquez Irizarry’s personal narrative of her family’s life there, the stories of community survival and resistance, coupled with a rigorously researched history of racist government policies and market practices that allowed the South Bronx to burn.
At its start, the film takes us through the history of redlining, a set of federal policies and real estate practices that systematically denied investment in and wealth building by residents of urban neighborhoods of color. Through the 1960s, the South Bronx’s Black and Puerto Rican residents were unable to access traditional credit to buy or maintain the deteriorating housing in their neighborhoods, nor were they able to get mortgages to move out to the suburbs. At the same time, their Italian and Jewish neighbors, a generation removed from being redlined themselves but now incorporated into American whiteness, had the opportunity, through the GI bill and other federal programs, to leave the city behind. In All That is Solid Melts into Air, philosopher Marshall Berman eulogizes the Bronx, while accepting culpability for what’s to come: “For children of the Bronx like myself, the road [Cross Bronx Expressway] bears a load of special irony: as we race through our childhood world, rushing to get out, relieved to see the end in sight, we are not merely spectators but active participants in the process of destruction that tears our hearts. We fight back the tears, and step on the gas.”
As whole blocks of buildings were decimated by arson—largely orchestrated by insurance payout-seeking building owners who would pay vulnerable residents to set the fires—the devastation in the borough came to a head in the late 1960s, and the city and the media looked for someone to blame. The film includes archival footage of New York City fire commissioner John T. O’Hagan attributing the spike in fires on “families from the deep South” being unable to adapt to the urban environment. Dispelling racist and classist canards such as this, and its internalization by South Bronx residents, is one of the principal goals of the film.
Blaming the deterioration of American cities on Black and Latinx residents was central to post-1960s federal and local policy making. It served as a justification for the retrenchment on social spending on housing and social services and increased spending on policing and incarceration. In Race for Profit, published in 2019, scholar and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes how the deterioration of living conditions in underfunded Pruitt-Igoe, a public housing development in St. Louis, was first blamed on low-income Black tenants, then used to justify further cuts across all federal housing programs: “The crisis in Pruitt-Igoe and public housing more generally was interpreted not only as the result of tenant misbehavior but also as evidence that government social welfare promoted dependency and disregard for private property.”
One of the more powerful scenes in the film is when Vázquez Irizarry follows the record trail of the South Bronx fires in the FDNY archives. Looking through the files she asks, “At the time when there were so many fires in the South Bronx, firehouses closed … makes me wonder why?”
The film tells us about the Rand Corporation, a policy think tank contracted by the city to develop “long-range planning and policy development systems.” In an early example of officials dazzled by technological solutionism and blind to algorithmic bias, the city adopted a Rand recommendation to close fire companies in poor neighborhoods to increase FDNY efficiency [for more on this history see The Fires This Time: Joe Flood on Managing New York City, a 2010 article in The Atlantic by Marc Arbinder, and the book, A Plague on Your Houses by Deborah Wallace and Rodrick Wallace]. As the number of fires in the Bronx spiked after the removal of fire services, Rand went on to make additional recommendations in other policy areas that had an impact on the Bronx, including a recommendation to end rent control.
The firehouse closures were part of a broader austerity push that defined post-fiscal crisis New York. The film highlights the Bronx’s grassroots organizing and community development movement as forces that ultimately brought the devastating era to its conclusion. The film charts efforts by residents to take over and rebuild abandoned properties, efforts that happened alongside other anti-austerity fights, like the struggle to save Hostos, New York City’s first bilingual college. Through archival footage and first-person interviews, we get to meet long time neighborhood activists like Hetty Fox who took it upon herself to renovate single-family homes on her street, as well as Leon Potts and Harry De Rienzo, founders of the Banana Kelly community development corporation that is still active in the South Bronx today.
In Race for Profit, Taylor writes, “The regressive politics of conservatism and the project of neoliberal restructuring were not the same, but in the United States each was able to influence the development of the other.” In the Bronx, austerity measures utilized during the decade of fire set the groundwork for the gentrification to come.
The film brings us into the present, when “developers want to carve up the Bronx all over again,” ending with resident resistance to the Jerome Avenue rezoning. Continuing this thread, Vázquez Irizarry and her co-directors recently released Defending Your Block: How to Stay, Fight and Build,a short film highlighting anti-displacement stories from the Bronx, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. Defending Your Block distills five elements of block defense: be vigilant, engage neighbors, learn the system, lead with a shared vision, and occupy space.
It ends on a hopeful note from Fanny Ortiz, an organizer from the Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles: “We are going to stay here and fight for our community.”
Several years ago, I attended a workshop about how to approach funders at a national community development conference. The workshop included a few mock “first conversations” with funders, who then gave feedback on how the prospective grantees presented themselves. My notes are long gone, but I remember two takeaways from what the funders said: 1. If someone offers you a drink of water, accept it. 2. If you’re meeting with a bank, be prepared to explain in some detail how what you do fulfills their Community Reinvestment Act obligations, or they won’t be able to help you.
The Community Reinvestment Act, or CRA, is so much a part of the landscape of community development that when it is not under threat we almost take its pivotal role for granted. Activists fighting against bank redlining got the landmark legislation passed in 1977, and its objective was to ensure that banks invested in the places where they took deposits, instead of starving certain areas of credit, damaging both individual prospects and entire markets. Under CRA, depository banks are evaluated every three years within assessment areas based on their market footprint. The evaluations look at their retail services (branches, appropriate products), lending to low- and moderate-income (LMI) individuals and businesses, and their community development investments, which include things like equity investments in affordable housing development and support for organizations providing credit, development, and services in LMI communities.
Community groups get to weigh in with each exam about how well banks are serving the particular credit needs of their particular communities, and a poor rating could prevent banks from getting approved for a merger or acquisition or other growth activities that require regulator approval. Ratings are also public, and so there is a PR incentive to have a good one. Although there has been longstanding concern about whether CRA exams are too easy to pass, CRA has nonetheless had a measurable effect on financial institution investment in LMI communities.
Many things that CRA tests for benefit communities directly—more branches, more retail services, more mortgages. But given the long-term effects of redlining and disinvestment in many of these neighborhoods, there’s also a need for infrastructure to translate some of these investments into positive change on the ground. Living Cities, a consortium of community development funders and financial institutions, calls this need “capital absorption capacity,” which it defines as “the ability to make effective use of different forms of capital to provide needed goods and services to underserved communities.” In the case of CRA, there’s a need for organizations that specialize, for example, in developing affordable housing, lending to and supporting small businesses, doing homeownership counseling with first-time homebuyers, and helping households and communities of color overcome the legacy of being offered only second-class, exploitative financial products.
That need is fulfilled by the community development world. Community development corporations, community development financial institutions, and the national intermediaries that work with them provide the infrastructure for CRA-motivated investments to land. They have expertise in doing this kind of development and lending, have the ability to leverage other kinds of funding and subsidies, and have developed trusted relationships with residents who are potential borrowers and beneficiaries.
Given how these functions align, it’s no surprise that CRA-regulated institutions are a major presence within the community development world. All told, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) estimates that just the 25 largest banks alone generate about $35.6 billion per year in community development loans, equity investments, and grants. CRA is a “fundamental pillar of the multi-billion dollar community development sector,” says Noel Poyo, executive director of the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders, in recent testimony to Congress critical of proposed reforms to CRA regulations.
Given the major CRA-related changes that are being proposed by the OCC and FDIC, Shelterforce spoke with a range of community development organizations, from national to local, and big to small, to get a sense of just how much they rely on CRA-motivated investments to do their work. Even from our small survey, some pretty clear trends emerged.
First, the financing of community development projects—whether couple-unit rehabs and playgrounds or massive multifamily affordable housing projects—is extremely reliant on CRA motivations. Nearly every community development project has some participation from at least one CRA-regulated bank, if not more—including equity investments via Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and New Markets Tax Credits, construction loans, gap financing, or special impact investment funds.
Since the market crash of 2008, the vast majority of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits investors have been banks. Priscilla Almodovar, CEO of Enterprise Community Partners and the former head of community development banking for JPMorganChase, notes that this is because CRA assessments have so far included a separate investment test in addition to lending. The investment test required banks to make equity investments. “The most efficient, easiest, [most] impactful ways to meet the investment test are LIHTC [Low-Income Housing Tax Credit] and NMTC [New Markets Tax Credit],” explains Almodovar. The community development intermediaries Enterprise and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) often serve as go-betweens connecting financial institutions looking to fulfill this part of their CRA mandate with community development groups in their assessment areas who have been awarded tax credits and need investors.
But a CRA-motivated investment doesn’t have to involve a major LIHTC project with a national bank to be critical to a community development project. “CRA has been essential to our work for decades now,” says Tom Collishaw, president/CEO of Self-Help Enterprises, which works in eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley of California. “It’s probably the single biggest reason why regional and small banks are interested in working with us. We’ve used them to finance small subdivision developments, small gap financing. Those small gaps they can come in and fill are crucial.”
The Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), an organization that functions similarly to a land trust and has developed large quantities of affordable housing in Denver, Colorado, has an acquisition fund that allows it to move quickly to purchase strategic parcels of land where, for example, a transit stop is planned and prices are likely to rise. This kind of flexibility is something others in the field often dream of, and it was also enabled by CRA. Half of ULC’s fund was seeded by a $25 million local bank investment that was explicitly CRA-motivated. As flexible as the fund is, those dollars can’t be invested in anything that’s not CRA-eligible, says ULC president Aaron Miripol. ULC’s individual projects also involve CRA investment in tax credits.
“CRA funding is often the first-in dollars,” says Marie Morse of HomesteadCS, a housing counseling agency based in Lafayette, Indiana, “meaning it drives rehabilitations, loans, and developments that then spur broader market interest.”
How do the organizations getting this kind of financing know that the banks are being motivated by CRA? Often because the banks say so. The extent of the motivation often becomes clear when a project outside a given bank’s CRA assessment area comes up. “Every bigger bank we meet with, their CRA needs are always part of the discussion,” says Jessica Andors, executive director of Lawrence CommunityWorks Inc. in Lawrence, Massachusetts. “There’s been times we’ve approached one, and they say ‘Sounds like a great project but we don’t have a CRA need in your area right now.’”
“Banks have been the most aggressive equity sources for us in our tax credit process,” agrees Collishaw. “That is entirely driven by their CRA footprints. We’ve had investors who we’ve worked with multiple times, and we’ll send a deal to them, and they’ll say ‘It’s not in our footprint so we’re not interested.’”
LISC, a national intermediary that disburses approximately $1 billion in community development investments each year through national investment funds and 35 regional affiliates, matches bank assessment areas with the footprint of the projects it’s financing, says CEO Maurice Jones. “By far our largest investors in that work are CRA-motivated investors,” he says. “We could not do our work to anything like the extent we are doing now, but for CRA. It is undeniable.”
This doesn’t mean other motivations never enter the picture. Some community development organizations say that especially for smaller community banks, CRA can be a motivation to get them to the table the first time, and then they recognize the deals as good ones. “It is almost always what brings them to the table,” says Morse. “They stay because they learn it is good business.”
“We’ve had some come to us reluctantly and then we do a deal and they go, ‘Wow this is a good deal, bring these all to us,’” says Collishaw. “They end up understanding this is a solid balance sheet.” Of course, he adds there are others that “don’t want to do deals, they just want to send you a check for $500 once a year” to check off a CRA-compliance box.
Nonetheless, nearly every practitioner I spoke with believed that CRA was the primary driving force behind the investments they were getting, and that sense is backed up by broad data. It has long been pointed out, for example, that rural areas, which tend to be short on bank branches and therefore fall outside of financial institutions’ CRA assessment areas, also struggle to get bank investment. This disparity is not a good thing, but it does highlight that CRA is actively affecting banks’ decision-making processes. NCRC has also argued in two studies, published in 2005 and 2009, that large credit unions, which are not covered by CRA, consistently perform worse than banks on a range of fair-lending measures. These reports did not include levels of community development investment, but among the organizations I spoke with, credit unions were far less common investors than banks. Other types of non-bank lenders not covered by CRA were almost entirely absent, aside from Quicken Loans’ direct investments in downtown Detroit, which have been controversial.
Outsourced Community Development Lending
Lending to small businesses and development activity in LMI communities through community development financial institutions (CDFI) is another community development activity that relies heavily on CRA-motivated investments. CDFIs make loans to borrowers, and in locations, that are underserved by bank loans. Investments in CDFIs became CRA-eligible in the mid-1990s with the creation of the CDFI Fund at the U.S. Treasury. CDFI loan funds that are members of the Opportunity Finance Network currently receive about 50 percent of their lending capital from CRA-regulated financial institutions, down from a peak closer to 55 percent a couple of years ago.
Lending capital to CDFIs enables banks to achieve their own CRA-related lending goals—such as reaching small businesses—without having to adjust their own internal underwriting criteria or develop the kind of high-touch infrastructure that CDFIs employ to help their borrowers succeed. “A bank isn’t going to want to make a smaller loan,” explains Jennifer Vasiloff, external affairs officer for the Opportunity Finance Network. “It’s going to cost as much as a larger loan. If they give it to a CDFI, [the CDFI] will work with the smaller borrower or the small housing deal. The CDFI is on mission, the borrower gets the loan, the bank gets a return.”
“I’m an outsourced CRA lender for these banks,” says Jaycee Greene, community development lender for Gateway CDFI in St. Louis, Missouri, whose lending capital comes 100 percent from banks. “These loans wouldn’t be approved if the bank was doing it on their own.”
Operating Support—Small but Important
Banks are a critical player in financing community development deals whether they are large or small. But when it comes to grants, the way the funds are allocated looks different at different geographical scales. Banks do earn CRA credit for grants, according to the NCRC, even when they come through a separate foundation, as long as the activities being funded are CRA-eligible.
For local organizations, bank grants are usually a small portion of their operating funds—5 to 15 percent—and are generally focused on homeownership counseling, financial counseling, or other direct services. But while the amount is small, these grants are still valuable, for three reasons: they often fund things that are hard to fund (i.e. ongoing services rather than something with a ribbon cutting or a pilot of a new approach), they are often fairly flexible funds, and many organizations have found they tend to be more consistent over time.
Bank grants, for example, make up just 8 percent of the annual operating budget of Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW). But, says LCW’s director, Andors, “We rely on those banks to fund our asset-building programs. … They are not the core part of my budget, but they are the most consistent funders.” Andors says relationships with bank funders can easily last 10 to 15 years, whereas “if I can get 6 years out of a foundation I’m ecstatic.”
“It’s tiny but important,” says Collishaw, “especially in some areas where it’s hard to attract funding consistently to do the work—financial education and counseling, resident services, literacy and after-school programs. Foundations want to know how you’re going to sustain the program after you’re done [with their grant].”
For community development organizations with a larger geographical footprint, bank grant relationships vary more. Members of the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations (NACEDA) are regional or state-level associations of local community development groups. When they were surveyed in 2014, the percent of their operating budgets that came from bank grants ranged from 0 to 70 percent, with half at 16 percent or below, and more than one-third over 30 percent. For NACEDA itself approximately two-thirds of its budget comes from bank funding. Most, though not all, agreed that bank funders were unusually consistent compared to other funding sources. (Shelterforce also currently receives approximately 15 percent of its budget from bank grants.)
“The philanthropic sides of the banks have been one of the most important sources of funds for us for operating capital,” says Jones of LISC. “No question in my mind that if we lose that, that our capacity, and the capacity of the field would be irreparably damaged.”
“Banks have historically been our No. 1 philanthropic donors, not just the largest, but the most reliable, the most aligned,” says Enterprise’s Almodovar. “They’ve been with us for 25 to 30 years.”
Additionally, large financial institutions have put together over the years a number of targeted competitive grant programs such as JPMorganChase’s ProNeighborhoods or the recently announced Wells Fargo and Enterprise Community Partners Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge, which deliver shorter-term but larger grants to a few select organizations.
“The CRA activities of banks are so much more than just grants,” says Marietta Rodriguez, president and CEO of NeighborWorks, whose network includes Self-Help Enterprises, Lawrence CommunityWorks, and Nuestra CDC. “CRA is about lending to people, investing in their communities, and providing access to services and products, as well as serving in leadership and partnership roles in and with organizations. Our organizations engage with banks in all of these ways.”
A Relationship in Danger?
While these funding and financing relationships are now longstanding and mature, they still rest on a foundation of CRA regulations whose future is uncertain. The OCC and FDIC (but not the Federal Reserve, which also implements CRA for banks it regulates) are proposing major changes to how banks are assessed on their CRA commitments that have the potential to upend community development infrastructure.
The primary change involves switching to a “one ratio” measure. What is currently a set of context-dependent qualitative and quantitative tests would be reduced to one fraction—total CRA-eligible dollars over total deposits. This ratio would be calculated for a bank’s whole business and for each of its assessment areas—but only 50 percent of assessment areas would have to hit the minimum benchmark for the bank as a whole to pass, a clear invitation to return to redlining. In addition, some investments in infrastructure and sports stadiums in low- and moderate-income communities would now qualify for CRA credit without any requirement that they primarily benefit low- and moderate-income residents. And the role of community voices in the assessment process would be practically gone. (Read more details on what is proposed at Treasure CRA.)
Every community development organization representative I spoke with is concerned that the one-ratio measure would incentivize banks to make fewer, larger CRA-eligible investments. After all, fewer larger investments are simpler. Angie Liou, of Asian Community Development Corporationin Boston, which has relied on banks’ CRA motivation to provide mortgages for an affordable condo project the group developed, is worried. “If the emphasis is tilted toward the [total] amount, that will work against smaller mortgages,” she says. “If you shift the rules, banks are going to look for what is the way that takes the least amount of effort. If they can get there by doing one big loan instead of 50 little ones, why wouldn’t they?”
The size of community development investments has already been going up while the number of them have been going down, according to data from NCRC. From 1996 to 2018, the number of community development loans annually has decreased 18.4 percent, even while the total dollars have increased 480.8 percent. The one-ratio measure would likely accelerate this process substantially. And in combination with infrastructure and stadium projects being newly CRA-eligible, it may not only steer investments to larger organizations, but outside the community development world entirely.
Even CDFI lending, which is in a sense already a larger investment outsourcing the ability to do many little investments, is still usually “for a big bank, a small transaction compared to a large affordable housing deal, or infrastructure,” says Vasiloff of the Opportunity Finance Network. “By changing the whole conversation to a numerical goal that banks have to work toward, you’re very much advantaging larger, easier transactions, and those are not always the ones that are most impactful.”
Removing the requirement that all assessment areas need to pass would also remove the incentive to figure out how to get capital into the places that need it the most. “Because we were forced to do things in assessment areas, I had to do things in smaller areas, places that were hard to find opportunities,” recalls Almodovar of her time at JPMorganChase. Without that motivation, capital may flow only to the easiest-to-invest-in places.
Even now, “when investments are made around the city, we often don’t see them,” says David Price of Nuestra CDC in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. So he expects these changes would only make things more challenging: “I can easily see them having a good number for Boston or Eastern Mass, but not doing anything for us.”
Not Just Money
There’s another potential loss to making CRA assessments a matter of a single, simple number. As of now, large banks have put significant staff resources into CRA compliance, building talented teams who have close relationships with their community development partners and direct access to the C-suite at their institution. Many of those people also volunteer on CDFI lending committees and boards, and teach portions of homebuyer education classes (something that it seems will no longer separately count toward CRA assessments under the new rules). These relationships are two-way streets, with community development bankers also turning to their community development partners for feedback on how best to meet community needs. If CRA compliance loses its qualitative and context-dependent components, will that staffing be lost as well? Many fear that, as Price of Nuestra CDC says, “these big institutions’ commitments to these teams might weaken and they might disappear.”
The CRA qualitative tests “forced banks to think thoughtfully,” says Almodovar. “Because of them, the large banks had community development groups with subject matter experts. It’s what gave us the clout internally to get the banks to lean in to develop certain products, to increase the underwriting box. I think banks do want to do the right thing, but [the one ratio] takes away the incentive for those [community development] groups to have standing internally.”
Losing these teams would be a major setback even if the changes to the regulations were temporary.
Reform Needed—But This Isn’t It
Few people in the community development field think that CRA is perfect as is. It hasn’t shifted to represent online banking customer bases, or new kinds of financial institutions. It leaves out areas that are already suffering from being underbanked. Many advocates consider CRA exam grades inflated, with very few institutions failing despite community concerns about their lending practices and the continued closure of bank branches. Some positive steps to address these problems are even included in the current OCC and FDIC proposal.
Unfortunately, however, those positive changes are overshadowed by the likely negative effects on communities and on the community organizations that help banks’ capital get to them.
[Correction: This story originally stated that HomesteadCS was a NeighborWorks network member. Though its counselors are certified by NeighborWorks, it is not a NeighborWorks organization.]
A note from our Harold Simon, the executive director and publisher of Shelterforce:
Dear friends and colleagues,
I’m writing to let you know that after 26 years, I’ll be stepping down from my role as Shelterforce’s executive director and publisher on May 8. I do this with more than a little sadness, but it is time for me to move on and clear the way for the next generation.
It’s been a great honor working with and for you all. Over the years I have had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with so many of you all over the country. I’ve met community developers and organizers working in urban and rural areas—from small and large organizations—who are building housing, creating jobs, and assuring that equity is the guiding principle for everything we do, from our own work to the public policies that affect our communities. I’ve never ceased to be impressed by your commitment, insight, and compassion. It’s hard to imagine a field with nicer people.
The work of Shelterforce will be essentially unchanged once I leave. In 2010 Miriam Axel-Lute became editor and under her leadership Shelterforce has never been better, both as a useful tool and a really good read. Over the past six years we’ve built a great editorial team that includes Lillian Ortiz, Keli Tianga, and most recently Elizabeth Oguss and Samantha (Sam) Fields. They’re responsible for the hundreds of articles posted each year, our quarterly print magazine, and our weekly e-newsletter, all of which they write and edit with professionalism, energy, and kindness. The accolades you’ve given us over the years belong to Miriam and her crew!
I’m lucky that, in spite of changes in the world around us that run from awesome to terrifying, I’ve been able to come to work with great people who are as compassionate as they are talented. They are the perfect reflection of you, our readers and our friends, who have made our struggles against the challenges we’ve faced worthwhile.
While I am stepping down as executive director, I’m not disappearing. I will continue in a different role still to be decided. Whatever role the future holds for me, I hope I have the opportunity to continue to work with you.
Mass incarceration is a major influence in American society. But like so many other things, its effects are not evenly distributed. Overpolicing and hyper-incarceration are unevenly wielded across demographics, especially racially, and geographically. Chances are high that community developers are working in areas and with populations that are being strongly affected by overpolicing and hyper-incarceration. Mass incarceration destabilizes the population; puts additional stress on households, both financially and otherwise; and reduces communities’ political power by temporarily, or sometimes permanently, disenfranchising the formerly incarcerated. (Pick up the latest issue of Shelterforce for some insight on the voting rights of your constituents with records, and to read about all the other stories mentioned here.) People recently released from incarceration or subject to the restrictions of parole and probation are far more likely to end up homeless, and to face challenges in finding not only housing but also employment.
In the new issue, we also bring you a small sampling of areas where the worlds of criminal justice reform and community development intersect. Reducing recidivism is one of the many beneficial side effects of affordable housing, and the Homecoming program is exploring an unusual way to provide a stable transition for people who have finished their prison sentence, while Chicago tries policy approaches to reduce housing discrimination against those with records. MacArthur Fellow Lisa Daugaard talks about how working with the homeless led her to promote programs to divert people facing poverty- and addiction-related charges out of the traditional justice system. Can the wide-ranging support for this approach translate into increasing funding for supportive housing?
Beyond housing, a couple of community development programs are helping people coming out of prison get into the trades by having them building affordable housing before their sentences are even completed, while some CDFIs are actively lending to people with records so they can start their own businesses.
Criminal justice reform and taking care of people heading home from prison are essential parts of achieving equitable communities. Are you doing work at this intersection?
Read these stories and more in the latest edition of Shelterforce magazine.
The most significant economic challenge most Americans face is staying afloat and building wealth in the regressive economy we have lived in for the last 40 years. But if you are African American, you have the additional challenge of navigating the racial wealth divide.
Our regressive economy, created and upheld by political and corporate policies and practices, is marked by widespread economic instability, a growing racial wealth divide, and economic growth that is limited to those with substantial wealth. During these regressive years, the demand for increased financial education has become louder and louder as income inequality grows.
Most personal financial education is presented as if our economy functions as it did over 50 years ago—for white Americans, and when the U.S. economy was at its height with strong economic mobility and growth that disproportionately went to lower- and middle-income households. And financial education messaging is too often presented as if individual behavior and attitudes are the cause of our growing economic challenges rather than our social, economic, and political systems.
African Americans bear a disproportionate burden of the structural barriers that develop and maintain income disparities and asset poverty. Our regressive economy, the hoarding of resources, and racial segregation in all its forms are fundamental barriers that prevent African Americans, as a population, from building wealth. This reality makes it essential for financial planners, counselors, and educators to actively address structural inequality and the racial wealth divide.
Though racial economic inequality cannot be solved through financial planning alone, it is through personal finance—challenges in finding an affordable apartment to rent, paying for higher education, and even financing a car—that African Americans most directly and personally experience the racial wealth divide. On the community and individual level, it is through personal finance that African Americans will make strides toward developing financial stability, as we continue to fight for the structural changes in the economy that will make the racial wealth divide a thing of the past.
What is Wealth and What Does the “Racial Wealth Divide” Look Like?
The first step in creating a personal finance plan that addresses racial economic inequality and our regressive economy is to understand the financial goal of sustainable wealth.
Wealth is a measure of total assets minus liabilities, or debt, and is critical to economic stability. Wealth is the leading economic indicator that reflects a family’s ability to overcome unexpected financial challenges. It is often the difference between whether a financial setback like a job loss or a medical emergency becomes a temporary economic challenge or leaves a family in financial ruin. Wealth provides the collateral security to attain financial stability, take risks, and acquire additional wealth, as well as the resources to make intergenerational transfers that seed financial stability and mobility for future generations.
The centrality of financial stability to most all social measures and the foundation of wealth to financial stability has helped lead me to the conclusion that the foundation of racial inequality is racial economic inequality, and the foundation of racial economic inequality is the racial wealth divide.
It is in the area of wealth that we most clearly see the sedimentary results of intergenerational inequality. According to the 2019 report, “Ten Solutions to Bridge the Racial Wealth Divide,” which I co-authored, racial wealth inequality increased by more than $40,000 from 1983 to 2016. In 1983, white median wealth was $110,160, while Black wealth was $7,323, and Latino wealth was $4,289. In 2016, white median wealth had increased by $36,000 to $146,984, while Latino median wealth increased by only a couple thousand to $6,591. Black wealth declined by about $4,000, to a mere $3,557.
We see that throughout this 33-year period, African Americans and Latinos never got close to accumulating middle-class level wealth, which represents assets at a level that provides economic security and opportunity. The 2017 report “The Road to Zero Wealth: How the Racial Wealth Divide is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class” estimated middle-class wealth as ranging from $68,000 to $200,000. The report also noted that about 72 percent of Blacks and Latinos had not reached middle-class wealth, while about 60 percent of whites had attained middle-class wealth or higher.
The Role of Public Wealth in Creating Private Wealth
There is a mythology that private wealth is created through private effort instead of collective assets, but this is not true. No one builds wealth alone. Private wealth (savings, homeownership, investment wealth) is derived from a combination of individual activity, public investment, and public wealth. Public wealth encompasses shared resources like nature and societal or community wealth such as libraries, infrastructure, property, and intellectual property. It also consists of cultural or knowledge assets, such as music, indigenous medicine, the internet, and language.
Public wealth is what entrepreneur and writer Peter Barnes refers to as the commons. He describes the commons as the gifts of nature, plus the gifts of society that we share and inherit together, and “that we should pass onto our heirs, undiminished and more or less equally.”
Private wealth development is the practice of leveraging one’s assets, the assets of others, and public assets into greater economic security for oneself. Private entities, like corporations, take public assets and concentrate financial return from public wealth to their largest shareholders, or shift their costs on to the public. Because most forms of public wealth are poorly defined, lack property rights, or are poorly managed, corporations see public assets as mostly free for the taking. For example, most extractive industries such as fishing, oil, coal, mining, and timber take wealth from our shared natural resources while paying little or nothing for them.
Private corporations siphon off the wealth created by public and community investments for private gain. They grow their profits by shifting costs off their balance sheets and onto the public ledger. Examples of this pushing off to the public ledger includes leaving local government to clean up the harm of an industry’s pollution, or a corporation having its employees subsidized by publicly funded health care and in some cases, food aid like SNAP benefits. Ultimately, private wealth is greatly dependent upon the wealth of our public resources. The battle to bridge the racial wealth divide will require using public wealth to advance economic security for low-wealth households.
Personal finance plans are often designed to further the capture of public wealth for the already wealthy, like finding loopholes in the tax code that can only benefit higher-income households. Yet this strategy of capturing public wealth for the individual is too often forgotten when dealing with lower income individuals. It is even more important for those with low wealth to utilize assets that can help stabilize and strengthen one’s economic position. These assets could include things such as free or subsidized daycare, groceries, or transportation; free job or entrepreneurship training, and scholarships. Government, nonprofit and for-profit programs and expenditures all should be considered as opportunities that can be utilized to help achieve financial stability and wealth development.
Throughout our nation’s history, white Americans have had privileged access to different forms of public wealth, which has been leveraged to create a wealthy broadly white American middle class. Our nation needs to make a dramatic reinvestment in broadening wealth and opportunity to all its citizens.
In the past, massive government investment in wealth building, such as the Homestead Act and post-World War II housing boom, were effectively “whites-only” programs that created the much-celebrated American Middle Class. Since the end of legal segregation and discrimination, there has not been a similar mass investment for Black people and other people of color, which would have a tremendous impact on shrinking the wealth divide. As the political will is developed to take much-needed action, it is the responsibility of those in personal finance to serve asset-poor clients in helping them piece together and leverage public and private assets that can economically advance their households.
Personal Finance for African Americans Enduring the Racial Wealth Divide
As stated in “Why Financial Education Should Get Political,” personal finance cannot be separated from political or macroeconomic policy. In fact, personal finance has always been political. For the last 40 years, it has reflected the conservative politics of our regressive economy, holding the poor accountable for their financial situation while counseling the wealthy to take advantage of public assets and subsidies.
In my over 15 years of research, education, and advocacy on the racial wealth divide, I have yet to find a personal finance curriculum that has at its center the reality of racial economic inequality, our regressive economy, and the need to equitably redistribute public wealth. I am hearing positive reports about the work of Blackfem.org and think there are some promising practices in the Savvy Consumer Toolkit of Alameda County Community Asset Network. The Association of Financial Counselors Planners and Educators has also been engaging the issue of racial wealth inequality over the last few years. Members like Saundra Davis of Sage Financial Solutions and Pamela Capalad of Brunch and Budget have been incorporating these issues into their financial presentations.
Personal finance should of course be focused on how an individual or household addresses their individual economic challenges, but it certainly does not need to perpetuate the falsehood that an individual or household’s finances solely or even primarily derive from the action of the individual or household. A personal finance plan for African Americans in the context of our regressive economy and growing racial wealth divide has to be designed to deal with the asset poverty of family, friends, and community that is so common in our communities. Such a personal finance plan will:
recognize that personal finance is impacted mainly by forces beyond the control of a household,
recognize our regressive economy and the deep racial stratifications in the economy,
take into account community asset poverty as a personal finance challenge,
identify outside assets (public and private) that can assist a household’s economic development,
and create best practices factoring each of these points in.
I look forward to working with many others to develop such progressive financial planning framework that is more and more needed by a growing number of Americans.
As rents have been rising, organizing for rent regulations have gained steam. However, the terms used to describe rent regulations can be unclear and are used in many different ways. We did our best to tease out some distinctions.
Rent control is a loosely used term, which is why many people are often confused about it what it means. Generally it is being used in one of three ways:
Most of the time when people use it, they mean the whole universe of rent regulations—any law that regulates the charging of rent.
Sometimes it is used in a historical sense of setting an actual price ceiling to rents (as opposed to regulating the amount they can increase annually). No existing or proposed rent regulation operates this way. Rent stabilization is a better descriptor of existing ordinances.
In New York City there are two programs, one called rent control (which covers only tenancies in place since 1971 and restricts rents strongly) and one called rent stabilization (which covers more units and continues to apply to units across tenancies). Sometimes the distinctions between the two programs are put forward as global definitions of the terms, but they are specific to New York City.
Rent stabilization restricts how much landlords are allowed to increase rent annually. How that increase is set, which units are covered, and what happens at tenant turnover (e.g. increase limit stays put, a larger increase is allowed, or the unit may exit the system) varies by ordinance. Other tenant protections, such as just-cause eviction, are often added to these ordinances to limit abuse of the system.