Housing first
September 25, 2015 8:14 AM   Subscribe

I care about affordable housing, eliminating homelessness, raising the standard living for poor people, and maintaining available housing stock for working and middle class people of all ethnic backgrounds. What specific policies should I support?

Housing issues are central to my work and I am interested in getting more involved in advocacy and activism around sustainable, affordable housing. But I don't even have a clear sense of what would be the right types of policies to support my values here.

Vague ideas like rent control, dedicated low-income housing units in new developments, and homebuyer assistance programs seem like good things, and I know the problems that gentrification causes, but I don't understand any of this very deeply.

Are there cities that are effectively fighting displacement? How? Are there specific policies that are effective at keeping people housed and maintaining economic and ethnic diversity in certain regions? What are they? How have activists successfully campaigned to enact these policies? (I know about "housing first" campaigns, but more info always welcome.)

I keep thinking how on a parallel issue: safer, more liveable streets, I have learned a lot from places like Streetsblog where I read about international standards for bike and ped safety, meet the people advocating for progress in this area, and learn about existing campaigns to improve street safety and livability.

Is there some similar source to learn from progressive/left housing advocates and gentrification fighters? Books are OK too, but I like the idea of resources that are updated on an ongoing basis.

Also welcome: Specific advocacy orgs (TransForm comes to mind), specific urban planner type thinkers to follow, or even your specific knowledge about what works in this domain.

posted by latkes to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I believe Santa Monica is a town that gets used a lot as an example in these discussions, and has been discussed previously on Mefi (for example). There are a number of other Mefi posts that discuss these various issues in more detail.

On the "specific action" front, your area may have a program where you can volunteer to be a housing discrimination tester. You can be any age, race, etc. as most programs use paired testers (e.g. sending out two testers, one white and one black, who are matched in other ways, to evaluate the differences in how renting agents, realtors, and mortgage brokers treat them). Google "housing tester !yourarea" to see if there's one near you.
posted by pie ninja at 8:35 AM on September 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Look into Canada's MINCOME experiment and the idea of a guaranteed/basic income. (Here, this means voting for the Green Party.)

Be particularly wary of poverty bandage ideas that are largely make-work projects for the people running them -- if it costs a lot to run and takes a lot of work to sustain, it's probably not a very good solution to the problem of some people having a low income. If you want equality, you should want everybody to have the autonomy that a respectable income provides -- low-income housing units are nice, but wouldn't it be better if people could just live where they liked instead of having to go through a lot of hoops that non-poor people don't?

Housing First is another thing to look at.
posted by kmennie at 8:38 AM on September 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here's a newsletter you might find interesting. The focus is Canadian, but there is obviously much crossover.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:56 AM on September 25, 2015

Why do housing prices keep going up? Here are some thoughts:

1) Real estate as investment - I think beleive that a large root of this phenomenon is that those who own houses and land currently think of them as investments. Their investments must, they believe,*gain* value, largely because the owners foresee needing a lot of money for retirement. This may seem facile or minor, but think about it: don't most individual homeowners who don't have millions saved expect to sell their homes to be able to afford a retirement home and health care?

2) Cost of being old - The insecurity of old age is part of this. People are desperate to avoid the kind of nightmare we envision when we think of inexpensive retirement homes and nursing facilities.

3) Landlord relations - Developers of multi-family units are of course part of the problem (while they would say they are just responding to costs and "the market"). Some may start out with really great intentions, but the relationships between landlords and tenants are usually fraught and difficult. See hundreds of AskMe questions about landlords or neighboring apartments for details. These kinds of relationships are intrinsically complex, and nobody's addressed them.

4) Civic factors and public education - The extreme differences in valuation of some locations over others also stems from civic differences in schools, cleanliness, safety, and other factors. If schools, medical, parks, etc. were good enough in all locations, then real estate wouldn't be quite as much of a competitive problem. In addition, even kids living in "poor" neighborhoods deserve a first-class education.
posted by amtho at 9:04 AM on September 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

It seems incredibly boring and may feel hopelessly micro at times, but you really should engage with your own local government systems and organizations on zoning matters.
If you have neighborhood councils, volunteer for the zoning committee. Very few people are interested in this kind of work, but this is the beginning of where cities decide how land is used and what kinds of development is encouraged or protected.
Once you have put in your time and learned the ropes at the low levels, you will find yourself with a good amount of knowledge, power and connections.
It is sometimes difficult to understand, but support for or against a city's entire development plans often starts with one smart, well-placed zoning expert that has the ears of many powerful people.
If you have an appetite for volunteer work and political situations, you could quietly become a well-respected expert for your city.
posted by littlewater at 9:08 AM on September 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

There are many levels at which to attack this problem. Some of them will be general, some will be location-specific.

In Massachusetts, one of the biggest issues is affordable housing. There just is not enough of it, so building more is very high priority.

Homeless tend to be poor, often with mental health and/or substance abuse issues. Young single mothers are also highly represented. Addressing those issues can help more people avoid homelessness. Sometimes this happens in unexpected ways, as when Colorado offered free long-term birth control to young women. The teen pregnancy rate plummeted, and more women were able to finish school and live planned lives.

I don't have time to dig up links, but there has been interesting research on the effects that long-distance commutes have on poverty, along with access to public transportation. Poorer people tend to have longer commutes, and time spent commuting to low-pay jobs keeps people from having time to improve their lives.

Those are just a few thoughts. Good for you for thinking about these issues.
posted by alms at 9:18 AM on September 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's great that you're asking this question!

Land use regulations are really, really important to understand. They might seem boring but they control the location, amount, and type of housing in a city - it's hard to get more important than that! They generally only affect new housing, but housing doesn't stay new forever; today's zoning laws shape tomorrow's stock of older, more affordable housing.

Sonia Hirt's Zoned in the USA is a fantastic overview of land use regulation in the USA. It covers the origins of modern American land use policy and compares it to policies in many other developed countries. This is a good summary of the book.

I'd also strongly recommend The Homeowner Revolution: Democracy, Land Use and the Los Angeles Slow-Growth Movement, 1965-1992. It's a deep dive into recent land use policy in LA, including the political context and the devastating consequences for low-income families. Even if you're not interested in Los Angeles, many of the trends identified have parallels elsewhere in North America.

These are some of my favourites for well-researched, thoughtful, frequently-updated content on housing:

City Observatory
Sightline Institute (Pacific Northwest-specific)
Erica C Barnett (Seattle-specific)
Daniel Kay Hertz
posted by ripley_ at 9:24 AM on September 25, 2015 [9 favorites]

I believe that a higher minimum wage helps people out of poverty, which means they can afford housing, etc. I would also say that I totally get your approach of supporting policy, and that matters a great deal. However, anything you do to help a person who is homeless or needy helps that person and that's a measurable gain. Support your local food pantry, homeless shelter, women's shelter, etc. You can always call such organizations and ask what they need, in addition to cash - blankets, toiletries, diapers, whatever - and you can raise funds, donations and awareness by doing a drive at work, church, or in a local group.
posted by theora55 at 9:39 AM on September 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm a planner with a focus on affordable housing in the Portland Metro area. Housing policy is, in my opinion, a very (very) complex issue that looks deceptively simple from the outside, and a lot of people think they know how to fix it. As an example, gentrification-- which is often pointed to as a Very Bad Thing by people who know a little bit about housing. Gentrification involves higher-income (usually white) households moving into a community that has relatively low-cost housing, usually because it was suffering from some level of disinvestment and/or blight.

Higher-income households moving into a community, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing-- especially if those households repair and improve some of the housing stock. Housing stock improves, property values increase and local governments have more property tax revenue to do things like increase public safety, improve sidewalks, fix streetlights, open libraries, all that good stuff-- probably all stuff that the folks who have been living there want and need. Higher-income households also spend money at existing local businesses and attract new businesses to the community-- more grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops, dry cleaners, etc-- again, probably things that all the folks who have been living there want and need.

It becomes a problem when the lower-income original residents get priced out-- either because their rents increase (because the community has become more attractive and their landlord realizes they can get more money for the unit) or their property taxes increase to the point that they can't afford their mortgage. If people are forced to leave an improving community when they don't want to, this is known as involuntary displacement. Involuntary displacement is definitely bad-- it's economically and psychologically bad for the displaced household, it destabilizes historic communities, and it's usually people of color who are forced out. What’s the fix for this? Rent control? Capping property tax increases? Okay… but what if rent control means that landlords are less motivated to maintain rental properties? If we cap property taxes, how does the local government continue to pay for streetlights and fixing potholes and keeping the library open? It’s possible to mitigate some of that stuff, but it requires a lot of proactive policy work and balancing that’s not only going to be super-individual for every community, but is never going to be exactly the right mix to make everyone happy.

There are also people who choose to leave, but it's much harder to say definitively if this is a good thing or a bad thing in every case. If, for example, a black homeowner in NE Portland decides to sell the house they bought in 1975 right now, that person is going to walk away with several hundred thousand dollars in cash. Will the new purchaser be a black household? Almost certainly not, because black households can't afford to buy homes in NE Portland now. So this sale will contribute to gentrification... but it also provides a tangible financial benefit to that historic resident. And would it be ethical or okay for a government to say "you have to sell your house at a below-market rate to a black family to preserve this community", even if that was legal (which it's not)? So... what's the fix for that kind of thing?

And this is, seriously, just the tip of the iceburg. Housing policy is COMPLEX, and it’s also highly regulated at local, county, state, and Federal levels, AND all of the funding sources available are insufficient and super restricted. There are a lot of advocacy organizations and research organizations that do good work on this, but you’re also going to need to find out more about how this stuff works locally, because broad recommendations have to work within the context of local rules/regulations/laws/political and financial reality.

I could talk about the complexities of housing policy and issues for hours, so instead of doing that I’m going to dump a bunch of links to resources that I use, and recommend that you look at these and then find out if there are any local advocacy organizations in your community. They’re going to have a better sense of what’s going on in your community, what’s feasible, and what kinds of things are local priorities.
Only 2 Ways to Fight Gentrification
20 Ways Not to Be a Gentrifier
There’s Basically No Way Not to be a Gentrifier
HUD User
Policy Link
National Low Income Housing Coalition (especially Out Of Reach annual reports)
Urban Institute
Center for Neighborhood Technologies (CNT’s Location Efficiency tools and research talks about housing and transportation costs, and Losing Ground specifically talks about low-income households and transportation costs)
posted by Kpele at 9:47 AM on September 25, 2015 [18 favorites]

Oh man, I forgot the Lincoln Institute on Land Policy, who just released a report about inclusionary zoning.
posted by Kpele at 10:24 AM on September 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Consider taking URBS/HED 582: Homelessness and Public Policy from SFSU.

When I took it, it was an online class, so I only had to physically go into San Francisco a few times. I have no idea if this is still true. The course work used to be posted publicly online, but I have been unable to find it in recent years.
posted by Michele in California at 11:59 AM on September 25, 2015

A nod to previously mentioned Basic Income policies.

Additionally, I like and listen to groups that actively fight homelessness by giving people homes. Local to me DESC is a group doing exactly that.
posted by concavity at 12:47 PM on September 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Institute for Housing Studies is one of my go-to resources on housing policy. Also +1-ing City Observatory, my housing policy brain-crush Daniel Kay Hertz, and the Out of Reach reports.

It's Chicago-centric, but I found all the research included as an appendix to High Rise Stories to be really accessible and helpful for understanding the impact of changing HUD policies on public housing in the past ~40 years.

I work at a nonprofit that does supportive housing for women who have experienced homelessness, so I'm really excited about all the great resources you're getting in response to this question.

Also, just to add another layer of complexity to the comment you got from alms above - yes, many chronically homeless people have addictions and/or physical and mental illness that make it hard for them to maintain housing. However, most homelessness is episodic: think people living doubled up with relatives because they lost their income and couldn't pay rent, rather than the stereotype of homeless people on the street. Here are some good resources about different causes of homelessness and the approaches that have been proven effective for them.
posted by torridly at 12:57 PM on September 25, 2015

One specific issue within housing and renter's rights is making sure that "nuisance tenant" laws *exclude* victim/survivors of intimate partner violence, protecting vulnerable people who need to use police protection for their safety. An introduction from California's renters' rights organization is here: http://www.tenantstogether.org/article.php?id=3882

For women in particular (but not exclusively), intimate partner violence can be a huge barrier to safe, affordable housing. Keeping this vulnerable population in mind when writing policy is key to addressing the "why" of homelessness for many women and families.
posted by epj at 2:15 PM on September 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't really have an exact answer but I just want to say I think your attempt to dig into the actual substance, and be discerning in seeking specificity, is a good path to continue down. As someone who works on these issues, it feels like the fact that "urbanism" is having a cultural moment means there is a whole cottage industry of web journalism out there that has a veneer of discretion but is little different than any other niche of clickbait, churning up whatever hype, press release, or buzzword has the potential to go viral. Anyone offering up One Weird Trick To Fix Cities is bullshitting (or writing to a deadline); these problems are truly wicked ones.
posted by threeants at 7:27 PM on September 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

To speak much more specifically to one of your questions-- Housing First is relatively radical, in a sense, but not at all fringe. The US federal government has gone all-in on Housing First over the past few years by heavily prioritizing funding for programs that have or adopt that orientation. If anything, pushback is on the local level: in the community I work in, front-line providers are highly skeptical of HUD's reorientation towards Housing First while it's been at the same steadily withdrawing funding for the supportive services that many feel are necessary to make HF work.

(I guess this is a perfect example where I find the journalistic hype to be incredibly off-base. I've seen like a thousand breathless articles that were all "City XYZ pioneers crazy, plucky new experiment called Housing First!!" It's like, uh, no, it's a federal mandate and considered best practice by most mainstream orgs working on homeless policy.)
posted by threeants at 7:40 PM on September 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

More generally again: in terms of tactics, which I believe you're also asking about, I think a lot of valuable advocacy energy towards solving problems gets wasted by improper understanding of specifically where the bottleneck is in terms of positive change.

Obviously these issues are ones that are massive and structural, but the more specific you get in what you want changed, the more likely it is that you can figure out who/what, specifically, needs to be targeted (whether cooperatively or oppositionally) to get that change made. Maybe the bottleneck is in the overly restrictive requirements of a certain funding stream. Maybe it's in City Council's inability to act. Maybe it's a specific developer. Whatever or whoever that is, identifying that and focusing resources on it will save so much energy that could be going into other, parallel work.
posted by threeants at 7:59 PM on September 25, 2015

I don't know if this has been mentioned, but access to public transportation is critical for lower class (not the right term but I'm in that group myself) urban areas.
posted by atinna at 7:58 PM on September 26, 2015

Check out Salt Lake City for a place that has significantly reduced chronic homelessness.
Nation article
posted by fieldtrip at 7:00 PM on September 27, 2015

Here are more Bay Area organizations interpreting, confronting, and otherwise organizing around the affordable-housing-first issues you care about:

Causa Justa: They're "building community leadership to achieve justice for low-income San Francisco and Oakland residents." Housing is a big part of that, and they completed an impressive study of gentrification a year ago that is partly available on their website.

The Unity Council: Longtime affordable housing advocates and community organizers headquartered in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood.

The Ella Baker Center: A civil rights organization that considers affordable housing a civil right -- they're terrific advocates for poor Oaklanders being pushed out of gentrifying neighborhoods.

Allen Temple Baptist Church: An activist church with ferocious affordable housing advocates in Deep East Oakland (click on the "non-profits" link).

SPUR: a nonprofit, progressive urban planning organization based in San Francisco, focused on the Bay Area, and respected nationally and internationally for their efforts to understand these issues generally and in the particular context of the Bay Area.

There are also organizations like EBALDC and the Northern California Community Loan Fund that are mighty heroes on the financing and implementation sides of affordable housing development, even if they have to sleep with banks and rich investors and don't get any social justice credit.

Also, here is the housing page at the Bay Area Progressive Directory (bapd.org), an amazing resource for other issues you probably care about, too.

You care about a huge and complex set of problems, and there is a huge and complex set of solutions struggling with it -- with plenty of room for you!
posted by mississippi at 7:11 PM on September 28, 2015

Thanks so much everyone. These are such thoughtful replies which give me a lot to explore. I really appreciate having access to such a knowledgeable community I'll be digging into these links and recommendations.
posted by latkes at 6:21 AM on September 30, 2015

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