Democracy and the Challenge of Affordability: Organizing Citizen Demand for Affordable Housing

This post is the sixth in a month-long series of blog postings on affordable housing as a challenge to the health of American democracy, and in particular local democracy in the United States. The series, edited by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Quinton Mayne, is part of the Ash Center’s Challenges to Democracy series, a two-year public dialogue inviting leaders in thought and practice to name our greatest challenges and explore promising solutions.

adam headshotThe lack of affordable housing in urban and suburban America suggests a failure on the part of elected officials to respond to citizen need. One way to make politicians more responsive is for citizens to become more demanding. To make their demands known, however, citizens need to organize and mobilize. In cities across the nation, intermediary organizations like community development corporations (CDCs) and neighborhood or community-based organizations (CBOs) are providing the infrastructure of support necessary for citizens to come together to make their voices heard and address the issue of affordable housing.  In addition, CDCs and CBOs have long played a crucial role in everyday democratic life through a “self help” approach that enables citizens to work collectively to meet the challenge of affordable housing  in partnership with the public sector.

To get a better sense of how CDCs and CBOs are tackling the issue of affordable housing in Boston and beyond, for this post we invited Harvard Graduate School of Design doctoral candidate Adam Tanaka to speak with Katie Provencher of Urban Edge. His interview reveals that Urban Edge, like many CDCs across the country, plays a crucial political and policy role. We also learn that The Great Recession—in addition to drawing public attention to affordability issues—encouraged more collaborative and creative thinking on the part of CDCs and CBOs like Urban Edge.

 

By Adam Tanaka

Urban Edge is a Community Development Corporation operating in the Jamaica Plain and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston since 1974. In addition to community organizing, homeowner services, and financial education, Urban Edge specializes in developing and managing affordable housing. It currently operates eighteen properties, ranging from the 202-unit Academy Homes in Jackson Square to the 29-unit Wilshire Apartments in Dorchester. Below is my recent interview, edited for length and clarity, with Director of Community Engagement Katie Provencher on the role of organizing and other political dimensions of affordable housing production in Boston today.

 

Adam Tanaka: How different was Boston as a city when Urban Edge was created in 1974? What neighborhood challenges prompted the formation of the CDC?

Katie Provencher: Urban Edge is over forty years old, which is generally older in terms of community development corporations in Boston. Urban Edge started as a group of people fighting against redlining and discrimination in mortgage lending. We started as a realtor up on Center Street, just around the corner. You will still meet folks in the neighborhood who say, “Urban Edge helped me buy my first home in Egleston Square!” We were offering loans the FHA wouldn’t insure, organizing and protesting against banks. A lot of people think we got started to demonstrate against the I-95 expressway that was meant to come straight through our neighborhood. But that wasn’t true. A group of activists in both Roxbury and Jamaica Plain had already gotten together to organize politically for neighborhood housing. Then as things started to change, we moved from that initial niche as a broker into real estate development. There was a boarded-up multifamily on Columbus Avenue that became available and that was our first housing development: Dimock-Bragdon. Then we started looking up and down the neighborhood, from Egleston Square to Jackson Square, and there was just one building after another to rehabilitate and redevelop.

 

What is Urban Edge’s role in community organizing in JP and Roxbury? Are you involved in any political activities at the municipal or regional scales?

We always want to be relevant to the neighborhood. Whether it’s organizing around an issue, creating a new program or developing our next steps, we want to make sure that it’s what the neighborhood wants. We don’t plan any big organizing campaigns and then get people to join once it’s already underway. It’s more about understanding what the issues already are. Right now for example there’s a lot of organizing around the underperformance of schools in the neighborhood. Families are getting engaged in pushing the Boston Public Schools administration. We are part of that. There’s also a movement to continue engaging resident leaders, and we are working on building that capacity.

In terms of political involvement, if there’s a city council race and resident leaders want to host someone, we’ll facilitate that. We’re also definitely involved in advocating for funding streams for real estate. If the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) is being put on the docket then we’ll definitely move to promote that reinstatement. I also sit on the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC) board of directors. They have a lobbying arm, making sure we stay engaged in that realm and notifying us if any affordable housing programs are up for renewal.

Photo Courtesy of Urban Edge

Photo Courtesy of Urban Edge

 

The notion of “networked localism” has been gaining traction in policy circles recently. How is Urban Edge connected to and resource sharing with other affordable housing non-profits in the region and across the nation?

In addition to MACDC, Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) is huge as well. There are also a number of foreclosure-prevention programs that cut across the state. A few years ago there was a huge scare when the market tanked. People were worried that CDCs were going to go out of business, that all the CDCs were going to merge into one massive Boston CDC. Everyone was completely petrified. But something positive came out of that in terms of greater collaboration. CDCs tend to be very geographically limited and even parochial. They rarely worked together. What came out of this episode during the recession was more sharing and collaboration across CDCs. To give you an example, Urban Edge takes great pride in having a real estate team that’s really high functioning. A lot of CDCs rely more on real estate consultants, so that as their deals ebb and wane they’re not having to let staff go. So when we have a lull in our business we have started providing technical assistance to other CDCs. We did a project with Allston Brighton CDC in which our real estate team was their real estate team. That’s an organization that doesn’t have a fully developed real estate team and tends to rely on consultants. We came in that instance and helped with a project. We did the same thing with Lena Park CDC. We’re looking to do more of that kind of thing.

In terms of community engagement, we do benefit screening and enrollment: means-testing to enroll families in government benefits that they qualify for but they don’t receive. Families on average leave about $2000 on the table. We’re doing a fee for service for Whittier Street Health Center and for Preservation of Affordable Housiing (POAH) as well. So a lot of that collaboration and resource sharing came out of the market scare. Many CDCs are finding new projects now. I would say the new talk of the town is about moving outside of the city of Boston. There’s only so much land and only so many projects you can put in the queue for city and state funding. Now we’re looking to take our expertise to different neighborhoods and even different jurisdictions.

 

How does one “politically organize” for affordable housing? Who are your constituents? How do you ensure you are representing them most effectively? Are the targets of political activity and reform private landlords and landowners, city councilors, municipal officials, state agencies or any and all of the above?

The development of Jackson Commons is a great case study to think about these dynamics. Jackson Commons is 37 units of affordable housing with 8 set-asides for formerly homeless families. In order to get that done, we worked with our current base of residents, neighborhood partners, and affordable housing advocates. There’s a community room in Jackson Commons because residents recommended that. There’s a Resident Resource Coordination Office in the building because residents advised us to do that. Having this really strong support in the development process is essential. And then you have to go out and get all the other segments of the community involved, including those who might not want more affordable housing. You have to go through city elected officials and state elected officials. You have to go through the design review process with the city and vet all the different pieces. But at the end of the day the neighborhood support is most critical – those 100 people who have been with us every step of the way and are constantly pushing for more affordable housing development. 2,000 people just applied for those 37 units. That’s a pretty good indicator of need.

Photo courtesy of Urban Edge

Photo courtesy of Urban Edge

 

Do you think the substantial economic growth in Boston over the past twenty years has made problems in poor neighborhoods like Roxbury more or less visible? Have policies like linkage, which tie affordable housing to downtown commercial growth, been effective?

Urban Edge has done a good job of preserving affordable housing along this specific corridor. If anything, in a few years, it’s going to really benefit us. As we continue to redevelop Jackson Square there will be all sorts of new resources and investment coming this way from downtown. This will get more people engaged in fixing the schools, but we aren’t losing any of our affordable rental units in the area. We’ll stay our ground. But it’s way more difficult to buy homes or acquire land for new development at a reasonable cost. That opportunity has come and gone. People are really starting to think about getting more benefits from development. There’s a big development happening at 3200 Washington Street, the Economy Plumbing Building. A private developer is looking to do a pretty big development, and the neighborhood is looking for benefits. This is the first time I’ve really seen that happen. We have to make sure we get ahead of it, because there’s so much development happening overnight in these areas. If people want to do any comprehensive planning we need to move on that quickly.

 

Does the highly technical nature of providing affordable housing ever get in the way advocating for it politically?

I don’t find there to be a tension. I think we’ve done a good job of translating. People live it, so they understand a lot of what goes on: the inspections, the affordability requirements, the different programs. Sometimes the most important service we can provide is pulling apart the issues and making them comprehensible. So there’s the jobs piece, for instance, like whether we should be hiring women and minority-owned enterprises. Sometimes you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place with union and non-union, trying to achieve particular budget targets. But if you unpack the issues for folks, they learn a lot and then they can truly support you in your decision.

 

What do you see as some of the most promising new developments in the affordable housing sector in recent years – in terms of either design, construction, finance, policy or service provision? What political factors made these innovations possible?

The formerly homeless set-asides, with the support of the City of Boston, have been great. The green elements have gone from a novel idea to being a given, with all kinds of subsidies and incentives for sustainability. Nine years ago, putting a solar panel on a building was a big deal. Now it’s way more commonplace. We’re growing increasingly comfortable with New Markets Tax Credits, and are looking to use those for an athletic facility in the neighborhood. On the negative side, funding for homeownership has been dwindling. We need to figure out how to get that back on track.

 

Adam Tanaka is a Ph.D. student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a Meyer Fellow at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. His research focuses on housing policy and development in the contemporary United States, drawing from the fields of political science, law, urban planning and real estate to develop methods for understanding and improving upon urban housing provision.

 

 

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