Housing and the Heart of Our Communities: Part I

paul-casey-regis-today-article-2016-02-02-croppedPaul Casey, Lead Community Organizer
Institute for the Common Good
SEED Fellow
Regis University

During the mid-1990’s Coloradans witnessed the impacts of a sudden escalation in housing prices on our sense of community, quality of life and the choices we had in searching for a home.

Without going into detail on the causes of this heated market (an influx of people moving into Colorado with better financial means, a statewide economy that was rebounding from the energy bust of the mid-eighties, etc.) suffice it to say that local communities began to see changes striking close to home. In fact, this was a cycle that had already occurred in the 1970s and has been well underway during the past several years. In my work as a community organizer I encounter situations where family structures begin to come apart as children coming of age have to travel greater distances from the cities and towns where they grew up  to find homes they could afford.  In previous periods I witnessed my own social network diminish greatly as friends and acquaintances left in response to this dynamic. By the latter part of the 1990s we realized as a family that we could no longer afford to stay in the town where we had built a wonderful web of relationships. We packed up and left after finding our new place in the wider ‘ring of affordability’. Today this same painful cycle is taking a similar toll on individuals, families, local neighborhoods, and broad sections of the City of Denver. The current usage in describing this process is gentrification.

Once unleashed, gentrification’s gradually accelerating feedback loop of increasing housing prices creates individual and family displacement, concomitant tearing of the social fabric,  disruption of local culture, and homelessness.

One response often heard is “what can we do about it?” It is as though we should set aside any thought of alternatives in accepting the implacable forces set loose by the ‘invisible hand of the market’. In fact, that hand and its effects are becoming more painfully apparent.

Within a context of increasingly neoliberalist policies, regulation of aggregate demand diminishes and economic volatility increases. It is the moderating hand of government that gradually disappears.

In community organization when we identify issues that are causing pain and suffering the question that is posed is not the passive resignation of ‘what can we do about it?’, but more determined call to act in “what are we going to do about it”. In fact, at the local level there are a number of options that are available to mitigate the negative impacts of gentrification through the development of affordable housing. Here are a few examples:

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(stock image Pixabay.com)

In response to an earlier challenge to affordability beginning in 1999 our community organizing efforts in Denver pushed for local adoption of a simple strategy for ensuring the addition of affordable units through implementation of inclusionary zoning. This is a mechanism that requires that a defined percentage of homes or units in any development of a certain size (in this case 10 units) be affordable for incomes at a specified percent of AMI (HUD sets the Area Media Income for each metro area). After a protracted and very contentious effort to win approval by City Council for this approach, they settled on a figure of 10% of new homes to be affordable at 60% of AMI. Although this formulation was never strong enough to fend off the current crisis levels in lack of affordability, it was at least a systematic means of addressing a problem. This form of zoning is not merely about affordable housing but including a place for those of more modest means to be integrated directly into the life of the community. 

During this same period another Colorado city was less willing to be responsive to the local leaders of a community organizing effort as they pushed for the need to address the local absence of affordable housing. A solution emerged to encourage developers to include affordable housing in their planned developments: the city agreed to a fast tracking system for approving these plans.  

There are various other means for addressing this issue including several related to taxation. Tax credits have been effective in encouraging the development of affordable housing. However, their value as an incentive may be greatly diminished incentive within federal tax code changes that we are likely to see under the new administration. In Colorado another tax mechanism, the Gallagher Amendment, passed in 1982. It allows seniors to claim a tax break on the first $200,000 in their home value thus alleviating the tax burden and preserving a home’s affordability in a discreet way. Bond issues can provide a tax based funding source for affordable housing. Denver recently passed a ten year $150 million bond to create or preserve 6,000 affordable homes for low to moderate incomes.

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(stock image Pixabay)

Other means of creating and planning for affordable housing include density bonuses for developers (not always the favorite of nearby homeowners), zoning to allow accessory units if coupled with an affordability clause (favored by existing homeowners who can increase their equity and income streams), establishing land trusts and land banking.

A song by the Staples Singers states “It takes more than a hammer and nails to make a house a home”.

It will take more than affordable housing to recreate communities with heart and soul, especially in areas where there has been significant displacement and rupturing of well-established social networks.

It may be difficult to imagine a development strategy that offers the possibility of blended socioeconomics as a fact on the ground where individuals and families at various levels of income could come into closer connection with those whose economic means offer opportunities to learn, to share, to serve each other. For regenerative development to build a healthy social ecology would not only require but encourage and support full participation by community members from all walks of life, from each socioeconomic level.

This is the first of a two part series. The next piece will focus on an innovative policy that provides a basis for regenerative development and in its implementation takes the scenario described above beyond the level of an imaginative exercise.


About Paul Casey

Paul  serves as Lead Community Liaison in the Office of the President for Regis University’s Anchor Institution Initiative. In this role he focuses on ways the University can further develop positive working relationships based upon shared interests with individuals, nonprofit organizations, public sector entities and businesses. Paul has worked on an array of issues applying an effective model of community organization with immigrant groups, people with disabilities, migrant farm laborers churches, schools and neighborhood organizations. This entails a range of results from concrete local issues to major structural & policy changes. He has served as executive director and consultant for nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations in the U.S., Haiti and Guatemala, and is principal/founder of Praksys Consulting. He completed his graduate degree in nonprofit management at Regis as a Colorado Trust Fellow and is an Inaugural Fellow at the SEED Institute.

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