​​Shelterforce Provides a Speaking Platform for Community Development Leaders

​Shelterforce Provides a Speaking Platform for Community Development Leaders 

September 1, 2011

All nonprofits concerned about housing and community development should be aware of Shelterforce. It basically functions as the journal of record for the nonprofit CDC sector. [Full disclosure: I've written for Shelterforce off and on over the years, and several thousand years ago, served briefly on its editorial committee]. The latest issue of Shelterforce (Summer 2011) offers six "radical" ideas for shaping housing policy, some of which ought to spur debate, not just on their own merits, but for what nonprofits could and should be able to do within these recommendations.

One of the really talented young(ish) community development leaders emerging in Newark, New Jersey, Baye Adolfo-Wilson, who runs the Lincoln Park Cultural District, argues for a muscular new approach to reusing vacant properties: "Even with current population growth, we have enough structures to house our populations for the next 50 years. With all of these vacant commercial buildings popping up around the country, we should start with the existing infrastructure in rebuilding an affordable housing movement. There should be a moratorium on all new residential housing construction in this country. All of these empty residential and commercial buildings should be converted into housing."

To Wilson, these units "should not be income-restricted, low-income housing ...[but] open to people from all income brackets for inclusion and diversity purposes."

Anita Sinha of the Advancement Project and Rachel LaForest of Right to the City offer a challenge to "neoliberal" housing approaches that "commodify" housing. They would "evict" profit from the affordable housing production process and call for policies that will spur non-bureaucratic housing and, in public and nonprofit housing, "democratically run" housing.

Perhaps the most important of the six "radical" proposals is Alan Mallach's. His article takes on American housing policies that "have focused disproportionately on...using public funds to create a housing stock of units dedicated to lower income occupancy, separate from the private market." But most lower income people live in private market housing, so this policy, while providing some good housing "for a small percentage of America’s low-income families...does nothing for the rest, while the effect of that housing on their neighborhoods is uneven and often problematic. We have created an affordable housing lottery that benefits only a handful of eligible households—many of whom could find decent housing in the private market without public help."

His interesting challenge is that public sector subsidies for lower income homeownership end up going "to families who would have become homeowners anyway, while much of the rest goes to poor candidates for homeownership...[and] Few net stable new homeowners are created." As an alternative, Mallach recommends building a "robust system" of counseling and education services to help people become homeowners, make home improvements and repairs, and provide assistance to families at risk of losing their homes.

"The more we do that," Mallach says, "the greater the benefits—social as well as financial—for all lower income homeowners, not just the select few who win the public money lottery."

Mallach questions why low-income housing tax credits, the major source for building new rental housing, are allocated by population state-by-state rather than targeted to the areas where new rental developments will help rather than harm the rental housing market. In addition, he calls for more assistance to "mom and pop" landlords who own one- to four-unit properties that could be upgraded for much less cost than building new rental apartments.

Mallach’s ideas as well as those of the other contributors to this issue of Shelterforce merit debate in the nonprofit sector regarding where nonprofits might fit in a radical re-conceptualization of U.S. housing policy. The Summer 2011 issue of Shelterforce reminds CDCs that their public policy advocacy challenge is not simply to protect current sources of housing finance subsidy, but to re-envision affordable housing policy, to elevate the level and quality of discussion, and to take the policy debate forward.

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