Welcome to our forum for highlighting innovative initiatives from state and local housing and homeless coalitions advocating to increase housing opportunities. The goal of Advocacy Skillshare is to advance cross-pollination of ideas, tactics and strategies that effectively advance housing and homeless advocacy. Have a good experience or idea to share with Advocacy Skillshare? Send it to Michael Anderson.
As real-estate prices continue to rise, affordable housing is an issue confronting communities throughout the country. Among these are the communities of the Rio Grande Valley, where a history of disenfranchisement, political oppression, predatory lending practices, and inequitable distribution of resources (often along racial lines) has resulted in concentrations of poverty, often in the form of colonias. For residents of the colonias (defined as isolated border communities “that may lack some of the most basic living necessities” such as potable water, electricity, and more) housing is often makeshift and unsafe. The buildingcommunityWORKSHOP ([bc]), a Texas-based, non-profit community design center, is looking to change this. [bc] aims to increase equity in the Rio Grande Valley by providing low-income residents with expandable, affordable housing designed with direct input from the prospective homeowner.
One of the programs [bc] is using to accomplish this is MiCASiTA. MiCASiTA is an initiative lead by the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville (CDCB), and supported by [bc] and the Texas State Affordable Housing Corporation (TSAHC), that empowers individuals through personalized design options for low-cost homes that are designed to grow along with the homeowner’s needs and savings.
The construction of a MiCASiTA house begins with a meeting between the prospective homeowner and program architects to design a home based on the homeowner’s needs and desires. A cheap, simplified version of the design, called a “starter home,” is built first. As the homeowner’s financial stability grows, the home grows along with it, with additions being added until the original design is completed. Throughout the process, CDCB supports homeowners with innovative financial solutions and counseling, ensuring that the homeowners are fully prepared for the responsibilities that come with home ownership.
MiCASiTA works along the principle that choice is empowering. Providing families with the opportunity to design their own homes allows the home to reflect their specific needs and desires, and gives them a greater stake in home ownership. Following the success of MiCASiTA and other related programs, [bc] is working to disseminate the principles of their design process to other affordable housing developers out of the belief that people everywhere deserve to have input into the design of their homes.
Last year, Housing Virginia began studying the relationship between housing, health, and community in the Williamsburg, Virginia region. These efforts, made possible by the Williamsburg Health Foundation, are part of its mission to connect housing needs with other important socioeconomic issues.
When possible, Housing Virginia uses local-level geographic data to show such issues “up close and personal,” and to illustrate the need for targeted, specific solutions. In this case, demonstrating linkages between housing and health will provide community advocates, providers, and decision makers the information needed to implement “preventative medicine” that improves living conditions for everyone in the community.
Physical condition of the home: Accessibility, lead exposure, inadequate cooling or heating.
Quality of community: Public spaces for physical activity, walkability, access to healthy food.
Housing affordability: Cost burden, threat of foreclosure or eviction, housing insecurity.
These concepts help to frame Housing Virginia’s research and final recommendations.
Housing Virginia’s analysis encompasses the City of Williamsburg, James City County, and York County. These localities have experienced surging population growth over the past decade, especially among the senior population. The number of persons over 65 increased by 78% from 2000 to 2014. One in five seniors live alone, and four in five live in single-family detached homes. Helping seniors “age in place” – and not letting them become “stuck in place” – will be an important priority in the near future.
While the region has a lower poverty rate and a smaller share of housing cost burdened households than the state average, these socioeconomic problems are not evenly distributed. For example, the poverty rate in Williamsburg (20.5%) is over double that of both James City (8.5%) and York counties (6.2%). Six out of the region’s 28 census tracts have poverty rates above 15%. Not surprisingly, these areas correspond closely with housing cost burden.
The Williamsburg region is, on average, just as healthy or healthier than Virginia as a whole. But for a significant portion of the population, quality healthcare remains out of reach. Over 11,000 adults in the region could not afford a doctor’s visit in 2013, and nearly 10,000 residents live in “low-income, low-food access” census tracts – more commonly known as food deserts. The region’s average life expectancy is 80.6 years, but ranges from 74 to 86 depending on neighborhood.
As this scatterplot shows, life expectancy declines as the prevalence of housing cost burden increases.
The disparity in life expectancy is highly pronounced in the distribution of the region’s affordable housing. Nearly 80% of the 483 households using housing vouchers are in neighborhoods with life expectancy below 80 years. Over three in five of the 1,300 families living in Low-Income Housing Tax Credit or public housing units are in areas with below-average life expectancies.
What can local leaders do to improve the health of all citizens – and not just those who already have the means to afford a good home and decent care? To make homes safer, localities can invest in weatherization and home accessibility modifications for low-income seniors. To create healthy spaces, planners can prioritize walkability and encourage affordable housing in amenity-rich areas. And to reduce housing insecurity, localities can create trust funds and back supportive housing programs.
There are many other programs and strategies available, and the correct “prescription” should be the result of due diligence by local policymakers. But perhaps most importantly, stakeholders should recognize that these problems are all related, and work collaboratively to make efficient use of limited resources.
In March, Housing Virginia presented these findings and a series of preliminary recommendations to the Williamsburg Health Foundation Board of Trustees. Our final report, which will be released in the next few weeks, will precede a series of community meetings in the Williamsburg region. There, local officials and practitioners will have the opportunity to examine this research, discuss where the greatest needs exist, and develop collective solutions to solve these complex issues.
By Jonathan Knopf, Senior Associate, Research + Programs, Housing Virginia.
Housing Virginia is a broad based, statewide partnership of public and private organizations and committed individuals. We believe that all Virginians should have access to high quality, affordable housing in suitable locations. Housing Virginia exists to address the large-scale housing issues that we face by: Informing discussions with current, reliable data and information about housing affordability; Connecting the dots about the consequences of having unmet housing needs; Unlocking housing opportunities by creating an unparalleled pipeline of housing news and information.
Around the nation, housing providers are taking steps to protect the rights of their tenants amid the intensification of enforcement and abuse by immigration agents. While attempts to protect the rights of tenants from abuse by law-enforcement are nothing new, they are more important than ever in a time when law enforcement agents, emboldened by a sympathetic presidential administration, are willing to push the limits of their legal authority and in the process infringe on individual rights.
An example of the sort of violations occurring throughout the nation happened recently when ICE agents in full tactical gear approached a family housing complex without a warrant, under the pretext of a search for a resident sex offender (tenant application requirements ensure that no such sex offender lived in the complex). Finding the front desk un-staffed, the heavily armed agents attempted to enter through a ground floor preschool before being discovered and expelled from the building for lacking the legal authority to enter.
Many housing providers are fighting back against these, and other, abuses. Conversation with a number of organizations around the country (who will remain unidentified due to the sensitive nature of the topic) has resulted in the collation of various strategies and initiatives for protecting tenant rights.
Protection against unlawful warrants
ICE has been known to attempt to pass off administrative warrants signed internally by ICE officials as judicial warrants signed by a judge. In truth, an administrative warrant does not give ICE the authority to enter private property without the owner’s consent. While some organizations have trained staff to recognize the difference between administrative and judicial warrants, this can be tricky. Instead, it may be best to follow in the steps of one organization that put signs on every door stating that employees do not have the authority to allow entrance to law-enforcement, and that warrants must first be verified by the Executive Director and his legal counsel to gain access to the building
Know Your Rights Campaigns
For an individual to assert their rights, first they must be aware of what they are. Holding Know Your Rights clinics is an effective way to educate tenants on their rights, and to provide guidelines for how to react when approached by law enforcement or unscrupulous landlords. Beyond clinics, organizations have also put up Know Your Rights flyers and distributed Know Your Rights Red Cards in various languages for tenants to keep on their person.
Access to Legal Resources
Many organizations provide free and low-cost legal assistance to low-income individuals, but people often do not know how to access these resources, especially when there is a language barrier. Partnerships between housing providers and organizations providing low-cost legal assistance provide tenants with easier access to legal expertise.
As expedited removal proceedings become increasingly commonplace to fast-track deportations and deny immigrants a hearing before a judge, ever increasing numbers of families broken by the immigration system are thrown into disarray as children lose their mothers and fathers. To decrease the chaos, some groups are helping immigrants put together family toolkits. Family toolkits are personalized guides for what to do if a family member gets detained by immigration, and include listings of who to contact, who will take care of any children, and more. Having a plan in place can help to limit the trauma to children if their parents are taken.
GNOFHAC posted on their Facebook page about the event: We laughed so we wouldn’t cry about the conditions so many renters live with in this great city. Lesson learned: We have to stop asking why people don’t leave bad rentals, because often they can’t. We have to start asking why landlords aren’t doing what they should be doing. Stay in touch so those trapped in bad deals with slumlords know they don’t have to stand alone.
Co-producing similar event is part of what Bring Your Own has been doing since it was founded in 2012. In 2016, they co-produced events on worker justice, jobs and healthcare. Bring Your Own is a live storytelling pop-up series that takes intimate spaces within the New Orleans community. Each month, seven storytellers have seven minutes to respond to a theme. Stories are told live, unscripted, and true to the teller. Storytellers volunteer prior to the event and are judged by three audience members to determine a winner, whose story is guaranteed for radio production. Winners subsequently choose the next month’s theme. Bring Your Own is a production of Laine Kaplan-Levenson.
GNOFHAC is a nonprofit civil rights organization established in 1995 to eradicate housing discrimination. GNOFHAC’s work throughout Louisiana includes education, investigation and enforcement activities. GNOFHAC is dedicated to fighting housing discrimination because it is an illegal and divisive force that perpetuates poverty, segregation, ignorance, fear and hatred.
According to their website the Radical Arts and Healing Collective (RAHC) “officially” started in January 2016. At co-founding core member Ann-Meredith’s Upper 9th Ward home, they broke bread and drank spicy hot chocolate to begin dreaming, scheming and visioning an intersectional, intergenerational, multiracial arts and healing centered community space rooted in New Orleans, intended to serve the greater Gulf South and beyond to promote transformative and healing justice as well as self-determination through art as a tool to interrupt and transform deep roots of injustice.
By working together, these three organizations were able to use the art of storytelling, a little competition in a creative space making the message and learning about the housing conditions in New Orleans more impactful.
Note: GNOFHAC is part of a coalition, Healthy Homes Coalition, that has pushed for action on these issues. They have successfully gotten an ordinance introduced by the New Orleans city council. The Healthy Homes Ordinance is in process of being voted on at the writing of this piece.
For more information please contact Monika Gerhart-Hambrick, Director of Policy and Communications at GNOFHAC firstname.lastname@example.org