Friday News Round-Up

We’ve got a lot for you today (a lot happened this week and we can’t pick). Without further ado…

  1. “Outside of the limelight, the Obama administration has been quietly pursuing ambitious changes to better support healthy neighborhoods and regions,” begins this article in Shelterforce Magazine. The article was contributed to the magazine by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, so it comes with a certain amount of back-slapping in regards to the Obama administration. But it does give a good sense of what programs are being implemented in low income communities to combat poverty and provide a path for sustainable affordable housing. If you have a different take than Secretary Shaun Donovan on how effective these programs have been, we’d love to hear about it.
  2. The vice-presidential debate was much, much more interesting than the presidential debate. You can read a full transcript here (NY Times) or watch a full video here (YouTube.) According to Think-Progress, Mr. Ryan only lied 24 times in 40 minutes, and in a moment that elicited laughs from the audience, Joe Biden snarked: So Now You’re a Kennedy?! Not a bad day for the Congressman! In other debate-related news, demand for Big Bird Halloween costumes has shot up since Mitt Romney threatened to cut federal funding for PBS.
  3. In another self-congratulatory post from our friends at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, PD&R published this article detailing how the new Elliot-Chelsea Houses transformed a parking lot into a shiny, new, sustainable, mixed-income project in Chelsea. Of the 168 units, only 34 are reserved for people making below AMI. We can’t help but feel a pang of regret that an entire lot owned by NYCHA could not be dedicated to more specifically low income, affordable housing – housing that is desperately needed in Manhattan. Does Chelsea really need any more market rate apartments? The neighborhood will remain vibrant and mixed income no matter what, and rents are shooting up overnight. However, some housing is better than no housing, and we’re glad to see this space as more than a parking lot.
  4. The City is working to create an “Aging Improvement District” in the Northeast Bronx, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilman James Vacca announced on Tuesday. The idea is to concentrate stores, services, and housing specifically for seniors in the neighborhood. The area in the Bronx is the fourth such district in the city; districts in Brooklyn and Manhattan include perks such as seniors-only hours at public pools and more outdoor seating. New York City is typically not an aging-friendly city (just think of all the subway stairs you climb every day). It’s great to see agencies and businesses working together to address the crucial needs of the senior population. The district is being created with the input of community members (seniors!) and we are hopeful that concentrating seniors in specific neighborhoods will not lead to isolation.
  5. It sounds like repairs are finally getting made at the 3 “fire-trap” buildings on 46th Street in Sunset Park. Tenants in these buildings have been fighting for safer and more secure conditions for quite some time, aided by many advocates and organizers. Aside from the pressing repair issues, these three buildings are in foreclosure and the debt is held by a mystery group called Seryl LLC. Tenants are hoping for a preservation deal out of foreclosure that will give them a larger ownership role in the three buildings. We hope that this will come through for them – and we know, that no matter what, these tenants are ready to Fight Fight Fight!
  6. Here is an extra article for you today, simply because it is really cool. After a decade of research, the Mannahatta Project at the Wildlife Conservation Society has uncovered the original ecology of Manhattan. Check out this map and use the slider to move from 1609 to today. Watch the streets begin to fade. The same folks are hoping to expand this project to the outer boroughs, and you can (of course) donate to that effort on their website. Pick your borough to check their progress: Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens and Staten Island.

See you next week!


Happy Fair Housing Month!

It’s finally April, and you know what that means….National Fair Housing Month!  Fair Housing — title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act — prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, gender or national origin. In conjunction with our earlier posts drawing attention to embedded racism and discrimination in New York City, we hope that our blog provides a space to critically reflect on the role that race plays in current housing practice and policy.

Fair Housing became law as a result of the political climate of 1968.  Prior to his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King was organizing Open Housing marches in Chicago. Outrage over his death provided the energy to pass progressive housing and anti discrimination policy.  As the war in Vietnam claimed the lives of men of color, their families in the United States could not afford housing and were actively discriminated against. The NAACP, the GI Forum, and the National Committee against Discrimination in Housing lobbied hard to pass the bill to ensure housing for Vietnam War veterans, their widowed families, and people of color.  To learn more about the history of Fair Housing, check out Housing and Urban Development’s post here.

To this day, Fair Housing law is used in significant ways to hold developers, banks, and communities accountable for discriminatory housing practices.  As we’ve discussed before on the blog, there has been an ongoing case and recent victory in Westchester County, NY around Fair Housing, which HUD describes their website.

HUD brokered a landmark settlement agreement in a case that alleged Westchester County, New York, made false claims to the federal government when it made civil rights certifications required to receive funding. The certification requires the County to provide greater housing opportunities and choice for its minority residents in non-minority communities, free from discrimination. Westchester County subsequently agreed to build 750 units of affordable housing in areas with very low minority concentration. HUD and Westchester County are now working together to ensure that the settlement produces a clear strategy for promoting diverse, inclusive communities.

While there are certainly exciting victories, the Fair Housing law is not all inclusive, and we must continue to question and improve it. Not all populations are protected by the law: previously incarcerated people or ex-sex offenders are still heavily restricted in terms of where and how they live, even after serving time in jail.

UHAB and our legal allies are researching lending practice and hoping to further understand how banks are culpable for upholding Fair Housing standards. Historically, banks have received criticism for red lining — a practice by which banks would map neighborhoods and literally draw RED LINES around neighborhoods of color, indicating that they would not lend in these neighborhoods. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 both established, in part, to regulate equal levels of lending in minority communities and end red-lining.

Philadelphia Red-Lining Map from 1934

Many housing and fair lending advocates, however, place blame for the foreclosure crisis at the feet of the banks. In the years following the end of red-lining, it was was replaced by sub-prime lending: equally dangerous and discriminatory. A sub-prime mortgage is characterized by higher interest rates and less favorable borrowing terms. In the years leading up to 2008, many contend that banks and mortgage companies targeted minority communities for sub-prime loans. You can read more about its racial implications at HUD.

At UHAB, we question the role of Fair Housing in multi-family lending. If the owner (borrower) is white, but the residents are almost entirely people of color, what Fair Housing responsibly do the banks have? Off the bat, we believe that underwriting standards on multifamily buildings must be the same in communities of color as in white communities.

We work primarily in distressed, overleveraged buildings in foreclosure. Is it just a coincidence that almost all the buildings we go to are over 90% communities of color in the Bronx and Brooklyn? We don’t think so, and believe that there is believe that these facts point to the need ensure banks are complying with Fair Housing practice in multifamily lending.

This month and every month, we encourage you to think critically about Fair Housing– what’s gone well, what needs improvement, who’s left out, etc– and feel free to post your ideas on our blog!