CHCDF Series on Housing as Infrastructure

Bringing Healthy, Efficient  Infrastructure Home

Originally published Thursday, February 16, 2017, on Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future

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Our Nation’s infrastructure is more than just roads and bridges, it is also the networks and systems that deliver energy and water to homes and businesses across the country. These networks are aging and burdened by modern demands. The right investments in our energy and water infrastructure and in retrofitting buildings themselves can drive down costs and create jobs while producing a healthier living environment.

Energy and water efficiency in affordable housing not only saves money and sustains federal investments, but also creates jobs. According to a recent report[1], the energy efficiency sector employed 1.9 million people in 2015. The industry is prime for future growth. Committing to update our outdated housing infrastructure can create high paying jobs while addressing a backlog of physical repairs needed to improve safety and quality of life in publicly assisted housing.

Lack of energy and water efficiency is costly; nowhere is this more evident than in publicly and privately owned housing that is affordable to low income residents. Low-income families spend an average of 7.2 percent of their income on energy bills as compared to two percent by high-income households. [2] The average public housing authority spends 22 percent of its operating budgets on energy and water[3].  In privately-owned properties financed with equity from Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), utilities made up 18 percent of operating expenses.[4]

Lower energy consumption decreases resident utility expenses, freeing up more money for other resident needs.  In assisted housing, less energy consumption reduces government subsidy costs and helps preserve these long-term investments by reducing operating costs and improving the long-term financial stability of the property. Reduced energy consumption also lowers demands on the larger, aging energy infrastructure.

Great strides have been made in reducing utility expenses.  Many states require utilities to invest in programs that support energy efficiency, but there is work to be done to ensure that significant savings and benefits are realized in affordable multifamily housing.

Investments in infrastructure that enhance efficiency make good financial sense.  They offer the opportunity to leverage public and private funds for short and long-term savings, job creation and greater opportunity for residents.

The private sector recognizes the value of investments in efficient energy and water infrastructure. Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF) and its members have committed to efficiency, launching the Big Reach initiative in 2013. The Big Reach is a collaborative effort of SAHF, along with its partners and supporters, to achieve a portfolio-wide 20 percent reduction in energy and water consumption by the year 2020.

The National Housing Trust (NHT) is one of the organizers of Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA), a coalition of state, local and national organizations working to make multifamily homes healthy and affordable through energy efficiency. EEFA works with a range of partners in 12 states to promote effective utility energy efficiency programs that can optimize energy use for all affordable building owners, and ensure healthy and inexpensive housing for residents.  To date, EEFA has secured more than $230 million in energy efficiency investments in affordable multifamily housing from private utilities.

Other multifamily housing developers have committed resources to improving the energy efficiency of their properties.  Utility incentives and other existing programs support small-scale retrofits, but new financing sources and approaches are needed to achieve the systemic measures that will generate deep, lasting savings and strengthen our housing and energy infrastructure.   Policies should identify federal sources to leverage utility company and other private financing sources, and should further incentivize private investment in efficient affordable housing infrastructure by ensuring that owners can benefit from utility cost savings and by expanding pay for success programs.

Investment in the energy and water systems in housing is also an investment in our country’s greatest asset, the people who occupy affordable homes. Updating energy and water systems creates healthier homes for residents and create a better platform for their success. For example, healthy indoor air systems can significantly mitigate the consequences of asthma in a child or chronic respiratory disease in seniors. Healthy residents are better poised for education and work, which makes our economy stronger.  Any investments in our nation’s energy and water infrastructure should be holistic and include investments to make all homes energy efficient and healthy.

This post is the third in a series from members of the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding examining the critical role of housing in our nation’s infrastructure. Look for previous blog posts from the National Housing Conference and Housing Assistance Council and the next blog post from the National Center for Healthy Housing on February 22.


[1] Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) E4TheFuture, Energy Efficiency Jobs in America, December 2016

[2] Energy Efficiency for All, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Lifting the High Energy Burden, April     2016

[3] Federal Register/Vol. 81, No 192/Tuesday, October 4, 2016/Notices/FR-5913-N-27

[4] Novogradac & Company, 2015 Multifamily Rental Housing Operating Expense Report

CHCDF Series on Housing as Infrastructure

What’s New
Originally published Thursday, February 9, 2017 on Housing Assistance Council (HAC) News

by Stephen Sugg,Housing Assistance Council (HAC)

We know that decent and affordable housing does great (and cost-effective) things like prevent lead poisoning, improve health outcomes, and boost student achievement in school.  Rural affordable housing is an economic driver.  And a lack of rural affordable housing is thwarting economic growth and job creation.  Thus, HAC and our rural partners in 50 states are among the growing number of voices viewing housing as infrastructure.  One rural small business developer said it best, calling intertwined issues of workforce recruitment and housing stock availability the “two biggest challenges that rural areas tend to be worried about”.

Those working in the metro DC area and other relatively affluent enclaves are accustomed to construction cranes hovering, young professionals sipping lattes that are the price of a burger and fries in a rural diner, and paying outrageous rents.

It is different in rural America.  Available housing is often dilapidated, not energy-efficient, and though comparatively cheap, still unaffordable for the working poor, or most vulnerable.  Grandma might have a $800 heating bill for her Jimmy Carter era manufactured home. Rural incomes are 25% less on average than non-rural, and this statistic is worse for rural areas mired in persistent poverty. But bottom line focused rural leaders know that affordable housing creates jobs—short and long term, while offering “immediate fiscal benefits” for states and localities.

Rural businesses too often struggle, with lumber catching dust at the lumber yard; building supplies hardly moving at the hardware store.  Immediate economic impact would come from investment that is guaranteed to stay local, help local people, and that is “shovel ready” (and then some).  It might even help stem the onslaught of rural hospital closures.

I’d challenge folks from the Trump Administration, starting with HUD Secretary Ben Carson, to join a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders and my colleagues and me on a journey—perhaps over the next Congressional recess.  Start in Appalachia, say rural eastern Kentucky, and ask the folks there if federal infrastructure investment in housing would be wise.  Imagine out-of-work miners constructing “self-help” homes, their sweat equity again paying a dividend, along with de facto job training.

Then go north, to Pine Ridge in South Dakota, where 18 people crowding into a house is still too common, a place that Nicholas Kristof called “Poverty’s Poster Child”.  Ask them about the immediate impact of improved housing conditions.

Traditional log home - between Oglala and Pine Ridge villageTraditional log home – between Oglala and Pine Ridge village

Next fly south, to the Colonias on the U.S.-Mexico border, where housing is in short supply, and modern sewage systems are too rare.  In the Colonias, even modest investment does much good, as creative nonprofits are doing cutting-edge work.  Going westward (or any direction, really), one could visit the homes of farmworkers, and see the substandard housing conditions of those responsible for making sure that we eat.

For those wanting some recreation with their fact finding mission, they would need not go to counties mired in persistent poverty—85% of which are rural.  Rural resort towns (e.g., “tourist areas”) are filled with housing need.  Those in the service industry are often part of rural America’s hidden homelessness epidemic.   And make no mistake:  investment in affordable rural housing plays a critical role in addressing rural America’s opioid crisis.  Citylab called the opioid epidemic an “infrastructure issue”, citing the need for rural transitional housing.

In rural America, where costs are lower for construction and land, infrastructure spending targeted toward housing—preservation or new—can boost the outlook for Main Street while providing an anchor for our most vulnerable families to achieve stability, and a shot at the middle class.

Last year, over 7 million households in rural America experienced at least one major housing problem.  We can do better, and political will is all that it takes.

CHCDF Series on Housing as Infrastructure

Brainstorming Bright Ideas for the Future
Originally published Tuesday, January 31, 2017 on NHC Open House Blog

by Kaitlyn Snyder & Rebekah King, National Housing Conference 

Housing provides infrastructure our neighborhoods and cities need to thrive; it provides a home to the workers who are keeping local businesses running. Having affordable housing near jobs helps connect people to economic activity, just in a slightly different way than roads, bridges and airports do. At the National Housing Conference, we’re concerned that our country’s affordable housing infrastructure is not meeting our nation’s needs, and we hope to see affordable housing included in any major infrastructure legislation.

Much like bridges or roads, housing infrastructure lasts a long time and can be an asset or an eyesore in communities, depending on how well we maintain it. Some parts of our nation’s transportation and housing infrastructure is aging and chronic disinvestment has left some of it unable to meet growing demand. A prime example is some of our public housing stock, the oldest of which dates back to the 1930s, and which has seen many years of inadequate capital funding. Other privately owned affordable housing properties also need preservation, as affordability covenants expire and structures age. Fortunately, we have proven solutions for recapitalizing existing affordable housing, usually relying on the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit in combination with other public and private resources. Public housing in particular has made great use of the Rental Assistance Demonstration to preserve affordability and invest for the long term. To make sure public-private partnership approaches can reach all of the communities with preservation needs, affordable housing infrastructure needs more investment to meet growing demand.

In places that are thriving we need more affordable housing, just like we need more transportation options, water connections, roads and schools to address growing populations. Building housing, especially affordable housing, near job centers ensures that the workforce has a place to sleep at night and would help to ease congestion on transportation infrastructure – be it roads or mass transit. In places that are seeing population declines, we need to revitalize the existing infrastructure to make it attractive to potential new residents and to assure businesses that their investment can attract workers.

In addition to the need to meet growing demand, we’ve made technological advancements that should be standard in any new housing. Housing, as is true with all infrastructure, can serve as a skeleton that is continually improved upon as new technology becomes available. Despite our lead reduction efforts, too many of our nation’s homes still have lead in them and pose serious threats to our children. We know the power of improvements like energy efficiency, access to broadband and strong air filtration systems to reduce energy bills, improve educational and economic outcomes and improve health. These cost-effective improvements should be more widely available.

Any infrastructure package put forth by President Trump and Congress should include funding to improve access to affordable housing and ensure that it is a long-lasting community asset. We encourage others to think about infrastructure in this holistic way to address our nation’s structural needs. This post is the first in a series from members of the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding tying housing to infrastructure. Look for the next blog post from the Housing Assistance Council on February 8.

Sweeping federal investigation finds City of Houston’s housing segregation violates Civil Rights Act

texasProloguewritten by Will Livesley O’Neill: Despite repeated warnings from fair housing advocates, the mayor of Houston moved last year to block the city’s first public housing development in a high opportunity neighborhood. Now a federal investigation has found the City of Houston in violation of the Civil Rights Act.  Please read Mr. Henneberger’s explanation below of what the findings mean and how the government of our nation’s fourth-largest city discriminates based on race and practices policies that maintain housing segregation.

By: Texas Low Income Housing Information Service
First published in Texas Housers January 18, 2017

Racial housing segregation in Houston is no accident. It is not voluntary on the part of Houstonians of color. It is the result of decades of intentional government action. When it comes to government-subsidized housing, segregation in Houston is largely unchanged since the days of Jim Crow.

Finally, the federal government has told Houston municipal leaders that enough is enough.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has found the City of Houston in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, based on the results of a sweeping fair housing investigation released on January 13.

Consider what this means. In 2017, the government of our nation’s fourth-largest city discriminates based on race and practices policies that maintain racial housing segregation. If its leaders do not take corrective action, the City risks law enforcement action by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Along with Texas Appleseed, we wrote Mayor Sylvester Turner months ago warning of the consequences of maintaining racial segregation in subsidized housing. Our concerns were dismissed. When HUD launched a formal civil rights inquiry five months ago, City leadership claimed that this was just a “standard” procedure. It is now clear there was nothing standard about the investigation.

Civil rights findings this serious against government officials are rare. For 60 years, Houston’s elected leaders have practiced racial segregation in administering federally-funded subsidized housing programs. Throughout the past year, officials have bowed to the voices of prejudice and exclusion to block the construction of affordable housing in affluent, predominantly white areas while denying African-American and Hispanic families the right to choose where to live.

HUD’s investigation and ruling found that by preventing the construction of a specific subsidized development, the Fountain View Apartments, and by consistently limiting the approval of government tax credits to developments in low income, minority neighborhoods, Houston leaders are “influenced by racially motivated opposition to affordable housing and perpetuate segregation.” Now they must reckon at last with the reality that the City of Houston’s subsidized housing practices are stuck in the Jim Crow era.

This is a disgrace. It is illegal. And now, finally, it must end.

How exclusion works

Fountain View was the catalyst for the federal fair housing probe, and serves as one striking example of the way City leaders in Houston violate civil rights law. The proposed mixed-income development by the Houston Housing Authority (HHA) would represent that agency’s first-ever affirmative investment in an economically thriving, majority white neighborhood. HHA had a long and documented record of intentionally siting housing in minority neighborhoods, but the agency deserves real credit for attempting to move into compliance with civil rights: The Fountain View project originated in a HUD-approved fair housing agreement to finally begin the desegregation of Houston’s public housing stock.

But as often happens when subsidized housing is proposed in mostly white communities, Fountain View received an angry backlash from its mostly white neighbors. “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) opposition to subsidized housing is a well-recognized dog whistle for racial exclusion. According to state statistics, the population of existing tax credit housing overall in Houston is 58.7 percent African-American and 37.2 percent Hispanic. The Census tract where Fountain View would be located is 86.7 percent white.

The HUD investigation catalogued a litany of statements of residents and elected officials opposing Fountain View that HUD calls “coded language, which when considered in context, has been recognized by the courts as expressing racial animus” – everything from, “Bringing them here will bring down this area” to “People come in here and they steal the tires off our Suburbans.” Similar language is on display in the comments section of our original post about Fountain View.

The neighborhood backlash worked: After elected officials including Congressman John Culberson objected to Fountain View’s construction, Mayor Turner refused to allow a vote on a resolution for Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) for the project, claiming that the development was too expensive. Because City approval is required for housing tax credit funding, without the resolution, the project cannot move forward.

As a direct result of the Mayor’s decision, HUD launched its investigation less than one month later.

HUD found Mayor Turner’s cost objections to be “pretext” because no City funds would be involved in the project (as LIHTCs are federal dollars) and project costs are not usually considered when the City approves other tax credit developments. Moreover, the investigation states that “facts demonstrate that the Mayor’s decision was based in part on racially motivated local opposition” and that “the City has an established pattern of failing to site or support affordable housing projects in predominantly white neighborhoods.”

Segregated siting

We have written extensively on the segregation of tax credit housing in Houston and how it severely limits choice for low income families, and especially families of color, who currently have few options but to live in concentrated poverty. Based on HUD’s review of similar data, as well as interviews with advocates and City staff, the investigation notes that “the City maintains a system for approving LIHTC projects that is dependent on whether there is opposition from the residents of the neighborhood” and does so “against a well-documented backdrop of racially motivated neighborhood opposition to affordable housing and a history of segregation.”

Just since 2014, the Houston City Council has given resolutions approving 4% LIHTCs in the following places, shown by the surrounding areas’ non-white population (in blue), level of median family income below 80 percent of the city average (in red) and poverty rates exceeding 20 percent (in orange):

houstonlihtc4maps

The HUD investigation notes that between 2012 and 2016, 23 proposals for 4% LIHTC developments that were considered for resolutions by the Houston City Council. A full 21 were located in majority-minority Census tracts, and the two outliers were for veteran and senior housing, not for families.

Yet despite the overwhelming concentration of tax credit housing in segregated neighborhoods, City leaders routinely rubber-stamp more applications in racially concentrated, high poverty areas. This runs counter to the stated goals of the City’s official  2015 Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice, the City plan for subsidized housing locations submitted to the federal government, which pledges to “work towards creating more housing and preserving housing options…in higher opportunity areas where housing is generally not available.”

This promise has never been honored, and has indeed been actively flaunted by City leaders. In December, the City Council approved housing tax credits for a development known as Crosstimbers, which was originally intended as a companion to the Fountain View project – but only if both were built at the same time. The area surrounding Crosstimbers is less than 5 percent white and has a median income nearly six times less than the area around Fountain View, yet it moved forward while Fountain View did not. The costs of the Crosstimbers project were close to those at the Fountain View project, undermining the mayor’s justification for blocking the latter. Even in the midst of federal investigation, the segregated housing practices of the City of Houston continued unabated.

Consequences

HUD has determined that “high level officials, including the Mayor, acting on behalf of the City participated in the discriminatory actions” in violation of Title VI: “Denying a person housing, providing housing in a different manner, or subjecting a person to segregation or separate treatment…on the ground of race, color, or national origin.” Fountain View proved to be the final straw in a shameful legacy of willful segregation and the government-mandated restriction of the mostly non-white residents of subsidized housing into racially concentrated, high poverty neighborhoods.

As a result, the City must reverse course or face federal sanctions in the form of withheld funding and/or legal action by the DOJ. HUD outlined eight remedies that are required for Houston to come into compliance with the Civil Rights Act:

  1. Approval and supplemental funding to construct Fountain View or a replacement project in an equivalent high opportunity area,
  2. Development of a real plan to promote affordable housing in higher income, integrated neighborhoods,
  3. Assessment of the local laws, policies and practices that create barriers to fair housing,
  4. Creation of a strategy to incentivize the acceptance of housing vouchers in areas of opportunity,
  5. Adoption and implementation of a new policy for resolutions for tax credits that leads to the desegregation of LIHTC housing,
  6. Allowing HUD to review any proposed multifamily development that utilizes federal funding,
  7. Establish a fair housing commission that includes residents from a variety of neighborhoods, and,
  8. Development of new criteria for multifamily housing that utilizes City funding.

Houston leaders face a choice. They can engage with HUD to accept a voluntary resolution and move forward with the long-overdue desegregation of America’s fourth-largest city. Or they can, as Mayor Turner told the Houston Chronicle, use “all available avenues to challenge their findings.”

Civil Rights Act investigations are not political – they are thorough documentations carried out and enforced by the career federal staff tasked with upholding our nation’s most fundamental rights. The remedies proposed by HUD investigators, if implemented, would be a small first step toward creating the inclusive city of opportunity that Houston’s leaders ought to strive for – and toward providing, for the first time, real housing choice for all Houston residents.

It’s been a half-century since the Civil Rights era. Government-approved segregation cannot be allowed to continue. It’s well past time for Houston to stop accommodating racial prejudice and move toward integration.

President Obama’s move to commute prison sentences highlights affordable housing needs of people with criminal records

November 9, 2016
By Jacob Schmidt, NLIHC Policy Intern
Jacob Schmidt, Policy Intern

President Obama and his administration have led the charge in pushing for criminal justice reform and has commuted a total of 872 inmates since 2014. He granted clemency to another 98 inmates at the end of last month and has now commuted more individuals than the past 11 presidents combined. Through these commutations, President Obama has sought to correct some of the harms created by harsh federal laws that require mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

While President Obama should be commended for these efforts, the next question we as a nation need to be thinking about is: what housing and supportive services will be available to people exiting prisons and jails to ensure their smooth transition back to society?

Without addressing the housing needs of the reentry population, more and more of these recently released individuals will fall into homelessness.

Katina Smith had her sentence commuted in 2015 and was lucky enough to have a family who had the means to welcome her back home. Katina, who happens to be the mother of Demaryius Thomas, a Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, said, “If it wasn’t for God and for my son being in the position he’s in and my sister being able to help me, I could have easily been homeless.”

If our country is serious about reducing its prison populations, we must provide formerly incarcerated individuals with housing to act as a stabilizing platform where they can get back on their feet; otherwise, they’ll likely end up back in prison. Affordable housing has been shown to reduce recidivism rates among the reentry population.

Justice-involved individuals face too many barriers in accessing affordable housing. Many public housing authorities (PHAs) bar individuals with criminal records from living in federally-assisted housing. Housing providers may also use unreasonably long lookback periods into applicants’ criminal history, and often neglect to provide opportunities for applicants to show that they’ve rehabilitated and can be good tenants. The use of discretionary policy making disproportionately impact people of color and people with disabilities.

Fortunately, HUD has taken steps to advise landlords, including PHAs, that tenant screening policies imposing blanket bans on people with criminal records likely violate the Fair Housing Act. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) has also introduced legislation, the Fair Chance at Housing Act (H.R. 5085), that seeks to reform the way federally-assisted housing providers can screen or evict a household based on criminal history.

As we approach a new Congress and Administration, NLIHC and our partners in the Reentry and Housing Coalition, will continue to raise awareness about the housing needs of people with criminal records. Until we ensure people have a stable and affordable place to call home after leaving incarceration, efforts in reforming our criminal justice system will not be fully realized.