Trump Administration Undermines Workers' Safety Net

Earlier this week the Trump Administration announced a major shift in policy related to one of the nation’s key safety net components, the Medicaid program.  On Thursday, the Administration issued guidance to states which will allow them to compel people to work or train for work in order to be eligible for Medicaid’s health benefits. In the 50-year history of the program, there has been no such requirement as the country has recognized its responsibility to ensure that ALL of its citizens are able to live HEALTHY and productive lives. 

The Administration defends its actions by alleging that work requirements will enable individuals covered by Medicaid to “break the chains of poverty” and “live up to their highest potential.” However, several studies confirm that work requirements do not help people escape poverty, but rather often lead to individuals and families being worse off and risking their health or family’s well-being by having to decide between working or going without health insurance and needed medical care.

At PolicyLink, all of our work is grounded in the conviction that equity – just and fair inclusion – must drive policy decisions.  We believe that an equitable economy is one in which everyone can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. A just society requires that everyone have the opportunity to thrive and do well.  A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, estimates that 60 percent of the Medicaid recipients whom the federal government considers to be able-bodied adults are already working. These individuals are often working in low-wage jobs and rely upon Medicaid for their well-being and economic security.  With this extreme policy shift, the Trump Administration is ensuring that those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum will be left behind, and handicapped in their pursuit of a better life.  Instead of working to ensure that every American has access to health care and is able to pursue greater opportunities, this Administration continues to advance an agenda which is an all out assault on those members of our society who are most in need.  

The Fierce Urgency of Now

January brings us three months closer to Equity Summit 2018, where thousands will convene to set an equity agenda for the nation. The 15th of this month marks what would have been Dr. King’s 89th birthday, and 2018 is also the 50th anniversary of his Poor People’s Campaign, which advocated economic justice for all people.

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose transformative leadership forever changed America’s consciousness around issues of civil and human rights, we reflect on his words and message, which continue to inspire movement-building and mobilized action

Dr. King’s condemnation of racism and economic inequality resonates strongly today, as the nation continues to grapple with discrimination, the degradation of human rights and civil liberties, institutional violence, and poverty.

His words continue to evoke a sense of social and political exigency that can be felt in today’s sociopolitical climate.
 
“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” - Martin Luther King Jr.

Five Reasons Not to Miss Equity Summit 2018

Join us at Equity Summit 2018, taking place in Chicago on April 11-13! 

True to our vision of a more just and inclusive future for America, the Summit speakers and programming have been carefully curated so that attendees feel emboldened to step into their power, activate their imaginations, and help set the national agenda.
 
With just under five months to go, Equity Summit 2018 may just be our most powerful Summit yet! Here’s why! 

1. Powerful Movement Voices
 

In this present moment of challenge and uncertainty, there are key voices from across the movements for equity and justice who continue to instill hope for a brighter future. Equity Summit 2018 will host some of today’s most esteemed policymakers, thought leaders, and advocates, setting the stage for continued movement and solutions building at the Summit and beyond. They include:

As you can see, these individuals represent a diverse intersection of communities and issues that are crucial to unlocking our nation's promise. To see additional speakers confirmed for Equity Summit 2018, go here!

2. Dynamic Discussions and Strategic Spaces
 
If you've attended previous Equity Summits, you likely know that plenaries are the cornerstones of our programming. Featuring conversations with visionary leaders, these plenaries are both inspiring and instructive, establishing the tone for ongoing discussion, and motivating attendees to push the boundaries of their work. Plenaries at Equity Summit 2018 include “Our Power: Radical Imagination Fueling Change”; “Our Future: The Leading Edge of the Equity Movement”; and “Our Nation: Transformative Solidarity in a Divided Nation.”
 
In addition to the plenaries, Summit attendees will have access to workshops that offer opportunities to engage in smaller group settings with experts who are pioneering change within specific issue areas. Immigration reform, protecting renters’ rights, climate resilience, alternatives to policing, and decriminalizing poverty are just a few of the topics that will be explored in the workshops available at Equity Summit 2018. Find an overview of our programming here.
 
3. Chicago’s Transformative History
 
The city of Chicago has a rich legacy of activism and action around some of the most urgent civil and human rights issues of our time. Throughout its history, Chicago has left an indelible mark on the nation — including its status as a destination city during the Great Migration, association with the activism of Pullman porters, and the pivotal role of South Chicago’s Mexican-American community in organizing the United Steel Workers in the 1940’s. Chicago also served as the site of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the Chicago Freedom Movement (which is largely credited with inspiring the 1968 Fair Housing Act), and is where organizations like Advancing Justice-Chicago, Asian American Alliance and the Association of Asian Construction Enterprises (AACE) fought for the inclusion of Asian Americans in the city’s Minority-Owned Business Enterprise program in the early 2000’s. Of course, Chicago is also where a promising community organizer named Barack Obama launched his political career, eventually becoming America’s first Black president.
 
Today, the city continues to be an epicenter for revolutionary organizing and movement building led by grassroots leaders like BYP100 National Director (and Equity Summit 2018 speaker) Charlene Carruthers, and other  Chicago-born-and-bred leaders and artist-activists like Common, Jesse Williams, John Legend, Hebru Brantley, Chance The Rapper, and others. 

For information on where to stay in Chicago, visit here

4. The Moment and the Momentum

Next April marks the 50th anniversaries of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death and the subsequent Chicago uprising. April 12th will also be three years since the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore law enforcement, an incident that further ignited the local and national movements for police and criminal justice reform — two of the key issues to be explored as part of the Summit’s Just Society Workshop Series.
 
Most urgently, 2018 kicks off the midterm election season, which, according to Vox, would be “the first nationwide referendum” on the current presidency. With Equity Summit 2018 happening at such a crucial time — and with civic leaders like Voto Latino Executive Director Maria Teresa Kumar and NAACP President Derrick Johnson among our key speakers — attendees will have the chance to connect and share strategies for maximizing civic engagement, ensuring that the issues impacting America’s diverse communities and demographics are adequately represented.
   
5. Your Voice and Leadership
 
We believe that solidarity across social movements, cultures, races, and ethnicities is essential to resistance and the antidote to oppression, hate, and racism. We also believe that the key to a better, more prosperous tomorrow for America lies in the work being driven by people like you, whose tireless efforts on the ground represent the best of what’s working in our cities and communities. As champions for just and fair inclusion, your participation at Equity Summit 2018 will ensure that those closest to the nation’s challenges remain central to finding the solutions.
 
Whether you are a youth activist, grassroots/community organizer, elected official, or nonprofit leader, your voice and contributions matter. Register today and join the cross-section of leaders at Equity Summit 2018 who are radically shaping the nation's future and our collective role in it.
 
Get news and updates on Equity Summit 2018 in real time. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter using the hashtag #EquitySummit2018! You can also sign up here to receive PolicyLink email alerts.

Denise Fairchild: Building a Movement for an Equitable Clean Energy Economy

By Courtney Hutchision

This hurricane season — one of the most virulent in decades — has made it impossible to ignore the disparate impact that our shifting climate has on low-income communities and communities of color. At the same time, the current administration is attempting to roll back environmental protections, and double down on fossil fuels that will only exacerbate the nation’s environmental woes. 

Too often, these interconnected realms of environment, energy, economy, and social justice remain siloed, making it difficult for advocates to see their common ground and common struggle. In Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions, president & CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative Denise Fairchild, along with co-editor Al Weinrub, weave together the insight of leading experts from across sectors, putting forth a holistic, systems-changing vision of an equitable energy future. 

Fairchild, whose organization advances environmental solutions that support an equitable economy, spoke with America’s Tomorrow about “energy democracy” and how advocates working in the environmental, racial justice, and economic sectors can help America move toward a more equitable energy future. 

Many of our readers are familiar with environmental racism and the ways in which pollution and climate threat have a disparate impact on low-income communities and communities of color. The notion of “energy democracy” goes beyond disparate impact, however, to re-envision who owns the fuel economy and how it is used. Can you give us an overview of what you mean by energy democracy? 

Energy democracy is an emerging concept that pushes us beyond the movement for 100 percent  renewable energy toward a system that is not only clean but also non-exploitative and democratic. Essentially, we’re asking the question: how do we move to a clean energy future while keeping racial, social, and economic justice at the forefront? This means that our clean energy future should not exploit or harm the environment and our natural resources, and it should not exploit or damage the communities that have been negatively impacted by our past and current energy choices. It also means we need to focus on the use value of renewable energy, not its commodification. We do not want to move into renewable energy and just see the same old patterns of monopolization and concentration of wealth and ownership in the hands of the few. The energy democracy draws on a more indigenous tradition that sees our energy resources as part of the commons — it belongs to everyone and it should benefit everyone. That doesn’t just mean equitable distribution of the energy itself, but equitable distribution of the jobs created in the new energy economy, the resources needed to capitalize economically on renewable energy sources, and the investments that could be made to rebuild under-resourced communities. Right now, the renewable energy economy — though better for the environment — is poised to be just as extractive for low-income communities and communities of color. These populations are more likely to rent and hence have little to no control over whether their buildings use renewable energy sources. Purchasing solar panels are expensive and require a credit score in many instances, putting them out of reach for those who have historically been underserved by banking systems. So there’s a legacy of divestment that has taken place in our communities that’s impacted our bankability, our credit, and our housing, and that bleeds over into whether or not we’re going to be able to participate in and benefit from a clean energy future.

What led you to write this book? 
We wrote the book to build a movement, to be perfectly honest. We knew there were strands of this work taking place, but we wanted to nurture this fairly nascent movement to tie the strands together. We know that a clean energy economy will drive the 21st century economy. Just like agriculture economy gave way to the industrial economy, we are now in an economic transition and it’s imperative that we ensure that communities of color and low-income communities, which have been on the margins of economic life in the past, are full beneficiaries in this new economy. 

In this book, we lay out how people can join the movement at the policy level, because in every state across the country, state government and public utilities are in conversations about what the new energy future will look like. This is probably the last time in the next 50 to 100 years that we will have the opportunity to change our energy infrastructure in a way that benefits the communities that matter to us, so we need to be in those conversations and bring that racial justice and social justice frame. We also provide examples of how people can join the movement at the organizing and leadership level, and make the case for building capacity and knowledge around these issues across multiple sectors in social justice. Advocates sometimes have difficulty seeing how energy relates to racial or economic justice, but at the end of the day it’s about people who have to take their kids to the hospital again and again for asthma because of where polluting sources are placed, or household budgets stretched tight because of rising utility bills. There are so many communities out there finding new, equitable solutions and doing it their own way, and we wanted to create a resource that brought all that together. 

The book has some truly bold and transformative ideas, such as changing the constitutional definition of private property, building collectively-owned utilities, or challenging global trade agreements. Given that the current administration has sought to scale back environmental protections and reinforce a capitalistic and extractionist energy economy, where do you see opportunities for the energy democracy movement to push for reform? 

This work is really about a revolution. It’s going to take long-term collaboration on many fronts: legal, community organizing, and alternative energy solutions. This book provides different frameworks and perspectives on how we win this war, one battle at a time. The struggle around profit, power, and privilege as embedded in our current administration has ramped up the opposition to this movement, but there are reasons to be optimistic. The utility sector and private sector know that the fossil fuel economy is over. Renewable energy technology has become cheaper than fossil fuel and so the business model is going to have to fundamentally change. But just because we have the technology, everyone thinks that will solve all the problems; but this struggle is really about these larger racial justice issues. The new technology makes it so we don’t have to replicate a centralized system, we can have a distributed energy system that’s much more local and can be community-owned and community-run. 

For example, the book showcases a Washington, D.C. community that, concerned about the environment and rising utilities bills, banded together to form an energy cooperative. Using bulk purchasing of solar panels, they helped dozens of households install technology that allows them to fuel their own households and reap the profits made from selling extra energy back to the grid. These organizers formed the DC Solar United Neighborhoods, helping neighborhoods across the city form similar coops and today this model has been replicated in Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. So even in a federal political climate like we have, these changes can happen neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community. 

Advancing Economic Inclusion in Southern Cities


In 2015, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in partnership with PolicyLink, launched Southern Cities for Economic Inclusion, a cohort of seven cities dedicated to advancing economic equity for low-income communities and communities of color. Comprised of city officials and staff, local philanthropy, and business and community partners from Atlanta, Asheville, Charlotte, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans and Richmond, the group convenes regularly to share best practices and learn from experts. Their next meeting will be in Richmond from October 23-25.

This group explicitly identifies and addresses the unique historical, political, and legal obstacles to achieving economic inclusion in the South; namely, the region’s deeply entrenched legacy of racism and segregation, as well as the structural limitations imposed by state laws that strip cities of the authority to advance economic inclusion policies such as local hiring or inclusive procurement.

Leaders from the seven cities are advancing real solutions by:

  • Establishing an economic agenda that both acknowledges and confronts the legacy of race. City and community leaders in New Orleans and Atlanta have created economic opportunity plans that set a proactive agenda to invest in people of color and others who have been left behind and demonstrate how equity will lead to everyone being better off.  
     
  • Bringing together diverse stakeholders to advance an economic inclusion agenda. In Memphis, Nashville, and elsewhere, anchor institutions such as universities and medical facilities, along with business and other leaders in the private sector, are coming together with city partners to encourage growth in the minority business community and bring new investments into communities without causing displacement. 
     
  • Innovating policies and programs to support minority-owned businesses and connect people to jobs. In Charlotte, Richmond, and Asheville, cities have developed pilot procurement programs and incentives to support minority businesses and to help connect individuals with barriers to employment to good jobs.
     

These projects and initiatives are changing the cultural silence on race in economic development policy and strengthening local positions despite state restrictions on local authority. We applaud these city leaders for their work thus far.  Reaching this point has required creativity in policy design, political deftness, and most of all, resilience.  However, advancing this work will require additional investment and strong partnerships across a wide range of stakeholders, including local and national philanthropy, the private sector, and community-based organizations. We hope you will join us to advance an economically inclusive and prosperous South.

California Leads on Juvenile Justice Reform

This week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 190, co-authored by Senators Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara — ending the regressive and racially discriminatory practice of charging administrative fees to families with youth in the juvenile system.

California and nearly every other state charge parents of youth involved in the juvenile justice system with various fees, including fees for detention, legal representation, probation supervision, electronic monitoring, and drug testing. These fees trap poor families in debt, particularly families of color, and according to a study by the U.C. Berkeley Law School Policy Advocacy Clinic, significantly increase the likelihood of recidivism. Though the fees are designed to reimburse local governments for costs related to a child’s involvement in the juvenile justice system, counties often spend as much, if not more, to collect the fees as they take in. 

PolicyLink, working in coalition with state advocacy organizations, co-sponsored and advocated for SB 190, which will prevent California counties from charging juvenile administrative fees. As the first state in the nation to eliminate the fees, the passage of Senate Bill 190 could spark similar reforms in other states. According to PolicyLink senior associate Lewis Brown Jr., “Imposing fees on poor parents who are struggling to make ends meet is not the way to fund our juvenile justice system. Hopefully, Senate Bill 190 is the first step toward eliminating these destabilizing and counterproductive fees throughout the country.” 

We applaud our coalition partners, as well as Senator Mitchell, Senator Lara, and Governor Brown, for their leadership in addressing this important issue. We look forward to working with others to ensure that SB 190 will serve as a model for other states looking to address juvenile, and other types of criminal justice fines and fees.

Click here for information on Senate Bill 190>>>

Renters’ Rights Gains Momentum in Boston

José Velasquez has lived in Boston for the past 28 years. In April 2006, he and his family moved into a 14-unit apartment building on Meridian Street in East Boston. The landlord didn't maintain the place very well, but Velasquez was able to take care of some of the repairs and upkeep himself, and the rent increases were manageable. Then new owners took over the building this summer, and Velasquez and all of his neighbors were given 30-day eviction notices — as with many such mass evictions — so their building could be renovated and rented out at a higher market rate.

Most of the building's residents moved out. But Velasquez and his wife, who live with their adult daughter and niece, both of whom require special care, decided to stay and fight. "I've always paid rent on time. I've never failed them. So I feel I have rights," he explained in his native Spanish. A few days after he received the eviction notice, Velasquez connected with other tenants and organizers through City Life/Vida Urbana, a local housing justice organization that helps people facing eviction or rent hikes stay in their homes. So when the #RenterWeekofAction kicked off its nationwide campaign of coordinated direct actions and renter assemblies with a citywide march in Boston on September 16, Velasquez was there.

Resisting gentrification and building renter power

"[At the march] I spoke with the community about the help we need and the role of Vida Urbana. The event was really beautiful," Velasquez recalled. "We need to defend our rights because, if we don't, the rich come to step over us. We need to fight for the well-being of our families." He continued, "The rich are coming to Boston to buy properties, turning them into condominiums and making buildings expensive. But the poor also want to live well and care for our families."

His story is all too common: throughout the United States, as rents rise and wages remain stagnant, a growing number of renters are unable to afford the cost of housing. Boston is no exception.

Renters across the country are being squeezed and displaced," said Darnell Johnson of Right to the City Boston. "While the crisis is worsening, we also believe that renters are beginning to wake up to enormous power we have when organized. At Homes For All, we're supporting communities in organizing tenants unions and neighborhood groups to defend our housing, reclaim our communities, and win community control of land, housing, and development that impacts working-class people."

To address these challenges, Right to the City and its partner organizations are focused on building power among renters — and in Boston, where more than 390,000 people live in renter households, there is plenty to build on. Sixty-five percent of Boston's residents are renters, and after paying their rent and utilities they contribute nearly $7.5 billion to the Boston economy each year.

But in this city, where the economy and the population are both growing, many long-term residents are at risk of displacement. According to a recent National Equity Atlas analysis of housing affordability and the economic impact of burdensome rents in Boston, from 2000 to 2015 median rents in the city increased by 18 percent, while median renter-household incomes actually declined by 11 percent. So it's not surprising that during the same period, the share of renter households who are rent-burdened (spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs) jumped from 42 percent to 51 percent.

The financial burden of high rents isn't only a challenge for families who can barely make ends meet; it's also a strain on the local economy. If no Boston renters were housing burdened — if they spent only what they could afford on rent — they would have an extra $764 million to spend in the community each year, with people of color enjoying the largest percentage gains. Latino renters like the Velasquez family would see a 16 percent increase in their annual disposable income (income after paying for rent and utilities), and their Asian or Pacific Islander counterparts would see a 19 percent gain. On average, each rent-burdened household in the city would have an additional $9,300 each year to help cover the costs of necessities like food, transportation, health care, and childcare.

Renter protections can reduce the high costs of displacement

In the context of accelerating gentrification and skyrocketing rents, the City of Boston has taken a two-pronged approach to address housing affordability: One set of strategies focuses on increasing the supply of affordable housing, setting aside millions of dollars to help affordable housing developers compete in the city's fast-moving real estate market for both existing buildings and new development space. Another group of policies aims to help existing tenants stay in their homes.

Yesterday, the city council passed the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act, a just cause eviction ordinance that will "help protect residential tenants and former homeowners living in their homes post-foreclosure against arbitrary, unreasonable, discriminatory, or retaliatory evictions" and give the city greater ability to track evictions in real time. Another legislative proposal would give tenants the right of first refusal on foreclosed properties. And city officials are also working to provide incentives to property owners to keep tenants — and rents — stable.

Last year, Mayor Marty Walsh launched the city's Office of Housing Stability (OHS) with an explicit anti-displacement mission to help residents find and maintain affordable housing. As part of its broad anti-displacement agenda, OHS regularly tracks building sales to identify residents who may be at risk for mass eviction, and reaches out to tenants to inform them of their rights. So when OHS staff heard about the clearing out of the building where the Velasquez family lives, they immediately reached out to City Life/Vida Urbana.

"In the case of a no-fault eviction, tenants can get an additional six months — up to a year for elderly or disabled tenants — but we are finding residents agreeing to leave after just six weeks," said Kate Brady, senior program manager at OHS. "Massachusetts has a lot of tenant-friendly protections, but they only work if people know when and how to assert them." That's why OHS is pushing for state-level legislation that would guarantee a right to legal counsel for tenants facing eviction. "With a right to counsel, tenants can rebalance a power imbalance in which the vast majority of landlords have an attorney, but only 6 percent of tenants do," Brady explained.

For many low-income residents, that imbalance is exacerbated by a mix of market forces that drive up property values while driving down workers' economic power. In May of this year, one month before he received his eviction notice, Velasquez, who works in maintenance, asked his employer for a raise after he heard that several of his co-workers had received pay increases. Instead, his hours were cut. "They took one day off my schedule and reduced my pay," he explained. "They said they didn't have money for me but they were hiring other people."

Not long after, to entice Velasquez to give up his apartment, the building's new owners offered to pay him $400 per month for a period of a year — but he knew it wouldn't be enough. "I said no, because if I leave, the other apartments [out there] are too expensive." According to data from, the median market-rate rent for a two-bedroom unit in Boston was $2,400 a month as of July 2017, and Velasquez estimated that even the cheapest places where he could move with his family cost around $1,800. "Right now, I pay $950," he said. "We break even with the current rent, so I couldn't pay double. I just couldn't afford it."

Beyond the family budget, OHS points to the potential public savings in shelter and health-care costs as another incentive to help renters stay in place. "Preventing displacement not only keeps families stable in terms of their work, schools, and communities," explained Lisa Pollack, director of communications for the Department of Neighborhood Development, "the costs savings can be astronomical." Pollack added, "We really need to get farther upstream" to prevent crises rather than just responding to them.

For the tens of thousands of families in Boston struggling to get by, the difference could be life-changing. "Before I learned about Vida Urbana I would just think and cry inside," Velasquez said. "But now I have learned that everyone must defend their rights. Even if you don't speak English and are an immigrant, even the undocumented — we all have rights."

Accelerating Housing Recovery & Building Community Wealth in Chicago

As the 10-year anniversary of the subprime mortgage crisis nears, recovery continues to be uneven, with low-income communities and communities of color facing the steepest climb toward economic stability. In Chicago, foreclosures devastated many Black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, leaving behind blighted, vacant houses that could remain trapped in the court system for years.

Facing a struggling housing market and communities in crisis, local officials and grassroots organizers in Chicago have rallied to rebuild, forging new policies, organizations, and partnerships that not only reinvest in struggling communities of color, but reenvision community ownership and power.

"The foreclosure crisis may have ended, but there's still a vacant housing crisis, there's still an assessment bias for homes in communities of color — a lot of the things that exacerbated the housing crisis are still in play, and it will take collaborative efforts with the community to address them," said Bridget Gainer, commissioner for the Cook County 10th district and chairwoman of the Cook County Land Bank.

The ongoing recovery in Chicago's housing market has been shaped by a patchwork of city and community efforts. Here we highlight three aspects of these efforts: the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, a movement that gained notoriety when members took over vacant homes for use by homeless families; the Cook County Land Bank, which acquires vacant properties caught in the foreclosure process and makes them eligible for rehab and resale; and a burgeoning land trust run by the Chicago Community Loan Fund that aims to increase available affordable housing.

Homeownership loss exacerbates wealth inequalities

Owning a home can be one of the strongest wealth-building opportunities for American families, allowing them to secure equity that often appreciates over time and can be passed on to future generations. At the same time, this lever for economic stability has historically been denied to communities of color through racist policies like redlining, and the legacy of this prejudice persists today through discriminatory practices in real estate and lending.

Though homeownership among people of color in the U.S. had been on the rise by the turn of the 21st century, the subprime lending crisis (which targeted people of color and their neighborhoods) undid decades of progress: During the Great Recession, Hispanics lost 66 percent of household wealth through foreclosure and African Americans lost 53 percent, while Whites lost only 16 percent. In Chicago, nearly half of African American families owned homes before the recession; by 2016, only 39 percent did.

This drop in homeownership didn't just affect the people who were evicted. It also crippled the housing market in their communities as properties became tied up in an overwhelmed court system, and long-vacant homes attracted crime and drove down neighborhood property values.

"The recession flooded the court system with foreclosures in Cook County," said Gainer. "You had a system that was used to processing 15,000 foreclosures a year now processing 50,000, and there simply weren't the resources to deal with it."

By 2013, Chicago had 33,902 vacant homes, with vacancy rates of up to one in six properties in some census tracts in low-income South Side neighborhoods. Though banks are legally required to maintain foreclosed properties, this seldom happened in communities of color. A 2014 study found that foreclosed properties in communities of color in Chicago were nearly four times as likely to have unsecured, broken, or boarded doors compared to those in White communities. The injustice of lenders evicting families from their homes only to leave those homes unused for months or years drove William "J.R." Fleming to found the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign in 2009.

"It was disgusting how the banks were getting away with so much — evicting families, not taking care of the properties, letting them amass fines for years," Fleming said.

At first, members of the Campaign focused only on preventing evictions — standing in front of houses to physically prevent the eviction process and providing legal aid to families fighting in court. They later garnered national attention, however, when they began a new tactic: occupying and repairing blighted properties for use by local homeless families. In every case, they received permission from neighbors, though they did not have legal rights to the homes.

These bold actions made it impossible for other local leaders to avoid addressing the broken and bloated foreclosure process. According to Gainer, "Their methods were controversial, but they played a crucial role in hitting the pause button."

Helping the housing market rebound in South and West Chicago

When it became clear that the court system was the bottleneck keeping so many houses vacant, the Cook County Commissioner's Office began strategizing ways to expedite the process of getting vacant houses back on the market.

"You'd think it would be easy to get access to a house that's in foreclosure if you want to rehab and resell it, but the reality is that it's very difficult and time-consuming and many small developers simply didn't have the legal resources or the capital to do it," Gainer said. "We had community members complaining that we had too many vacant homes and too many unemployed people in the same neighborhoods, so we thought, why not create local jobs and rehab the houses at the same time?"

Leveraging $4.5 million in settlement money from a federal case against subprime lenders, Gainer worked with Fleming and other community organizers to adapt a land bank model from Flint, Michigan. In 2013, the Cook County Land Bank Authority was created to acquire properties caught up in the court system, clear them of back taxes and other fines, and make them more accessible to local developers of color. Gainer noted that while the Land Bank has no official quotas regarding the affordability of the properties or the diversity of its developers, it does the majority of its work with Latino and African American entrepreneurs working in communities of color on the South and West Sides. It also prioritizes projects that result in owner-occupied (not rental) properties and those that expand developer businesses, thus creating jobs. This month, the Land Bank hopes to finish the rehab of its 200th home. It has 186 more currently under construction and 300 in the court system pipeline.

Jason Williams, co-owner of Ultimate Real Estate Group, has rehabbed several Land Bank properties in South Side and Washington Heights, and credited the land bank as a "big reason" that many of these neighborhoods are turning around after the crisis.

"When you do a home or two, it changes the whole block," said Williams, who noted that most of the properties are being purchased by young professionals. 

Though Chicago represents the largest land bank by geography, Gainer pointed out that the land bank model could be useful to cities and counties anywhere. "This isn't a magical thing that happened in Chicago, anyone can do this," she said. "It's a way to put the power of property back in the hands of the community, not the courts."

Pursuing community ownership with a land trust model

By helping to stem the backlog of foreclosed houses in Chicago's low-income communities and communities of color, the Land Bank put the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign in the interesting position of having less to protest. But the Land Bank's efforts to combat blight, while critical, only address part of the problem, Fleming noted, leaving the underlying issues of housing affordability, gentrification, and housing insecurity untouched. This is why the Campaign is exploring other models for intervention that have an explicit focus on community ownership and affordability.

"We want to have a strong emphasis on community-controlled development," Fleming said.

Over the past couple of years, Fleming and other local housing advocates have been working with several nonprofit and private partners to pilot a land trust that will acquire, rehab, and sell foreclosed or blighted homes in high-opportunity neighborhoods as affordable housing stock. In 2015, Bank of America granted $1 million to a local community development financial institution, Chicago Community Loan Fund (CCLF), to support the creation of land trusts in Cook County. 

Since then, the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, Action Now Institute, and Greater Southwest Development Corporation have partnered with CCLF to explore models for this project and identify properties and community residents who might inhabit them. This partnership hopes to eventually acquire 50 foreclosed and/or blighted homes, beginning this fall.

"Housing is one part of economic development, but it impacts so many other things," said Ghian Foreman, executive director of the Greater Southwest Development Corporation. "It's like an ecosystem, and it's going to take public and private investment working together to bring back underserved communities."

Here’s What U.S. Cities Gain If Housing Is Affordable

Cross-posted from Next City

This week, as part of the #RenterWeekofAction, September 18 to 23, renters in over 45 cities will take to the streets to demand better protections from displacement and more community control over land and housing.

Recognizing the severity of the housing affordability crisis facing renters from Oakland to Miami and the need for policy solutions, the National Equity Atlas, a partnership between PolicyLink and the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, analyzed the growth of renters in the nation and in 37 cities, their contributions to the economy, and what renters and the United States stand to gain if housing were affordable.

Read more>>>

L.A.'s Housing Crisis Is Now the Nation's Housing Crisis

Crossposted from LA Weekly

The impact of Los Angeles' postrecession housing crisis became clear in 2014, when a UCLA report found that L.A. is "the most unaffordable rental market" in the United States. Since then, L.A. has seen renters become the majority of households in the market. And earlier this year, a report marked a 23 percent rise in homelessness  countywide, a number that some experts say is directly tied to out-of-reach rents.

To kick off an awareness campaign called the Renter Week of Action this week, a number of organizations released an analysis of the city's and nation's increasing rent burdens, noting in a summary that renters from coast to coast now "face a toxic mix of rising rents and stagnant wages."

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