On February 2, 2017, If You Were Mayor co-founder Whitney Powers was honored by Historic Charleston Foundation as the 2017 recipient of the award for “Women Who IMPACT Preservation.” The festivities to announce and celebrate the honor occurred in the ballroom of the newly renovated hotel on Marion Square The Dewberry. Over two hundred people attended the event with proceeds directed to Historic Charleston Foundation’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. This ongoing program has tackled such projects as the stabilization of the North Central neighborhood (read more here) and the creation of the Romney Street Garden. The following is a transcript of Ms. Powers’ remarks:
It is such an incredible honor to be standing before you this evening. I am humbled by Historic Charleston Foundation’s recognition. And I thank you all for being part of this occasion. I have been inducted into a club of real potency – joining the likes of past recipients Geona Shaw Johnson, Karalee Neilson Fallert, and Michelle Mapp.
And here we all are – Women – at a time that seems like a kind of re-recognition of the capital that we have always brought to the table. For Charleston, we can thank those who’ve gone before us – preservation leaders Dorothy Legge and Frances Edmonds, civil rights leader Septima Clark, and the abolitionist Grimke sisters. More broadly, there is Rachel Carson who prompted the regulation of deadly synthetic pesticides and brought about the modern environmental movement. I marveled at the film Hidden Figures and its portrayal of the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson – women who overcame race and female stereotypes as NASA mathematicians and engineers in the early U.S. space program. I look around at many of you who have started, or currently lead, many of this city’s vital organizations that advocate for a better city. And I see others of you who support and embolden friends and colleagues in infinite and unsung ways.
Sometimes things occur that remind us of our early invincibility and dreams. The recent death of Mary Tyler Moore brought to mind not only her iconic newsroom comedy and her best friend Rhoda – but also, for me at least, Marlo Thomas’ portrayal of That Girl and her smashing wardrobe. It wasn’t really a stretch to consider that I would be a fearless single, working woman from Mississippi who, in my 20s, found myself in Washington, DC, and, later, New York City.
I did not have a load of money, but it did not really require much investment to find like-minded people and feel empowered in those heady days of youth. By example, I joined those who protested against Royal Dutch Shell and its investments in apartheid South Africa and supported passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. We had a voice. We were carried forward on a wave of sexy optimism. Within ten years, apartheid would fall apart and Nelson Mandela would be elected South Africa’s President.
So I landed in Charleston almost 30 years ago, with little sense of my own limitations. I readily engaged alliances with old friends and new. I founded an architectural practice following Hurricane Hugo. And, perhaps, I had a bit too much focus on rebuilding a re-imagined architectural legacy, while most in the city were a bit more interested in the caprice of transactional real estate development. Yet, I found that preservation informed my architectural interests on every level, and, I have been fortunate to work with a remarkable slate of knowledgeable consultants and talented staff.
But, this honor is only partly about my architectural contributions to Charleston. When I started IfYouWereMayor.com two years ago, it was really an effort to empower people to share ideas and issues in advance of a mayoral race that would replace a leader whose decision-making prowess was generally accepted practice during a forty-year tenure. The backbone was research done by my late husband Edwin Gardner on the various metrics associated with the concept of livability; and, the initial seeding and germination came from great organizations in Charleston that were advocating for facets of what makes a city thrive economically, socially, and creatively.
Historic Charleston Foundation was one of those organizations, along with the South Carolina Community Loan Fund, Enough Pie, Lowcountry Local First, OHM Radio, Lowcountry Maritime Society, Quality Education Project, Charleston Moves, Wings for Kids, Metanoia, Meeting Street Academy, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Redux, Preservation Society, Coastal Conservation League, and Charleston Parks Conservancy. Over the course of the year-long campaign, our efforts found voice in numerous public forums with all or most of the slate of candidates. They certainly got an earful.
At this stage, the role in society of civic engagement could not be more critical. We now know that it is not enough to remain within the silo of any specific interest area – our collaborative voices are the only way to ensure that Charleston continues as a living, breathing city. Action comes from leveraging the voices of individuals and organizations that not only want to preserve, but to foster a future in the city – through its buildings, neighborhoods, local businesses, parks and green space, art, health, safety, schools, and connections. My work in this arena has reinforced my belief in the life of our city. Our work together must maintain diversity, promote innovation and economic opportunities, preserve our historic core, and ensure that social justice underpins our decision-making.
I am so proud of Historic Charleston Foundation’s commitment to a broad definition of “preservation,” and its efforts to promote connectivity, diversity, and authenticity in Charleston. Historic Charleston Foundation has been bold in its desire to look at the big picture of our region. They have offered capacity and voice to other organizations, and demonstrate a leadership that is the hallmark of what makes a city great. I could not be more honored than to be selected as the 2017 Woman Who Impacts Preservation.
We’ve been working to calibrate our winter message following the recent presidential election; to gauge how cities might fare during the coming administration; and, to sense how individuals and organizations see their roles changing, if at all, in the immediate future. It is no secret that the divide between urban and rural areas decided who would be the incoming President. This map published at the website of the New York Times shortly after the election, shows how the Democratic votes were concentrated in urban areas while rural areas were decidedly Republican. What might this mean for cities?
Generally, city leaders recognize the complexities of governing, and are actively seeking ways to incorporate more comprehensive policies that reach all their constituents in more equitable ways. And the issues facing many are strikingly similar, whether large or small, urban or rural. The online magazine Next City recently featured (here) the “2016 Menino Survey of Mayors” by the Boston University Initiative on Cities According to the article: “While last year’s survey focused on topics like infrastructure, finance, and housing, this year’s was more heavily skewed toward what the researchers called ‘people priorities’ – things like poverty and immigration.” The key findings of the report (here) point to the real concerns of Mayors as 2017 unfolds. Many found the Obama administration an “urban champion,” giving high marks to federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Transportation. Given the shape that the Trump administration is taking, it is not a certainty that cities will continue to enjoy the largesse of the federal government. Furthermore, many mayors report “…adverse consequences of the national rhetoric, ranging from empowering fringe elements in their communities to sowing anxiety and fear among their urban constituencies.” Many cities are resisting the potential repercussions. One example would be those cities that have staked claims to “sanctuary” status for immigrants, acknowledging the contribution these newcomers make economically and culturally. Many of these “sanctuary cities” are accepting the risk that they may be jeopardizing federal funds, but many consider “sanctuary” status more important to their economic future than the uncertainty of federal funds. Read more here.
Individuals are also organizing in the face of a rise in tension and uncertainty. Stephanie Barna’s article in the January 11th edition of the Charleston City Paper highlights how some women in the Charleston community, prompted by recent events such as the murders at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church and the election, have challenged the status quo by organizing initiatives to fight gun violence (GunSenseSC), train women for leadership positions (Center for Women); tackle democracy in action (League of Women Voters); discuss issues (Gather for Good); increase opportunities for women to run for office in SC (WREN); and encourage women to vote and fight racism (YWCA). Women on the west coast have some ideas about shaking things up that bear inclusion here. Who could have imagined that a year ago, in Oakland, California, a group of mothers would step up to establish The Radical Brownies, a social justice version of the Girl Scouts. Designed to “empower young girls of color to step into their collective power, brilliance, and leadership to make the world a more radical place.” They learn about black history, civil rights and social justice plus there is a “Black Lives Matter” badge. Creativity and action are key to making change happen.
Other individuals and organizations are actively looking for ways to combat structural racism, or to transform negative connotations into understanding and advocacy on behalf of anyone who is marginalized in our society. When the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper published its series on domestic violence, few people were aware that the state ranked among the top 10 states nationally in the rates of women killed by men. The state legislature was called into action and the paper won a Pulitzer Prize, due in part to the results. In the atmosphere of this heightened awareness, Mackie Krawcheck Moore started THRIVE SC a pilot program to support to victims of domestic violence by providing transitional housing and other support services to re-establish dignity in their lives. The program is based on the prototype developed by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Charleston’s resident provocateur K.J. Kearney’s Creative Mornings presentation highlights the issue of how some systemic problems will be difficult to disassemble – massive corporations make enormous amounts of money from the “broken justice system,” with its high incarceration rates, or the “broken education system” with an extensive and often questionable testing system. Kat Morgan, one of the Charleston area’s deep thinkers on making productive and collaborative change possible, was a moving speaker during the 2016 TEDx conference in Charleston (here) and is working diligently to give people the tools needed to respond to racism. Her organization Allies Take Action is sponsoring workshops this winter to help, with themes such as “What Did You Say? Responding to Offensive Remarks” and “Change Your Mind: Basic Tools to Transform Unconscious Biases.” Her website Changeability Solutions also makes a wealth of resources available for your own deep dive. Look out for our OHM interview with her coming soon to the If You Were Mayor® website here. Among the other organizations to put on your radar screen: Showing Up for Racial Justice has a Charleston chapter with a Facebook presence (here) that is working to break down barriers related to structural racism in the area.
It might be a good time to consider making a New Year’s resolution that includes getting more involved and engaged. It will make your city and community a better place to live. Regardless of how you might feel about him, Ralph Nader makes the case in this recent interview on The Takeaway that grassroots leaders have a significant role to play in the future of cities. And there has been no better time than the present to find your own way to be involved.
Are there real world examples that demonstrate a higher return on investment (ROI) for taxpayers when cities choose people over cars in their transportation decision-making? In our blog post Transportation Values we established that a set of livability parameters could responsibly be used by local officials to gauge priorities for transportation projects: (1) the potential for the project to build communities through access; (2) resiliency of the infrastructure; and, (3) promoting modes of transportation that are alternatives to private automobiles. In this post we validate use of these criteria as economically sound practice for local decision-makers and stakeholders.
The October 2016 release of the research report Active Living Environment in U.S. Communities, part of the Gallup-Healthways State of American Well-Being series, demonstrates that communities that invest in bike paths, parks, walkability, and public transit have significantly improved health and well-being. The report shows strong correlations between bicycling, or walking, and health factors such as lower rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack incidence, and smoking. Furthermore, the report outlines basic best practices so that decision-makers can effectively execute projects that: (1) make healthy choices by individuals easier and safer; (2) encourage outdoor physical activity; and (3) develop stronger social networks through housing diversity and mixed use development. More information and a download link to the report are available here.
Critical to the success of infrastructure investments when created to accommodate bicycles, walkers, and public transit is taking a “systems,” or holistic, approach to enhancing safety within the design of the infrastructure itself. Seattle’s recent adoption of lower speed limits citywide, along the lines of the UK campaign “20 is Plenty,” marks significant recognition by a U.S. city in this initial step toward safer streets.
Beyond this simple change is the configuration of roadways themselves. A recent blog post at BikeLaw.com relates the Columbia, South Carolina, story of a crash by a state Department of Transportation [sic] truck into a house along a road where lane widths encourage driving at speeds in excess of 40 mph, all within 15 feet of the houses. This kind of dated infrastructure design leads to crashes. Federal safety guidelines have changed from the 1969 criteria that led to this configuration, and updates to this road could provide the same capacity at lower speeds, add protected bikelanes, and ensure a safer neighborhood environment without changing the overall right-of-way width.
Many cities and communities have adopted the Swedish concept Vision Zero, aimed at reducing traffic fatalities to “zero,” through the use of traffic calming, well-marked crosswalks and pedestrian zones, as well as separated bike lanes. These features can minimize the 90% of fatalities that are the consequences of human error. Success in the implementation of this strategy in the US is measurable with reductions of traffic fatalities of 43% in Minnesota, 48% in Utah, and 40% in Washington State.
For most U.S. applications, successful implementation of Vision Zero requires a three-pronged approach that includes “Engineering” that puts people first, “Education” that aligns local neighborhoods and residents with the project expectations; and, “Enforcement” that focuses on intersections and street corridors with high crash rates. While this three “E” approach is critical, some neighborhoods have been resistant to the “Enforcement” component, citing the potential to profile African Americans and inequitably target low-income communities. In this CityLab article, Leah Shahum, founder and executive director of the Vision Center Network, stresses “…enforcement is, and was always, meant to be a secondary and complementary to engineering, and that additional traffic enforcement is never supposed to occur without intensive community engagement….No amount of police presence can overcome road designs and policies that simply don’t work well enough.” San Francisco has elected to include a fourth “E” Equity, and focuses enforcement strictly on the factors that lead to fatalities, such as speeding, red-light running, or failure to yield, by using cameras to equitably enforce laws. It should be noted that, unfortunately, cameras are not allowed to monitor speeding or red lights in some states, including South Carolina.
Many communities are finding that the ability to build more roads or expand existing corridors is increasingly difficult, expensive, and, frankly, unsustainable. Many are looking at public transit options in a nod to the changing attitudes toward driving especially among people under 35 years of age. Traditional bus systems are seldom seen as the panacea and are often considered both unreliable and uncomfortable. Some cities have looked at trolley systems and light rail, both being among the most expensive public transit options out there, with neither addressing all of city transportation issues. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is often seen as a more reasonable and flexible option with designated lanes and timed traffic signals, as well as being faster, more comfortable, and more reliable than buses. For this reason BRT has found many supporters across the nation. Regardless, most fixed-route systems also require last mile/first mile infrastructure development including parking and connections to outlying and sprawling residential areas. A good take on the pluses and minuses of these various options as they played out in Dallas can be found here.
More interesting, exciting, and cost-effective are the options for public transit presented by ride-sharing services and autonomous (self-driving) cars, trucks, and buses. While the practicalities of autonomous vehicles may be a decade or more away, private ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber have become well established in many cities, including smaller ones like Charleston, South Carolina. In dense urban environments Uber Pool and Lyft Line provide options for “sharing your ride-sharing ride” to lower the cost per passenger. (Listen in on a sample commute via UberPool at Science Friday here). The rise of ride sharing services brings us to its emergence as a public transit option.
After funding for an on-demand bus system fell through (a twenty-year fight), Frank Martz, city manager of Altamonte Springs, Florida, was desperate to find a cost-effective means to offer public transit in this community north of Orlando and transform it into a thriving, walkable destination. Knowing that some Silicon Valley companies offered on-demand transportation such as he envisioned, he decided to consider the possibility of subsidizing car-sharing as a logical option to complement existing fixed-route transit especially into sprawling suburban precincts. He approached Uber in November 2015 with the idea, and by March 2016, an agreement was struck and UberX:Altamonte was launched as the nation’s test-case of the future of public transit. A full account of Altamonte’s story can be found here.
In the past year a number of cities, following Altamonte’s example, have been striking agreements with ride sharing services to supplement other existing or planned fixed-route mass transportation systems, ostensibly for the first mile/last mile connections of commuters. While there remain obstacles to overcome in order to reach every rightful user, the implementation of subsidized car-sharing as a public transit option is growing at a hard-to-ignore pace. In September 2016 the Transit Center, a foundation that works to improve urban mobility, rushed to publish an initial comprehensive resource Private Mobility, Public Interest, recognizing some of the pitfalls that had been exposed by Altamonte and other early adopters of carsharing, bikesharing and on-demand transit: use and availability of data; reaching disadvantaged users without smartphones or credit cards; and, overcoming barriers for riders with disabilities. The publication provides public agencies with guidance to aid in the development of the next generation of public/private partnerships in this mobility arena.
Autonomous (self-driving) car tests in Pittsburgh and in the San Francisco area show promise and suggest a significant, even historic, shift in the transportation – and urban planning – paradigm. These recent articles in The Economist, Mother Jones, and New York Magazine, provide a snapshot of how 20th century sci-fi visions may spell our near-future reality. It is no question that getting ready for this shift is mind-boggling given the potential, even probable, impacts on parking, affordability, and many other facets of our lives.
The bottom line for public officials and taxpayers is that transit options have never been as economically viable as they are today. Federal safety guidelines allow many existing roadways to simultaneously accommodate cars and other modes of transportation at little cost. The increased safety, broadened community access, and public health paybacks make resistance to these investments seem both foolhardy and ill advised. The opportunity to reduce congestion, with nominal investment in the launch of a public/private partnership with ride-sharing services, and as a complement to existing fixed-route transit, is a no-brainer.
Do these options pass our 3-question “test”? Let’s see – Building community through access (check); Resiliency through flexibility (check); Transportation alternatives (check). What are you waiting for?
The recently published book The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is every bit the Swiftian journey the Wall Street Journal’s book reviewer suggests – taking the reader on a tour through various vignettes of abuse and humiliation directed at the black “slave” for well over 300 years. The recollection is one of sur-reality and horror where the “peculiar institution” of slavery mutates and is metastasized in ways that subject the reader to levels of discomfort that clearly undermine the romanticism and nostalgia of the plantation mythology.
The reality is far more insidious than even this book suggests. The eminent Duke University historian Peter H. Wood traces the beginnings of slavery in North America to the early 17th century. This astute, pointed excerpt at the online magazine Slate is revealing in how the mindset of opportunism – a characteristic well known in the Charleston region – meant that the notion of “freedom,” embedded in English law at the time, was transformed at the whim of the slave trade, including among the plantation owners. Various avenues that generally gave rise to freedom of indenture, such as heredity and religious conversion, were set aside as the market-driven economy of slavery prevailed and ingrained itself in the psyche of the, particularly southern, colonies. Wood’s research suggests that the Civil War’s outcome, had it prompted a kind of “truth and reconciliation,” such as occurred in post-World War II Germany and following the end of the Apartheid era in South Africa, might have created a New World setting far richer in possibilities for many more of its residents.
What might have happened? Jonathan Green in his set design for the recent Spoleto USA production of Porgy and Bess suggested an alternative visualization of Charleston if the African Americans had been immigrants free upon arrival. The current exhibit of work of the Atlanta-based artist Fahamu Pecou at the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art recalls a similar strategy of reinterpreting and incorporating the African community’s history and imagery in ways that question the called-for normalization of race as one embedded in, rather than distinct from, the surrounding culture. Yet, no amount of assimilation will absolve the abuses of power.
Ta-Nahesi Coates in his “Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic demonstrates a well-founded, strident posture on the ways in which the black race has been distinctly set apart, disallowed, or put down – not because of class – but because of the color of their skin – and denied benefits that were apportioned to whites throughout the history of North America, and specifically in the years immediately following World War II. The inescapability of skin color remains a stubborn symbol of fear and hatred as he confirms in his 2015 National Book Award winning Between the World and Me.
One particularly insipid aspect of racism and its guises has been entwined with the 20th century transformation of the American transportation system and its unequal impacts on African American neighborhoods and communities. Following World War II and with the rise of predominantly white suburbia, the federal government began an era of significant infrastructure construction that included the interstate highways and the increasing establishment of limited access “freeways” [sic] to connect suburbs to downtowns. The routing of these roads, implemented by locales but essentially funded by the federal government, became a mechanism to clear what euphemistically were called “slums” and “blighted communities.” The result was a dissection of established working class, predominantly African American, neighborhoods and a growing isolation of these once thriving communities. This overview at the Federal Highway Administration includes this sad chapter in history; and, the journalist Alana Samuels provides another interesting overview of this practice.
A closer scrutiny of how these policies played out in smaller cities, such as Charleston, South Carolina, illustrate how racial prejudice influenced road and bridge building. Bike Law’s Peter Wilborn writes in this recent blog post on a desire by local white leaders to isolate and dissect African American neighborhoods in Charleston by way of road construction. He notes what attitudes shaped the form and function of the Charleston region’s infrastructure. Among other points in this post (written in response to concerns surrounding a pending vote on the development of a bike/pedestrian crossing of the Ashley River), Wilborn states that we must recognize that “…our transportation policies are vestiges of “white flight”; and, in the case of the bridges that pre-date the 2005 completion of the Ravenel Bridge across the Cooper River,”…uncrossable bridges were used to justify segregation.”
While you may not have to accept Wilborn’s premise, you really only need to have a conversation with an African American who grew up and lives in Charleston to learn the realities of their alternative history of the area. In our Small Talks Big Ideas radio interview with Ray Huff, a noted architect as well as the Director of the Clemson University Center for Architecture in Charleston, we were happy to learn of ways that were being considered to reconnect the neighborhoods of Charleston via bike lanes and projects such as the “Low Line” park and the new medical district planned cooperatively by the MUSC and Roper Hospitals. On the other hand we also learned how the 1964 routing of the “Crosstown” (US Highway 17) through the peninsula, not only deliberately severed decades old African American neighborhoods, but took a specific jog so that the construction would eliminate the home of the local leader of the NAACP. What Ray Huff proposes at this point in time is: (1) to determine how we can re-engage the communities that have been left out; (2) how can we re-connect the African American community into the conversation; and, (3) how can economic opportunities benefit the African American community if and when these wounds in the city fabric can be healed.
Anthony Foxx, former mayor of Charlotte, and current US Secretary of Transportation strikes a similar chord to that of Huff. His experience growing up in Charlotte likewise has him as a witness to the destruction of his own neighborhood due to the construction of elevated highways connecting suburban areas of the city to downtown. In his current role as chief at the USDOT he has been instrumental in shifting the conversation away from the mere accommodation of cars, to connecting and re-connecting people within our communities. He has broadened the conversation further through programs such as the Smart Cities Challenge where cities sought ways to incorporate technology to better utilize federal transportation resources. And transportation projects are increasingly required to consider the long term consequences of climate change and rising sea levels to justify the extraordinary costs of these investments. No resiliency planning = no funding.
In addition, cities and regions must consider how to shift focus from an over-reliance on private automobiles to equitably providing transportation alternatives and other strategies for dealing with traffic congestion. Contributing to the local “crisis of congestion” is the fact that more than 80% of the cars on the roads in Charleston carry only one passenger. Recent trends in transportation system planning have determined that cities should shift their focus from the concept of mobility to the concept of access to opportunities.
Considering that the current generation of young people (ages 18-35) are less interested in driving, it seems reasonable to direct resources to more efficiently serve the greatest number of people – connecting them to each other, to their jobs, to their schools, and to the places where they want to spend their leisure time. As younger generations locate in more dense urban neighborhoods, an ongoing ongoing displacement of African Americans from urban neighborhoods has also occurred. This displacement has tended to isolate these communities further due to the lack of investments in infrastructure overall, especially in public, mass transit systems. A failure of our governments – at every level – to make these investments is compromising the quality of life for everyone, but there are possibilities that most should be able to agree upon.
So, the shape of local transportation policies requires:
Food for thought – The journalist Sebastian Junger may be best known for his book The Perfect Storm and his reportage in Afghanistan, but his most recent book is called Tribe. In it he considers the shape of values that constitute our communities, and how a strong community has significant benefits – such as fewer cases of depression and PTSD – beyond what might be obvious. In a recent interview on the radio show Live Wire Junger remarked that, while changing things might be highly unlikely, the biggest obstacle to stronger community is the car.
The South Carolina Community Loan Fund, a state-wide community development financing institution, has been serving as an affordable housing advocate in the Charleston region for over ten years. Its CEO, Michelle Mapp, estimates that by 2020, the region’s growth will require 50,000 units of affordable housing units where the monthly cost burden is no more than 30% of family income. Current data from the regional competitiveness planning underway by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce & Charleston Regional Development Alliance (follow the progress here) estimates that almost a third of the area’s mortgage holders and 53.6% of the area’s renters already pay in excess of this threshold, making Charleston’s one of the nation’s most expensive cities of its size for housing. According to a recent study on rental housing by the Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) at Harvard University, “Rental housing is home to a growing share of the nation’s diverse households. But even with the strong rebound in multi-family construction, tight rental markets make it difficult for low- and moderate-income renters to find housing they can afford.”
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation website How Housing Matters, a collaboration with the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing, provides in-depth evidence on how quality affordable housing goes well beyond providing shelter. The evidence indicates that better affordable housing improves school performance, diminishes health problems for children and adults, and decreases psychological stress. And this recent New York Times article, speaks to recent studies indicating that providing housing in “opportunity” neighborhoods goes even further by securing better economic futures for disadvantaged populations. When you consider its implications on productivity, growth, jobs, education, and public health, affordable housing affects everyone; and, finding ways to fill the housing gap will require a significant comprehensive re-evaluation of the toolbox available to guide development by public and private entities and partnerships.
A spectrum of housing opportunities is required at all income and need levels in better neighborhoods – young and elderly, families and individuals, employed and dependent, healthy and disabled. Spartanburg’s (SC) Northside Development Group is making strides in redeveloping this small city’s north side, an area dominated by the once-abandoned infrastructure of a former textile mill and adjacent mill houses. In addition to constructing and renovating a range of housing for seniors, disadvantaged individuals and families, and a portion of market rate units, the area now features a healthy food hub, Harvest Park; and, an early childhood development center is in the planning stages. One unique feature in the development is a creek fed by an artesian well that had been largely paved over and piped. A grant from the Mary Black Foundation led to the identification of this creek and recommended its “daylighting” in a report by USC Upstate Watershed Ecology. This creek restoration project, named by the community as Butterfly Branch, is designated to receive funding as mitigation for wetlands disturbance that will occur in expansions of the runway at the local airport.
A more urban example of a multivalent approach can be seen through the projects of New York City’s non-profit developer Broadway Housing Communities (BHC). BHC has a 30-year track record as one of the nation’s most successful providers of innovative permanent housing specifically geared to individuals and families in the greatest need. BHC’s founder Ellen Baxter refers to every development as “supportive housing,” noting that each provides support services for tenants, such as medical and mental health care, vocational training, job placement, substance abuse treatment, and other types of training for independent living. Several of the buildings also include pre-school and adult educational facilities. A testament to the organization’s success is the recently opened Sugar Hill apartment building in West Harlem where 48,000 applicants were processed for 124 units of housing with 25 units designated for people currently living in homeless shelters.
As this example demonstrates – and the waiting list for affordable housing among the poor in Charleston is very long as well – demand far outstrips the availability of units. Matthew Desmond in his new book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City notes that “Most Americans…think that the typical low income family lives in public housing or benefits from some kind of housing assistance, but the opposite is true.” The reality is that only one in four families who qualify for housing assistance receives it. According to Dr. Desmond, “We’ve reached a point in this country where the majority of poor renting families are giving at least half of their income to housing costs and one in four are giving over 70 percent of their income just to pay rent and keep the utilities on.” (see article here) Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund echoes Dr. Desmond’s observations here, noting that one potential solution to systemic poverty would be the expansion of housing vouchers to households earning up to 150% of the poverty level, and who spend more than 50% of their income for market rate rents. The Children’s Defense Fund estimates this would reduce child poverty by 20.8 percent and lift 2.3 million children out of poverty.
But housing the homeless and the very poor are only part of the challenge. The most recent Pritzker Prize winning architect Alejandro Aravena of Santiago, Chile, sees housing as a real problem that will only grow in the next decades with as many as 40% of the global population in cities living below the poverty line or in substandard housing. He notes (here) that when land is scarce and/or expensive, the free market for housing tends to do two things: (1) the sizes of houses are reduced to such an extent that the quality of life may be undermined; or, (2) the people and families who currently occupy the available housing stock are bought out and displaced to the city peripheries where land is cheap, “segregating people from the opportunities that made them come to cities in the first place.” The first course describes the micro unit and tiny house movement that we’ve discussed in earlier blog posts (here) – recently touted in this Next City article. The latter is better known as “Gentrification.” For an incredibly deep dive into the gentrification of Brooklyn, NY, listen to the podcast “There Goes the Neighborhood” for an interesting and enlightening description of the process in action.
Strategies to address the panoply of concerns related to gentrification and displacement have begun to surface, and many cities are looking for more robust tools to promote the development of more housing options for individuals and families earning from 60% to 120% of an area’s mean income (AMI). The first two proposals in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to create 200,000 units of affordable housing by 2024 were recently passed by New York’s City Council (articles can be found here and here). The first proposal is known as Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) which establishes quantities and types affordable housing that must be included in new developments that require any type of variance. The second proposal is Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA), providing specific zoning requirements and incentives for affordable housing development in every borough of the city. These ambitious proposals are seen by many other cities as the benchmark for future development of affordable housing.
Expanding the toolbox of cities to foster significant development of affordable housing is crucial. Charleston’s aspirations to create a vibrant, livable region will require tackling difficult systemic problems in this realm, including homelessness and gentrification. Advice has come from all corners such as this editorial written by former Charleston City Councilman Kwadjo Campbell with Rashida Jeffers-Campbell following on the heels of John Tecklenburg’s election as Mayor of Charleston. In this article, Campbell points to immediate opportunities available to local government, such as: overlay zoning; incentivized zoning; a bond used to secure and limit use of available tracts of land; and, committed revenue streams to directed at providers of affordable housing resources.
A 2007 JCHS report details a number of strategies that cities and states can use to increase affordable housing supply. In general, it is important to note that some issues, especially very low density and zoning ordinances designed to maintain them, decrease the overall supply of housing, especially multi-family housing, making rental and affordable housing more expensive. The most impressive results in the production of affordable housing can be found with mandated programs, particularly inclusionary zoning (IZ), such as that adopted recently in New York City, and linkage fees, where developers of non-residential space fund local affordable housing subsidy programs designed to bridge the gap between affordable and market rate housing rates. Linkage fee programs in Boston and San Francisco generated between $38 million and $45 million during the first ±15 years these fees were in place. Incentive programs such as density bonuses, fast-track permitting, and fee waivers represent another set of tools although the success of these instruments on their own have substantially less impact on the overall supply of affordable housing when compared with IZ or linkage fees.
Local governments also subsidize the production, retention and rehabilitation of affordable housing, mostly accomplished through state and federal resources. Federal block grant programs – CDBG and HOME – are more often the source used by local governments. Large metropolitan areas with high median housing values often add local resources to this federal funding, but smaller cities or metropolitan areas with numerous local governments generally do not or can not. Some state funding is available to cities in the form of tax credits, but these have rarely been significant enough to address the need and in South Carolina these are generally directed to rural areas.
Some states limit what local governments can do. However, states can create inducements to the production of affordable housing through comprehensive planning processes – establishing “fair share” provisions, density mandates, and requirements for housing subsidy programs – or by encouraging local governments to establish inclusionary zoning or density bonuses. California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island all have programs in place to stimulate the production of affordable housing. In Pennsylvania, the state has required local land-use regulations to limit exclusionary practices, such as low density zoning that does not allow apartments, as a counterweight to anti-density and “anti-snob” zoning practices. California has also mandated that local governments spend resources on affordable housing as a result of rising property taxes associated with rising home values.
Regardless of the path(s) chosen to meet the growing need for affordable housing, results can only come about through broad-based coalitions – including individuals, families, housing advocates, local government officials, legislators, and business organizations – that can agree on the need and the range of tools that are available to make affordable housing happen. Last year’s Supreme Court ruling on the Fair Housing Act was widely viewed as an opportunity for action on more integrative approaches to housing.
No single approach will solve the crisis, but it is critical that the need is recognized and addressed for the long-term.