Data and Politics Combine to Finance Affordable Housing








New Orleans   I’ve been carrying around an article from the housing magazine, Shelterforce, in my bag for a year. I finally noticed it and moved it to my book, where I’ve toted it for a month or more, meaning to do something with it. Originally, I had torn the article out of the magazine to share with the local organizers because it contained an article by a New Orleans reporter about how healthcare facilities and legal aid were partnering in the city. Some kind of kismet though allowed me to find the treasure behind the door where an article on the back page talked about a fascinating strategy for creating and activating a political base for funding affordable housing.

In the scrap of the piece I had saved, Sharon Cornu, the political director of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, described the organizing plan she constructed to create an electoral base of tenants to support affordable housing. Here’s her plan in a nutshell:

“…NPH matched a list of subsidized apartment addresses to California’s voter database and then shared targeting lists with property managers. In an off-year municipal election, low-income, senior, veteran, and disabled affordable housing residents voted at nearly the same rate (43.3%) as the general electorate (45.5%).”

Realizing such mobilization could impact elections and create a viable political base of engaged tenants with a vested interest in affordable housing, they build a regional data base in 2016. With some help and technical support, NPH identified 52,000 registered voters living in developments managed by its member affiliates. She goes on to argue that initiatives they were able to support are producing $2 billion in financing for affordable housing.

Her strategy depended on organizing property managers and organizations that owned affordable housing complexes, but it seems to me the general strategy could be adapted by community organizations as well by doing the same database matching between subsidized and affordable housing complexes in any city and voter file addresses to identify tenants for organization, voter registration and GOTV efforts. With or without the managers’ cooperation, site-specific organizing committees could be established to visit other tenants in the complex.

Cornu adds that “reviewing the hard data about the number of registered voters by property revealed opportunities to broaden the electoral base, expand to new locations, and improve existing programs with low rates of registration. Measuring is the first step in identifying how to improve…”

Add her insights about data assemblage and targeting to basic community organizing methodology, and a deep, motivated voting block of tenants is waiting to be organized to demand more affordable housing to meet the crisis in cities around the world.


Judge Forces HUD to Allow 200,000 Section 8 Holders to Get their Move On

Gulfport   Another day, another dollar, and again a judge, this time a federal one, pulls the rope up to ground again to take another small step in preventing the country from going to hell in a hand basket.

The judge, Beryl Howell, of the prestigious U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, overturned a HUD attempt to subvert a late stage Obama rule allowing Section 8 voucher recipients increased mobility in finding rental accommodations and improving equity prospects for their families. Secretary Ben Carson and HUD under pressure from Home Builders and other lobbyists had delayed the rule change for two years, ostensibly for more study and claiming that it might allow local housing authorities more time to get their acts together.

The immediate impact is huge because it allows 200,000 section 8 voucher holders in twenty-three different metropolitan areas to take advantage of the ruling and access a wider range of neighborhoods and higher rental allowances. The metro areas are a good cross section of the country: Atlanta, Bergen-Passaic, N.J, Charlotte, Chicago, Colorado Springs, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Worth, Gary (Ind), Hartford, Jackson, Ms, Jacksonville, FL, Monmouth, NJ, Sarasota, FL, Melbourne, Fla, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, Tampa, Honolulu, Washington, and West Palm Beach.

Here’s why this decision and the rule itself is so important.

As the provision of public housing has plummeted the fig leaf standing for US social housing policy has been the provision of Section 8 vouchers to subsidize the rent for low income families in privately offered apartments. This is not an entitlement program. Vouchers are not unlimited, pushing hundreds of thousands across the country on to waiting lists, seemingly forever. Vouchers are also time-limited making it virtually impossible in some tight housing markets (see the list above) for holders to find decent, affordable units and landlords, who have huge power in this equation, to agree to rent to them.

The previous way of calculating the rental subsidy was to figure the average for the entire metropolitan area. In tight markets with highly divergent rental levels, the rule effectively meant that the only available units were in lower income neighborhoods, boxing families out of opportunities for better schools, job networks, and other social and economic advantages. The new rule, now reinstated, calculates the average rents and the subsidy level by zip codes, essentially opening up the entire metropolitan area for potential occupancy by section 8 voucher holders, because the levels of subsidy will rise with the relative amenities of the neighborhood.

Sure, it will obviously cost the government more, but it will open up increased opportunities for lower income families, allow us to make some desperately needed progress on racial and equity issues, and generally diversify our neighborhoods. The next step will be to expand this rule nationally, past these twenty-three metropolitan areas, but for now, this is good news, allowing families to get their move on!