Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

One element typically ignored in housing policy: helping low income families stay in their homes via repair assistance

Rebuilding Together is a national organization, dedicated to providing housing improvement assistance ("critical repairs and renovations") to low income households, via more than 150 locally based programs scattered around the US.

The organization terms April as "National Rebuilding Month" (the organization used to be called "Christmas in April"), and encourages affiliates to focus their service efforts then, culminating in "National Rebuilding Day," held on the last Saturday in April. 

Local affiliates are a mix of either all-volunteer organizations or some with paid staff.  Funds may be a mix of government grants and locally raised donations, depending on the group.  Affiliates with paid staff tend to undertake more projects and do projects throughout the year, rather than just in April.

Last year, collectively they repaired 10,400 houses with the involvement of 100,000 volunteers for an equivalent value of $90 million of output.

In addition to the national conference, RT national also organizes some "national" events. For example, over Martin Luther King Jr. Day Weekend in January 2014 (January 18th-20th), RT affiliates from around the country will join together in working on a slew of projects in the Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

At the national conference, held recently in DC, RT released a fabulous overview document, a kind of 25-year retrospective, called Meeting Tomorrow's Housing Challenges.

The document is superb, and brings together a lot of academic research on housing practice and policy into one document.

One of the conference presenters was Kermit Baker of the Joint Center for Housing Studies.  He runs their Remodeling Futures Project, which collects data and makes policy recommendations about the housing remodeling industry.

Right: house in the Trinidad neighborhood of DC showing severely deteriorated roof conditions.

His presentation was fascinating in how it contrasted overall housing remodeling statistics with statistics for lower income households.

Most households do one major remodeling project annually, targeting one key element of the house, either a repair or maintenance, or the creation of a new feature.  Annually, the average household spends $2,400 on improvements and $700 on repairs.

Their research finds that a disabled household spends 10% less than the average, senior households 20% less, minority households 30% less, households with houses under $100,00 in value 50% less, and households with under $20,000 annual income spend 50% less.

Households with all of these characteristics spend an average of $500 year on repairs and improvements, less than one-sixth of the national average, and a majority of these households spend no money at all.

These are the kinds of households that are helped by Rebuilding Together. But the demand is much greater than they are able to address.

And it is growing.

1.  Income inequality is increasing and poorer households have a disproportionate need for repairs, especially because the problems of deferred repairs get worse over time.

2.  The housing stock is aging, and older houses require more repair, not less.

3.  The population is aging and older households are the fastest growing segment of the housing market.  Plus as people are living longer, one-half of households 75 years of age and older have disability and access issues.

Clearly, local housing policies need to address these issues more than they do, in addition to how some communities, having more housing than the current demand will support, are demolishing housing stock (Planetizen webpage on shrinking cities), and how programs exist to support the rehabilitation of existing multiunit housing:

-- Multifamily Housing Preservation, US Department of Housing and Urban Development
-- past blog entry, "Deeper thinking/programming on weak residential housing markets is required: DC example, Anacostia"

I also see this as the source of some of the tension and resentment concerning what many people call gentrification.

When I saw the documentary "Flag Wars," about the Olde Towne East neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, how it experienced housing in-migration into a traditionally African-American neighborhood by gay households with the economic means to restore very large and often dilapidated properties, I was struck by the thought that a lot of the resentment had to do with the fact that many of the existing households lacked the means to properly address their repair issues, and in fact were overwhelmed.

People needed help and lacked the money to take on daunting projects.  Sicking code inspectors on them wasn't helping them.

I thought a lot of the resentment could have been addressed through a neighborhood-city project comparable to what Rebuilding Together does.

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At 1:00 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

All true, but the houses that are really falling apart are rental, not owners.

There are a lot of way for a reasonably solvent person to extrat money out of a house. Key words - reasonably solvent.

Doubly so in DC where house ownership may go back 40-50 years in some cases.

At 1:11 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Well, the Columbus example is special. Those houses were gargantuan. Similarly, I look at houses in North Philadelphia that are 3000 or 4000 s.f. but under $400K and then I think about maintaining a stone house that is 200+ years old.

The one house depicted on the POV documentary would have been out of our means to maintain...

2. But yes, rental housing is a problem, and code enforcement can help. Because if you let things fester things get a lot worse.

... another piece I want to write about RT concerns what they call "cluster" rebuilds, where they focus on one or two blocks. And in those communities, the issue of providing service to rental properties is problematic because public funds typically can't be used that way. (RT gets private donations too, which helps them get around such restrictions.)

3. But your point, about reasonably solvent... think about places like Cleveland, Detroit, Flint, St. Louis, even parts of Philadelphia or Baltimore. Multiple decades of disinvestment make it hard to step in and get things on the right track...

At 4:25 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

True enough. Although seniors who aren't financially viable living in 4000 square foot houses seems to be the problem, not the solution.

No question on the resentment. I wonder if in a gentrifying neighborhood taking the transfer/real estate taxes and directly applying them to a program like this would help. I've suggested the same for parking and transit improvement. You want people to go in there and fix stuff up and use some of that money to improve the area.

At 6:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

1. Although seniors who aren't financially viable living in 4000 square foot houses seems to be the problem, not the solution

ABSOLUTELY. It's not politic to say.

We just stayed in a carriage house on a property in Germantown. The main house is 8000 s.f. It's on 3 acres, just a few blocks from Germantown Ave.

But the lady bought it more than 30 years ago (she was married then) for $40,000. So she has no mortgage, which is the only way she can keep it up. (But she has oil heat!!!!! I imagine the cost from the gas company to put in piping from the street to the house would be many tens of thousands of dollars).

2. And your suggestion in the second paragraph is a very very good one too.

Somehow some of the tax revenue stream needs to be better captured for direct neighborhood improvements.


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