Village Green: Revitalizing Cincinnati's Historic Over-the-Rhine (Part 3 - exciting progress portends a national model)
I just enjoyed an adventure in Springfield, Massachusetts with Steve Shultis and his wife Liz of Rational Urbanism. Steve does a far better job of describing his town and his philosophy than I ever could, but my interpretation can be summed up with an analogy about an old college room mate.
At the end of my first year at university I was approached by an engineering student who asked if he could be my room mate next year. We didn’t know each other particularly well and didn’t have much in common, but he seemed harmless enough. I shrugged. Sure. We went our separate ways over the summer and in September he appeared at my door. After a few months of successfully sharing accommodations I asked him why he came to me when most guys in his situation would have gone in a very different direction. He explained.
The average college freshman tends to have an adolescent understanding of what a good independent life might be like. Young men are motivated by peculiar impulses and the siren song of the frat house calls. Beer. Parties. Girls. Sports cars. The prestige of hanging out with rich kids, athletes, and really popular older guys. He said that was usually a big mistake. The furniture is made of plastic milk crates. The place smells like a locker room. People eat ramen and cold day old pizza out of the box. They wear flip flops in the shower because no one has ever cleaned the bathroom. Ever. And when you bring a girl home there are a dozen bigger richer guys with fancier cars than you hovering around. You sit there trying to get your romance on with posters of naked women taped to the walls next to a collection of empty bottles. And you pay extra for all this… It’s just not a great situation.
Then he made a sweeping motion with his hand indicating our apartment. A pleasing mixture of antiques and modern pieces. Smells like lemons. When he brings a girl home I’m in the kitchen cooking brisket and home made bread. Soft lighting. Ella Fitzgerald is playing in the background. No competition. And it’s cheaper. For him, doing the unorthodox and socially uncomfortable thing was just… rational.
Back to Springfield. Steve took a version of the same strategy. He and his family live in a gracious four story French Second Empire mansion. The place is huge and everywhere you look there’s a level of detail and quality you can’t find in any home built today. There’s a legal apartment on the lower level that they use as a guest suite. I looked up the address on a real estate listing site and he paid less for this house than many people spend on their cars. His family has a quality of life and a degree of financial freedom that none of his suburban piers can comprehend.
Most people load themselves up with massive amounts of debt in order to live the way they believe they’re supposed to. You wouldn’t want to put your kids in a substandard urban school with the wrong element. You wouldn’t want to buy a house that never appreciated in value. You wouldn’t want to have to explain to your friends, family, and co-workers that you live in a slum with poor black people and Puerto Ricans. And where do you park?! It’s so much “better” to soak yourself in debt to buy your way in to the thing you believe you can’t live without.
A walk around the block brought us to the family doctor, numerous great places to eat, and one of the best little Italian grocery stores I’ve seen in years.
A few more blocks and we arrived at the civic center, museum district, and numerous pubic parks. Like most older downtown areas Springfield experienced decades of depopulation and disinvestment with white flight to the suburbs and out migration to the sun belt. As the years passed and the economy shifted once again some downtowns boomed, but it was a winner-take-all scenario in Boston, New York, and San Francisco that hasn’t touched second and third tier towns farther afield. Springfield is half empty, but the full half is amazing and spectacularly affordable.
If you’re looking for a large fully detached home with a yard Springfield has an abundance. These elegant homes are right on the edge of downtown within bicycle distance. This is an excellent alternative to suburban living for families with children who appreciate urban amenities. Homes like these close to Boston sell for millions. In Springfield they sell for pennies on the dollar.
I like to poke around the ugly parts of town in search of hidden nuggets. The most interesting people tend to need two things: affordable property and a lightly regulated environment. It helps if absolutely no one with any authority cares about the location.
Gasoline Alley is the old industrial corridor that supplies Springfield with fuel and associated services. More than a few of the older buildings are no longer viable for their original purposes. Lo and behold, the void is being filled with good music, food and drink.
As much as I appreciate the “creative class’ and the importance of “third places” at the end of the day towns need to be productive before anything else can be supported. Local indoor food production is a viable business model in Springfield. It costs 56¢ to grow a head of lettuce hydroponically and it sells for $3. At first I questioned the level of electricity and other inputs associated with this kind of cultivation. Isn’t it just cheaper and easier to grow things in the ground with sunlight? Turns out… not so much most of the year in Massachusetts. The alternative is bringing veggies in from California and Florida in refrigerated trucks. That involves far more energy and creates a critical dependency on systems locals have no control over. This particular entrepreneur can’t keep up with demand for his products.
That takes me to another point that no one seems to be talking about these days. Towns like Springfield were once the economic engines of their day. They managed to engage in national and international trade while doing so in an intensely local manner. The primary resources used for commerce and industry were readily at hand: hydro power from rivers, wood from abundant forests, and minerals from local quarries. And raw materials and finished products were transported along the canal system using nothing more than a mule pulling a barge. If you’re looking for an environmental, renewable, durable, and resilient economic base you could do a lot worse than re-inhabiting the mothballed facilities in a place like Springfield.
As we come to the end of this year’s Fair Housing Month, HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity is reenergized and even more committed to creating equality in housing by enforcing the Fair Housing Act.
We do this by investigating each housing discrimination complaint that is filed with HUD by members of the public and fair housing groups around the country. We also initiate investigations in the name of HUD’s Secretary when necessary. When a person or family is denied housing because of who they are, what they look like, or where they come from, it limits housing opportunities and the promise of a richer life and future. It’s also illegal.
Enforcing the Fair Housing Act means removing those often-invisible barriers that keep people from renting or buying a home – barriers such as landlords lying about the availability of units when they see an applicant in a wheelchair; or ignoring a family’s steady income and good credit because they are African-American or Hispanic.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. Still, nearly a half century later, housing discrimination still exists. Last year alone, HUD and our partners fielded more than 8,300 complaints alleging discrimination based on one or more of these seven bases.
Often, those who file fair housing complaints and those who allegedly did the discriminating come to an agreement and settle out of court. These agreements often include monetary relief for victims of discrimination. But more importantly, they help to make housing providers and municipalities aware of their obligations under the Fair Housing Act and the Act’s prohibitions against discrimination.
Just a few months ago, for example, the City of Phoenix signed a Voluntary Compliance Agreement after the Southwest Fair Housing Council and the Arizona Fair Housing Center alleged that the city’s Housing Choice Voucher Program did not make its online pre-application process fully accessible to those with disabilities or to people with limited English proficiency. Under the agreement, these barriers were removed.
Sometimes just one individual, family or landlord is involved. In one case, a Minnesota landlord was ordered to pay $27,000 to a woman with disabilities he had denied housing to, as well as a $16,000 civil penalty. Between larger, more systemic cases and individual cases, fair housing cases that HUD settled in 2016 resulted in more than $25 million in monetary relief.
Filing a complaint is free and easy, and HUD will investigate it free of charge as part of its efforts to enforce the Fair Housing Act. If you or a member of your family or community believes their rights have been violated, you can call the fair housing toll-free number at (800) 669-9777 to file a complaint, or file a complaint online.
No one has the right to limit your housing choices, and if they do HUD will be there to enforce the law so that everyone has an equal shot at obtaining the home of their choosing.
Timothy Smyth is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Enforcement and Programs in HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.
Last weekend I was working on a charrette crew that included my colleague and partner, Bruce B. Tolar. Searching through my hard drive today I came across my (improvised) remarks from when the New Urban Guild gave the 2015 Barranco Award to Bruce, the Developer/Builder of Cottage Square in Ocean Springs Mississippi.
“For those of us who knew Michael Barranco and were there for the Katrina charrettes, this is a person who really made a mark on our lives, not just because we showed up and did work together, but because his character was such that it was like playing in a pro-am: You really upped your game when playing around Michael. Very genuine. No artifice. No phoniness. He was genuinely concerned about every person he ever met, and wanted everyone’s life to be better. He decided that architecture was his way to do that.
With his passing, there is a hole in the CNU, but the New Urban Guild offers the Barranco Award to practitioners who are that kind of stand-up guy. It’s about the character with which you comport yourself. It’s about how hungry you are to learn. It’s about how much you care about your community. It’s about how much you love and encourage your fellow-citizens. With that said, I’d like to introduce you to this year’s award-winner, Bruce Tolar, through some of his work. <begin slides of Bruce’s projects>
The original Katrina Cottage which by itself was great, but Bruce took it out of the total chaos and mayhem and bad financial circumstances that were pretty much an everyday deal in Ocean Springs at that time, and all along the coast. And from nothing, he created the peaceful excellence of Cottage Square, where he put the pieces together into something amazing which that community cherishes. It has even become a tourist destination. Imagine that: an interim housing solution after a hurricane has become a tourist destination!
So Bruce pulled together all the Katrina Cottages that were built as prototypes for demonstration purposes and brought them to Cottage Square. And he made something out of the pieces, just as we all try to do, which is to aggregate a great place from small incremental parts. It is a modest place, with gravel sidewalks; a place where you can operate a tiny business out of those tiny buildings. And the community that has formed there has become a real anchor to Ocean Springs. From there, Bruce launched an expansion, which was an incredibly ambitious project in a place governed by FEMA… <cough> <laughs and applause> … a terrible environment to work under, but he is doing amazing, excellent work with modest little pieces.
He reached out to nonprofits in the area; he connects with so many people; he’s been in that town forever, serving on many boards; and the idea that there was something to be done after a hurricane, and fixing civilization in general, was a natural thing for Bruce. The people love this neighborhood. The nonprofits he’s been working with have been tremendously empowered by seeing one guy’s ability to put people together and make things work. Bruce is the best design caulking gun you can imagine, pulling everything together on modest means and making things happen. So with that, I’d like to present this year’s Barranco Award to Bruce Tolar.”
If you are traveling along the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans and Mobile you should give yourself a treat and stop to walk around Cottage Square. It is a special place built in tough circumstances by a remarkable guy.
One of the things I forgot to write in my post on the individual mental health things one should do to endure a city is to embrace its warts and try to heal them.
However, some warts are so bad, they might as well be cancerous. This is where you come in civic or business leader. It’s in your hands to cure these malignant lumps on your city and make them better. Here’s how:
Stop chasing after companies from other places, especially if that company is already in your metro region but not your jurisdiction.
We always complain that we don’t have millions to spend on another school, but millions magically appear to help companies move offices, sometimes just across the city, district or state line. If you want to support businesses, how about setting up a small business fund or providing low or no interest loans to local makerspaces and business incubators?
Create and recalibrate a law enforcement system geared to rehabilitation.
So many people in jails and prisons really should be in mental health facilities or even just job training programs. Yes, punishment for certain crimes is worthwhile, but think about all the new customers, scholars and homeowners we could have if we made sure this system didn’t hold people back for an unreasonable period of time. Or, if we provided the meals, shelter and sense of belonging on the outside such that people don’t look to these facilities and doing crimes just to have that community.
Stop the infighting between other departments, grantees and other nonprofit or corporate partners.
I know this often comes from limited amounts of capital and budget battles, but we’re all in this together. The people who need these services the most don’t want to hear about whose turn it is to get the extra $500,000 surplus or who’s turn it is to lose it. They don’t worry as much as you do about overhead vs. programming, especially if there’s no evidence of that battle on the service provision level. Going back to Mazlow’s triangle, they are trying to get to the top, starting at the base. You as civic and business leaders help them do that.
Everything doesn’t need to be developed, re-developed or revitalized for it to be successful.
I know this is down to making money or just having a dream of seeing something revamped. At its most purest motivations that is. However, what do we really gain from replacing one neighborhood with another, sometimes on top of the neighborhood that was already there? We are in a time where people want Art Deco, Craftsman, Federal, Mansard, Victorian and other types of architecture that pays a lot of attention to details. They might be ok with well-done mid-century modern, brutalist or “Starchitect” type structures, if it serves a good purpose and doesn’t take away from street life and it’s connected to many transportation modes. Also, we want our homes to be affordable, but not cheap. I shouldn’t worry that my brand new house will burn down because it’s made of wood that’s only a few sheets stronger than paper. Also, we can’t forsake neighborhood service businesses, especially corner stores. I won’t get into details of food production and provision here, but we have to keep looking into how affordable, healthy food can come back to our street corners.
Stop undermining our educational system.
You either get public funding for your school or you don’t. Also, some metro areas have way too many school options. The last I checked 2×2=4 and E=MC^2. Why do we need so many buildings that offer that lesson, especially ones funded with public money. I’m of the idea and I’ve said it before right here, that you can have public schools and private schools. Public schools provide a basic educational service, as well as service all kids regardless of background. Private schools provide supplemental education, especially of the religious variety. Why we can’t get that equation together is beyond me.
Strengthen the services of our safety net.
This gets back to affordable housing, healthcare, food, schooling, transportation and everything else. We all have good times and bad times. Not everyone needs luxury and everyone deserves a bare minimum of life to live. We shouldn’t have teachers and others who work for a living, just barely able to afford homes or living on couches not by choice.
Be ready for change from the ground up, while yet making sure everyone has a seat and a consideration of ideas.
You might be thinking, how can I do this? This isn’t possible. I have to make money. People like shiny new things. Also, you have no right to say all this. You’re barely old enough to be in the field. Wait until you have to balance a limited budget. Wait until you’ve had some family crisis.
Well, to answer that: one, I’m here to provoke new thought. Two, I have had financial and familial challenges. Three, when it comes to writing and planning things, I’ve been doing both professionally since 2005. Yes, as a teen. And I’ll admit I have more to learn, but I’d also like to fix and grow around both the individual and the corporate principles I’ve outlined.
With that said, we can all do better. And yes, there are sacrifices. However, if I can sacrifice, we all can too. I can say my sacrifices are starting to pay off. What can you say to your city when yours do too?
I’m Kristen. I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, www.kristenejeffers.com. Keep up with my weekly adventures via my weekly email. Support my work on Patreon.
The Lakeside Senior Apartments, an affordable housing project in Oakland. Photo by Sergio Ruiz for SPUR.
The rate of increase in rents and home sale prices may have slowed, but Oakland still has the fourth highest rents in the nation, and housing remains unaffordable to too many. In 2016, the city set high goals for addressing the housing shortage — but how much progress has been made since then?
A year ago, Mayor Schaaf’s office released Oakland at Home (pdf download), an action plan for addressing the city’s severe housing shortage. The plan spelled out a strategy to preserve 17,000 existing affordable units, build 17,000 more, protect renters from displacement, streamline permitting for new construction and create new resources for affordable housing.
To date, 5,985 affordable units have been acquired and/or rehabilitated or are undergoing that process, and 2,171 new affordable units are under construction or moving through the approvals process. Furthermore, a total of 3,500 units at all price points are currently under construction. This is a huge number for Oakland, the most units under production at any one time for longer than most people can remember, and a gigantic step in the right direction.
In July 2016, the Oakland City Council amended the city’s Rent Adjustment Ordinance, and in November 2016 Oakland voters approved Measure JJ to strengthen renter protections. Together these actions did three important things. First, they extended just-cause eviction requirements, which mandate that tenants can only be evicted by their landlord for one of 11 just causes, to units built and approved before December 31, 1995. (Previous protections only covered units built in 1980 and earlier.) Second, they required landlords to file a petition for rent increases over the consumer price index (although increases allowed but not taken in the past can be carried forward). Third, they doubled the city’s per unit registration fees in order to fund better services for helping renters know and understand their rights. Since then, the city has engaged a group of local nonprofit advocacy organizations to provide tenant counseling and legal assistance to renters, embarked on a revamp of the Housing Assistance Center, and created new, more user-friendly websites for the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Rent Adjustment Program.
In November 2016, voters also approved the Oakland Infrastructure Bond, a $600 million infrastructure bond. Though the majority of the money will be used for street repair, city facility operations and maintenance, $100 million will be used to acquire existing affordable housing, thus taking it off of the speculative market, and rehabilitate it. With these new resources, and with support from an angel donor at the San Francisco Foundation, a trio of local organizations have begun acquiring and rehabilitating housing throughout Oakland.
In 2016, the Oakland City Council and Oakland voters showed just as much resolve to give the city the means to build new affordable housing as they did to enhance efforts to preserve it. In April, the City Council adopted impact fees on market-rate residential development to help pay for the construction of more affordable housing in Oakland. And in November, Alameda County voters approved the $580 million Measure A1 to help fund affordable housing construction. Also in 2016, the City of Oakland received $60 million in state cap-and-trade funds through California’s Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program for building new transit-oriented affordable housing projects and improving transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Projects funded by this grant include the rehabilitation of two historic single-room occupancy hotels, the Empyrean and the Harrison, the construction of two mixed-income multifamily apartment buildings, 140 units of which will be affordable, and the construction of new bus, bike and pedestrian connections to downtown, uptown and East Oakland.
There is still a lot to do to resolve Oakland’s affordable housing shortage, and SPUR will continue to assist the city in this task. Among the looming priorities is to create new policy for developing land owned by the city. Instead of making piecemeal decisions about individual city-owned properties — a process that can leave projects open to controversy — Oakland needs a comprehensive, citywide plan for public lands. Such a plan could guide decision-making on how best to use public lands to achieve the city’s affordable housing goals — as well as its many other competing goals and pressing needs.