What makes a community livable? There should be good jobs, quality schools and health care, reliable transportation, accessible social services, and other civic amenities.
But what about decent housing for people at all income levels?
That’s where many communities struggle. In fact, community development advocate Dr. Tiffany Manuel says 15 million low-income Americans pay at least half of their incomes for a place to live — and that’s if they can find a place they can actually afford.
Manuel appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss housing concerns. She is vice president of knowledge, impact, and strategy at Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., a Maryland-based non-profit that helps communities fund and build affordable housing for low- and moderate-income individuals and families.
A Dearth of Affordable Housing
Most people agree with the theory of affordable housing, says Manuel, but they don’t necessarily want those housing options located in their own neighborhoods. But she argues there are benefits to having mixed-income communities.
“We need the people who need affordable housing,” says Manuel.
Many of those who work in food service, retail, health care, and education may not be able to live close to their workplaces because of a lack of affordable housing options. Since we rely on the services those people provide, Manuel says it’s important for them to have a decent and convenient place to live.
While the booming economy generally has been good for the real estate market, it’s not been as good for low-income workers who need housing. Manuel says that presents a challenge for government officials.
“I don’t think at a federal level that we’ve reconciled what communities need to be able to address housing markets that have begun to lean heavily on the side of those who have resources to the exclusion of those who are moderate- or low-income families,” she says.
The new tax bill passed by Congress late last year does include a provision for “opportunity zones” that will give people who invest in distressed areas significant tax credits. But Manuel says that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“We need more investment from the private sector,” she says.
Building Community Support
That’s where Enterprise Community Partners can help. Manuel says the organization has provided about $9 billion a year in capital investments for housing, health care centers, playgrounds and other public spaces in communities across America. She says the non-profit has created or preserved about a million affordable homes over its 35-year history.
“We really try to be community partners,” Manuel says. “When communities come to us and they say we’re trying to make improvements for our residents and we need capital or policy or technical assistance or things that would help us to do that.”
Such efforts usually start with civic leaders making the case for why their community needs an affordable housing project. Manual says those pitches too often start with a litany of statistics that illustrate a problem that needs to be fixed.
“Data is important – it builds credibility for your argument… but it will not make your case,” she says. “The narrative is about the legacy we want to leave for our children and what it requires of us to be able to do that.”
Manuel says project developers also need to move beyond their own constituencies to connect with other entities in the community such as the school system and health care providers. She says such partnerships are mutually beneficial: Those groups can help build support for affordable housing projects, while their employees will benefit from having more housing options that match their income levels.
“It’s in that spirit that you begin a message about how we come together and think about what we need to ensure our future,” says Manuel.
Other Housing Concerns
Affordable housing isn’t just about home ownership, though. Manuel says younger generations want more flexibility in their living options.
“Being tied down to a 15- or a 30-year mortgage feels like an anchor that is too heavy, rather than something that allows them to build wealth,” she says.
Millennials may also be carrying too much debt from student loans or credit card charges to qualify for a mortgage, according to Manuel.
Some communities pursue gentrification as a way to revitalize decaying neighborhoods. Manuel says those projects are a mixed blessing: the influx of capital can spur much needed development, but it can also result in existing residents being priced out of housing in their own neighborhoods.
“People of color, low income folks, etc., have begun to push back and say there has to be a way where we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, which is you keep moving us around without allowing us to develop roots,” says Manuel.
Even when local citizens decide to pursue affordable housing, many simply don’t know how to navigate zoning ordinances or who in their community makes those decisions.
“It is an imperative on [zoning officials] to help to educate folks about how decision-making works in your community,” Manuel says, “so they feel empowered about that and can actually come forward with changes that need to be made.”
A Public Park for All Children
Don’t underestimate the power of a good idea coupled with unyielding persistence when it comes to community development projects.
When Rachel Ritchie was in third grade, she decided her community of Vine Grove in Hardin County needed a park that was accessible to all children, even those with physical limitations. So over the course of four years, she worked to raise some $500,000 for the idea. Collaborating with her family as well as civic and church groups, Ritchie was able to make her dream into reality with “Rachel’s Fun for Everyone Playground.”
“My drive and mental toughness has been built up because I’ve had to deal with naysayers and I’ve had to deal with adults who say you can’t do anything just because you’re a kid,” Ritchie says. “I just have to take those naysayers and turn them into supporters… and educate them about the importance of play and the importance of inclusion.”
Ritchie says she hopes the park will foster relationships among children and parents who might not otherwise be friends. She thinks that can help reduce bullying as kids learn to see more of their commonalities rather than their physical differences.
“Just because you’re a kid doesn’t mean that you can’t make a change in your community,” Ritchie says. “I hope to be an example of that and inspire other kids. If they see a positive change they want to make, do it.”