How to get more fixed income housing built

by Martha (Booser) Black
(Middletown PA)

Visitor Question: My mom, Edith Metzger Booser, organized a team in Middletown PA which succeeded in changing a junk yard into a lovely high-rise apartment building for people on limited incomes. It's named the Interfaith Apartments. She and the team were set to begin the process of constructing a second high-rise, but Reagan's policies made it impossible.

There is still a huge need for similar housing in our town. To honor the memory of my hardworking, selfless parents who did so much to make life better for everyone in our town (with a special focus on the elderly and people with special needs - but now the focus needs to be on making our town increasingly a place where children can thrive), I wonder how the team might now begin the process.

Many thanks!

Martha (Booser) Black

Editors Reply: The answer to this question could fill a book, but we will concentrate on an overview of how you might approach the important need for affordable housing in your community today. We will divide our answer into three steps.

The first step actually encompasses two components that need to occur simultaneously: (1) rebuilding a team or steering committee, and (2) identifying and networking with the other major allies or opponents you will need to take into account. You need to expand the original team to include younger folks who have energy to work on housing issues for the long haul. Include parents and people who work with children at risk, since you have identified this new focus.

Your team needs to develop into a tight-knit group of people who share the vision now and do not need to be convinced of the merit of providing more housing for people of limited means. If some of your supporters need to understand more about the affordable housing landscape now, begin with the affordable housing, government housing assistance, and government grants for housing pages of this website.

At the same time you need to network to develop a diagram of all of the different players you will likely need to make this vision for more fixed-income housing into a reality. These people may or may not be interested in more affordable housing, and some may be actively opposed. You need to know who they are and start meeting with them to persuade them to help.

First, be sure to include bankers and representatives of credit unions and any community development finance institutions in your area. Identify any financial institution employees who attend community events regularly; those are likely the people to approach first. Also seek out newly motivated financial institutions by searching for those who recently ran into trouble with regulators for their lack of Community Reinvestment Act compliance.

Another important group to scout is government officials. Talk with the mayor, city councilpersons, the head of your housing authority, the planning or community development director, county officials, and your state representatives to learn their opinions and to take advantage of their knowledge of current programs and trends. Ask local officials about surplus land and potential redevelopment or re-use sites. Sometimes it is even more fruitful to talk with the state housing finance agency, which can be found through the links at the National Council of State Housing Agencies website.

A third group that should be on your radar from the beginning is developers. If the developer of the first project is still in business or there is a successor company, start there. Begin paying attention to discussions of lower-income housing in other cities in Pennsylvania, and make note of any developers involved. Every time a developer indicates absolutely no interest, ask him or her for recommendations of other developers who might be interested. Also reach out right away to any non-profit housing developers active in your metro area.

The second step we would recommend is updating your ideas about what affordable housing can be in the 21st century. In contrast to the 1970s, today we know that it is best not to segregate incomes. Become aware of potential configurations of mixed income housing, and start thinking about inclusionary zoning or other methods of mandating that affordable units be included in any larger projects that come to your city.

Mixing incomes is especially helpful and important when planning housing for households with children, teens, and adults in the workforce who need job-hunting contacts. You can get by with an income limit for all residents when building senior housing, but not when you include younger ages.

In particular, high-rise buildings as a form of fixed-income housing are unlikely to be built today. Stand-alone or clusters of medium-rise buildings that are compatible with their surroundings are much more common. In your city, that might mean buildings no more than three stories high, for instance. Especially if you plan to meet the needs of children, you need to limit building heights while at the same time incorporating safely enclosed outdoor play space. Family housing tends to require more land area than senior housing, so you will need to expand the thinking of your team to include school locations and play space.

You will need to educate yourselves about the low-income housing tax credit and other forms of community development financing available today. Although written for Massachusetts, this Housing Toolbox page offers a great primer.

The third step that likely will be necessary is to build a coalition to support either the concept of affordable housing in general or a specific project that you begin to envision. You might have to form a temporary or permanent organization, organize events such as conferences or even demonstrations, or sponsor tours to nearby cities to see relevant examples. You may need university research to quantify need or survey potential residents.

You will improvise on this general advice as you go along. After significant meetings, leave enough time to follow up on their suggestions before you schedule the next important interview. When you find a likely ally, keep him or her informed about your progress or roadblocks without making yourself a pest by asking for advice every few days.

If you need more help along the way, we invite you to contact us through the website, since we like the idea our honoring your Mom's memory.

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