Equity and Affordable Housing In Arlington - Dec 21st, 2020

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Panel discussion organized by the Arlington Human Rights Commission, and conducted via remote participation. Panelists include Jamie Langowski (Suffolk Law), Pam Hallet (Housing Corporation of Arlington), and Alex Ponte-Capellan and Connor Ring (City Life/Vida Urbana). Facilitated by Crystal Haynes (Human Right Commission).

(Jamie Langowski) Suffolk Law conducted a study in 2018--2019 that attempted to measure housing discrimination in the rental market https://www.tbf.org/-/media/tbf/reports-and-covers/2020/housing-voucher-report-20200701.pdf. They researchers designed the study with the help of a group of statisticians. The study used 200 trained testers, 100 of whom were white, and 100 of whom were black. Half of each demographic group sought market-rate housing, while the other half sought housing with the assistance of rental vouchers. There were 50 test cases; one person from each group contacted the the landlord or rental agent, and the four testers were chosen to be as similar as possible. That allowed the researchers to compare the treatments received by each of the four testers. Testers first names were chosen to imply race. The study was designed to mimic a real housing search.

There were statistically significant differences in who was shown apartments, who was "ghosted", and who was shown additional properties. 86% of the tests exhibited voucher discrimination and 71% exhibited racial discrimination. Thus, vouchers are not a proxy for racial discrimination; these are two distinct types of discrimination.

Voucher use was revealed as early as possible. Voucher holders were ghosted four times as often as non-voucher holders. ("Ghosting" means the landlord or rental agent cut off contact with the tester.) White non-voucher testers were shown more units than any of the other groups.

Most testers interacted with real estate professionals. A smaller number interaction with landlord or property managers.

There are no metro areas in the United States where someone working 40 hours a week at minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. Voucher discrimination makes this even worse.

(Pam Hallet) HCA has a long waiting list -- 420 waiting for openings in one of their 102 units. Tenant selection is done via lottery.

55% of HCAs tenants earn $20k/year or less, 34% earn between $20k and $40k, and 11% earn between $40k and $60k. Most tenants have subsidies like housing vouchers, but not all do.

In Massachusetts, one needs to earn $27.39/hour in order to afford the rent for a typical two bedroom home.

HCA was founded in 1986. They're a membership-based 501(c)3 with a 12-person board of directors. The corporation has 102 units with 48 in development. The new 48 units should be completed in June or July and HCA plans to start advertising for tenants in the spring.

HCA has a homelessness prevention program which has given away over $1M in grants to keep people housed. They raised $150k for the program this year. They also worked with the town to distribute CARES act funding to keep people housed.

(Alex Ponte-Capellan) City Life believes that housing is a human right. In order for this to happen, we must stop treating housing as a commodity and avoid market-based ideologies. Markets reward exploitation with profit. We try to find a middle ground that creates stability for tenants and homeowners. We work with non-profit developers to buy and rehabilitate housing. We also work to help people facing eviction or foreclosure.

(Connor Ring) Connor got involved with city life when a new owner bought two apartment buildings across the street from the high school. This put the renters in a squeeze. City Life helped the tenants organize and negotiate rent.

Question: Did Suffolk Law's study look at whether there were different levels of discrimination in different communities.

(Jamie Langowski) The study didn't gather data that way. It wasn't designed to test whether one community was more discriminatory than another. However, there is such a thing as discrimination with a smile. A realtor can treat you respectfully and politely, but never call you back.

(Connor Ring) Connor felt like there was a lot of gate-keeping in his own search for an apartment.

Question: Are 100% Affordable Housing Overlays effective.

(Pam Hallet) Cambridge and Somerville's affordable housing overlays are very new, and we don't know how well they're going to work. She's concerned that overlay districts might create ghettoization.

(Alex Ponte-Capellan) Alex says there's also the factor of what is considered affordable. Lots of black and brown people make less than 70% of the area median income. He says we need rent control.

There's discussion about legal discrimination in housing. Low-income individuals can't live where the prices are too high.

Question: How many kids live in HCA properties?

(Pam Hallet) Pam estimates that there are fewer than 30. HCAs sees the biggest demand for one- and two-bedroom apartments. You can't fit many kids into an apartment that size.

Question: Do you have to live in Arlington in order to apply for HCA's lottery?

(Pam Hallet) No. Only 33% of the households on HCA's waiting list are Arlington residents.

(Alex Ponte-Capellan) Alex says the market has drawbacks. The cost of a building is what people are willing to sell for.

(Connor Ring) Connor says that city life is trying to build a different future where land isn't sold to the highest bidder. He says it's more important to stabilize housing for renters.

Question: If you only have very low-income and high cost housing, what about people in the middle?

(Connor Ring) It's hard for middle-income people. He knows some that are thinking about moving to western mass; drive until you qualify. But ultimately you have to move.

(Pam Hallet) Workforce housing programs haven't taken off across the country. The cost of development in Boston is about the same as it is in California, and a little less expensive than in New York.

Question: If Arlington is committed to reaching 10% affordable housing, why would we allow for-profit developers to build here?

(Pam Hallet) For profit developers usually build what they can by right. We could also change zoning in order to make it easier to build housing.

Question: Is 10% affordable housing enough of a goal?

(Pam Hallet) No. But it's the target set by 40B.

Question: What would be the best practices to create affordable housing while being cognizant of market forces.

(Pam Hallet) We need to address zoning. A lot of discrimination went into our zoning laws. We should allow more development by right. That will make Arlington denser, but there will be more housing and options at a greater variety of income levels.

(Jamie Langowski) A lot of our laws were made with racist intent. We didn't get high levels of segregation organically.

(Alex Ponte-Capellan) We also need protection for renters.

(Connor Ring) It's not socially acceptable to ask for more housing in Arlington Heights or Morningside.

(Pam Hallet) We need to make it easier to create additional units, like accessory dwelling units. We can do something for seniors that are stuck in large homes. We can allow tiny homes. We need to get used to sharing space. And we need a bigger variety of housing types.

(Connor Ring) What about a real estate transfer fee?

(Pam Hallet) I'd definitely support it.

Question: What about discrimination.

(Pam Hallet) It's illegal. Real estate agents are licensed professionals. It's time to go back to their licensing board.

(Jamie Langowski) Fair housing organizations are very important in this fight. One problem is that the current system requires the victim to come forward, which doesn't happen often enough.

Question: How would changing zoning lead to more affordable housing? It seems like we'd end up with more luxury units.

(Pam Hallet) Mass Ave has a ton of 1--2 story buildings that could be a lot taller. There's a lot of space in the single-family zones. Changing zoning can reduce the number of hoops that someone has to jump through in order to build housing.

(Connor Ring) When you allow more density, you have to have requirements for affordability. Otherwise, you're making a gift to the property owner.

Question: How do you add on to a building without displacement?

(Pam Hallet) Relocation services. Help the tenants find new places and pay for their moving expenses. If HCA purchased an apartment building, we'd have to relocate the market rate tenants.