Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Joanna Deming On Homelessness: The View from Pittsburgh

Photo by Ev on Unsplash
After years of reading news stories about homeless, both nationally and locally here in Duluth, I decided to make a more serious effort to understand the causes and, if such is possible, solutions to this perpetual issue. Early last year I was quite surprised at how large the tent cities had grown in parts of South Minneapolis. Despite the inhospitable weather and initiatives to reverse the trend, the number of homeless in Duluth and St. Louis County have been steadily growing for years.

Seeing that this is a national problem, I have been reading about what other cities are doing. What follows are some insights from Pittsburgh. Joanna Deming Executive Director of Fineview and Perry Hilltop Citizens Councils. She has more than 15 years experience in the housing and community development sector.


Pittsburgh is not a wealthy city, but it does have an affordable housing issue particularly due to low wages. This is especially true for residents of color. However, as Pittsburgh's economy has been picking up and new housing is being built, more wealthy people are moving into the city which is adding to this affordable housing issue. A 2016 study said there is a shortage of 17,000 affordable units in Pittsburgh. There is a shortage of 423 affordable units in the neighborhoods where I work.

Affordable housing is a tricky term which often begs the question "Affordable to WHOM?" 
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets income guidelines for each geography based on area median income. If you are 30% income your area is very low income for example. Housing affordability is also defined as whether someone is "cost-burdened" by their housing. According to HUD, if you pay over 30% of your income on your housing costs (rent, utilities, etc), you are cost burdened. The lower your income, the more likely you will be cost-burdened. The more expensive housing is in your area, the more likely you will be cost-burdened regardless of your income, but those with the lowest income will be challenged the most.

One solution to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing is to pay people more. 
Make sure everyone has access to changing economies and can afford to stay in their homes or purchase homes as values go up. As long as we have low wage jobs and as long as schools only prepare adults for low wage jobs, we will have a need for more affordable and subsidized housing. 

The Housing Market is there to reward property owners financially for their housing investment.
As prices go up home and property owners win, renters face higher costs and homelessness and low/moderate-income people who would like to buy a home are unable to purchase one.  

To have a balanced Housing Market, systems need to be put in place to protect affordable rental housing and affordable homeowners.

Examples that have worked around the country are below:

1. State and Local Housing Trust Funds: Public resources dedicated to affordable housing solutions. I helped establish these with various housing coalitions and serve on the City of Pittsburgh's Housing Opportunity Fund Advisory Board. The realty transfer tax is a potential funding stream.

2. Community Land Trusts: Community owns the land, sells the building, and places a restriction on the property which limits the amount of funding that can be earned by the buyer when they sell that building. This allows buyers some equity, while preventing them from benefiting from a windfall of profit due to changing land values in the area that will make future low/mod buyers unable to purchase the same property. This works for homeownership and rental housing. My two neighborhood Community Development Corporations, Fineview Citizens Council and Perry Hilltop Citizens Council, are partnering with the City of Bridges Community Land Trust to advance this model in our community. This organization is based partially off of a large CLT in Minneapolis. City of Lakes CLT.

3. Protection of Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing: As affordable rental properties come onto the market, mission minded organizations/companies can purchase the property and keep the rents affordable. We are working on using this model to get to scale with protecting affordable rental homes in our community. We are partnering with an organization called Rising Tide Partners to help with acquisition (purchase) and disposition (sales).

4. Housing Authority Solutions: Some housing authorities are purchasing high end housing and when units become available, then they lease them to someone with a lower income. 

5. Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC): This is a very popular bi-partisan funding mechanism for building more affordable units. It tends to be expensive ($300K per unit) and the number of units that can be built is limited based on tax credit availability based on limited corporate demand and capped government allocations. In other words, the state only allocates a specific number of tax credits and there are only so many corporations who want to invest in this program based on their need for the tax credits.

* * *

My initial focus when I started thinking about these issues was on resolving homelessness issues. It wasn't long before I saw the link between homelessness and the need for affordable housing. As with many issues, the devil is in the details. Here's more from Joanna Deming:

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
Housing and homelessness often get put into two different buckets, when really the solution to homelessness is housing. Many homelessness programs fail, because they focus on temporary shelter and place restrictions on people (e.g. no drug/alcohol use) which deter people from staying there and keep people on the street.  The US Department of Housing and Urban Development has moved towards permanent housing as a focus in the past 10 or so years. There are some effective models out there:

1. Housing First: These types of programs allow people to live somewhere without restrictions. This way they have a roof over their head, while they search for a job, meet with their doctor/therapist/social worker, and start their new life.

2. Rental Assistance:  Can be provided by a government or nonprofit to reduce the cost of housing for a resident. Housing Choice Vouchers (known as Section 8) is one form of rental assistance. Departments of Human Services also provide rental assistance for vulnerable populations (e.g. veterans)

3. Master Leasing: Where landlords are skeptical about having vulnerable populations live in their units, nonprofits or governments "Master Lease" the units--they are the tenant on record reporting to those landlords and providing support to the residents.

4. Affordable Housing: Increase supply

Ideally, people get help to STAY in their home BEFORE they are homeless. This is called Homeless Prevention. Most people have support systems, so they may face challenges, but they have a friend or family member that may help them pay rent or make a mortgage payment. Other people need private or public programs that can step in to assist with rent or mortgage payments.  Some people also need legal help to prevent eviction. Once someone is evicted it is MUCH harder to find a new place to live, so it is critical that people can stay where they are if they have an affordable place to live.

Lastly, property tax relief is needed for seniors in changing markets, so they can stay and age in place. It makes no sense to pay off your house and then risk losing it due to rising tax rates.

Here's a publication I worked on a while back that may be useful. The Housing Alliance of PA, where I used to work has a lot of great resources.

Also, here is my community's 5 Year Affordable Housing Plan, which is our roadmap for protecting and expanding affordable homes, while preventing the displacement of low-income residents and people of color from our community. We have already made good progress advancing this plan, by expanding our real estate capacity and attracting a $450K Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant from HUD to work with our Housing Authority on a redevelopment strategy that protects public housing residents in our community.  

* * *

Thank you, Joanna, for sharing these insights from your many years of experience wrestling with these important issues.

No comments:

Popular Posts