Hard Times for Housing Nonprofits and the New York Times Provides a Pretty Good Example of Proposalese

Last week a former client and a prospective client called; both of their nonprofits have been involved in affordable housing development, foreclosure assistance, fair housing counseling and the like, but both have also seen their grant and other resources wither in recent years. Housing nonprofits are experiencing the negative side of the grant waves we’ve written about. Right now there isn’t a lot of government or foundation funds available for affordable housing issues: the Great Recession is officially over*, the foreclosure crisis has receded in most places, and the policy view of housing affordability has mostly shifted from social/legal/regulatory concerns (e.g., overt housing discrimination, redlining, predatory lending/foreclosures, etc.) to economic concerns, as best articulated by Matt Yglesias in The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think. The biggest affordability challenge is the inability to build housing at all in many superstar cities, like L.A., New York, and Seattle, due to NIMBY problems.

My advice to both callers was the same: they can a) change the mission of their nonprofit to something being pushed by the grant waves (e.g., job training, primary health care, re-integration of ex-offenders, supplemental education for out-of-school youth and young adults, etc.), b) put their nonprofit into suspended hibernation while waiting for the grant gods to once again smile on affordable housing, or c) try to use the emerging theme of continuing housing segregation that has risen in public consciousness through incessant media coverage of public outrage and civil disturbances in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore following police violence against unarmed African American youth.

Today, the New York Times published “An Indelible Black-and-White Line,” which illustrates pretty well how to build a grant needs argument around the civil disturbances and obvious housing segregation in most American cities. This paragraph from the article could have been ripped from our proposals:

“Such is the case in Ferguson. The part where Mr. Brown died is a predominantly black east side neighborhood where residents have complained of police harassment and high crime in a cluster of apartments that stretches into the census tract with the most Section 8 renters in Missouri. Life is much different just two miles away in the city’s amenity-filled central business district, surrounded by pockets of predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods with sturdy brick and clapboard homes.”

We often use variations on the life-is-different riff when writing about disadvantaged target neighborhoods embedded in affluent cities.

The article is a pastiche of misinformation and half-truths that conflates the history of Section8 Housing Certificates with desegregation efforts, fair housing, income equality, and general malaise in low-income communities. Section 8 was not created as a “tool for desegregation,” as stated in the article. The primary tool for desegregation in the 1970s and 1980s was school busing, not Section 8. Section 8 was a Nixon/Ford era reform that was supposed to encourage private developers to build more affordable housing. In the early days of the Reagan administration in the mid-80s, Section 8 was expanded as direct HUD financing programs for affordable housing developments were largely eliminated.

It wasn’t until the Clinton era that Section 8 was seen as something of a desegregation tool, but this shift occurred primarily within the context of then new HUD HOPE VI Program, (or “Hopeless VI,” as we used to call it around the office). This bizarre program resulted in the demolition of thousands of last-resort public housing units, replacing the original developments with “mixed-income” developments and providing Section 8 Certificates (now known as Housing Choice Vouchers or “HCV”) for poor, mostly African Americans, residents displaced by HOPE VI.

But Section 8 never resulted in many new housing units being built, so HCV holders were (and are) forced to compete with working poor and middle-class renters for the same limited pool of housing. Landlords will avoid accepting HCVs if they can—not necessarily because they’re racist (although they might be), but because the building/unit has to pass a HUD inspection to be certified for Section 8. The building and unit also have to undergo annual re-inspections.

Most landlords won’t sign up for this unless they’re having difficulty renting the units. They also prefer wealthier tenants with good histories, when those tenants are available. That’s why Section 8 units end up being in less desirable neighborhoods. The other reality is that the HCV holders often self-segregate for social, cultural and family reasons. While a single mom may be able to use her HCV in a nice, affluent suburb, that won’t help her much if her support system for childcare (e.g., extended family members) is back in the lower-income community she’s leaving. Also, she might not want be far from her church and friends. Whole Foods probably doesn’t sell chitlings** or chicken necks.

The Times article avoids all of these details and instead concocts a witch’s brew that explains all of the ills of low-income African American neighborhoods away by blaming everything on Section 8 caused segregation. While this is mostly nonsense, it’s perfect reasoning for a grant proposal for housing nonprofits—like my two callers last week—trying to get funding. We’ll use these concepts for any housing related proposals we write in the coming months.

If this stuff gets past the editors at the New York Times it’ll definitely get past foundation program officers, who don’t know any more than editors and probably know even less.


* In our grant proposals, no matter what is actually going on with the economy, the target neighborhood is always being buffeted by the current recession, the lingering effects of the last recession and/or the looming next recession.

** Anyone who’s worked and/or lived in African American communities like I have, knows that chitlings remain a favored delicacy. To test your knowledge, take the somewhat out of date, but still fun Chitling Test (also known as the Dove Counterbalance General Intelligence Test). I had the privilege of being a colleague of the test’s creator, Adrian Dove, in the mid-1970s, when we both worked in Mayor Tom Bradley’s office. Here’s a sample question: “Cheap chitlings (not the kind you purchase at a frozen food counter) will taste rubbery unless they are cooked long enough. How soon can you quit cooking them to eat and enjoy them? (a) 45 minutes, (b) 2 hours, (c) 24 hours, (d) 1 week (on a low flame), (e) 1 hour.”

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