Tag Archives: Housing

Links: The end of the world, schools, teens having less sex, school structure, housing, drug policy, Pre-K For All, and more!

* “The Ends of the World is page-turner about mass extinction.” Note: “The evidence suggests that every single time, mass extinction was the result of runaway alterations in the planet’s atmospheric composition.” I read and loved it.

* “GM and Cruise announce first mass-production self-driving car.” Wow.

* Why do U.S. schools still start way too early? “Tradition and inertia” seem to be the real answers. But starting middle and high schools later in the day is as close as we’re likely to come to a free lunch in education.

* École 42, a free, teacher-less university in France, is schooling thousands of future-proof programmers. Cool.

* “How Local Housing Regulations Smother the U.S. Economy;” nothing here that regular readers don’t know, but the venue is of interest.

* In Defense of Amy Wax’s Defense of Bourgeois Values.

* “Americans Losing Faith in College Degrees, Poll Finds: Men, young adults and rural residents increasingly say college isn’t worth the cost.” Isaac sent this one to me, and I wrote back to say that in some cases. . . they’re probably right. There are a lot of people (and not just men) who likely don’t belong in college and go because it’s “the next thing” after high school. Which is a great way to spend a lot of money, not necessarily learn very much, and then be 22 with five figures of debt. I’ve taught a lot of college classes and wrote about that experience here.

* “Pile it high: Singapore’s prefab tower revolution.” It’s possible to dramatically lower the cost of construction itself.

* “Bored? Underworked? You’re an ideal candidate for a company struggling to find new staff.”

* Leather grown using biotechnology is about to hit the catwalk. Good news is underrated.

* Why Koreans shun the suburbs.

* “Cheaper, Lighter, Quieter: The Electrification of Flight Is at Hand.” Maybe, but we’re still waiting for the flying cars and paperless offices we’ve seen prophesied for decades. For another take, see Why electric airplanes within 10 years are more than a fantasy: Startups plan to make hybrid airplanes, and eventually purely electric ones.”

* Relatedly: As electric motors improve, more things are being electrified.

* “Top medical experts say we should decriminalize all drugs and maybe go even further.” It seems the current approach is ineffective at best and is more likely to be actively harmful, so a new method is in order. Or, rather, a new-old method, because drug laws didn’t come into being until the late 19th Century.

* “The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids: Today’s young children are working more, but they’re learning less.” Should be a familiar story to our NYC Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) clients.

* “Is your state road system broke? Then hit up. . . the Prius drivers!” An example of misguided policy and failing to think about the bigger picture.

* “Is there a Rawlsian argument for redistribution as a form of social insurance?” A brilliant post, do read the whole thing, and note that I have thought this before, albeit phrased differently: “In fact what I observe is people taking the status quo, and its current political debates, as a benchmark of sorts, and choosing sides, yet without outlining the ‘stopping principles’ for their own recommendations.” And I have succumbed to this as well!

* “How to Win a War on Drugs: Portugal treats addiction as a disease, not a crime.” Seems obvious to most people, except for a few elected or appointed officials who are stuck in the 1980s “War on Drugs” fiasco.

* “A 400-year story of progress: How America became the world’s biggest economy.” The important news that’s likely to stay news.

* “How sky-high housing costs make California the poorest state.” Many of you who live in CA already know as much. The point about land and housing costs links to our post, “L.A. digs a hole more slowly than economics fills it back in: The Proposition HHH Facilities Program RFP.”

* “L.A. County now has 58,000 homeless people. So why are there thousands fewer shelter beds than in 2009?

* “Don’t buy the idea teens are having less sex until you take a closer look at the data.” Does “sex” include “oral sex?” The answer changes the way the data are interpreted.

* “De Blasio Expands Affordable Housing, but Results Aren’t Always Visible.” Unfortunately, “The vast majority of the newly created affordable housing units in New York City are existing apartments, not new construction.” This just exacerbates the “haves” and “have-nots” problem in the city. The only affordable housing is lots of housing. Until we get lots of new units built, the cost of existing units will rise.

* “How the University of New Hampshire spun blowing a frugal librarian’s donation on a stupid football scoreboard.” It does seem too nicely symbolic of modern universities.

Don’t trip over the homeless on your way to the LA Proposition HHH Homeless Facilities Bidders Conference

Although we rarely go to RFP bidders conferences, last week I was in Downtown LA during the Prop HHH Homeless Facilities RFP, so I stopped by—and noticed the interaction between the homeless services professionals and the homeless.

The conference was held on the 15th floor of City Hall South, a faceless 60s concrete monolith between the iconic City Hall and somewhat infamous Parker Center, the LAPD headquarters.* City Hall South is surrounded by the kind of lifeless concrete plaza Jane Jacobs railed against.

As I walked across the plaza, I noticed a fairly elaborate homeless encampment (e.g., tents, tarps, shopping carts, etc.); real homeless are hanging out around the public fortress, and inside the fortress City slugs and nonprofit reps are discussing how to hand out $1.2 billion to help the homeless. I was tempted to invite a couple of real homeless folks to come up to the conference with me, just to gauge the reaction, but I demurred.

I sat in the plaza for about 15 minutes after the conference and not a single attendee—they were marked by their visitor badges—even looked at the homeless. Consider this another small but notable dispatch from the real world to the proposal world.


* When I worked for Mayor Tom Bradley in the mid-70s, my office was on the 23rd floor of City Hall; I parked next to Parker Center and walked through City Hall South every morning and afternoon for about 18 months. It’s a strange, slightly melancholic feeling to be back after all these years. There were no homeless around City Hall or City Hall South back then. I’m not sure what this means, but it doesn’t feel much like progress to me.

Los Angeles’s Prop HHH Funding for homeless facilities meets NIMBYs

The NYT has learned that “For Homeless Advocates, a Discouraging Lesson in Los Angeles: Money is Not Enough.” The story describes how an LA nonprofit is struggling to build a 49-unit housing development for the homeless in Boyle Heights neighborhood, and the main funding source is a Proposition HHH grant—a program we first wrote about back in August.

As we wrote then, Prop HHH authorizes $1.2 billion for homeless facilities. Although the NYT reporter doesn’t seem to know it, Prop HHH funding is not limited to housing; it can be used for any facility—including medical clinics or supportive services—that can be construed to “benefit persons experiencing homelessness, chronic homelessness, or at risk of homelessness.” The key phrase is “at risk of homelessness,” since, given LA’s astronomical rents and relatively low incomes, Prop HHH grants could be used for almost anything. Remember that, adjusted for the cost of living, California has the highest poverty rate in the country. Overall, the proposed Lorena Plaza illustrates how how challenging it is for nonprofits to get facility grants—and then actually get the facility built.

LA and California as a whole are progressive Democratic Party strongholds that superficially care about affordable housing. While most politicians and voters support expanded human services initiatives like Prop HHH (which is great news for grant writers), the Democratic LA City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents Boyle Heights, killed Lorena Plaza.

In other words, the City that giveth with one hand taketh away with the other. Councilman Huizar would probably support a homeless housing development in the distant, white and affluent Pacific Palisades neighborhood, but he’s not so much interested in one in his low-income and Latino district. We’re seeing a specific instance of the long-standing NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) phenomenon.

Even though the City is trying to give away huge Prop HHH grants and Boyle Heights residents likely voted overwhelmingly for Prop HHH, they voted in the abstract for “more funding,” which feels different than looking at concrete plans to build a facility down the street from their home, business, school, church, whatever. As anyone who’s worked in affordable housing development, and especially housing for potentially less than angelic residents, knows that, no matter the income level or ethnicity of the neighborhood, residents with metaphoric pitchforks and torches will oppose a project like Lorena Plaza. In Lorena Plaza, 50% of the units are or were to be for homeless folks with severe mental illness. All politics is local and apparently Councilman Huizar opted for re-election over a place for the most vulnerable people in our society to sleep at night.

At Jake’s recommendation, I’m currently reading Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s excellent Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. The author uses Google searches and other big data sources to illustrate that much common wisdom is wrong. It turns out that people often lie about things in the abstract (e.g., “I support housing for the homeless” to a pollster), while at the same time googling “how to stop a housing project,” when one is proposed down the street.

All this doesn’t mean that some version of Plaza Lorena won’t get built or that the City won’t eventually award the $1.2 billion in Prop HHH grants. It just means that nonprofits have to be prepared for the struggle. Legal struggles also increase costs, and, in the aggregate, those legal costs help explain why California has the highest poverty rate and affordable housing crisis in the nation. Legal and political struggles also mean at that much of Prop HHH funding will actually be used for non-housing projects, like primary care clinics, which are much easier to “sell” to NIMBYs who have been legally empowered to block any change, anywhere.

Whether an LA nonprofit is proposing a project like Lorena Plaza or a clinic, it’s important for the nonprofit seeking a Prop HHH or any other facility grant to understand that the proposed site can usually be easily changed after the grant award. The funder doesn’t want the grant to be returned. The leverage shifts from the funder to the grantee after funding.

We advise our clients seeking facility grants to pick a site that can be made to seem easy to build for purposes of the proposal but also to be ready to swap the original site for a new site if something goes wrong with the original site, including an attack of the NIMBY Zombies. We see this site-swap frequently in facility grants from HUD, HRSA, etc. YouthBuild projects, for example, often feature site switching. In grant writing, it’s always critical to remember the difference between the proposal world and the real world. In the proposal world everything with the site will work out perfectly and smoothly. In the real world… well, as you can see from the Plaza Lorena example, things rarely works out smoothly.

And, in other LA housing news, “Up to 600,000 expected to apply when L.A. reopens Section 8 housing list this month after 13 years.” Section 8 is a fine program, but it cannot overcome parochial zoning that restricts the supply of housing. Until LA overcomes zoning that limits livable space by mandating height limits, lot setbacks, and parking minimums, it won’t and can’t achieve anything like affordable housing goals.

L.A. digs a hole more slowly than economics fills it back in: The Proposition HHH Facilities Program RFP

As newsletter subscribers know, last week the City of Los Angeles released the “Proposition HHH Facilities Program FY 2017-18 Request for Proposals for the FY 2018-19 Bond Issuance.” That program is an excellent opportunity for nonprofit and public agencies looking for capital funding. There was $85 million available in 2016, and this year there may be more. Even better, grants to $3.5M are up for grabs.

Prop HHH funding is a great opportunity for nonprofits involved in homeless services, since it provides capital funding for facilities, which don’t have to including housing units. As we’ve written before, facility grants are usually much harder to get than grants for the services provided at the facility. Also, the RFP states:

The Prop HHH Facilities Program is intended to fund the acquisition and/or improvement of real property for facilities (hereinafter referred to as “project(s)”) that provide services or goods to, or otherwise benefit, persons experiencing homelessness, chronic homelessness, or at risk of homelessness (hereinafter referred to as “homeless”).

The key phrase is “at risk of homelessness,” which makes almost any LA human services provider potentially eligible for a Prop HHH grant, not just traditional homeless services providers. This is because clients of most L.A. human providers are well below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG). Given the very high rents in LA, this means they likely pay well over the federal/state/local standard of housing affordability of 30% on gross income for housing costs (e.g., rent, utilities, etc.).

From a grant writing point of view, this means they’re pretty much all all at risk of homelessness. Whether obvious or not, many of these clients are, have been, or will be episodically homeless (e.g., living in cars, motels, family members, shelters, etc.).

From a larger perspective, though, Prop HHH is also like digging a tiny hole in the housing affordability problem, while the rest of L.A.’s rules and regulations act as a dump truck filling that hole back in. You may ask what that means. One good explanation comes from Reddit, of all places, as this architect explains why virtually all new housing units in L.A. are “luxury” units. As he says, “EVERYTHING built in LA is defined by parking, whether we like it or not.” Moreover:

In making our assessments as to required space for parking, the typical calculation is that each full parking stall will require 375sf of space (after considering not just the space itself but also the required drive aisle, egress, out of the structure, etc. So that 800sf apartment is actually 1175 sf to build. [. . .]

So not only is 32% of your apartment just for your car and otherwise useless, but its also by far the most expensive part of that apartment to build.

It’s not possible to build enough housing for middle-income people in L.A., let alone low-income or homeless people, because of parking and outdoor space requirements. The City of L.A. is doing useful work for a handful of nonprofits with Prop HHH, but unless the City changes its parking requirements, there isn’t much real change that’s going to happen. The high cost of free parking is real. In the proposal world, though, none of these problems and trade-offs exist. In the real world, however, a couple hundred million dollars to build a couple hundred units (or even a thousand units) isn’t going to do much for homelessness in a city of four million and a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) of twelve million. In 1970, L.A. was zoned for ten million people. Today, with our vastly inferior technology, it’s zoned for four million and change. Until the city fixes zoning, it’s not going to fix homelessness.

Basically, it’s impossible to build enough housing for people in L.A. because it costs so much to also build housing for cars.* As grant writers, however, we love to see new programs like Prop HHH that’ll provide “walkin’ around money” for LA nonprofits.


* Seattle is a little better off, but it still has many perverse zoning issues, which I wrote about comprehensively in “Do millennials have a future in Seattle? Do millennials have a future in any superstar cities?” The short version of that highly detailed article is that many cities severely restrict housing supplies; in the face of rising demand, this raises the cost of housing.

Links: Job training, college madness, bizarre RFP, writing, the culture that is France, giving things away, and more!

* “Why China won’t own next-generation manufacturing.” Maybe. Useful for those of you who provide job training services.

* A Conversation with Jonathan Haidt, on the madness infecting college campuses (and other topics; his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is essential reading).

* My favorite recent RFP: “Promoting Integrated Pest Management in Affordable Housing.” This RFP makes me think of Isaac’s famous rat story. And, seriously, this is a real RFP. Isaac also notes that the adjective “Integrated” could be fraught with confusion in this context.

* “The Insidious Imps of Writing,” maybe.

* “French PM suggests naked breasts represent France better than a headscarf;” I laughed.

* “Architecture for the Internet: A look inside a carrier hotel in Manhattan — a building where different ISPs and network companies check in with one another.”

* “Economists Profit by Giving Things Away:” In short, economists publish their work freely online and that work isn’t hidden behind pay gates. So that means anyone can get ahold of it, which isn’t true in many other fields. This gives economists outsized influence. I find the publishing practices of academics in English lit bizarre (and revealing) in this respect.

* “Flooding of Coast, Caused by Global Warming, Has Already Begun;” important, under-appreciated news.

* “People in Los Angeles are getting rid of their cars.” As Fox Mulder says, “I want to believe.”

* “Electricians, roofers and plumbers have their pick of jobs, and demand is expected to grow.” A point that you will have to leave out of Department of Education proposals, since the DOE is obsessed with conventional four-year degrees, but that you can and even should put this in Department of Labor proposals.

* Is This the Tipping Point For Electric Cars? Charging stations are proliferating.

* Despite SpaceX setback, future of private space exploration is bright.

* “If drivers expect to be prosecuted for committing offenses [against cyclists] they suddenly stop committing them,” a totally unsurprising yet still important point.

* “How the careless errors of credit reporting agencies are ruining people’s lives.” Many of your participants will likely suffer from credit reporting errors, and getting rid of them can be brutal.

* “‘An aggressive proposal that touched a lot of nerves’: Why Gov. Brown’s plan to stem the housing crisis failed.” And why California is going to continue to be ludicrously expensive to live in for a long time to come.

* “Can U.S. Cities Compensate for Curbing Sprawl by Growing Denser?” So far, no; we are choosing sprawl instead.

* “Jay Z: ‘The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail.’” Seems obvious, but when notable people say it it becomes news again. After four decades of the War on Drugs, heroin is cheaper, more potent, and more available now than then.

* “Fancy Dorms Aren’t The Main Reason Tuition Is Skyrocketing:” in public schools, it’s state-level cuts. In private schools, it’s tuition discounting: All those $40K – $60K prices are used to soak the rich families, while most students get discounts in some form.

* “Addressing Peak Energy Demand with the Tesla Powerpack,” or, consider the more direct headline: “Tesla Wins Massive Contract to Help Power the California Grid.”

* “Video killed the radio star: How games, phones, and other tech innovations are changing the labor force,” important for anyone involved in job training.

* “To the four policemen who beat me for checking the health of a sick man in their custody,” it is distressing that my first instinct is to add, “More of the usual” to this story (hat tip Chris Blattman).

* “American against itself: does the future belong to authoritarians, left and right?”

* “Trumpism Is the Symptom of a Gravely Ill Constitution: No matter what happens in November, the sickness may be terminal.” In other words, we may be reaching the limits of non-parliamentary political systems, though there is no good way to get from where we are now to where we might like to be. Still, it is possible to imagine another constitutional convention in my lifetime.

* “Sticker shock in Los Angeles Housing:” or, why you should’d live in California. Granted I am writing this from NYC, which faces similar NIMBY and cost challenges. But I am also planning to move, in part because of the effects of NIMBY and cost challenges.

* “‘Do Not Resist’: A look at the normalization of warrior cops.”

* “Anti-globalists: Why they’re wrong.”

* A real-life Project NUTRIA: “Laundromat with a classroom: Charleston’s outreach to underserved kids.” Some of this article’s sentences could be ripped from our proposals.

* Prosecutors who withhold or tamper with evidence now face felony charges.

* “In Rural Bangladesh, Solar Power Dents Poverty.”

* “To end the affordable housing crisis, Washington needs to legalize Main Street.” Local NIMBYs are impeding housing growth and enabling soaring housing prices.

* “House of Cards: How the Chicago Police Department Covered Up for a Gang of Criminal Cops.” A timely reminder of the challenges your participants may face.

Links: Claims about program participants, nonprofit life cycles, building better cities, power production, electric cars, and more!

* The title is awful, but: “Tell the truth about benefit claimants and the left shuts you down: How neuro­biologist Dr Adam Perkins became a victim of the new McCarthyism.” Example: “Over the past five years, he has accumulated a mass of evidence about the personalities of welfare claimants and concluded that individuals with aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social tendencies — what he calls the ‘employment–resistant personality profile’ — are over-represented among benefit recipients.” Key word: “Claims.” Don’t cite his work in proposals.

* “The Nonprofit’s Grant Writing Life Cycle: No Matter Where You’re Going, There You Are.”

* “The poor are better off when we build more housing for the rich,” an under-appreciated point—but when most people talk about affordable housing, they’re actually trying to signal how much they care, rather than understanding and then solving the problem. See also my (policy wonk) post, “Do millennials have a future in Seattle? Do millennials have a future in any superstar cities?

* An incredible comment from someone who read “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* NASA: “Coal and Gas are Far More Harmful than Nuclear Power.” But, nuclear remains a pretty complicated way to boil water to make steam.

* Why clean energy is now expanding even when fossil fuels are cheap.

* Why online mattress companies proliferate; the title is mind because the title of the original is too stupid to repeat.

* “He taught me that it’s much better to face harsh reality than to close your eyes to it. Once you are aware of the dangers, your chances of survival are much better if you take some risks than if you meekly follow the crowd. That is why I trained myself to look at the dark side.” That’s from a fascinating interview on Europe with George Soros.

* “Seattle Transit Tunneling Is Going Great, and The People Want More.” Headlines like this are rarely seen! Not every large-scale construction project is a total boondoggle.

* “A Tesla in Every Garage? Not So Fast.” Note that this is from an engineering professional association and is written by a historian. The headline is slightly deceptive (“battery electric vehicles represent a more thorough upsetting of the existing order of things than Musk and his acolytes might like to admit” appears in the body) but the discussion is good.

* “From liquid air to supercapacitors, energy storage is finally poised for a breakthrough.” An important story. Also: “Welsh home installs UK’s first Tesla Powerwall storage battery. And: Solar + Storage, another key piece in the energy infrastructure puzzle.

* If you lease a car today, Tesla will allegedly have an autonomous car by the time that lease expires. Isaac, however, likes to say that he doesn’t see the point of an autonomous car unless you can have a cocktail and read the Sunday NYT while being in the “driver’s seat.”

* How GM Beat Tesla to the First True Mass-Market Electric Car.

* William Gibson: How I Wrote Neuromancer.

* “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World,” also an under-appreciated point.

Links: Housing politics, bikes, murder, Vanhawks Valour Smartbikes, teen birthrates, high school graduation rates, marriage patterns, love, and more!

* “Home is where the cartel is,” on the politics of housing, inequality, and many other topics of interest; perhaps I’ve been doing it all wrong for quite some time. This is likely the most important thing you can read and understand today if you’re working on income, poverty, job training, or education, all of which are tremendously affected by land-use issues. Yet this problem is largely under the radar of nonprofits, public agencies, and policy makers. It shouldn’t be.

* “The Financial Benefits of Buying What You Love,” a perhaps underrated point, but how often do you know what you’ll really love before you buy it?

* Afghanistan: ‘A Shocking Indictment’. It’s worse than you think.

* “Steve Radelet has a new book, The Great Surge, about why so many countries have risen out of poverty in the past half century. There are many good things about it, but most of all, it’s the best introduction to development I’ve seen for a lay audience, including students.” Expect a review shortly.

* A video review of the Vanhawks Valour smartbike.

* Teen birthrates drop precipitously. Finally: Some good news!

* “The Marriages of Power Couples Reinforce Income Inequality,” which is, along with land-use controls, an incredibly underreported part of contemporary society and income distribution. Incidentally I contribute to the the power-couple problem while am part of the solution to the land-use-control problem.

* As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short. Let’s see… grad rates go up but grads can’t read or do math. Hmmm. Wonder what that means? Paging Bryan Caplan. See also “Almost No One Knows What Education Really Means, and Implications for the Department of Education’s Talent Search Program.”

* Why ‘I Have Nothing to Hide’ Is the Wrong Way to Think About Surveillance.” Are you there to serve the individuals in government, or is government there to serve you?

* What’s happening in coffee, a fascinating and usually detailed three-part post.

* Why bother drug testing workers when doing so accomplishes nothing?

* “Being a cop showed me just how racist and violent the police are.”

* The refragmentation, by Paul Graham, and by definition any essay he writes is worth reading.

* “Why Some of the Worst Attacks on Social Science Have Come From Liberals.”

* “East Germany thrived on snitching lovers, fickle friends and envious schoolkids.” Read properly, this is also a plea for privacy in the information age.

* Unions may no longer be able to forcibly raid their members’ pockets, though the framing in the article itself is quite different.

February Links: Writing, NIMBYs, Nonprofits-as-startups, Affordable Housing, Baltimore, Washington DC, Washington Monument Syndrome, Porn Star Study and more!

* In Writing, First Do No Harm.

* “The emergence of “YIMBY” [Yes In My Backyard] organizations in American cities would be a welcome counterpoint to the prevailing tides of NIMBYism that often dominate local government. But it is worth saying that broader institutional reforms are what’s really needed.”

* Nonprofit Startups Are Just Like Their Counterparts, according to Paul Graham. We’ve never seen a nonprofit really behave like a startup. Maybe Watsi, the nonprofit featured in the article, will be different.

* Who pays for healthcare also explains why prices are so high. In my view we also spend too much time debating insurance coverage and too little time discussing access to care and how that can be improved.

* “Home craft project: replacing broken laptop screen.” Why haven’t we seen job-skills training programs focused on computer and electronic repair? This may be more viable than Project NUTRIA, but it doesn’t involve small animals.

* From Shlomo Angel’s Planet of Cities:

Like many other observers, such as John Turner (1967) in Latin America, I found that wherever the urban poor could obtain affordable access to minimally serviced land, they could build their own homes and create vibrant communities with little if any support from the government. When free of government harassment and the threat of eviction, their houses would quickly improve over time with their investment of their savings and sweat equity. People could house themselves at the required scale and create many millions of decent homes, while leaving very few people homeless, something that all governments (save that of modern-day Singapore, an outlier on every possible scale) have consistently failed to do. Admitted, the expanding settlements of the poor did not conform to building codes, land subdivision regulations, land use and zoning requirements, or even property rights regimes. (52)

In many jurisdictions, governments nominally devoted to affordable housing prevent its creation. Key words in the above paragraph—”could obtain affordable access to minimally serviced land”—aren’t going to apply to downtown Seattle, or even the downtown Seattle periphery—but the basic idea is an important one. So is the recognition that land use controls in places like New York, Boston, and San Francisco decrease affordability more than any set of programs could increase it. And then there’s Detroit, but that’s another story.

* Baltimore is headed toward bankruptcy. Maybe they need an Outer Harbor to go with the Inner Harbor. Sort of an inni-outti approach to economic development.

* How Washington works: “Many 2011 federal budget cuts had little real-world effect,” and many of the nominal cuts turned out not to be real, by reasonable definitions of “real.”

* “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended,” which makes points that should be obvious to damn near everybody involved in the humanities section of academia.

* “A warning to college profs from a high school teacher,” which is actually about the stakes of student testing.

* New York Times “journalist” John Broder lies in Tesla Motors Model S review, gets called out for it.

Deep Inside: A Study of 10,000 Porn Stars;” highly data-driven and should be safe for work.

* “In early childhood education, ‘Quality really matters;’” that’s one reason Head Start doesn’t work particularly well as education right now. But it works okay as day care and pretty well as a jobs program.

* New York real estate: a study in price escalation.

* The Deadly Opposition to Genetically Modified Food;” this is reminiscent of vaccine scares: people have to die before pseudoscience is really attacked.

* “Taking Apprenticeships Seriously,” which we should have started doing a long time ago. College is not the magic answer to every social and economic quandary, as anyone who has taught at a non-elite college should know.

* Government, illustrated: “the cutback is in accord with what Charles Peters of The Washington Monthly used to call the “fireman first” principle. That is, if bureaucrats are told to take $x million out of their budget, they’ll fight back by making cuts where an $x million loss will be most instantly obvious to the public. Like closing the local firehouse — or canceling an air show.” This is also sometimes referred to as the Washington Monument Syndrome. Isaac has seen this in action personally when he was a redevelopment bureaucrat for cities in Southern California.

HUD’s Confusing Continuum of Care (CoC) Program Explained

HUD just released the FY ’13 Continuum of Care (CoC) Program NOFA, with $1.6 billion available for an array of housing and related services for the homeless. But the process of trying to access that money is deliberately confusing. We’re going to explain how it works in this post, mostly for our own amusement but also in an attempt to educate readers.

“CoC” is the acronym for the federal Continuum of Care program. But “CoC” is also the acronym used for local Continuum of Care programs, as well as local or regional Continuum of Care bodies. To access federal CoC grant funds to help implement the local CoC program, potential applicants—like garden-variety nonprofits—have to go through the local CoC body, which is usually a joint powers authority set up to access federal CoC dollars by local governments, or, in some cases, the state itself. That’s a lot of CoCs, any way you look at it.

Since there is no shortage of acronyms, it would have been nice if the GS-15s at HUD had done a little CoC differentiation to reduce the confusion. Regardless of the nomenclature confusion, most nonprofit or public agencies (which are eligible CoC grantees) cannot apply directly to HUD. Rather, the CoC application has to be first submitted to the local CoC and approved for inclusion in the master CoC application sent in by the CoC.*

Astute readers who know anything about bureaucratic processes are now thinking that the CoC local body system created by HUD sounds like a recipe for confusion and potential collusion, at best.

Those readers are correct. The CoC system has become, in effect, a cartel, with each local CoC able to encourage local providers it likes and discourage ones it doesn’t like, or discourage ones that are not part of the current service delivery system. HUD has in effect created a class of self-perpetuating apparatchiks. This is the flip-side of mandating collaboration: your putative collaborators can easily take you out at the kneecaps, and it’s an example of the problems we’ve written about in “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals?” and “Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It.”

The fundamental problem here is that the local CoC can stifle subsidiary organizations, and that stifling is mandated by the CoC NOFA itself:

24 CFR 578.9 requires CoCs to design, operate, and follow a collaborative process for the development of an application in response to a NOFA issued by HUD. As part of this collaborative process, CoCs should implement internal competition deadlines to ensure transparency and fairness at the local level.

If you, a potential applicant, didn’t hear about the “internal competition deadline,” you can’t apply. And those deadlines aren’t published in any regularized way or forum, like, say, the Federal Register. Because you have to do the local submission to be part of the CoC’s HUD submission, it makes it more complicated for a garden variety nonprofit to get a CoC grant. Though we’d definitely be interested in working for some malcontent organization that wants to submit a local proposal at the risk of rejection, then appeal to HUD with a claim that the local organization is failing to perform its duties, no one has called us with this proposition yet, though the situation is probably common in the CoC / homeless services world. These are the kinds of stories that, if we had any real reporters left in America, would be covered in the media.

We have some history with CoC, which was originally part of the Reagan era McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.” Congress passed it in 1987. The original CoC program consisted of three separate grant programs: the Supportive Housing Program, the Shelter Plus Care Program, and the Single Room Occupancy Program. When Seliger + Associates was getting started, one of the first funded proposals we wrote was a $3,000,000 Supportive Housing grant for a nonprofit in Northern California. This was a direct HUD submission, as it was before the local CoC body infrastructure was created.

For reasons that are not clear to us, during the tenure of Andrew Cuomo, or Frankenstein as we used to refer to him around the office because of his uncanny resemblance to our bolt-necked friend, these programs were pumped up as part of Clinton-era response to the “homeless problem” of that time and the CoC system was birthed. As a result, a new layer of bureaucracy began to be consolidated, running parallel to the city, county or state level (in this respect, CoCs are a bit like Community Action Agencies).

We’ve interacted with this new layer of bureaucracy. Although we have written CoC applications in many states, we are most familiar with Los Angeles’s CoC—the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). This bureaucratic gem sprung forth fully grown from LA City and County at the behest of HUD about 15 years ago like Athena from the head of Zeus. It now has a $73,000,000 budget and over 100 steely-eyed bureaucrats, but LAHSA is virtually unknown outside of the homeless services provider community.

When HUD changed the rules, there had to be a Continuum of Care Plan for a local area in order for an applicant to be eligible (LAHSA is in charge of the plan in most of L.A. County). And the applicant had to fit into the Plan. Isaac actually wrote a nominal statewide Continuum of Care Plan for Arkansas around 1997 for a housing authority applicant, because Arkansas didn’t want to do one, but our client couldn’t apply without one. So, we just wrote a CoC Plan to enable our client to apply.

Eventually, the local-level CoCs got consolidated in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, if you weren’t part of the Continuum of Care syndicate in the mid-90s, you might still not be. But almost no one understands this, and the only people who do are the people working for the local CoCs. In the case of LAHSA, only three of of the 88 municipalities in Los Angeles County—Long Beach, Glendale, and Pasadena—have opted out of LHASA and have their own CoC bodies. In Pasadena, it’s the Pasadena Housing and Homeless Network. We assume an interest in the administrative overhead that is gleaned from being designated as a CoC has something to do with the three LAHSA outliers in the LA County CoC ecosystem.

By now, CoC operates somewhat like passthrough funds, except that it isn’t part of the two other federal Block Grant systems: Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from HUD and the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) from the Office of Community Services (OCS).

This raises the obvious question: Why isn’t the CoC grant program part of either CDBG or CSBG? For example, every jurisdiction that receives a CDBG Block Grant must prepare a Consolidated Plan every five years, with annual Action Plan updates. If you browse through any Consolidated Plan, you’ll notice an emphasis on homelessness and homeless programs. But, instead of using the existing system, a parallel system has been legislated into existence, with the usual set of costs and confusions. This post is designed to dispel some of the confusions. But we don’t have the power to dispel the costs.


* I wrote this sentence to see how many times I could work “CoC” into it.

Thoughts on the DOL YouthBuild 2012 SGA: Quirks, Lessons, and, as Always, Changes

YouthBuild season recently ended, at least for those of us lucky enough to be writing the proposals and preparing the application packages.

1. I’ve warned against the “Perils of Perfectionism” for grant writers, but it appears that RFP writers have also heeded this advice—too well. Page 23 of the original YouthBuild RFP* says, “These attachments will not count against the 15-page limitation for the Technical Proposal.” Page 26 says, “The chart and staffing plan should be included as Technical Proposal Attachments and do not count against the 15-page limitation of the Technical Proposal.” Yet the RFP says, in many other places, that the page limit for previous YouthBuild grantees is 20 pages and for new grantees it’s 25 pages. I sent an e-mail to Kia Mason, the contact person, and she (or he?) said, “Those are errors, the page limitation for previous YouthBuild applicants is 20 pages.”

Sweet!

There was another change that made sense: the original RFP requested that only county data be used in the needs assessment. A revision, however, allowed applicants to use city or other data. I imagine that the DOL got a lot of organizations saying things like, “We’re in L.A. county” or “We’re in Harris County,” along with 10 other organizations that will be forced to use the same data. And L.A. county contains everything from Beverly Hills to Compton to the city of Los Angeles itself.

2. I must give credit where it’s due: instead of playing hide-the-salami with data, as so many RFPs do,** YouthBuild this year simply told applicants where to find data and had applicants report uninterpreted data from a single source. This makes a huge, shocking amount of sense. I also suspect that the DOL got tired of the weird hodgepodge of data that they probably get from most applicants.

3. As long as we’re talking about data, I can also surmise that the DOL is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data. For example, existing applicants have to report on the reports they’ve previously submitted to the DOL, and they get points for hitting various kinds of targets. In the “Placement in Education or Employment” target, “Applicants with placement rates of 89.51% or higher will receive 8 points for this subsection,” and for “Retention in Education or Employment,” Applicants with retention rates of 89.51% or higher will receive 8 points for this subsection.” Attaining these rates with a very difficult-to-reach population is, well, highly improbable.

That means a lot of previously funded applicants have also been. . . rather optimistic with their self-reported data. Still, those previously funded applicants’ haven’t necessarily been lying, per se. To understand why, let’s say that an organization is tracking a YouthBuild graduate and the organization finds that the graduate is working at McDonald’s. But she also worked on her Uncle’s deck for $30 last weekend. Is she employed? Is she employed in the construction industry? Or let’s say that a graduate reports that he’s enrolled in a community college. Do you call the community college and get the graduate to release his records, or do you take him at his word? Do you subtly encourage him to tell you he’s in school?

The cumulative weight of these micro decisions can have an enormous impact on the numbers that get submitted to the DOL. Some organizations are no doubt more diligent than others. We would never tell organizations to falsify data. But we do point out that not everyone interprets data claims the same way. The DOL implicitly rewards one kind of interpretation. Everyone knows there’s gambling at Rick’s in Casablanca. The official position is not always the right one, and it’s worth reading between the lines.

If you’re funded this year, you may want to remember this section when you’re filing your reports next year.

4. The RFP is structured in a strange way: the “Program Design” wants applicants to describe the training they’ll provide before the outreach, recruitment, and selection process. It would make more sense to structure the RFP in the order that participants will actually move through. Perhaps this is also symptomatic of the problems whoever wrote this RFP experienced in chopping up last year’s RFP to make this year’s.

5. The existence of YouthBuild is a testament to the power of zombie programs;*** graphs like the one in this post have proliferated and demonstrate that, not only is construction employment down, but it’s so far down that it’s at 1994’s level. This may be why the DOL will now let previously funded applicants offer alternative career paths. Still, training people in the construction industry right now doesn’t make a lot of sense, even by federal standards.

We also have pretty severe housing imbalances—there are too many housing units in places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and the Inland Empire, and too few in places like Manhattan, Seattle, and San Francisco. The problem with the latter municipalities isn’t a matter of construction workers—it’s mostly a problem of municipal regulation, especially regarding height, density, and parking requirements. For more on this, see Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, Matt Yglesias’s The Rent Is Too Damn High, Ryan Avent’s The Gated City, and Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic. None of them will particularly help you write a YouthBuild proposal, but they will help you understand what’s going on.

6. Don’t be afraid of tautologies. You were warned against tautologies by your logic and writing teachers for a good reason, but you should disregard those warnings for a program like YouthBuild. There were a depressing number of questions like this one: “The applicant has an effective strategy to integrate all program elements, including the integration of community service and leadership activities supporting career exploration and occupational skill training.” The obvious answer—the program elements will be integrated by providing them together, rather than “in pieces”—is basically another way of saying, “Program elements will be integrated by being integrated.” Again: this doesn’t make a lot of sense, even by federal standards. The proposal can only be 20 or 25 pages, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for the repetition that DOL implicitly wants.

7. In keeping with the above, as usual, it was impossible to fully answer all the questions in 20 or 25 pages.

8. Page three of the RFP says: “Cost-Per-Participant: Cost-per-participant must fall in the range of $15,000 – 18,000 and the applicant must indicate the projected enrollment per year. The cost per participant should take into consideration the projected enrollment, leveraged funds and other resources supporting the program” (emphasis added). I wrote this to Kia Mason:

What does “take into consideration” mean in this context? Does that mean that YouthBuild wants a cost-per-participant that counts the entire match? For example, if an applicant requests $1,100,000 and gets the mandatory 25% of $275,000, the project total will be $1,375,000. Dividing that amount by $18,000 yields about 76, while dividing $1,100,000 by $18,000 yields 61. The SGA doesn’t offer any examples or further guidance about what this means.

He or she replied: “The cost per participant is derived from the federal amount requested only.” I imagine Kia got a ton of questions on this issue, since the phrase “should take into consideration” is so vague. I also imagine that a fair number of applicants didn’t inquire into the meaning of the phrase, and, consequently, the DOL will get half the proposals with one assumption and half with another.

9. There’s a particularly inane question under Section 1. d. Factor five: “The benefit of the participation of youth in occupational skills training within the selected industry(ies) that will be derived to the community.” The major “benefits” that the community might derive are at best nebulous. And they’re about the same for all communities: having people in jobs instead of jails, creating nominal tax payers, providing nominal low-income housing, and so forth. These benefits don’t change much from California to Connecticut.


* The Department of Labor prefers the term “SGA,” or “Solicitation for Grant Applications,” rather than RFP; we generally use RFP on this blog, rather than further confusing matters by applying the alphabet soup of acronyms that various federal and non-federal agencies use to describe the various ways they emit documents that will ultimately lead to the distribution of money.

My favorite recent example of acronym fever comes from the ACF’s Transitional Living Program and Maternity Group Homes: “The Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) is accepting applications for the Transitional Living Program (TLP) and for Maternity Group Homes (MGH) funding opportunity announcement (FOA). TLPs provide an alternative to involving RHY in the law enforcement, child welfare, mental health, and juvenile justice systems.” I wonder if ACF also wants BBQ ASAP.

** See “RFP Lunacy and Answering Repetitive or Impossible Questions” for still more discussion on this issue.

*** Our post “Déjà vu All Over Again—Vacant Houses and What Not to Do About Them” also discusses elements of housing policy and how governments respond to housing issues.