Tag Archives: Housing

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.

April Links: Education and Jobs, The Rent is Too Damn High, Health Care in Its Many Forms, Food Deserts, and More

* Chicago’s plan to match education with jobs; this is long over-due.

* Is charity a major source of deadweight loss? Notice the linked column: “Increasing evidence shows that donors [to charity] often tolerate high administrative costs, fail to monitor charities and do not insist on measurable results — the opposite of how they act when they invest in the stock market.”

* What an awesome office! Uncomfortable chairs, though.

* Affordable housing and hilarious cognitive dissonance.

* Good legal news: Fifth Amendment Right Against Self Incrimination Protects Against Being Forced to Decrypt Hard Drive Contents.

* “Shame Is Not the Solution” for improving teachers. On the other hand, I suspect some of the districts who want to make teaching evaluations and test scores public are doing so out of desperation, or because they can’t build the kind of sophisticated evaluation systems Gates mentions. (For another discussion of this issue, see LA Times Ranks Teachers from Marginal Revolution.)

* The Rent Is Too Damn High Now Available for Preorder.

* The Social Conservative Subterranean Fantasy World Is Exposed, and It’s Frightening.

* The real reason health insurers won’t cover people with pre-existing conditions.

* The Secret to Seattle’s Booming Downtown.

* Let’s hope the MPAA ratings board dies; sample: “[. . .] while the MPAA board pretends to be a source of neutral and non-ideological advice to parents, it all too often reveals itself to be a velvet-glove censorship agency, seemingly devoted to reactionary and defensive cultural standards.”

* Sounds like fun: “With its sex-obsessed young heroine, ‘Turn Me On, Dammit!’ goes where few movies have gone,” and like the rare movie that actually goes where other movies haven’t.

* Why Don’t You Do Something Other Than Sit at Your Computer? (Side question: “Is your computer depressing you?”)

* The idea of the “food desert” is fading. I’m not sure it was ever real, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it in your proposals.

* $1B of TSA Nude Body Scanners Made Worthless By Blog — How Anyone Can Get Anything Past The Scanners. Wow.

* A short, accurate description of the long-term problems in Europe. This is also, on some level, about how people form groups and act in those groups. (“Americans in Massachusetts and Americans in Mississippi do feel themselves part of the same country, sharing language and culture. Germans and Spaniards do not feel the same.”) See further Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.

* “Most men won’t be allowed to admit this, but the new HBO show [Girls] is a disastrous celebration of entitlement and helplessness.”

* Why you should read Before the Lights Go Out.

* Testing the Teachers, and how do we know what we’re actually getting out of college?

HUD’s Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program (LBPHC) Program Explained

HUD’s FY 2010 NOFA for the Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program (LBPHC) confuses many applicants. We’ve written at least six funded LBPHC grants, so we’re familiar with it. The program is actually simple: it funds the remediation (not necessarily removal) of lead-based paint in privately owned housing occupied by low-income folks.

Applicants, however, often have trouble figuring out how to efficiently spend the grant funds. Lead-based paint remediation usually costs about $15,000 per unit remediated. To make a LBPHC program work, applicants should propose using the LBPHC funds in conjunction with their housing rehabilitation program.

That’s the real secret of the program. Virtually every city has had some form of housing rehab program since the Nixon administration, using a combination of HUD HOME formula grants, CDBG entitlements, state funds, or who knows what. The rehab programs usually entice homeowners and landlords to fix up the housing units by offering small grants for the very low-income (below 50% of area median income or “AMI”) and subsidized loans for low-income and moderate-income (50% to 120% of AMI, depending on the jurisdiction).

The real problem for lead-based paint programs is invariably that the City of Owatonna wants Mrs. Smith the homeowner to fix code violations, remediate lead paint, etc., while Mrs. Jones wants granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and maybe faster Internet access. The city has trouble spending its rehab funds because Mrs. Smith doesn’t want to borrow money to do things that won’t impress her friends and neighbors.

What to do? The City (or other applicant) gets a LBPHC grant and bungie cords it to their existing rehab program. Now Mrs. Smith can get $15,000 or so in LBPHC sub-grant funds to remediate the lead hazards that the city inspector wants her to do and can use the rehab loan to buy her granite countertops.

The lead remediation grant can be used to entice Mrs. Smith to take the rehab loan. Now everyone is happy, including the local contractors who have some work while waiting around for the economy to improve. As long as a city doesn’t try to run LBPHC as a standalone program, but instead combines it with their rehab effort, HUD will love it. So will everyone in town. It’s remarkable to me how many calls I’ve had over the years from city officials who do not get this idea until I explain it. The ones who follow our direction usually get funded and have great success with the program.

Grants.gov and the GAO, Volunteer Broadband Reviewers for BTOP and BIP, Job Retraining, Grant Writers, and More

* More news on Grants.gov and the Government Accountability Office: Grants.gov Has Systemic Weaknesses That Require Attention. Glad someone in Washington is finally paying attention; Stanley J. Czerwinski is the contact person, so I sent him an e-mail pointing out our earlier posts on the subject, but he hasn’t responded.

Part of the report’s introductory sentence is particularly amusing: “Grants.gov has made it easier for applicants to find grant opportunities and grantors to process applications faster, applicants continue to describe difficulties registering with and using Grants.gov, which sometimes result in late submissions.” It’s true, but I’d note regarding the first part that while it’s easier to find grant opportunities, it’s still often not easy; for example, searching using Google’s restricted site feature is often faster and better than using Grants.gov’s built-in search function.

* Speaking of which, I like this headline: Contract to Upgrade Recovery.gov Stimulates Criticism.

* William Easterly explains Sachs Ironies: Why Critics are Better for Foreign Aid than Apologists:

Official foreign aid agencies delivering aid to Africa are used to operating with nobody holding them accountable for aid dollars actually reaching poor people. Now that establishment is running scared with the emergence of independent African voices critical of aid, such as that of Dambisa Moyo.

* The Dept. of Commerce and USDA must be really desperate if they’re requesting volunteers to review applications. We’re writing a Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) and a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) application, which makes this announcement salient to us.

* The Services for Victims of Human Trafficking program (warning: .pdf) has an unusual deadline feature: it gives 7/13/2009 as the deadline for “Online Registration,” and 7/16/09 for the application itself. But smart applicants should move both those back by at least two days to avoid the inevitable rush.

* Now here’s a great idea for a government requirement: New bill wants fiber conduit built into every road project:

The bill would require new federal road projects to include plastic conduits buried along the side of the roadway, and enough of them to “accommodate multiple broadband providers.” Conduits must meet industry best practices for size and depth, and road builders must include hand holes and manholes along the route to gain access to the conduit. Each conduit will also include a pull tape for fishing new fiber through the line.

Most of the cost to deploy new fiber is the digging and repaving work, so putting in conduit when the ground is already torn up has a certain logic to it. It’s a relatively cheap idea, but one that Eshoo hopes will help US broadband.

Given the lousy shape of U.S. broadband deployment, which Ars Technica has covered in depth, that help would be much appreciated.

* Job Retraining May Fall Short of High Hopes, says the New York Times. This is the kind of article you would never cite in a job training proposal, unless it’s to knock it down, in which case you shouldn’t cite it in the first place. Nonetheless, those of you running job training programs ought to read it.

* Uber-geek publisher and all star Tim O’Reilly (I own a few of his technical books) on The Benefits of a Classical Education.

* Ars Technica reports that GE is throwing its weight behind smart grids. That’s probably good news for Smart Grid Investment Grant Program (SGIG) applicants.

* Ed Glaeser encourages us to put trains where the people are. That this isn’t self-evident is indicative of federal involvement.

* I hadn’t realized it till now, but two years ago the Wall Street Journal published “A Passion for the Keys: Particular About What You Type On? Relax — You’re Not Alone” regarding the fanaticism certain people feel for their keyboards. As writing a review of the Model M-inspired Unicomp Customizer taught me, I am very much note alone. Anyone who spends a lot of time typing should read both articles; even better, they might like this review of the Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard.

* According to “Tax Breaks Under the Microscope” in Slate, nonprofit hospitals are much like their regular counterparts:

But research shows that nonprofit hospitals behave no differently from for-profit ones. And in some cases, nonprofits have been caught mistreating the poor for the sake of financial gains. One example: A nonprofit academic hospital in Connecticut aggressively pursued “deadbeat” elderly patients by placing liens on their homes. More recently, several nonprofit Chicago hospitals were reportedly transferring uninsured patients to the county emergency room.

* State governments are behaving with even less foresight than usual; according to a Salon post quoting the San Jose Mercury News, “In 1980, 17 percent of the state budget went to higher education. By 2007, that had fallen to 10 percent — the same as prisons and parole.” And 2007 predated the current crisis, showing that the trend away from higher education funding is accelerating.

* In one of many bizarre twists surrounding stimulus funding, California’s El Dorado County has rejected $1.6 million in stimulus funding:

The Board of Supervisors last week twice rejected what staff members described as no-strings-attached funding.

“It’s as close to a no-brainer as I’ve ever seen come before this board,” Richard Meagher of the Affordable Housing Coalition of El Dorado said of a grant application that could have put local contractors to work rehabilitating foreclosed houses and made the dwellings available to moderate and low-income homebuyers.

But Supervisor Jack Sweeney characterized himself as a “free-market person” and argued that many current economic ills are a result of government’s intrusion into society.

This seems bizarre even by the standards of local government. I’d bet that Sacramento Bee reporter Cathy Locke either knows something she couldn’t write about or that there’s otherwise something deeper beneath this story.

* Fascinating: Japan and Korea’s hidden protectionist measures prevented U.S. companies from competing in their home markets, and the English-language press largely ignored the story. Compare this to the story told in David Halberstam’s The Reckoning.

* Gas and the suburbs.

* New York remains rich in the ultimate resource: human capital. But the high cost of housing and high taxation levels remain threats. This is by one of my favorite economists, Edward Glaeser.

* Self-esteem has gone up in the United States; achievement has not.

* If The Onion wrote stories about grant titles, I wouldn’t know whether to believe Grants to Manufacturers of Certain Worsted Wool Fabrics is a real program or something dreamt up by satire writers.

* More porn means less rape? Maybe, and the writer cites some experiments that exploit natural variations, a lá Freakonomics, to get there. Expect to hear more on this subject in the coming years.

* I found Developing And Writing Grant Proposals while searching the other day, and love the sometimes-comical advice they give. It starts in the second paragraph, which says “Individuals without prior grant proposal writing experience may find it useful to attend a grantsmanship workshop,” a topic Isaac has dealt with, as have I.

* Megan McArdle writes about When Blogs Were Young. Compare that to my post, “You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells You,” which is by far the most visited of any we’ve published.

November Links: Myths, Housing, and More

* The New Republic has an article based on a Brookings Institute piece that deconstructs the small-town USA mythology regularly propagated in proposals:

But the idea that we are a nation of small towns is fundamentally incorrect. The real America isn’t found in cities or suburbs or small towns, but in the metropolitan areas or “metros” that bring all these places into economic and social union.

Think of this as a prelude to an eventual post on the subject of grantwriter as mythmaker. And if you’re interested in myth as a broader subject, see Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By. He’s the same guy who wrote Hero With a Thousand Faces, the book that, most famously, provided the outline for Star Wars.

* The New Yorker asks, “Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?” Like some of the data discussed in our post on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program, the article has problems of its own, including drawing conclusions that might be based on faulty data, but it nonetheless illustrates many of the issues at stake.

* The reason we can’t build affordable housing is chiefly structural, according to an article that also gives a recent history of industrial housing design:

What’s driving the high cost of houses today is not increased construction costs or higher profits (the Levitts made $1,000 on the sale of each house), but the cost of serviced land, which is much greater than in 1951. There are two reasons for this increase. The first is Proposition 13, the 1978 California ballot initiative that required local governments to reduce property taxes and limit future increases, and sparked similar taxpayer- driven initiatives in other states. Henceforth, municipalities were unable to finance the up- front costs of infrastructure in new communities, as they had previously done, and instead required developers to pay for roads and sewers, and often for parks and other public amenities as well. These costs were passed on to home buyers, drastically increasing the selling price of a house.

The other reason that serviced lots cost more is that there are fewer of them than the market demands. This is a result of widespread resistance to growth, the infamous not-in-my-backyard phenomenon, which is strongest in the Northeast, California, and the Northwest. Communities in growing metropolitan areas contend with increased urbanization, encroachment on open space, more neighbors, more traffic, and more school- age children.

Compare this to Virginia Postrel’s A Tale of Two Town Homes.

* We’ve written before about modern problems with bureaucrats. Such problems are hardly new: in the preface to The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne writes:

Suffice it here to say, that a Custom-House officer, of long continuance, can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable personage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure by which he holds his situation, and another, the very nature of his business, which—though, I trust, an honest one—is of such a sort that he does not share in the united effort of mankind.

The oddest thing about the novel is how modern it seems in the subjects it treats and the way it portrays the subjectivity of its characters. The writing marks it from the 19th century, but in many other ways it is not.

* Mackerel Economics in Prison Leads to Appreciation for Oily Fillets from the Wall Street Journal has been making the blog rounds for good reason: it’s hilarious (“Elsewhere in the West, prisoners use PowerBars or cans of tuna, says Ed Bales, a consultant who advises people who are headed to prison.”) and insightful (using the specific example of prisons to demonstrate larger truths about the necessity of currency in virtually any non-hunter-gatherer culture). And how long have there been consultants who advise future prisoners?

* Speaking of the Wall Street Journal, it also published Giving Till It Works about “capitalistic philanthropy.” We’ve mentioned the issue with regard to Creative Capitalism, discussed tangent issues in Why Do People Give? And Other Unanswerable Questions, and brought up incentive problems in Foundations and the Future.

* Why is Mt. Denali in Alaska technically named McKinley by the federal government? I never thought I would care about the answer, either, but it sheds a great deal of light on politics, bureaucrats, history, culture, randomness, and infighting, as described by the Agitator.

* The New York Times reports on school reform efforts without discussing the enormous costs of some reforms, or the inherent scaling problems most such programs have had—just because a program with a small, extremely dedicated core of individuals manages to, for example, raise student achievement, that doesn’t mean that a larger program with less dedicated and less qualified staff do. Those two persistent issues have bedeviled attempts at reform, and there is no obvious way around them. Nonetheless, it’s still a positive sign that the issues are being more seriously discussed.

* Speaking of the New York Times, schools, and language, this could have come from a proposal:

The Equity Project Charter School (TEP) will open in September 2009 in Manhattan’s Washington Heights community, and it will aim to enroll middle school students at risk of academic failure. Students with the lowest test scores will be given admissions priority. In order to recruit the country’s top teachers to work with these at-risk students, the school’s founding principal will cut administrative costs and put a higher percentage of the school’s public funding into teacher salaries.

Notice the euphemistic “at risk of academic failure,” the choice to use the “most-in-need” model rather than the “most-likely-to-be-helped” model,” and the term “at-risk students” used again in the second sentence.

Links for 8-13-08

* Imagine our surprise at seeing a client on the front page of CNN:

“AIDS in America today is a black disease,” says Phill Wilson, founder and CEO of the institute and himself HIV-positive for 20 years. “2006 CDC data tell us that about half of the just over 1 million Americans living with HIV or AIDS are black.”

We wrote a two-million dollar funded CDC Capacity Building Assistance to Improve the Delivery and Effectiveness of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Prevention Services for Racial/Ethnic Minority Populations grant for the Black Aids Institute in 2004.

* I discussed how to attract and retain grant writers by relying on Joel Spolsky’s Joel on Software for guidance. He also wrote a short book, Smart and Gets Things Done: Joel Spolsky’s Concise Guide to Finding the Best Technical Talent on the subject. To reiterate my earlier point: although Spolsky is writing about programmers, much of what he says is equally applicable to any intellectual worker—including grant writers. Buy a copy and put it on your bookshelf next to Write Right!.

(37signals has a good article on environment and productivity echoing Spolsky’s points.)

* The L.A. Times ran an article attempting something unusual—fresh perspectives on teen pregnancy:

Teenage motherhood may actually make economic sense for poorer young women, some research suggests. For instance, long-term studies by Duke economist V. Joseph Hotz and colleagues, published in 2005, found that by age 35, former teen moms had earned more in income, paid more in taxes, were substantially less likely to live in poverty and collected less in public assistance than similarly poor women who waited until their 20s to have babies. Women who became mothers in their teens — freed from child-raising duties by their late 20s and early 30s to pursue employment while poorer women who waited to become moms were still stuck at home watching their young children — wound up paying more in taxes than they had collected in welfare.

Eight years earlier, the federally commissioned report “Kids Having Kids” also contained a similar finding, though it was buried: “Adolescent childbearers fare slightly better than later-childbearing counterparts in terms of their overall economic welfare.”

To evade the set of angry e-mails and comments likely to follow, I’ll point out that the thrust of the article isn’t that teen pregnancy is a great idea—it’s those involved, rhetorically and otherwise, in the issue might want to consider alternate viewpoints and explanations rather than go back to the usual birth control and sex ed versus abstinence debate.

“Teenage Childbearing and Its Life Cycle Consequences: Exploiting a Natural Experiment” uses a very clever method to get around the correlation-is-not-causation problem in research areas like this, and it’s one of the academic papers underlying the article. You can read it at Duke economist V. Joseph Hotz’s website (warning: .pdf link).

EDIT: In addition, compare these pieces to our later post, What to do When Research Indicates Your Approach is Unlikely to Succeed: Part I of a Case Study on the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP.

* The Wall Street Journal has done excellent reporting on the housing perhaps-crisis, as Isaac mentioned previously. Now comes “Philadelphia’s Housing Woes May Provide Lesson for Lawmakers:”

One point is being missed in this squabble: No matter what Congress does, some cities will end up owning more crumbling houses as owners fail to pay taxes and do their maintenance. Taxpayers will foot the bill. The bigger question is: How can cities quickly get this property back into productive use?

For perspective on this debate, it helps to stroll through Philadelphia’s Ludlow neighborhood, about a mile north of the city center. In this neighborhood and others like it, the Philadelphia Housing Authority became one of the main property owners in the 1970s and 1980s, acquiring homes through foreclosures after owners failed to pay their mortgages or taxes.

One thing you can be sure the solution will involve: grants.

* Well-run career programs that incorporate college counseling and prep classes help low-income students according to a study cited by the New York Times. This is at least a somewhat better study than most, as the New York Times says:

To compare similar students, all those who volunteered to join a career academy at each school were randomly assigned either to participate in the academy or to serve as part of a control group outside the academy.

Nonetheless, it still suffers from the cherry-picking flaw most grant-funded programs do, and it’s encapsulated in one word: volunteered. Those who are at least smart and willing enough to seek help are be definition more likely to do better than those who don’t. Nonetheless, that the group receiving services did better still than the control group is encouraging.

* Freakonomics discusses advice to young and ludicrously rich philanthropists who don’t know much about the world:

They believed that poverty was largely a result of resource deficiencies and organizational inefficiencies: if the poor had more money and their service providers could simply manage their giving more efficiently, change would happen. None placed much emphasis on feelings of self worth, the long-term nature of behavioral change or, most important, that staying above water is itself an accomplishment for a poor household. Everyone modeled their expectations after their family business or other corporate workplaces where they saw the “bottom line” motivate people to meet certain standards of achievement.

* For those of you interested in the academic and systematic aspects of philanthropy more generally, check out the heavy hitters at Creative Capitalism, including Bill Gates, Richard Posner, Gary Becker, Clive Crook, Larry Summers, Ed Glaeser, and Gregory Clark. Alternately, if you want to wait, a book based on the discussions is supposed to be released in 2009. Conor Clarke explains why you might pay for something you can get free online.

* What’s mystery ingredient X for improving school outcomes? Marginal Revolution considers.

* More on parsing RFPs: The Partnerships for Innovation program wants you to:

1) stimulate the transformation of knowledge created by the research and education enterprise into innovations that create new wealth; build strong local, regional and national economies; and improve the national well-being; 2) broaden the participation of all types of academic institutions and all citizens in activities to meet the diverse workforce needs of the national innovation enterprise; and 3) catalyze or enhance enabling infrastructure that is necessary to foster and sustain innovation in the long-term.

That’s not easily understood and doesn’t answer the essential “what” question that an RFP should: what does the program demand that an Institute for Higher Education (IHE) do? The answer is probably “nothing,” and the National Science Foundation (NSF) probably could’ve just said, “We’re giving walking around money to universities so they can use it to fund research or donut eating. Enjoy!”

* An unintentionally funny RFP called the Sexually Transmitted Infections Cooperative Research Centers says:

The purpose of this Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) is to stimulate multidisciplinary, collaborative research that is focused on control and prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) […]

Surely I can’t be the only one to read a certain double meaning into “stimulate” in this context, given its juxtaposition with the program title.

* Slate points to a study that found TV watching among the very young might cause or contribute to autism.

Déjà vu All Over Again—Vacant Houses and What Not to Do About Them

The Wall Street Journal ran “As Houses Empty, Cities Seek Ways, To Fill the Void” (link goes to a blog that copied the article—see the original here) by Michael Corkery and Ruth Simon on February 6, 2008. They document the large number of vacant and abandoned houses in many American cities and attempts by public officials to address this latest urban crisis. For me, as Yogi Berra once said, “This is like déjà vu all over again.”

Faithful Grant Writing Confidential readers may recall that, in my first post, They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal, I waxed nostalgically about setting up a Vacant Housing Task Force as a 21-year old intern and proto-Community Organizer a la Barack Obama. I tried all kinds of approaches—chasing down absentee owners, running home repair workshops, starting a nonprofit hardware cooperative, and sitting through endless meetings with local politicos. But it was to no avail, as many houses remained vacant. America finds itself once again mired in the difficult days of 1972 (e.g., vacant houses, endless war, stagnant pop music scene, etc.) and bright young minds once again confront the vacant house conundrum.

While Corkery and Simon did a nice job with the basic story, they did not explore the long history of public agency attempts to grapple with the vacant housing issue. They mention the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which can be used to tackle this issue, along with about 482 other social problems, but they did not cover other efforts. For example, HUD’s 203(k) Housing Rehab program sells HUD-owned houses to nonprofits at a discount, provided they rehab the houses and sell to low-income people.

Also, at one time HUD had a Urban Homesteading program that provided cities with HUD-owned houses. I don’t think this program still has funding, perhaps making it a Zombie program, but there were also variations that encouraged cities to resell the houses to police officers and teachers in hopes of diversifying disadvantaged neighborhoods. There are lots of other well-intentioned state and local government initiatives, all designed to recycle vacant and abandoned houses.

Corkery and Simon come up with many wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth quotes from grim public officials in such places as San Diego and Cleveland—now there’s an odd couple—about the dire consequences of what is supposed to be the biggest vacancy problem since the Great Depression. Yikes! What to do? The article suggests such approaches as “land banks,” which is a great way of replacing vacant houses with vacant lots. The representative of the Genesee County Michigan Land Bank seems proud that the Land Bank has bought and demolished 800 houses and built 200 houses. It they keep it up, eventually no one will live in Flint, the city immortalized by Michael Moore in Roger & Me. Regardless of whether the Land Bank is a good thing, it’s hard to see how creating more vacant lots will stop speculators from “perpetuating neighborhood blight,” as reducing density will probably have the same negative impacts on neighborhood vibrancy that Jane Jacobs wrote about in 1961.

The article also suggests that another solution is to somehow have a public agency buy the vacant houses and resell them to poor folks, keeping the houses “affordable.” Having also worked on endless schemes like this when I was the Development Director for the City of Inglewood, CA, the major problem is that such an effort often involves deed restrictions, which in turn restrict the ability of low-income homeowners to gain future price appreciation and virtually guarantees they will never get out of poverty and the neighborhood will never become economically diverse. If a large number of low-income homeowners cannot benefit from rising property values—which over time will probably happen—and can only sell to other low-income buyers, which is a central tenet of these programs, the entire community becomes stuck in an economic rut.

So, under the banner of trying to preserve affordable housing, the public agency can end up inadvertently causing the neighborhood to stagnate. Perhaps Flint should emulate Detroit, where urban farmers plant corn in neighborhoods where houses once stood. It may seem odd, but there is a movement in Detroit, a city with vast stretches of empty residential lots, to plow up the infrastructure and put the land to agricultural uses. The grant writer in me starts salivating at this idea, as once could combine biodiesel production with bootstrap economic development and help the vacant housing crisis—a grant writing trifecta.

My experience, starting with knocking on doors in North Minneapolis long ago, is that none of these efforts work, or at the very least none will be consequential enough to notice. Eventually, market forces will equalize and the houses will become so inexpensive that people will move back in, fix them up and the neighborhood will gentrify. This is an interesting narrative, but, as Tim Harford writes, “[…] neighborhoods do not tend to ‘up and come’ at all. Anyone who doubts this should look at Charles Booth’s famous map of London’s rich and poor areas at the end of the nineteenth century […] Overlaying Booth’s map with today’s poorest areas is a sobering experience: With few exceptions, yesterday’s poor areas are also today’s poor areas.” This is probably less true in the United States—think of Manhattan of the 1970s versus today—but still instructive.

Of course, if gentrification does happen, this will start the handwringing all over again, as periodically the New York Times will run a story about the poor folks being driven out of their homes by gentrification, instead of predatory lenders. Newspapers thus have a choice of running two stories in alternate years: falling housing values are harming the poor by destroying neighborhoods, or rising housing values are harming the poor by pricing them out of the market. In either case, newspapers confirm that poor people are always getting screwed one way or another, which is probably true.

As a grant writer, however, I am delighted to see the media and our politicians focused on a new crisis because, wherever a major social problem emerges, grant programs are sure to follow. Not to hope for doom, but, as Chairman Mao said, “let a hundred flowers bloom.” When Congress comes up with a new grant program to address the vacant housing challenge, as it surely will, Seliger + Associates will be ready to write the proposals till the next crisis arrives.