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Affordable Housing and the Jewish Justice Movement
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Affordable Housing and the Jewish Justice Movement

The Jewish community, while expressing a new commitment to social justice, needs to commit itself, and its considerable resources, to more than advocacy.

There’s nothing wrong with advocacy, of course. It’s a necessary and time-honored practice, one whose efficacy has achieved legislation and policy change on the environment, labor standards and zoning. But advocacy on its own cannot begin to achieve the change that’s needed, or possible, in contemporary life. That can only come from doing what needs to be done. Nowhere is this need more demonstrable, or the solutions more within reach of the Jewish community, than in the area of affordable housing. Considerable social justice attention has already been focused on affordable housing: numerous grassroots organizing networks have come together around the issue in communities across the country. These organizations are rehabbing houses of the poor, lobbying for inclusionary zoning ordinances and pushing for affordable units in new rental and condo developments. But given the expected shortage of affordable units we face, that’s not going to be nearly enough. A recent study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) at Harvard University revealed that one in seven households is severely cost-burdened, meaning those households pay more than half their income in rent. From 2001 to 2006 alone, the ranks of the severely cost burdened went up by 4 million households – almost a 30 per cent increase. With foreclosures continuing unabated, wages stagnating, unemployment rising and subprime mortgages continuing to adjust upward, the problems looks to become progressively worse. Under the circumstances, advocacy is needed, but advocacy alone will not put enough roofs over the heads of the poor. The renewed Jewish commitment to social action has to extend to the actual creation of affordable homes and apartments. Synagogues and social justice organizations must take a page from the playbook of nonprofit housing organizations – many of them faith-based but relatively few of them Jewish — to actually develop and preserve the affordable housing that’s urgently needed. Why Affordable Housing Needs the Jewish Community I don’t mean to single out the Jewish community for criticism on this issue. It’s just that I’m Jewish, and an affordable housing developer. I know as well as anyone that developing and preserving housing that’s within reach of low-to-moderate income people is a complicated and exhausting task. I know the acquisition of properties or raw land, and the permitting, building or rehabbing of housing for low-income individuals and families, is a cost- and labor-intensive undertaking–a mined quagmire. Sometimes the benefits for all that effort and risk are marginal: a battle can be won to build a handful of affordable units, but the mushrooming underhoused population renders the momentary victory almost meaningless. The fact that creating and saving affordable housing is difficult only underscores its urgency: factionalism and NIMBYism, while constant obstacles, can be overcome more often than you think. And consensus can be built and driven in such a way that communities not only accept but embrace new neighbors. That’s especially true when the developer is a community member. My informal environmental scan seems to indicate that other faith-based groups are doing more to actually get affordable units out of the ground, while the Jewish community depends more on grassroots organizing to create change at the policy level. Both are vital activities in the push for social equity and stable, diverse communities. But affordable housing virtually begs for the sustained attention of a community of accomplished connected people, with principles and know-how, to get involved. People who are socially and spiritually committed to justice, who can build alliances and tap the kinds of expertise that can not just fix a roof but save an apartment complex. Doesn’t that sound like the membership of your synagogue? As members of the Jewish community, we also can recognize that working for affordable is consistent with our values and the sacred teachings of our tradition. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs has pointed out, the prophet Isaiah’s admonition to “take the poor into your homes” is part of the Haftorah read on Yom Kippur. The mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah each year reminds us of our innate frailty and the good fortune we experience in having permanent shelter. To develop or preserve affordable housing, then, is to express and promote a core Jewish value in a way that addresses an urgent societal need. The Synergy of Affordable Housing and Supportive Services Just what is “affordable housing,” anyway? It’s a catch-all phrase encompassing a wide variety of housing types, the common factor being that it’s housing available and affordable to people who earn less than the Area Median Income, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Housing that meets this criteria qualifies for various kinds of tax credits, low-interest financing and other incentives in return for a guarantee that it will be reserved for and affordable to people earning less than AMI for their area. In some places–say, Aspen, Colorado–median income is so high that your internist could qualify for an affordable rental unit. In other, more economically challenged communities, rents are already quite low, and rental units are already affordable because of market conditions. Often, however, those communities don’t set or enforce decent standards for those units. So while they’re affordable, they’re often in substandard condition. Affordable housing, both owned and leased, both newly built and newly rehabilitated, is a vital component of the achievement of social justice and economic equity in our society. And there’s evidence to suggest that decent affordable housing is a driver of other concerns: that is, a family that is decently housed is less likely to be under- or unemployed or uninsured, and the children in that family are less likely to fall prey to the host of social ills that await them.  What’s more, preserving affordable housing, and providing supportive services to the residents of that housing, is especially critical at a time when the demolition of public housing and the dispersal of its former residents has caused a rending of community fabric and an erosion of support networks. An article by Hanna Rosin in the July/August 2008 issue of Atlantic Monthly pins the blame for a surge in crime in Memphis on the demolition of the city’s public housing, and makes the claim that former public housing residents took their criminal ways with them. It’s an ugly possibility no one seems ready to confront. The less ugly possibility, which Rosin also mentions, is that “site-based resident services” may well help rebuild support networks and provide new skills to the people losing not just a home but a whole way of life. I’ll vouch for that. Affordable housing has been “my” issue and my work for the last decade plus. In 1996, I joined a family-owned, for-profit apartment development and management company whose focus was increasingly shifting toward affordable housing. In 2000, I co-created and became the first executive director of that company’s philanthropy: Full Circle Communities, Inc., rehabs and manages apartment complexes, but with a difference. Full Circle not only preserves these complexes as affordable for the long term, it commits to spending 75 per cent of a property’s cash flow on the provision of supportive services to that property’s residents. At senior properties, this means keeping seniors active, involved and healthy for as long as possible. At family properties, it typically involves getting kids to work at grade level and stay out of trouble. This is not work for the easily discouraged or faint of heart. Full Circle has “bootstrapped” itself to the point where it has preserved a total of approximately 650 affordable rental units since it bought its first property – a 250-unit, low-income senior apartment complex in Naples, Florida — six years ago. Preserving 100 units a year isn’t setting any records. But spending more than $200,000 on supportive services and service-related improvements, while building a strong balance sheet, is the start of something good. And preserving the only independent-living, low-income senior property in Collier County, one of the richest in Florida and the entire nation, felt like the right thing to do. Residents at Goodlette Arms, our Naples property, have an on-site service coordinator, an on-site physical therapist, a wheelchair accessible van that takes them to shopping and medical appointments, and wheelchair accessible, landscaped grounds that feature an astonishing array of wildlife (the alligator that lives in the canal adjacent to the property has never harmed a soul). Buying more properties has been hard. We routinely get outbid by developers with deeper pockets or financing schemes less encumbered by set-asides for low- to moderate-income renters. But we persist, because in the end, we might be able not only to help people live safely and decently but also to learn skills that might help them change their circumstances. Although Florida has its obstacles–hurricanes, high property insurance rates, ridiculous utility costs–it has an important state law on the books: an affordable rental property owned by a nonprofit is exempt from real estate taxes, beginning in its first full calendar year of ownership. Advocates of social justice would be wise to push for this law in any state with high property taxes and a growing need for affordable housing. Affordable Housing vs. the Social Justice Movement’s Limited Resources The social justice movement can move mountains. It can also build houses and apartments. Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action (JCA) in Minneapolis, proudly recalls being part of a movement that did just that. “There was a commercial development announced, years ago, that contained no affordable housing at all,” Rosenthal told me. “It was proposed for a site quite near a synagogue that I’m a member of. We talked to people in the community, and no one could understand why the proposed development didn’t include any affordable housing. We started asking questions and getting involved. It doesn’t take that many people to get involved to make an impression. We showed up at Planning Commission meetings and made an impression, because usually no one would show up.” Rosenthal said that, after five years of community effort, Gateway Village was completed – and almost a third of its 500 units were, and are, affordable. “We do what we have the funding and resources to do,” Rosenthal said, adding that “there are a few other issues that are more compelling for our membership.” Much the same is true in the nation’s capital, according to Jacob Feinspan, director of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ). In 2005, JUFJ was successful in its efforts to pass an inclusionary zoning ordinance in Washington in 2005. The group partnered with other social service and social justice organizations to ensure that the ordinance, designed to preserve and promote a diversity of housing types across income levels in DC communities, was applied city-wide and not just in the less desirable neighborhoods. JUFJ’s “YIMBY” (“Yes In My Back Yard”) campaign was a success. But Feinspan said that a more recent effort to build a coalition around advocating for affordable housing was not sustainable. “We couldn’t come to consensus with our allies on what the ‘ask’ was,” he said. This is one example of the limits of advocacy work. One Community’s Solution What defines “affordable housing” is not just the economics or demographics, but the particular needs of the renters. Groups that self-select out of broader neighborhoods due to, say, social concerns or religious beliefs may have particular needs that a typical development can’t satisfy. And when that happens, they just have to build their own housing. The Orthodox community in Los Angeles is taking this particular bull by the horns, according to Rabbi J. J. Rabbinowich, West Coast director of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox advocacy and lobbying group. Rabinowich explained that the Orthodox in Los Angeles reside in three distinct communities: Hancock Park, Pico-Robertson, and the Valley. “Even on the extreme edge of these neighborhoods, you’re looking at seven-figure home prices,” Rabinowich told me. He pointed out that Orthodox Jews have particular needs in their communities – institutions that need to be either walking distance (for the Sabbath) or close by, and that these requirements can put additional upward pressure on real estate values in their communities. “I tell politicians this all the time,” Rabinowich said. “We need three institutions in our community: a synagogue, a school, and a supermarket that sells kosher products. Those things tend to confine us to specific neighborhoods.” So the Orthodox in L.A. are working on a massive real estate deal that would permit them to develop, out of whole cloth, a brand new Orthodox community within driving distance to downtown’s jobs. Rabinowich said it would be fruitless to pursue solutions through legislation, because nothing would happen. And because of his community’s particular needs and its ability to pull in one direction–and because of the opportunity that arose– the Orthodox of Los Angeles are trying to forge their own solution to their own particular problem. A New Call to Action While the Orthodox model can’t translate to every other demographic in need of decent, safe affordable housing, it holds this important lesson: the best solution for an affordable housing crisis is to do whatever it takes to build or preserve affordable units. Synagogues and Jewish social justice organizations can and should be in the business of building affordable housing. They can band together with other institutions, Jewish and non-Jewish, to form Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and nonprofit development concerns, cooperating on a systematic approach to the creation of affordable housing located near jobs, schools transportation – and, of course, synagogues, churches and mosques. They will need to encourage legislation that supports what the Macarthur Foundation calls “high-impact renovation strategies”–since it’s easier, more cost-effective and less controversial to rehab an existing property than to build a new one–and throw their support behind mission-driven owners and developers (like, say, me). Vic Rosenthal, JCA’s director, pointed to a partner in his work that had done just that: the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation, formed in 1999 by Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, “owns and develops a range of housing to meet community needs,” according to its Web site.  It has a board of civic heavy hitters and a professional staff of nine. The MacArthur Foundation, which has taken on the preservation of affordable rental housing as one of its major initiatives, has found that from 1993 to 2003 the U.S. suffered a net loss of approximately 1.2 million affordable rental units. Its researchers also continue to research and document a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and health. When one considers the growth of the population, the aging of the remaining affordable properties, expiring subsidies and the growth of renters as the result of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the loss of affordable units appears even more acute than at first glance. It will make the solving of all problems to which Jewish social justice work tends to dedicate itself even more challenging.   The drawbacks and risks of becoming a developer are, of course, legion. For one thing, developing coalitions with the financial resources, expertise, and staying power to actually create affordable housing is a daunting task. For another, the political risks inherent in building or preserving and rehabbing affordable homes or apartments can seem insurmountable, with local governments holding up zoning, permitting and construction at will (Meir Lakein, director of the Greater Boston Synagogue Organizing Project, calls it “death by a thousand cuts”). And the NIMBYism that attaches itself to any affordable housing development effort takes on a particularly toxic nature if Jewish groups are involved. Lakein knows. He was involved in the battle that the Brockton Interfaith Community, an alliance comprised of twenty-two churches and three synagogues, undertook to develop of approximately thirty affordable homes in nearby Brockton. “People from the immigrant Catholic parishes were primarily concerned with eviction,” Lakein remembers. “And members of local Protestant churches were concerned that their kids were going to leave Massachusetts because they couldn’t afford to start a family there.” Lakein recalled that political opponents of the affordable housing initiative started a “whispering campaign,” insinuating that affordable housing was a code word for ‘influx of minorities.’ The whisperers hoped, apparently, to frighten Jews into leaving Brockton the way they had earlier left the communities of Dorchester and Roxbury. (“The obnoxious effort,” Lakein told me, “gained no traction.”) The odds against making a dent in our housing needs are long indeed. But if long odds and anti-Semitism were determining factors, synagogues and their members would never have taken to the social justice movement to begin with. We know in our bones that being Jewish requires a single-minded determination to practice world-healing in the face of long odds and formidable obstacles.  If the new Jewish Social Justice movement hopes to make lasting gains in its work to help create a more just society, its advocates will have to turn their attention to this fact, because decent housing is beyond the reach of a growing segment of our society. What’s more, the vicious circle of poverty–characterized by chronic ill health, underinsurance, weakened family structure and academic underachievement, among other challenges–is exacerbated by, and often begins with, a lack of decent, safe affordable housing.    The opportunity exists now to make headway: the recent housing crisis has increased the need for affordable rental housing, and new legislation will enhance the opportunities to provide it. The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 expands the number and kinds of properties eligible for Low Income Housing Tax Credit financing, makes these credits eligible to offset the Alternative Minimum Tax, and makes special-needs housing eligible for more federal subsidy. The chronic ills of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have caused uncertainty in credit markets, but when credit markets stabilize, the ability to preserve and develop affordable housing may be better than ever. Unless we can quickly translate this knowledge into action–another hallmark of Jewish activism–we could find ourselves swamped by the “underhoused” of the Baby Boom generation and unable to keep up with the flood of needs to which the social justice movement has committed its energies. The problem demands that congregations, social justice organizations and foundations develop expertise and a sense of urgency around affordable housing, reaching again across denominational, religious and communal boundaries. And they will need to work tirelessly, because unless they do, they could quickly find that the problems they banded together to address are becoming more deeply rooted and intractable by the day. To be sure, Jewish organizations have responded to this call: the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has worked with Habitat for Humanity on building affordable homes; organizations like Jewish Funds for Justice and Just Congregations in New York, Jews United for Justice in Washington and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago have struggled, sometimes successfully, to build not just alliances but bricks-and-mortar solutions to the problem of affordable housing, to force change not just in attitudes but in ordinances. As Meir Lakein continues his work of hearing the stories that congregants tell and building action around those issues, my guess is he’ll only hear more about how housing prices are causing young families to move away and seniors to move in with their kids. He’ll hear more about single-parent families unable to find a home in safe communities, and he’ll notice that people are wondering aloud about their futures. He and others have the opportunity to galvanize Jewish commitment to practice an eminently practical form of tikkun olam: building and preserving homes that are decent, safe and affordable is an urgent need that requires disciplined action. It’s difficult work. It’s work we should begin again, in earnest, now. This essay originally appeared in Zeek’s Fall/Winter 2008 print issue. To subscribe to Zeek in print, go to


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