Why Mixing It Up Is Best

Housing is the primary infrastructure of any city. Households with incomes vast or small share a common value and pursuit of decent, safe and affordable housing.

There is no single agreed-upon definition for a mixed-income community. Equity, equality, opportunity and inclusivity are all words commonly used to describe broad goals that shape a deliberate effort to foster a community, with a series of housing types affordable to a broad range of incomes. Federal, state and local – housing policy, housing finance and housing development or “housing practice” – for generations, has been centered by a single number: 30 percent. Over the years, creating mixed-income communities became defined by innovations in housing practice so families and individuals can pay no more than 30 percent of their income for decent and safe housing.

So, how did we get here? Can we create truly mixed-income communities? And, what does all this mean for the future of housing in Tulsa?

So, how did we get here?

Federal housing policy has a long and storied past of promoting our American values of equality and opportunity while simultaneously siphoning and segregating our neighborhoods. At its inception in 1937, public housing provided temporary shelter, through Housing Authorities (HA) to our nation’s neediest families, in primarily urban and rural areas impacted by the Great Depression. The public housing stock, in many cities and rural towns, was built on the land of the very slums they replaced, which were in neighborhoods commonly set apart, with limited access to economic opportunity.

By the 1960s as our nation continued to prosper, local HAs began to expand, in mass, the number of lower-income residents being served. In response, Congress began providing subsidies to HAs to cover the gap between what residents could pay and the actual cost of providing the public housing. As the number of applicants grew in cities and rural towns, Congress passed the Brooke Amendment in 1969, which has, to this day, defined how we talk about affordable housing. The Brooke Amendment set housing affordability at thirty percent of household income. For the last 50 years of housing finance and development, thirty percent has been at the core of federal, state and local housing practice.

In the 1970s, as cities began to decline, federal housing policy began to shift. The concentration of lower-income households in buildings and seperate neighborhoods was replaced by deliberate efforts to deconcentrate poverty and federal control over housing policy, finance and development. The passage of the Housing and Community Development Act in 1974 created what is commonly known as the Section 8 or Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program, and the Community Development Block Grant (or CDBG) Program. The HCV and CDBG Programs set a new approach to housing policy by providing recipients a voucher, an opportunity to afford housing in the private market, and local governments and HAs the power to set their own path toward equality and opportunity.

From its inception, the HCV program exploded in growth; the program would quickly serve as many lower income families – and in far more neighborhoods – than the public housing program. During the 1980s as the decline of cities and rural towns became a part of our national dialogue, many municipalities saw a sharp rise in the visibility of persons experiencing homelessness. In response, Congress took additional action to expand local government and HAs control over housing policy and more funding to address homelessness.

By 1986, the number of individuals and families on HAs waiting list hit new heights. From this crisis, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC) was born. Nearly 20 years since the Brooke Amendment, the LIHTC Program solidified thirty percent of household income for housing as the benchmark for housing finance. In addition, the LIHTC program expanded the eligibility of families and individuals who could qualify for housing to include incomes of teachers, police officers and firefighters.

By 1999, Congress capped the total number of public housing units any HA could have under the Faircloth Amendment. Housing Choice Vouchers became the default program of federal housing policy. Equality, opportunity, equity and inclusion became the touchstones for local housing practice and community development. Now, two decades later, in 2019, as cities are once again prospering, they are finding, creating, and innovating their use of local power in housing practice. Developing communities’ where people of all incomes choose to reside, by preserving, improving and expanding the housing stock is our challenge today.   

Can we create mixed-income communities?

Regardless of the definition, three basic components make up mixed-income communities: land, housing and people.  From 2013 to today, Congress created the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) and Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) programs. While designed to expand housing choice for lower-income families and individuals by capping rents and mortgages at thirty percent of income, a keystone of each program is to build or preserve housing stock within the land boundaries of a neighborhood for people across the income scale. CNI and RAD programs can leverage the funding provided by the LIHTC program. The layering of financing programs needed to provide housing at a cost to families or individuals that is no higher than thirty percent of income highlights a critical point: the basic cost of constructing a decent and safe home is not altered, amended or changed by the income of the people who take up residence. To create mixed-income communities we must innovate, mixing and to layering funding.

Today’s Housing Authorities are administrators of innovation in housing finance and development.  The federal charge to local governments and HAs is to create, preserve and develop housing choice and affordability across the scale of incomes. In many ways, choice and affordability are competing priorities in housing markets. Land, concrete, wood, steel – the basics of any home – cost the same whether the occupant is transitioning from homelessness, is a teacher, a police officer or an executive. The focus of housing practice – policy, finance and development – is to find innovative ways to stack federal, state, local, public and private funds to build housing and communities where families of all incomes would choose to reside. Yes, we can create mixed-income communities, if we choose.

Today, the Tulsa Housing Authority (THA) is innovating its housing practice to preserve, improve and expand housing affordability. At no more than thirty percent of income across the income scale, THA is fostering mixed-income communities of choice. The fabric of Eugene Field neighborhood – under CNI, LIHTC and market rate – will be preserved, the affordable housing stock improved and choice of housing expanded to include over 450 families and individuals across a broad spectrum of incomes. Across our portfolio, nearly a third (equaling 1,000) housing units, under the RAD program, will be remade to provide decent, safe, affordable housing for nearly 3,000 Tulsans. And, our work has just begun.    

And, what does all this mean for the future of housing in Tulsa?

Like many cities around the country and even the world, Tulsa is experiencing a rebirth. Led by city leaders yesterday and today, investments in downtown and throughout the city topped $300 million in 2018. The prosperity has continued through 2019, and the future looks bright. From today through 2022, THA will drive over $250 million in housing investments throughout Tulsa. These investments will create jobs, support continued economic growth and contribute positively towards Tulsa’s Equity Indicators.

THA is making a deliberate effort to foster communities, with a series of housing types affordable to a range of incomes to achieve the broad goals of equity, equality, opportunity and inclusivity. The Envision Comanche project will redefine a north Tulsa community through a collaborative and inclusive planning process. The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative for the Eugene Field neighborhood will preserve, mix and rebuild a storied community. The RAD program not only preserves and improves our housing stock but generates funding to expand housing in mixed-income communities across Tulsa.

Households with incomes vast or small share a common value and pursuit of decent, safe and affordable housing. Like many Housing Authorities across the country, THA will impact the future of housing in Tulsa. The long and storied past of THA tracks along the evolution of federal housing policy. The three parts to creating mixed-income communities: land, housing stock and people are the lights that guide THA’s housing practices today, always pointing back to our mission of creating a better Tulsa by transforming lives and communities. Thirty percent of income for decent and safe housing is a good deal for any family across the income scale. And that’s why mixing it up is best.

This blog post was written by Erik Solivan, THA’s senior vice president of development services.

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