When it comes to affordability, think permanently and act early, equitable development veteran Tony Pickett told a packed crowd last week at Metro Regional Center.
Pickett is vice president of master site development at Denver’s Urban Land Conservancy and a past executive director of the Atlanta Land Trust Collaborative.
Brought to Portland by Metro’s Equitable Housing Initiative and Regional Snapshots program, he shared lessons from decades of work trying to create and protect affordability amid rapid growth in two of the country’s hot housing markets.
Pickett said he prefers to think of his work not as “anti-displacement” – a double negative that he said returned glassy-eyed stares in communities.
Instead, he urged his audience to think about “in-placement”.
“Let’s shift it to a more positive, proactive terminology,” he said. “In the same way you wouldn’t say 'anti-illness,' you’d call it 'health.'”
To Pickett, “in-placement” means giving people the ability to stay in the communities they already call home even as public and private investments in amenities and development drive up the real estate market.
Here are four takeaways from his presentation to an audience of elected leaders, housing advocates, planners and residents.
Working for housing options
Through the Equitable Housing Initiative, Metro is committed to working with partners across the Portland region to find opportunities for innovative approaches and policies that result in more people being able to find a home that meets their needs and income levels.
Pickett is a major proponent of community land trusts, nonprofits that can purchase and hold land to protect or create more living options affordable to people of all incomes.
That means thinking ahead – potentially way ahead. Pickett advised buying land in strategic places to protect or preserve affordable housing, before a light rail line, redevelopment or other project drives up costs.
Pickett said he often hears from people around the country who wonder if it’s too late for their community to be proactive in buying land to protect affordability – if land is already too costly.
He dismisses that view. In the long run, he said, land is nearly certain to continue increasing in value – meaning now is almost never too late.
“They’re not making any more (land),” Pickett said.
He acknowledged that means affordable housing advocates sometimes need to take a very long-term view to make investments pencil out.
“It’s going to take some investment – and there’s going to be a period at the beginning of any investment when it’ll operate at a loss,” Pickett said.
In Atlanta, Pickett focused much of his work on the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile corridor of transit, trails and development ringing the city. Though only partially complete, the $2.8 billion BeltLine will someday pass through 45 neighborhoods, many of which have historically been home to communities of color and lower-income residents.
An investment that big could drive up housing costs and push vulnerable people farther from the amenity they’ve long awaited. With the Atlanta Land Trust Collaborative, Pickett worked on a plan to create 5,600 affordable housing units around the BeltLine, paid for by a specific fund set aside in the urban renewal funding used for the project.
The demand is certainly there. During a single-day lottery for a 28-unit affordable condominium project on the BeltLine, hundreds of people turned out to see if their name was drawn.
The Urban Land Conservancy, where Pickett has worked since 2013, has even more opportunity to create affordability in the Mile-High City. Started with a $15 million seed fund, the organization has grown over time to invest $70 million in 28 projects, generating over $400 million in redevelopment.
One of the conservancy’s advantages has been the ability to move quickly to purchase prime sites as Denver undergoes a multi-billion dollar expansion of its rail transit system.
Pickett shared the example of the conservancy’s Park Hill Village West development, on Denver’s new A-Line commuter rail connecting downtown to Denver International Airport. Urban Land Conservancy purchased the site close to a planned station in a historically black neighborhood to create permanently affordable housing with easy access to the region’s growing transit network. The development opened at about the same time as the rail line.
The conservancy helped create and benefits from a significant public/private/foundation partnership called the Denver Transit-Oriented Development Fund, which provides low-interest loans for acquiring land and existing multifamily properties.
Started in 2010 with $15 million from the City of Denver and a consortium of foundations, nonprofits and banks, by 2013 the fund had created or preserved more than 600 homes, commercial space, a public library and more. It expanded into a $24 million regional fund in 2014.
Many models of affordable housing only guarantee affordability for a defined period, often several decades.
Community land trusts tend to look further out – as in forever. Typically, they’ll continue to own land permanently and lease it to tenants 99 years at a time. Any sale of property on the site comes with a permanent covenant requiring development to remain affordable.
“We are the long-term steward,” Pickett said. “We never go away.”
Such a long-term view allows the Urban Land Conservancy and other land trusts to take risks and create deeper affordability, because they are not looking to create return on investment quickly. It also means that residents and commercial tenants can count on staying where they are as long as they need to. Tenants typically gain from their investment in a share of the property’s equity.
“Permanent affordability – there’s no question that that should be the priority from the policy standpoint,” Pickett said.
Look beyond housing – and listen to community.
Pickett also urged thinking about equitable development as more than giving people a place to live. A complete, successful community requires much more, including educational opportunities, mixed-income residents, jobs and retail, safe transportation access and even beauty and placemaking.
Understanding what a community needs means you have to listen to them, Pickett said, instead of coming in and telling them. And it means breaking out of professional and jurisdictional silos that can stymie success by keeping the focus too narrow.
“We are constantly sitting down with the community and talking about what they might need,” he said.
In 2009, the Urban Land Conservancy purchased Holly Square, a former shopping center in a struggling Denver neighborhood. The shopping center had been destroyed in a gang-related firebombing the year before.
They led a 2-year visioning process and heard that the best use for the site was a place for key educational and recreational opportunities for younger residents of the neighborhood. In 2013, the site became home to a Boys & Girls Club, followed a few years later by a charter school. Both have signed 99-year leases that give them confidence in their ability to serve the community long-term.
Another project a few miles away, called Park Hill Village West, gave the Urban Land Conservancy another opportunity to listen to the community and provide a needed asset.
The development, which had 156 permanently affordable apartments and a workforce training center when it opened last spring, is close to a rail station. But separating those homes from that station is a nearly impenetrable barrier: six-lane Colorado Avenue, with 60,000 cars a day.
Community members told Pickett and his colleagues that they couldn’t safely get to the new rail line and the regional access it provides. They also wanted to see the station and the development connected with the heart of Northeast Park Hill, Denver’s most heavily black neighborhood.
Thus arose a creative placemaking strategy: Create a trail to promote connections, health, art and heritage.
Now called the 303 ArtWay, the trail concept has lengthened to become a vision for a 9-mile loop linking neighborhoods, Denver’s largest park and zoo, commercial and jobs areas and transit. And community is driving its design making sure it serves their needs and reflects their voices, from the route it follows to the art it features.
The Urban Land Conservancy’s investments in the area will mean that the 303 ArtWay can help keep people “in-placed”, instead of being another amenity that threatens to push them away, Pickett said. The conservancy is now looking at a single-family housing acquisition strategy to help protect some permanent affordability as the ArtWay is completed.
The conservancy has also emphasized working with partners in health, education, workforce training, active transportation and other key advocates on an approach called “collective impact” – which crosses and aligns sectors to help get people on a path to true economic self-sufficiency.
It’s not easy – but success is possible.
Talking about success can make success seem easy.
It’s not, Pickett noted. Funding is complicated. Deals fall through. And without clear leadership and collective commitment to shared goals, great potential withers.
With the right perspective, proactive action and strategies like community land trusts, another path is possible – one that gives more people a place to call home.
Strong leadership and a shared commitment among public, private and nonprofit partners have allowed Denver to take on some pretty ambitious housing goals, such as Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s “3x5” initiative: a challenge to private and nonprofit developers to build or preserve 3,000 affordable housing units in five years.
With that goal looking likely achievable, Denver now seeks to double it, creating or preserving 6,000 units in 10 years. Last fall, the Denver City Council approved creating a $150 million local housing fund to help pay for it.
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