An iconic image of the 21st century recession is a boarded up house with a foreclosure notice pinned to its front door. The nationwide mortgage crisis, which began in 2008, has left behind thousands of evicted families and empty homes across the United States. If a foreclosed property was the image of the recession, now theoretically over, what is the post-recession’s photograph?
In reality, while the economy is growing again and home prices are rebounding, many foreclosed properties remain unoccupied, and vacancy and blight continue to plague communities across the country. Beyond the impact of foreclosure on the families themselves, the neighborhood effects of vacant and foreclosed homes are numerous. Blight poses a threat to a neighborhood’s social fabric, public safety, and aesthetics, and large numbers of vacant properties can lead to a reduction in city service delivery and infrastructure maintenance. Research also shows that concentrated foreclosures can reduce the property values of surrounding homes, leading to a loss of community wealth as well as stability.
Earlier this year, I edited a volume of the Community Development Investment Review, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, which seeks to provide guidance to communities and non-profit organizations eager to tackle this nationwide challenge in their neighborhoods. The volume explores innovative solutions and strategies for neighborhood stabilization and shares lessons learned from the Housing Partnership Network’s (HPN) 2011-2013 Innovations in Neighborhood Stabilization and Foreclosure Prevention Initiative.
With limited dedicated funds for neighborhood stabilization and a volatile housing market, taking foreclosed properties and putting them back to use is a complex challenge requiring nimble response and creative solutions. The articles in the Review offer important findings for policy and practice, including the critical role that housing counselors play in foreclosure prevention and the value of integrating counseling directly into servicing practices; the need to establish distressed asset disposition approaches that are sensitive to residents and the surrounding communities; and the need to pay more attention to single-family rental housing as a vital part of the nation’s affordable housing inventory. The issue also highlights the role of nonprofit organizations in bridging the public and private sectors and ensuring that investments serve the interests of the communities and residents
As communities and organizations continue to work to address the impacts of the foreclosure crisis on low-income and minority communities, the articles in this volume provide a wealth of insight and information derived from the actual practice of neighborhood stabilization. What will it take to produce an image of post-recession America that shines brighter than that of a boarded up home? One key is learning from nonprofit practitioners who are on the frontlines helping neighborhoods to restore occupancy and use of foreclosed properties.
On the heels of this recent election season, it is a good time to reflect deeply on how we are running public participation processes. How do legislative requirements like those for the SB 375 regional planning process in California help or hinder meaningful public engagement? What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for public engagement going forward? My research on the issue sheds some light on these questions.
Public process design is critical when participants are ideologically divided and do not trust each other or the public agencies in charge. It can be important to seek out areas of common ground. For example, all of us in a process may not able to agree on whether climate change exists, but we might be able to agree that hybrid vehicles should pay their fair share for road costs. We may not be able to agree on whether high density housing is beneficial in most circumstances, but we could do joint fact-finding to assess impacts on property rights, property values and public services like schools, police and fire departments.
My research on contested regional planning issues in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Atlanta, Georgia reveals surprising areas of convergence.
In the Bay Area, Tea Party and property rights activists came in force to block regional planning meetings run by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments to develop the region’s first Sustainable Communities Plan, known as Plan Bay Area. Importantly, these activists were not alone in opposition, as plaintiffs from across the political spectrum filed four lawsuits against the plan: two with some connections to property rights activists, one brought by the Building Industry Association Bay Area, and one by environmental organizations. And in the progressive left stronghold of Marin County, citizens not affiliated with Tea Party or property rights groups have voiced objections to the regional plan and to city plans that include higher density development areas in order to access regional funds available through the plan.
In Atlanta, Tea Party and property rights activists led the opposition to a regional sales tax proposal before the voters in 2012. The measure would have dedicated half of the estimated funds generated to public transit projects. An unlikely coalition of strange bedfellows emerged: Sierra Club and NAACP leaders joined the opposition, in part because they felt the proposed transit projects were not the ones the area needed. Although it is hard to say what impact the coalition had on the measure, the tax failed badly with 63% of the votes in opposition.
When examining the two contentious regions, I found four points of convergence between conservative activists I interviewed and planners, largely over transport policy and process matters, that warrant planners’ attention. These align generally with progressive activists’ positions even though the divergent sides come to planning from different vantage points. The four points of convergence were:
- Some support for vehicle miles traveled fee (Atlanta)
- Nuanced considerations about transit (Atlanta + Bay Area)
- Skepticism of authenticity of planning process (both regions)
- Opposition to sales taxes (Atlanta + Bay Area)
For more context on these areas of convergence, click here.
A way forward for planning efforts when the citizenry are divided along ideological lines could begin with participants seeking to find areas of common ground like the ones outlined above.
Participants could draw from the political theory of agonism to reframe their approach to civic engagement. In agonistic contexts, actors come to consider their opposition as legitimate adversaries rather than as enemies unworthy of engagement. In such moments, actors retain their core values and identities but may also find limited common ground with others, or agree to disagree. Group consensus is not a goal, but compromise through bargaining and negotiations may occur.
While challenging, it may be worthwhile to incorporate processes that facilitate transitioning from highly antagonistic, counterproductive encounters to interactions of agonistic debate. Current law and practice push regions to adopt plans that can be vulnerable to lawsuits if they are supported only by weak consensus. Such plans may be barely able to hold together over time. We wouldn't ship a package long-distance in crumpled wrapping and fraying tape. Likewise, we need solid community negotiations to keep plans from coming apart.
For more on the research discussed above, see Dr. Karen Trapenberg Frick's papers in the Journal of the American Planning Association at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01944363.2013.885312 and in Urban Studies athttp://usj.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/04/07/0042098014528397.
This article first appeared in longer form in California Planning & Development Report at here.