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PRRAC Advocacy Updates

July/August 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

Natl. Law Ctr. on Homelessness & Poverty
918 F St. NW, #423
Wash., DC 20004
Contact: Catherine Bendor/Maria Foscarinis

In 1994, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, with support from PRRAC, conducted research and prepared a report on the increasing criminalization of homelessness. The report, "No Homeless People Allowed," was at the time the Law Center's most comprehensive report on this worrisome and growing national trend. In it, the Law Center reported that in the past three years there had been a sharp increase across the country in local anti-homeless activities, such as the adoption of restrictions on homeless people's use of public spaces and on begging, police "sweeps" designed to remove homeless people from specific areas, and the targeting of homeless people in enforcement of generally applicable laws.

The Law Center is continuing its research and advocacy work concerning the criminalization of homelessness. In December 1996, we published our most comprehensive report ever on this topic, "Mean Sweeps," for which we surveyed the 50 largest US cities. The report found that local governments are increasingly turning to the criminal justice system as a means of addressing problems associated with homelessness in their communities. For example, in the previous four years roughly 31 % of the cities had enacted new ordinances or amended existing ones to restrict begging. At the same time, cities are resorting to this approach, the report documented that in most communities resources available to shelter homeless people or help them become self-sufficient were woefully inadequate. "Mean Sweeps" examined the implications of criminalization policy, arguing that such an approach is short-sighted, ineffective, inefficient and often inhumane as a way of addressing the problem of homelessness. The report also examined litigation across the country challenging criminalization policies and provided examples of constructive alternatives to criminalization.

Both reports have been tremendously important in raising public awareness about this problem and potential related violations of the civil rights of homeless people, and in supporting advocacy efforts around the country to reverse the trend toward criminalization. They have assisted local advocates to formulate arguments and supplied useful supporting evidence for legislative and court proceedings; have enabled local advocates to place local issues into a national context; and have provided additional clout to local advocates' positions. The Law Center is continuing its active monitoring of factual, legislative and legal developments with respect to this issue as well as its active involvement in efforts to prevent or challenge the adoption of criminalization policies around the country.

La Cooperativa/CHD/CRLA
Farmworker Undercount Project
48GB. 4th Ave. - Unit A
San Mateo, CA 94401
Contact: Ed Kissam, The Aguirre Group

The collaborative effort of La Cooperativa/CHDC and CRLA to overcome the "mega-undercount" of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the decennial Census, initially supported by PRRAC and the Rosenberg Foundation, has achieved important successes since the last update on this project.

In 1997, the US Department of Labor reconvened an agency workgroup to consider alternative approaches to allocating the more than $75 million in annual funding for JTPA 402 which for more than two decades had been distributed using flawed Census data. The workgroup recommended a new strategy for more equitably allocating funding, using several data sources, including the National Agricultural Workers Survey and the Census of Agriculture. This strategy will better enable funding to reach migrants-- wherever they are - in travelling from one state to another. At the same time, the shift to new data sources will provide policymakers and program planners with much more reliable demographic and socioeconomic profiles of this disadvantaged population. This is an important consideration, since the Census typically omits the most marginal segments within this population - farmworkers living in substandard housing, speaking little English, often with only an elementary school education.

At the same time, the team is working closely with Census Bureau staff to decrease the undercount of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in 2000. This work has included observation of the 1998 Census dress rehearsals in South Carolina and Sacramento and recommendations which led to better procedures for recognizing and enumerating "informal" (and usually unlicensed) farm labor camps where farmworkers are housed, improved definitions of "residency rules" to address the situation of migrants, and advice on developing and deploying a "targeted toolkit," a set of "best practices" for successfully enumerating farmworkers.

A key element in the success of Census 2000 will be the active participation of local government and community organizations in Census activities and Census Bureau flexibility to encourage and adapt to different modes of collaboration. Team member Ilene Jacobs, who represents California Rural Legal Assistance on the Department of Commerce's Census 2000 Advisory Committee and co-chairs the Subcommittee on Partnership and Special Populations, is working vigorously to help promote the idea that local partnerships must be inclusive and proactive, involving a wide range of grassroots community organizations. With support from California's Community Services Department, the La Cooperativa team is beginning work to develop several "model" collaborations in California's Central Valley. This "California Complete Count" effort will, it is hoped, provide useful practical guidance for similar efforts to improve enumeration of multi-ethnic populations, particularly immigrants, in inner cities, as well as migrant and seasonal farmworkers throughout the country.

Unfortunately, intense partisan political controversy about "sampling" and funding constraints are sapping the Census Bureau's ability to fully address the complexities of reliably enumerating an increasingly diverse American nation. The longstanding goal of "a census that mirrors America" (a phrase put forward by the National Academy of Sciences) may well hinge on vigorous efforts by local grassroots organizations, schools, small businesses and concerned civic leaders to make Census 2000 a truly participatory process.

After close to a decade of work on this issue, the CRLA/La Cooperativa/CHDC project team feels more strongly than ever that the fundamental problem to be overcome remains the tacit view that socially and economically marginalized people are "the problem" for social science rather than the ethnocentric "cookie cutter" research methodologies employed-e.g., the highly-formatted English-language mail survey sent to single-family homes, with telephone followup. For Census 2000 and after, the most pressing issue will continue to be to develop research strategies as diverse as the people who make up America.

Legal Aid of Western Missouri
1005 Grand Ave., #600
Kansas City, MO 64106
Contact: Julie Levin

During the discovery stage of Tinsley vs. Cuomo, a public housing desegregation lawsuit, it became apparent that HUD-assisted housing was racially segregated in the Kansas City area and that the predominantly minority developments suffered from uninhabitable conditions while the predominantly non-minority developments were in good condition. PRRAC provided Legal Aid of Western Missouri (LAWMO) with a grant to analyze the racial composition of all HUD-assisted developments in the Kansas City metropolitan area and to document a pattern of racial segregation. LAWMO hired housing consultant Yale Rabin to analyze the data we collected on the housing developments. We attempted to obtain information on the racial composition and habitability conditions of all the HUD-assisted developments through Freedom of Information Act requests to HUD and through data compiled by Mid-America Regional Council (MARC).

Unfortunately, while some of the developments did report their racial composition to HUD, HUD did not require the reporting of such informa-tion. As a result, LAWMO was only able to obtain racial composition data on approximately one-third of the developments. MARC therefore attempted to obtain the information by analyzing the racial distribution of population in the block or blocks on which the HUD-assisted housing was located, employing Census block numbers and block data based on each project's address. Initial effort proved inadequate because many projects for which a single block address was provided actually covered several city blocks.

MARC then identified multi-block locations for 15 projects. Rabin was able to correlate some block population data with project population data. While the data were still fragmentary, we were able to determine that 146 projects (approximately half the projects in the Kansas City area) were predominantly one-race.

Although we were unable to use the data to pursue impact litigation on the issue of segregation in HUD-assisted developments, the data collected on individual projects have proved useful in representing individual clients who have fair housing complaints against specific developments.

LAWMO has continued to address patterns of housing discrimination with other resources. Through a Fair Housing Initiatives Program Enforcement grant from HUD, LAWMO employs and trains white and African American testers posing as loan applicants to gather evidence of lending discrimination in Section 8 rentals, where clients have experienced problems. In addition, LAWMO sends testers to newly constructed apartment buildings to determine builder compliance with Fair Housing Act accessibility design regulations. Based on the evidence gathered in these testing activities, LAWMO brings appropriate enforcement actions.

Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless
288 A St., 4th fir.
Boston, MA 02210
Contact: Ginny Hamilton

In 1994, the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless organized homeless women to carry out a survey, with funding by PRRAC, which determined that race was a factor affecting accessibility to housing assistance from the state's LHAs. This research served as the foundation for the HomeStretch Project (formerly the Housing Applications and Admissions Project).

The HomeStretch Project's mission is to provide opportunities for homeless parents to become leaders in the fight to end homelessness. Through educational workshops and action-oriented advocacy projects, families experiencing homelessness are presented with clear explanations of the systems affecting their lives and opportunities to influence public policies.

Since its inception, HomeStretch has trained over 1,000 parents in emergency shelters about how to access public and subsidized housing, how to recognize and challenge housing discrimination, and, more recently, their rights under welfare reform. These trainings provide information on what is and is not required under current rules and regulations, self-advocacy strategies for avoiding pitfalls and action alerts for getting involved in policy initiatives.

These trainings have been incredibly well received by families struggling with conflicting information and propaganda regarding the new welfare rules and the dearth of information concerning the equally dramatic changes in federal housing programs. They leave with accurate legal easy-to-understand descriptions of the rules which govern their benefits and housing options. Moreover, they access strategies for coping with these changes and opportunities to get involved in educating others and challenging harmful policies.

Projects undertaken by Home-Stretch participants include advising local, state and national elected and administrative officials as to the housing needs of homeless families; designing outreach materials alerting other homeless families of their right to shelter until they secure safe, permanent hous-ng; and documenting potentially discriminatory practices by real estate agencies.

Through the HomeStretch Project and through work with advocates and providers, MCH is currently challenging LHA residency and employment preferences which violate HUD's mandate to affirmatively further fair housing; advocating for fair, streamlined applications processes to improve housing access for people with disabilities and other protected classes; and investigating individual and class complaints of private market discrimination against Sec. 8 tenants, a protected class in Massachusetts. The Home-Stretch Project Coordinator also serves on the Board of Directors of the newly established Greater Boston Fair Housing Center.

Seattle Displacement Coalition
4554 12th NE
Seattle, WA 98105
Contact: John Fox

In the Fall of 1991, the Seattle Displacement Coalition received several complaints from low-income people claiming they had been denied access to "low-income apartments" built with funding assistance from the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. Prompted by these concerns, and with grant assistance from PRRAC, the Coalition began what turned out to be a five-year effort - first to evaluate the tax credit program in Washington State and then to secure changes at the state level so that the program did a better job of fulfilling its original mandate: to serve the state's neediest households.

Today, asa result of the Coalition's efforts, program improvements have been made, but problems persist, both as a result of inadequate response from Washington State officials and problems with federal rules governing establishment and implementation of the program.

Under the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program - established by Congress in the mid-1980s - developers can be awarded tax credits for each unit they "set aside" for low-income residents, provided they set aside at least 20% of the units for tenants whose incomes are at or below 50% of an area's median, or at least 40% of their units for tenants with incomes at or below 60% of median. Rents cannot exceed 30% of the earnings of these households. Each state is awarded a certain allotment of credits (worth
about $30 million in housing subsidies annually for Washington State), and a state-wide agency is created or assigned to allot the credits to worthy projects. In Washington State, the Housing Finance Commission performs this task. Federal rules require state agencies to establish allocation systems that prioritize developers serving the lowest income populations.

With PRRAC assistance, the Displacement Coalition in 1992 first surveyed resident managers of 103 tax credit projects built in Washington since the program began. Then, in 1996, the Coalition went back and sampled 37 tax credit projects, state-wide, including some of the projects first studied in 1992. The results raised continued questions about the ability of the program to meet low-income needs. For example:

· Of the 37 projects surveyed in 1996,25(65% of the total) set a minimum income standard that ranged from 2 to 3 1/2 times the required rent. In other words, "very low-income" tenants applying for a set-aside unit in these projects also were required to prove that they had monthly earnings equal to at least 2 to 3 1/2 times the set-aside rent. Even though these set-aside units were earmarked to serve low-income people, most low-income people - especially those on SSI, GAO or other forms of fixed income - were ineligible due to these minimum income thresholds.

· The Coalition found an absence of effective marketing. Seventeen of the projects surveyed (46% of the total) reported they did not list their units with the public housing authority. Sixteen of the projects (43% of the total) would not even acknowledge that they offered low-income units for rent. Most of those surveyed did not aggressively market units to communities of color. In addition, six projects (16% of those surveyed) said they did not have handicapped-accessible units.

· In the Coalition's 1992-93 survey, fully 38% of the 103 projects surveyed had percentages of people of color below the county average. Another 16% reported they did not know how many people of color they had in their building. While the Housing Finance Commission now requires tax credit projects to advertise vacancies in newspapers serving communities of color, it does not check to confirm how many vacancies actually are filled by people of color, nor is any remedial action prescribed when an owner falls short.

· The Coalition's 1996 survey found that 38% of the sample refused to refund the damage deposit even when a unit was vacated in good condition (a practice outlawed in Washington State).

· Most troubling of all, the Coalition found that program rules (federal as well as state) do not appear to be adequate to guarantee rent levels on setaside units that most low-income people can afford. While most of the state's low-income people have earnings at or below 35-40% of median, most of the set-aside units were priced at rent levels affordable only to those earning at or above 50% of median. In fact, in many cases, rents on "low-income" units approximated and even exceeded average market rents for a given locale. In effect, it was easier and more affordable for a poor person to search out and rent a market-rate unit in that area.

While there were cases of developers failing to meet contractual obligations, most of the problems uncovered are intrinsic to the tax credit program itself. Responsibility should be placed on the State Housing Finance Commission, because it has not set the kinds of guidelines for enforcement, marketing and project selection that would guarantee accessibility to the state's lowest-income populations. While some conservative critics in Congress believe these problems justify scrapping the program, the Coalition instead called for reforms to guarantee that more of the tax credits go to projects committed to serving those most in need.

In response to the Coalition's efforts, the State Housing Finance Commission did hire more enforcement and monitoring staff (paid for by fees charged to project sponsors). Annual
certifications did become more rigorous, but they did not go so far as to include a review of how many people of color are being housed in each project. A commitment was made to increase the number of on-site visits, fines and other more aggressive remedial actions. While setting minimum income requirements (at least those set at more than 1 1/2 times the rent) should be barred outright, the Housing Finance Commission continues to ignore this growing problem. Absent a response at the state level, the federal rules need to be changed so as to prohibit this. Owners of tax credit projects in Washington State now are limited from charging excessive up-front fees, and the size of damage deposits is limited. Full refunds of the deposit now are guaranteed, but problems persist with Commission enforcement of this rule.

The most significant problem associated with this program remains unaddressed, however. Rents on all set-aside "low-income" units should be substantially lowered. Because this idea has been met with considerable resistance at the state level, especially from the Housing Finance Commission, the for-profit developers, bankers and investors reaping profits off of this program, the Coalition believes Congress needs to require that most of the set-aside units be priced at rent levels that serve people earning at or below 35-40%, rather than 50 or 60%, of median. Also, most of the tax credits allotted to states should be earmarked for non-profit housing developers better equipped and generally committed to serving those most in need. The Coalition submitted its recent findings to the Housing Finance Commission nearly two years ago and continues to call for changes in the program during the Commission's annual reviews. But to date, the Commission has not responded. In the meantime, the Coalition says it really is up to Congress to clean up this pro-gram in order to make sure that it truly serves those most in need.

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