Earlier this month, Congress introduced the Clean Up Our Neighborhoods Act of 2019, a bipartisan bill that would authorize the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to make grants to states to eliminate blight and assist in neighborhood revitalization. This bill hits on an essential aspect of America’s complex and growing housing crisis.
Millions of American families struggle to find safe, quality living spaces. There are also approximately 1.3 million vacant homes in our country. Leveraging vacant properties to provide affordable housing is not possible in most instances. Those properties sit abandoned, in varying states of disrepair.
These two aspects of the housing crisis create a web of challenges. The struggle to find affordable housing threatens the fabric of many communities. It causes higher eviction rates. We see more families in financial crisis and broader use of social safety net programs. Abandoned properties also create myriad safety and health risks. At the same time, the blight lowers property values and hinders economic development.
The Clean Up Our Neighborhoods Act would provide better access to critical funds. Communities could use the money to board vacant properties, demolish or renovate blighted structures and clear and maintain vacant land. These grants will make a significant difference. However, we need a broader collaborative approach involving the public and private sector.
At Navigate Affordable Housing Partners, we are focused on ensuring safe, quality, affordable housing. We see that the programs currently in place are not enough to address the growing housing crisis. The public and private sectors must work together to address this ever-increasing crisis.
One way to do this is by focusing on the unique needs of specific neighborhoods. We must recognize that each community will have discrete housing needs. For example, some areas have an aging population. These communities need more affordable housing options for seniors. Another neighborhood may need to focus on so-called “workforce housing.” The solution there is affordable housing that is within easy commuting distance of job opportunities.
In our home state of Alabama, we have been instrumental in preserving approximately 2,500 affordable housing units. In Birmingham, we are taking a neighborhood-specific approach in revitalizing a historic community. This neighborhood was one of the first areas where African-Americans could own property. Like many urban areas, the population has dwindled. There is a distinct lack of economic opportunity. These factors have devastated the community.
Some economic development is happening, but urban blight has gone unaddressed. Lifetime residents have seen the deterioration over the years. Condemned houses sit next to the livable structures. Homes lie in ruins covered in soot from fires long put out. Overgrown lots pepper the area.
Navigate is working with local, state, and federal stakeholders, including meeting with community leaders and working with other nonprofits to address the need for housing. As partners working together, we can create positive change. This collaborative model will revitalize housing development and create positive change. It will address urban blight, can create housing that is affordable for all, and spur more economic growth.
We are committing our resources first to address blighting factors. Our actions will include removing condemned structures and offering to help maintain vacant lots. We are also working with other nonprofits to address community stabilization factors such as critical repairs to homeowners.
On a parallel track, we continue to preserve affordable rental options and rehabilitate vacant homes when practical. Through this rehabilitation, we will be able to take properties that may currently attract vagrants or crime, and turn them into safe, affordable living spaces for local workers and families.
Our approach in Birmingham is an example of how addressing blight can be a vital component of a collaborative neighborhood-driven approach where nonprofits and private industry work with resources from the federal, state, and local governments to tackle the housing crisis.
Leveraging our collective strength, and with the support of policymakers committed to revitalizing America’s neighborhoods with safe, affordable housing, we can find long-term solutions for communities in need.
Lisa McCarroll is the CEO of the nonprofit Navigate Affordable Housing Partners.
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