There are four housing communities that form the one-way-in, one-way-out cul de sac of affordable housing at the epicenter of the Ferguson crisis sparked by the death of Michael Brown Jr. The total number of units, more than half of which are heavily subsidized, is 1,136.

Canfield Green, the strongest of the four in terms of both household demographics and housing quality, is nestled adjacent to three separate apartment communities. Canfield Green is all market-rate, with rents ranging from $425 to $600 for a spacious multi-bedroom unit.

All of the housing in the Canfield cul de sac was either developed or redeveloped using Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) awarded by the State of Missouri. The housing is unquestionably affordable, and many have asserted that the housing is decent and therefore adequate for the market.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the housing is indeed adequate, the question for community development specialists is whether decent, affordable and adequate housing is enough or whether LIHTC investments should require more.

A look at the physical terrain surrounding the housing is illustrative. There are no uniform formal sidewalks running through the property, despite the fact that children and families frequently must walk because most do not have access to cars. There are no parks or other defined recreation spaces within the cul de sac, even though a large number of children and youth live in the housing. Taking from the "new urbanist" design recommendations on state of the art community development, there is little defensible space for families to mark as their own and no “eyes on the street" to create a sense of community. 

The largest of the four communities is the 438-unit Northwinds Apartments, which has a significant number of Section 8 apartments in its unit mix. Northwinds, located directly northeast of Canfield, can be accessed only through Canfield Drive, which is the sole entryway into Canfield Green Apartments.

Here, most of the multi-bedroom units have galley kitchens, which are too small for a dining table; dining space is not otherwise available in the units. The notion of decent and adequate might come into question here: Where are families to sit down for dinner? Is family housing without space for family dining decent? Is such housing adequate?

Against this backdrop of a deep need for affordable housing and an equally deep need for the opportunity to improve overall living conditions, decent, affordable, and adequate housing is simply not enough for the public investment of tax credits. Affordability, decency, and adequacy of housing stock alone are insufficient returns from the use of available housing and community development tools. The Southeast Ferguson housing landscape and the story of its people illuminate the need for some uniformity in standards for affordable housing development, plus appropriate community-enhancing services and supports.

At the federal level, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has set the practice model in place with the launch of the Choice Neighborhoods grant program, which requires more than affordable, decent housing from federal housing investments.

HUD has likewise deepened the notion of requiring more than affordable, decent, and adequate housing in its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) Final Rule. The final rule describes the requirements for HUD participants, i.e., those that receive HUD funding, this way: "program participants [are directed] to take significant actions to overcome historic patterns of segregation, achieve truly balanced and integrated living patterns, promote fair housing choice, foster inclusive communities that are free from discrimination."

Achieving truly balanced and integrated living patterns as mandated by the rule will require focus and intentionality from the housing and community development community on more than affordable, decent, and adequate housing.

Community demographics 

The typical household in this Southeast Ferguson cul de sac has an income well below the area median income of $25,882, despite the fact that most adults are working. Many adults have more than one job. These families fit the classic definition of the "working poor." Nearly 100 percent of the households are African-American.

Of the households with children, most are headed by a single parent. The children are likely to attend Koch Elementary School in the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District. Few, if any, of the children have had early childhood education preparation and their generally low school performance is the result, with 33 percent of all third grade students performing below the basic proficiency level in communication arts.

According to data from the 2008-2012 U.S. Census, census tract 2120.2, within which these four properties are located, consists of 86.6 percent African-American versus 65 percent in the City of Ferguson overall, and 7.4 percent non-Hispanic white versus 31 percent in the City of Ferguson overall.

Additionally, population data within the census tract 2120.2 shows a dramatically higher percentage of younger residents compared to the population of the City of Ferguson, with approximately 13.4 percent of the residents between ages 0-5 and 14.9 percent between ages 18-24.

As late as January 2015, there were over 1,136 units distributed in these housing communities where a large number of children, youth and young adults live. The high school completion rate for youth has drastically declined from 86.1 percent in 2004 to 64 percent in 2013. The unemployment rate for working-age adults is 21.2 percent in the census tract, nearly nine points higher than the rest of Ferguson at 12.2 percent. Nearly 40 percent of the transition-age youth, defined as young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are classified as at-risk, do not work.

Transformation opportunity 

For every dollar of subsidy for housing development, there must be some corresponding allocation of monetary resources to systems, services and human capital development support. That is what we must do.

The heart of any program to address the challenges of implanting large numbers of heavily subsidized affordable housing units into moderate- to low-income communities like Southeast Ferguson must focus on human capital development as a part of the housing development strategy. Human capital development must include the design plan and implementation approach for a comprehensive set of strategies coordinated from a central unit in the community that are targeted to improve specific health, economic, and social outcomes. That is the starting point of a "Ferguson" transformation and the starting point for similar transformations in Ferguson-like communities around the country. Many such communities are now, since the Ferguson occurrence, seen as pockets of suburbanized poverty; however, the conditions similarly exist in urban core communities that have large concentrations of public or otherwise subsidized housing.

People and systems strategies cannot be an addendum to housing strategies; they must be conjunctive with housing strategies so that public financing support tax credits and similar vehicles can be used to leverage the necessary people and systems strategies.

The federal government has adopted this approach in the HUD Choice Neighborhood grant program. The people component of the Choice Neighborhood program is literally the starting point of the affordable housing development process and remains central to the success of this affordable housing grant program.

Human capital development planning and implementation as part of an affordable housing transformation strategy has four main components: information gathering, plan drafting, fund strategy development, and correlation of human capital planning and physical design planning.

Adding these components to the affordable housing planning process, whether there is a Choice Neighborhoods grant or not, does not add significantly to the planning timeline, especially with the kind of LIHTC regulatory requirements already in place. It will, however, add to the cost.

Without the additional federal funding that a Choice Neighborhood grant might bring, the assertion that for every dollar of housing subsidy there must be a source for funding the human capital, systems, and services components is paramount to implementation of this comprehensive approach. Private and philanthropic funding is routinely raised to fill gaps in housing development financing. The fundraising for the human capital planning effort and early implementation efforts must be addressed with as much rigor as funding efforts to support raising the capital for the housing.

However, because the human capital outcomes are often seen as riskier than the physical development outcomes, the question is and always will be: What will the investors get for the additional funding required and raised?

What is possible? 

In light of recent events, population conditions and demographics, a data-driven human capital plan and implementation strategy as the lead component of a transformation plan for Southeast Ferguson generally, and the targeted affordable housing specifically, would start at the epicenter – Canfield, Northwinds, Oakmont Townhomes, and Versailles Apartments – and move outward into the surrounding neighborhoods. The human capital planning and implementation would be focused on robust multi-generational programming and supports, targeted specifically to the assets and challenges of these four communities.

Given the large number of working-age adults and the strong concentration of young adults coupled with the large number of young children, the human capital planning should focus on employment and early childhood education. Both areas have a long and strong history of positively impacting short-term (adults working) and longer-term (children entering school prepared) community transformation.

Early human capital implementation strategies that could launch just before or in conjunction with a housing strategy, whether revitalization or redevelopment, could include proven approaches such as:

  • Setting up a local presence within the targeted housing area.
  • Identifying and engaging residents, community leaders and non-resident stakeholders in a leadership group to guide the transformation work; meeting regularly to build ongoing working relationships; and providing leadership training to this group.
  • Conducting a comprehensive, but quick turn, needs assessment for each occupied household in the target area through interviews and building a complete database of the baseline condition of the households.
  • Identifying the working age population and triaging into appropriate category of work readiness or otherwise work availability status.
  • Assessing and connecting residents to the myriad of community workforce readiness and employment resources that would make a significant difference in the employment rate and income levels if they were better coordinated and focused on addressing the most challenged households.
  • Identifying needs for which no program services currently exist and new partnerships and potential resources to fill those needs.
  • Gathering, maintaining, processing, and disseminating data on the results to verify success and inform the field.
  • With such a set of strategies in place, early improvement in human capital outcomes could be realized in the time it takes to plan, fund and start a good housing strategy, whether revitalization or redevelopment. Some of these include:
  • Implementation of a barrier removal program for the transition-age youth group that would increase employment for residents between the ages of 18 and 24.
  • Connection of households with young children to high-quality early childhood education programs in the community, even if short-term transportation is needed until the capacity of local programs can grow, to immediately increase participation rates by the nearly 13 percent of the residents living in the targeted developments who are five-years old or younger.
  • Use of established resident engagement and leadership identification activities to increase community engagement in some area of common interest, such as public safety, resulting in greater community efficacy around the common interest.

Decent, affordable, and adequate housing is not enough. Taxpayer-supported affordable housing must be geared to comprehensive community development and complete community transformation.

Since the original Ferguson incident and the subsequent anniversary unrest, and with a second anniversary on the horizon, rental property owners report increased occurrences of abandoned units and rental payment delays on more units than usual. In addition to the business challenges presented by high abandoned vacancy rates, there are a number of other indicators of need for action, including, but not limited, to:

  • high turnover rates in the market-rate communities, arguably the most stabilizing residents of the rental housing community;
  • high real or perceived crime rates;
  • lack of a clear set of community-owned priorities for housing stability, crime reduction, and social and recreational service delivery; and
  • need to increase employment for the working-age population, especially young adults.

Unless we employ a dramatically different approach to just decent, affordable and adequate housing, we are destined to continue to create the Southeast Ferguson housing dilemma and risk the repeat of the destructive cycle of events we are now witnessing in the Southeast Ferguson affordable housing market. Further, we increase the likelihood of repeating the adverse cycle in similar markets around the country.

Ultimately, we run the risk of the losing the comprehensive benefit intended from public policies designed to increase the development of affordable housing-the overall improvement of living conditions for low- and moderate-income households.

Sandra Moore is the president of Urban Strategies, Inc. in St. Louis. 

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