Cincinnati’s Bold New Law Could Help Renters Survive The Eviction Crisis

The article first appeared on HuffPost Impact

Jeneya Lawrence with her son, Jy’aire. Lawrence lost out on a rental home for her family because she couldn’t afford to pay a security deposit up front. Credit: Jeneya Lawrence

Cincinnati native and resident Jeneya Lawrence dreams of living in a house with a garden big enough to fit a trampoline for her two young children, on a street with neighbors from diverse communities.

The 28-year-old community health worker and single mom is determined to stay in Cincinnati, near family and friends, despite gentrification and seeing average rents double over the past decade. When Lawrence found a rental unit earlier this year with separate bedrooms for her 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, close to good schools and her work, she couldn’t believe her luck. Then the landlord asked for a $1,300 security deposit in advance.

“I just did not have that. I asked him if I could split it over two payments but he said no,” explained Lawrence, who then had to wait another six months to find a rental in a less-convenient location where she could afford the deposit.

Lawrence’s story is a familiar one for many lower-income renters across the U.S., who have found it increasingly difficult to find homes as the housing crisis tightens its grip on cities across the country.

Disrupting the system

But Cincinnati is trying to do something to ease the burden. In April this year, it became the first city in the U.S. to require landlords to accept alternatives to a security deposit. Cincinnati’s bold move has been hailed as a way to disrupt a broken system for renters. Other cities and states are now also offering deposit alternatives to make housing more accessible to low-income renters.

The new program, dubbed “renters’ choice,” came into effect too late for Lawrence to benefit from it when she was last looking to move. But she hopes it will make it easier for her and other lower-income renters to find homes in the future.

The program could also level the playing field for the city’s homeless population, said Kevin Finn, president and CEO of Strategies To End Homelessness.

“On any given day, we have 200 families that have a first month’s rent but they still can’t find an apartment,” he said. “Having a more realistic arrangement for what the deposit looks like will make it much easier to get those households into an apartment.”

Homelessness in Cincinnati disproportionately affects the city’s Black community (62% of the homeless population) and people under the age of 35 (55% of the homeless population). And the number of unhoused people is expected to increase this year and next due to the effects of COVID-19 on job losses and evictions.

Even before COVID-19 hit the U.S., millions of low-income renters were struggling. Nationwide, there should be at least 7 million more homes for those who earn the least. “For every 10 of the lowest-income renters, there are fewer than four apartments that are affordable and available to them,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told HuffPost.

The pandemic has exacerbated the situation. More than 40% of low- and moderate-income households in the U.S. said they had no emergency savings, while over 12% would not be able to pay for a $400 emergency expense, according to an April survey published by Brookings.

Avoiding evictions

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in March, added a weekly $600 federal supplement to unemployment payments and implemented a federal eviction moratorium. But both provisions expired in July.

More than 1 in 5 renters were behind on payments in July, and widespread evictions are expected?unless states extend moratoriums or introduce rental assistance. The replacement lost wages benefit ― reliant on joint funding with states ― offers claimants a maximum $400 a week.

Cincinnati resident Seth Weber lost his job in March when the restaurant he worked at was shuttered due to COVID-19. He got work at a bakery — but the bakery burned down in August. He’ll be counting on unemployment benefits to make his monthly rent of $700. But Cincinnati is looking at an eviction crisis, and he’s aware that this fate could be just around the corner for him.

“That’s the worst thing a tenant can face,” said Weber, a volunteer for Cincinnati Tenants’ Union. “Once you have an eviction on your record, you’re only going to be able to get into substandard housing.”

Many renters avoid getting an eviction on their records by downgrading their housing ― perhaps moving from a two-bedroom to a one-bedroom ― but doing so requires having enough money saved to put down a security deposit. “The new legislation will help them be able to get into less-expensive housing and avoid getting an eviction on their record,” said Finn.

The new legislation could come in handy if Weber has to move soon to avoid eviction.

Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld (D) introduced the legislation last November after reaching out to local tenants and landlords to address the city’s need for more affordable homes. He says renters’ choice will give low-income renters greater access to housing in a city where median household monthly income is around $2,800, and a two- or three-bedroom apartment can cost $1,000 or more.

“The ‘north star’ for me throughout the crafting of this legislation was how can we remove an upfront barrier that is the traditional, steep, cash security deposit?” he said. “And can we replace it with something that lets people get into the housing they desire, while also still giving landlords the protection they need?”

For many people, especially those on limited incomes, it has long been all but impossible to find the cash for security deposits — often, one or even two months’ rent — that landlords require upfront but which aren’t covered by a tenant’s Section 8 housing support voucher.

“When you have such limited income, any extra expense ― such as security deposits or requirements to pay the first and last month’s rent upfront ― can be an insurmountable hurdle to finding an apartment you can afford,” said Yentel.

Cincinnati’s renters’ choice legislation applies to all landlords with 25 units or more and offers three options: an insurance premium, in which the tenant pays a small monthly, nonrefundable fee instead of an upfront deposit; an installment plan to spread the deposit equally over six months (or more if the landlord agrees); or a reduced security deposit, paid upfront, of no more than half the monthly rent.

Sittenfeld says security deposit insurance could mean a tenant paying just $5 a month to protect the landlord against damages or rent default, instead of a $1,000 security deposit. “I don’t pay $100,000 a year in health insurance premiums anticipating that I’m going to have a catastrophic heart attack. You pay a little bit each month, then it’s pooled risk.”

The “ongoing economic repercussions” of the pandemic — with thousands out of work or underemployed — only serve to highlight the need for renters’ choice legislation in Cincinnati, and across the country, says Sittenfeld.

Elected officials, nonprofits, and landlord groups are collaborating to publicize the new rules. “While it is still early on, we’re optimistic that the legislation will be successful in ensuring renters have the ability to secure an apartment without a large upfront cash security deposit,” said Sittenfeld, “and look forward to seeing the legislation expand across the country to help renters in cities large and small.”

Overcoming housing hurdles

For many people, especially those on limited incomes, it has long been all but impossible to find the cash for security deposits — often, one or even two months’ rent — that landlords require upfront but which aren’t covered by a tenant’s Section 8 housing support voucher.

“When you have such limited income, any extra expense ― such as security deposits or requirements to pay the first and last month’s rent upfront ― can be an insurmountable hurdle to finding an apartment you can afford,” said Yentel.

Cincinnati’s renters’ choice legislation applies to all landlords with 25 units or more and offers three options: an insurance premium, in which the tenant pays a small monthly, nonrefundable fee instead of an upfront deposit; an installment plan to spread the deposit equally over six months (or more if the landlord agrees); or a reduced security deposit, paid upfront, of no more than half the monthly rent.

Sittenfeld says security deposit insurance could mean a tenant paying just $5 a month to protect the landlord against damages or rent default, instead of a $1,000 security deposit. “I don’t pay $100,000 a year in health insurance premiums anticipating that I’m going to have a catastrophic heart attack. You pay a little bit each month, then it’s pooled risk.”

The “ongoing economic repercussions” of the pandemic — with thousands out of work or underemployed — only serve to highlight the need for renters’ choice legislation in Cincinnati, and across the country, says Sittenfeld.

Elected officials, nonprofits, and landlord groups are collaborating to publicize the new rules. “While it is still early on, we’re optimistic that the legislation will be successful in ensuring renters have the ability to secure an apartment without a large upfront cash security deposit,” said Sittenfeld, “and look forward to seeing the legislation expand across the country to help renters in cities large and small.”

A reliable solution?

Some landlords argue that an insurance-based system would create more problems since they’d have to extract funds from an insurer rather than having cash in hand to make any repairs necessary at the end of the lease. Charles Tassell, chief operating officer of the National Real Estate Investors Association, commented recently: “I’ve got to deal with an insurance claim and get my attorneys involved. And they’ve got their high-priced attorneys in-house.”

And others warn that over a year or more, the total paid in nonrefundable insurance premiums could exceed the upfront security deposit and that renters may be unaware that such insurance does not cover them against damages or repairs that exceed the policy’s coverage.

Weber worries that because the policy only applies to landlords with more than 25 units, it limits choices for tenants.

Finn adds that while tenants are learning of their options from housing nonprofits, landlords may still be in the dark, so cities and states need to do more to educate them about their new responsibilities.

Yentel says alternatives to security deposits provide creative and much-needed additional assistance to get families into homes. However, she argues that there is an urgent need to tackle the underlying issues contributing to the housing crisis. Solutions include more sustained, substantial federal investment in the Section 8 voucher program so all those in need receive help, and building more housing for low-income people through programs such as the National Housing Trust Fund.

In Cincinnati, where there is a 40,000-unit housing deficit, the city is hoping to help low-income renters with several new building projects. These include the Willkommen and Perseverance developments supported by the nonprofit Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, which is working in partnership with the city to set aside 101 affordable rental units for those making 50-80% of the Cincinnati area median income.

Lawrence — who is still seeking out a rental that checks all the boxes — is optimistic that Cincinnati’s recent renters’ choice legislation will offer renters like her access to homes like these next time they need to move.

“I’m happy that we can pick where we want to stay but also have three options on the money side,” she said. “This time, I will look at places where I have the stores I need, the schools convenient for my children. As long as property owners are open-minded and not money-hungry, it won’t be hard.”

Solutions Spotlight: Keeping Children Safe During the Pandemic


Delivery workers are one focus of the Tulsa campaign, which brings together local partners to raise awareness of child abuse and how to report

When Oklahoma’s schools and day care centers shuttered in March to slow the spread of COVID-19, toddlers to teens saw their in-person education experience replaced by virtual learning and home schooling. The state’s child abuse hotline also saw a 50 percent drop in calls, which child welfare professionals there attribute to the reduced contact that teachers and carers had with their charges.

Now that school’s out and back-to-school arrangements for the fall are uncertain, Oklahoma — like other states across the nation — faces the same challenge: how do you keep children and teens safe from abuse when the safety nets of day care and school disappear?

Under normal circumstances, teachers, day care staff and after-school activity leaders are key adults in children’s lives who can act as ‘reporters’ of suspected child abuse and neglect. They serve as the eyes and ears of child safety in the nursery, classroom, or on the athletic field.

COVID-19 changed all this, replacing classroom contact with Zoom video calls and email check-ins. Aftercare activities were cancelled. Sports were shut down.

This widespread loss of in-person contact with children and young people immediately led to dramatic drops in reporting across the country. According to one report in April, calls to Washington state’s child abuse hotline went down about 50%, while Montana and Louisiana reported about a 45% reduction since schools closed in March. Arizona’s calls were down a third compared with previous weeks. “That means many children are suffering in silence,” Darren DaRonco, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Child Safety, told the Associated Press.

Single biggest problem

Child welfare system experts warn that the current system of detecting abuse and neglect is rendered “almost completely powerless” during pandemic restrictions. “The child protection system really depends on reporting by professionals. And now professionals are seeing [children] much less, that’s a very fundamental problem. The single biggest problem,” says Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and co-director of its Center on Children and Families.

Oklahoma has the highest percentage of adverse childhood experiences in the country, with 28.5% of children age 0-17 experiencing two or more stressful or traumatic events that may have a lasting impact on their health and well-being. Latest data for the state shows that 13,125 children are neglected and 1,379 abused each year.

Maura Guten is president and CEO of Child Abuse Network, Tulsa’s children’s advocacy center which brings multiple agencies such as doctors and police under one roof to investigate child abuse. She says shelter-in-place arrangements have exacerbated Oklahoma’s already concerning child welfare situation.

“We’re the acute response… and these are some of the worst cases I’ve seen in 20 years,” says Guten. “There is a lot more serious neglect, for example very young children wandering [alone] outside and nobody recognizing that they’re gone for an extended period of time. And we’re seeing a lot more hospitalizations, use of our mobile interviewing equipment, and more emergency interviews in the evening or early morning.”

During a normal summer, CAN sees 40-50 children a week. Guten says lockdown could easily double that workload: “We’re seeing a lot more kids independently seeking services — running away, running for help to a police station or neighbor.”

Family & Children’s Services (F&CS) is the largest community mental health centre in Oklahoma and provides therapeutic services to victims of child abuse and neglect. Christine Marsh, F&CS’s senior director of child abuse and trauma services, says the side effects of COVID-19, such as job losses, financial stress and living in close quarters, have placed an additional burden on families: “People are getting on each other’s nerves, there is high stress and possible depression because of the ongoing isolation,” she says.

“And kids whose parents do have to work are being left unsupervised, or in the hands of people who really aren’t prepared to take care of kids and could cause harm.”

Marsh says F&CS therapists have had to adapt their video or telephone interactions with children, for example, if family members are in close proximity: “We’ve worked on code words for kids, so instead of saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about it, my mom’s sitting here’, we set up a code word they can say to mean, ‘Someone’s here and I don’t want to talk about that right now.’”

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This response echoes what domestic violence organizations are doing to help victims communicate abuse during COVID-19, such as the Signal for Help gesture launched in April by Women’s Funding Network.

Haskins calls for greater public awareness of the prevalence of child abuse, and for reporting to fall within the purview of everyone in the community and not just professionals. “I think people are aware in maybe an abstract way,” he says. “But it’s about emphasizing to the public not only that there is a problem, but that kids in their own community are undoubtedly being neglected, and in some cases abused.”

Since May, an awareness campaign in Tulsa has been urging everyone from pizza delivery people to grocery store clerks to help keep young people safe over the summer and beyond. The Look Out, Reach Out campaign calls on the whole community to recognize and report signs of child abuse and neglect, and publicizes the state’s child abuse hotline.

A collaborative project by local non-profits and co-ordinated by Tulsa Area United Way(TAUW), the campaign was launched in May via NBC affiliate KJRH-2 Works For You, in the form of a TV slot aired every Thursday during that month about how to recognize and report abuse and neglect.

Look Out, Reach Out

On May 29, TAUW and campaign partners Child Abuse Network, Family & Children’s Services (F&CS), and The Parent Child Center of Tulsa launched a website, collating the advice and information discussed on the TV slots. From July, flyers promoting the site and helpline will be distributed at sites with high footfall including 81 QuikTrip convenience stores/gas stations, 17 Reasor’s grocery stores, seven Goodwill shops and four Supermercados Morelos outlets in the Tulsa area.


TAUW leveraged pro bono support from its supporter network for the campaign branding, messaging, and execution. Social media including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, is being used to communicate campaign messages.

Krista Hemme, TAUW’s VP of marketing and communications, says the campaign is aimed at both “the usual abusers” but also parents who never thought they’d be in a situation where they would strike a child. “There is an incredible need to make the community aware of what the warning signs are, prevention, what parents can do, and making people aware of the reporting process — that you can do anonymously.”

Marsh at campaign partner, F&CS adds: “If you’re the pizza delivery person that’s going into a home because you’re one of the frontline people now — and you notice something — you can report. It doesn’t hurt to make a report. And it can create a trail of trends even if that report isn’t going to cause an investigation.”

During a regular school yearYWCA El Paso in Texas sees around 2,500 children a week through its after-school programs. But, with schools closed and its programs shuttered, that figure dropped to about 250 children a week during lockdown. Texas saw child abuse reporting reduce significantly since March, yet the numbers of children showing up at emergency rooms with head trauma, bruises and other injuries spiked.

The non-profit applied for and was granted a PPP loan, enabling it to quickly pivot from staff running after-school activities to the YWCA Cares program, checking in with vulnerable families and providing respite care.


YWCA El Paso is providing childcare for parents, including those who need support during the pandemic



Dr. Sylvia Acosta, CEO at YWCA El Paso, says: “We informed every school district in our community and we worked out a way that counsellors could refer individuals to us that they felt needed lots of support.”

For example, a 13-year-old girl had not shown up to class since schooling went virtual. YWCA followed up with the family and discovered that the single parent had several other children under the age of 13, including a child with a disability. The 13-year-old had had to step in to help her siblings with homework, meaning she could not show up online for school.

“We were able to provide respite care for three days and also connect the family to long-term childcare funding so they could continue with that,” says Dr. Acosta. “So all the children except for the 13-year-old were out of the house, the parent could take care of the child with the disability, and the 13-year-old could go back to school.”

Staff provides three days of respite care, between 6:30am and 6:30pm. This offers parents a chance to take time out, organize household chores, and investigate long-term childcare subsidies. “It allows them to take a step back and allows us to help them find the resources to be successful,” says Dr. Acosta.

While these initiatives are to be welcomed, school professionals worry that many at-risk children still face huge challenges. Melissa Ambrose, school wellness co-ordinator for Jefferson Union High School District in the San Francisco Bay Area, gives the example of a senior who had been set to leave home — where her parents experience chronic alcoholism and gambling addiction — for college in the fall but now cannot as teaching at her college will now be virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“She’s devastated,” says Ambrose. “She says she can’t bear her house for another year. But she has no choice.”

Ambrose is also concerned about how counsellors will see students when schools go back: “None of our offices have six feet of space. How do we see kids privately?” And with no budget for professional development in the coming school year, she is worried that teachers won’t be equipped with the skills they need to keep students safe: “What we really need is for teachers to be trained in trauma informed practices, because they’re going to have way more contact with the kids than we are,” she says. However, union rules stipulate that any training over the summer cannot be mandatory and must be compensated.

Funding is a perennial problem, says Haskins at Brookings, who hopes for more federal dollars for child welfare services: “That would be something the federal government could do if it was worried about this problem — figure out a way [to give] more money to the states to conduct these programs, to make more home visits, to purchase more protection for the workers who are having to visit the homes. And to make sure the kids are kept stably placed in whatever setting they are in.

California’s Housing Crisis Is So Bad, People Are Turning To Rent Strikes And Squatting


Perez with some of his fellow rent strikers and ACCE staff including Israel Lepiz (pictured back, left) and ACCE Oakland director Carroll Fife (pictured front, right).

Francisco Perez is an unlikely activist. The retired roofer and his wife, Graciella, have rented their one-bedroom apartment in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood for the past 20 years.

Perez lives a quiet life and enjoys spending time with family and friends now that he doesn’t work. But for the last four months, he and fellow residents at his 29th Avenue apartment complex have been on a rent strike to protest poor housing conditions and to urge their landlord to sell them the building.

It’s a move that has attracted extensive media coverage and now appears to have delivered a coup for the tenants following the Feb. 27 news that their landlord had agreed to let them purchase the building through a local community land trust, a nonprofit which acquires land for the permanent benefit of low-income communities.

The Fruitvale rent strike is the latest example of how renters, often with the support of grassroots organizations, are taking radical steps to preserve or secure housing in cities where gentrification and spiraling rents are forcing them out of their homes.

It followed the Moms 4 Housing direct action, where three homeless mothers and their children started squatting in a vacant West Oakland house last November to draw attention to the lack of affordable housing in the city. Their eviction in January by sheriff deputies who battered down the door led to widespread controversy which culminated in an agreement in January by the owner to enter negotiations for the sale of the property to Oakland Community Land Trust (OakCLT), the same organization that hopes to acquire the Fruitvale complex. 

Rent strikes, squatting and public rallies are the new face of the affordable housing crisis in California. And it’s no surprise.

In Oakland, the median house sale price is $765,350 and median rent is $3,000 a month. Latest figures show that there are almost four vacant homes for every one homeless person in Oakland.

Across California, house prices continue to rise. They are up 2.5% over the past year, according to the website Zillow, which predicts they will increase by 4.2% within the next year. Latest government research shows the state has a homeless population of about 151,000, up 16% in the last year. Meanwhile, U.S. Census Bureau data shows at least 1.1 million vacant homes in California.


Perez hopes to draw attention to the poor conditions at his apartment complex

Located on a leafy East Oakland street, the 29th Avenue complex is a riot of colorful balconies lined with plants, bird feeders and cheery decor. Perez is one of seven tenants in the 14-unit complex who have withheld their rent since November 2019.

It’s a last resort, he said, spurred by what he claims is inaction by the previous and current landlords to fix dilapidated kitchen cabinets, leaky plumbing, mold and missing roof tiles.

It’s also a protest against rent hikes. Within the last three years, Perez has seen his rent double to $1,500. He’s worried that any further increase would mean having to choose between paying the rent and putting food on the table.

“I’m retired and I’m not working,” he said. “In the next one or two years, I won’t be able to afford the rent. What am I going to do? I have no other place to go.”

Having never been involved in a strike or action before, Perez is a little uncomfortable to be in the headlines and in front of TV cameras. But he was a natural leader when we met in his living room with fellow tenants and he describes the poor conditions that have led the group to the rent strike.

“We never planned to get this much attention, ever,” he said. “But now that we’ve got it, if we can spread the word, we can send a message to all the people who are struggling in this kind of situation. This is a problem all over the state, maybe all over the U.S. There’s something wrong.”

To help get their message across, the rookie rent strikers partnered with the Oakland chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a grassroots organization that helps its 15,000 members work collectively to bring about change in areas such as housing and employment.

Using tried and tested community organizing methods such as door knocking and neighborhood meetings, the rent strike campaign quickly attracted local support and propelled the tenants’ concerns and demands into the news and on to the agenda of local politicians.


The 29th Avenue apartment complex where half the tenants are currently on rent strike

Israel Lepiz, an ACCE Oakland organizer who’s been working with the rent strikers, said the tenants have been putting their rent into an escrow account each month and are more than willing to pay their landlord if housing code violations are addressed.

“It’s not about them not wanting to pay the rent; it’s about calling attention to what’s happening,” she said. “We did try to defuse the situation at every corner but this is the result of feeling like we’ve exhausted all our options.”

Negotiations to buy the building were still underway at the time of writing, but ACCE said progress was being made following a positive meeting with owner Calvin Wong on March 4. Wong did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.


Walker: “Housing is a human right.”

When Moms 4 Housing co-founder Dominique Walker moved back to her Oakland hometown from Mississippi last April, she was shocked to find a very different city from the one she’d left in 2004 to study for a sociology degree.

Almost all her family members and high school friends had been forced to leave the city because of high rents and house prices. Tent encampments were a common sight. Housing lists were “a joke,” she said, with wait times of several years.

Walker and her two young children had left Mississippi abruptly because she was experiencing domestic violence. She registered on an emergency housing program, got a job as an organizer at ACCE in Oakland, and enrolled her children in daycare in Berkeley. With nowhere to live immediately, they had to sleep on the couches of various family members who lived in outlying cities like Antioch or Stockton and spend hours commuting into work and school every day.

“This is the new face of homelessness,” Walker told me when we met at her new home in Berkeley, owned by the Northern California Land Trust, that she moved into at the end of January. “I was talking to teachers, nurses, community organizers. Folks with master’s degrees living in tents. They’re housing insecure, or homeless. These are folks that help and serve their community and still can’t afford housing. And there’s not a scarcity of housing.”

Walker pointed to Oakland’s foreclosure crisis ― where one in seven mortgages entered default between 2007 and 2011. Black communities, often targeted for predatory loans, were hit particularly hard. While Black Americans make up around a quarter of the city’s population, they account for 70% of Oakland’s homeless population.

Moms 4 Housing was set up to attract attention to this issue. Walker and fellow community organizers decided the best way to do this was to occupy one of the city’s many vacant homes.

They chose the vacant Magnolia Street house because it was owned by Los Angeles County-based real estate investment group Wedgewood Properties. The company buys homes — often foreclosed properties — cheaply and renovates them for sale at market prices.

“It was owned by a corporation who plays a part in the displacement in Oakland,” said Walker. “The direct action was to bring awareness to this issue.”

Wedgewood spokesman Sam Singer told HuffPost that the company had planned to renovate the property as soon as possible and put it back into the housing market. “The company is in the business of buying, renovating, and quickly selling homes to first time buyers. It does not ‘hold homes vacant,’” he said.

The moms’ occupation of the house in November 2019 was supported by many in the community but also attracted criticism because it was illegal.“They should concentrate on finding a nonviolent and progressive way to address the Oakland housing crisis that doesn’t rely on the theft of other people’s homes to solve their problems and address this serious issue,” Singer said of the protest.Walker said, however, that it needed to happen.“Housing is a human right,” she said. “It’s a basic human need and it should be recognized in the U.S. Constitution as a human right as it’s recognized by the United Nations.”

“We hate that it had to come to that,” she added. “But pressure busts pipes, and it just shows the power of the people. When we organize, we can win.”After the moms’ emotional eviction in January, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced a “historic agreement” where Wedgewood agreed to sell the Magnolia Street house to OakCLT and also to allow the city or other affordable housing organizations first refusal on other Oakland properties it plans to sell.

Landlords selling homes to their tenants or to community organizations helps to reset a market that’s failing to serve people in a humane way, said OakCLT executive director Steve King. “It’s shifting the narrative from where the tenant has no control towards them becoming owners,” he said.

Housing activists are already making inroads with lawmakers. Later this month, Oakland City Council will vote on an ordinance that would allow tenants first right of refusal if their landlord plans to sell.Inspired by the Moms 4 Housing action, the Tenant Opportunity To Purchase Act (TOPA) would also create opportunities for community land trusts and nonprofit affordable housing developers to purchase homes first. Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who introduced the ordinance, said that the goal is for tenants to be able to stay in their homes, not just as renters but as homeowners.

In February, the city of Berkeley proposed a similar ordinance that would give renters the right of first refusal and right to purchase when apartment buildings and non-owner-occupied single-family homes are put on the market. And at the state level, inspired by the Moms 4 Housing action, state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) introduced a bill in February to give tenants the right of first refusal to buy foreclosed properties ― and after them cities, counties and affordable housing organizations ― and to enable cities to fine corporate owners of properties that let them sit vacant for more than 90 days.

Carroll Fife, director of ACCE Oakland, said residents’ increasingly bold action is the result of not being listened to.“Waiting for legislators to legislate proper solutions has not worked,” Fife said. “That’s why it’s gotten to here ― direct action ― because there’s not been the action that’s necessary by our elected officials.”“We’re not asking people to riot,” she continued. “But the reason that it’s come to people just taking back properties and going on rent strikes is because their voices and their pleas have gone unheard. These are the only steps that they have left.”

Fife said several organizations and individuals across the country have contacted ACCE about advice on direct action. 

These direct actions in California mirror what’s been happening on the East Coast, where a 14-month rent strike by tenants against substandard living conditions ― including a mice and roach infestation and mold ― at 1320 Nicholson Street N.W. in Washington, D.C., recently ended with the building being sold to a developer chosen by tenants. 

Tenant organizer Citlalli Velasquez, who works for the Latino Economic Development Center, which helped the renters organize, said the rent strike not only garnered media attention but also helped to keep the sale price low.“The previous landlord wasn’t able to market the building at a really escalated price because of these concerns,” explained Velasquez.

“It wasn’t our goal but it was great because they sold it at a really low price because of the ongoing press and the rent strike. Because of that, tenants had a lot of options.”

Having now helped launch several rent strikes, Velasquez said LEDC believes that it has “set a trend” in D.C. “I’m glad to see that where there is rising rent, there are rising rent strikes and resistance,” she said.

Back in West Oakland, Walker’s 5-year-old daughter proudly showed me her new room and the bed her mom is assembling for her 1-year-old brother. Walker said she is determined to stay in the East Bay where residents like her grandfather built up successful businesses and strong communities. Watching her children run around their new home together, she said quietly, “I want them to know that their mother was on the right side of history, that she was fighting.”

A New Housing Option for Squeezed Middle Income Americans

This article first appeared in YES! Media


Missing Middle Housing is a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types—compatible in scale with detached single-family homes—that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living. (Credit: Opticos Design, Inc)

Retirees Mary-Jo and Joe Ginorio have lived in the same modest house in the West Winston Manor neighborhood of South San Francisco for more than 30 years. It’s no surprise: They know all their neighbors, have relatives living nearby, love the area’s diversity, and enjoy being able to walk to their local stores. More surprising to them is that their adult son and daughter (plus her family) have all returned to live at home in recent years because of high rents and house prices in the Bay Area.

The Ginorios, who are in their early 60s, always expected that their children would live near where they work, as they themselves had done for nearly 40 years in the Bay Area. But a few years ago, that looked increasingly unlikely.

Their son, who works for a local city council, was paying a hefty $800 a month to rent a single room in a shared house without laundry facilities or parking before he moved back home. He earned too much for housing assistance based on local low income limits, but not enough to comfortably afford market-rate rents.

Meanwhile, the Ginorios’ daughter (a part-time dance instructor) and son-in-law (an artist) needed to move in with them temporarily while they saved for a mortgage for a home for themselves and their two young children.

“None of us saw any of that happening,” admits Mary-Jo Ginorio, who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District with her Mexican and Italian parents before she got married and moved out of the city. “But prices out here are ridiculous: Houses in our neighborhood are selling for over $1 million and renters need at least $5,000 for the first and last month’s rent. Most people just can’t afford that.”

Faced with housing five adults, two young children and a dog in their 1,050-square-foot, three bed/one bath home, the Ginorios decided to create an additional living space on their 6,000-square-foot lot. Known in the trade as an accessory dwelling unit, it comprises a detached structure with a single bedroom and bathroom in their backyard. Their son pays toward utilities and upkeep in return for access to cooking and laundry facilities in the main house.

The Ginorios’ situation is one shared widely, especially among public sector workers such as teachers and nurses in the prohibitively expensive Bay Area. In the best circumstances, these people have to take a lengthy commute from cheaper outlying towns. At worst, it means sharing cramped housing or even taking on a second job to cover the rent.

Historically, single-family zoning across the country has contributed to racial and economic segregation.

Finding creative solutions to this problem is one aspect of what Berkeley-based architect Daniel Parolek and his firm, Opticos, have been doing for more than a decade. Parolek coined the phrase “missing middle housing” back in 2010 to describe what he identified as a gap in the market for house-scale buildings with multiple units in walkable urban neighborhoods. He argues that dwellings such as duplexes, fourplexes, and bungalow courts provide much-needed diverse housing options for those middle-income renters and buyers.

Typically, these options have been “missing” because they have been made illegal or discouraged by the country’s planners since the mid-1940s. And they sit in the “middle” of a spectrum between detached single-family homes and mid-rise to high-rise apartment buildings.

“The concept of missing middle housing for us primarily started out with a focus on the range of housing types that historically has delivered a broad range of housing choices across the country,” Parolek explains. “First, it’s about scale; then we talk about it delivering affordability, particularly for middle income households on 60 percent average median income or higher.”

In one triplex near Parolek’s home, for example, his son’s kindergarten teacher lives in one unit, while her mother—a first-grade teacher at the same school—lives in the second unit; the third is occupied by her brother, a P.E. teacher at the local middle school. Parolek is convinced that the trend towards multi-generational living and the need for middle-income professionals to live near the workplace, combined with an appetite for more walkable environments, is enough to support public transport and neighborhood services such as shops and restaurants.

Even more compelling perhaps is what missing middle housing represents to racial diversity. Historically, single-family zoning across the country has contributed to racial and economic segregationbecause it creates a physical divide between affluent and working-class households. Missing middle housing promises more of a neighborhood blend, based on socioeconomic commonalities.

The Census Bureau’s building permits survey shows single-family homes still dominate the housing market, with 4.6 million permitted in the last five years.

Opponents such as San Francisco’s residents’ associations argue that such developments put added pressure on already dense neighborhoods and that rezoning threatens to change the character of single-family home communities. Another argument used by tenants’ groups, including the Alliance for Community Transit LA, to defeat California’s SB 50 housing bill in the state Senate in January, is that this approach could further exacerbate displacement of low-income residents.

SB 50 would have rewritten zoning laws to support multi-unit buildings near transit centers. It could have helped meet California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ambitious target of building 3.5 million new homes by 2025.

Kristy Wang, community planning policy director at Bay Area civic planning organization SPUR, hopes any new iteration of the legislation will keep up the pressure on legislators to support multi-unit buildings. “It’s really important to change these rules to allow for more people to live in our neighborhoods,” she says. “Zoning is a barrier to missing middle housing.”

According to U.S. census data, almost two-thirds of California residences are single-family homes. And a 2018 survey by U.C. Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation estimates that between one-half and three-quarters of the state’s developable land is zoned for single-family housing only. While widespread rezoning has yet to come, the state has in the past year passed legislation to make it easier to build dwelling units like the Ginorios’ backyard cottage, plus in-building ‘junior’ ADUs—effectively creating up to three units on one lot.

The Census Bureau’s building permits survey shows single-family homes still dominate the housing market, with 4.6 million permitted in the last five years, compared to 215,400 two- to four-unit homes over the same period. Parolek attributes developers’ slow response to building missing middle housing to local planners being stuck in their ways: “I think so few cities have policies and zoning in place to enable missing middle housing that it’s not a huge incentive to be in that arena. They have a proven system that’s been working for decades so it’s really hard to make change within that institutional system.”

But the system clearly is no longer working for everyone. In 2019, Berkeley city council members unanimously approved a proposal for a missing middle survey based on initial report recommendations for multi-unit dwellings that are compatible with single-family homes and affordable for people who earn 80% to 120% of the area’s median income. A key proposal expected from the survey, anticipated this year, is for existing houses or zoning envelopes to be divided into up to four units.

Council member and report co-sponsor Rashi Kesarwani says missing middle housing could give young adults who grew up in Berkeley the opportunity to remain or return to live in a unit built on their parents’ property, or help an aging senior who needs to create a second unit for an on-site caregiver or for supplemental retirement income.

Berkeley’s median house price of around $1.2 million excludes many from living there, she says. “There’s a vast middle class—teachers, firefighters, police officers, electricians, small business owners—who make our community what it is and who also need housing options,” Kesarwani says. “Duplexes, triplexes and backyard cottages are part of the solution.”

Even though California has become notorious for its sky-high housing prices, the lack of housing for middle income people is a nationwide problem. Other cities across North America also are taking steps to increase the housing supply for those who can’t afford expensive single-family homes but make too much to qualify for local assistance.

The most radical solutions so far came from Minneapolis, which made headlines in December 2018 when the city council voted to end single-family zoning in favor of zoning for multiple-unit housing, such as duplexes and triplexes. As part of the city’s plan to tackle many issues such as housing affordability, racial equity and climate change, the move is designed to provide more housing options and more walkable communities in a city whose population grew by 37,000 between 2010 and 2016, but which also has lost about 15,000 low income housing units since 2000.

To stimulate missing middle housing, the Minneapolis City Council launched a $500,000 pilot program in summer 2019, inviting proposals for developments with between three and 20 units. Project recommendations will be announced in February.

Kevin Knase, Minneapolis’ senior project coordinator for residential and real estate development, anticipates getting approval of several projects from among the 21 applications, with city funding supporting affordable units that help spur larger private developments.

“Say someone is building a triplex,” he explains. “They can build one that is market rate and two will be affordable. We’re providing financing for the affordable units.”

Other cities and states are advancing missing middle housing:

• In Oregon, whose population grew by more than 400,000 new residents in the past decade, the passage and signing into law of House Bill 2001 in 2019 effectively put an end to single-family zoning, and re-legalized duplexes statewide, and fourplexes in cities with 25,000 or more residents.

• Portland, Oregon, is now in the public hearing stage on a plan to permit fourplexes on all lots — a response to “McMansionization” that would lower the maximum size of new buildings in low-density areas while allowing buildings to contain more homes. Michael Andersen, senior researcher, housing and transportation at Sightline Institute, a Pacific Northwest think tank, says Portland’s residential infill project stands to become “the most progressive reform to low-density zoning in American history.”

• Vancouver, British Columbia, legalized duplexes in 2018 and is actively encouraging ADUs such as basements, secondary suites and backyard cottages as part of its Making Room program to deliver 10,000 missing middle homes over 10 years. The city issued permitsfor 479 ADUs in 2019 and 38 already in 2020. The city is supporting “gentle densification” of residential blocks near major arterial routes, which in future could include triplex, fourplex and multi-unit dwellings.

• Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan convened the city’s first Affordable Middle-Income Housing Advisory Council in January 2019 to explore ways to fill the gap between market-rate housing and the housing needs of middle-income families. According to the council’s first report released in January 2020, Seattle has added nearly 140,000 jobs and 122,000 people in the past decade, but 85% of jobs remain in occupations that pay on average less than $100,000 per year. Recommendations include increasing the number of triplexes and cottages, adding to the city’s progressive ADU legislation passed last year that allows two ADUs per lot, and a size limit on new houses.

• And Washington state’s Senate Bill 6536 would relegalize duplexes, triplexes and up to six-plexes in certain areas. Dan Bertolet, Sightline’s research director for housing and urbanism, asserts that state standards “hold cities accountable to do their part and work together across city boundaries,” while giving each community flexibility to make it work in their local context. Microsoft recently announced a $500 million commitment to supporting affordable housing in the greater Seattle area, an implicit acknowledgement of the tech industry’s role in driving up housing prices.

Creative financing solutions such as the Minneapolis program can help incentivize middle missing housing. The San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund was created by the city in 2014, amid rising rents and a spike in evictions, as an independent financing agency that could work more quickly and more flexibly than the public sector to fund affordable housing development. It makes bridge loans to community-based nonprofits to buy and preserve rent-controlled properties in the city and prevent tenants from being replaced.

Kate Hartley, chief lending and investment officer at the fund, believes such interventions can help spur the growth and development of missing middle housing: “It really gets to what our cities need, which is to help protect our existing communities, help create housing stock where there are a wide range of incomes, and stop the change in demographic through vacancy decontrol that is driving up average income in our cities.”

In South San Francisco, Mary-Jo Ginorio welcomes a return to multigenerational living in her neighborhood, which perpetuates the diversity she so loves there. And she’s excited to see sector-specific housing solutions, such as nearby Jefferson Union High School District’s voter-approved, bond-backed development that broke ground Feb. 5 and will create a four-story building of 122 below-market rate housing units exclusively for teachers and school employees.

Parolek of architectural design firm Opticos has been engaging stakeholders through local walking tours in Berkeley, and nationwide talks to spread the word about the benefits of missing middle housing. His book, Missing Middle Housing, is scheduled to be published in July 2020. In it, he shares ideas and best practices in missing middle housing development that is he hopes will encourage greater support for this approach.

“I would hope that some of those bigger stakeholders, for example employers, will step up and realize they need to put mutual support behind trying to find solutions,” he says.

San Francisco Reforms Fines & Fees To Break Poverty Cycle

This article first appeared in Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity


“What happens when people can’t pay?” That’s the question that vexes Anne Stuhldreher each day in her job as head of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project, the nation’s first initiative embedded in local government to assess and reform how fees and fines impact a city’s most vulnerable residents.

Last month, San Francisco County became the first in the nation to make all phone calls from jail free, and to end markups on prison store items. In April, it partnered with the San Francisco Superior Court to clear all outstanding holds on people’s driver’s licenses for missing a traffic court date. And in January, the city announced that it was eliminating overdue library fines.

These are just a few of the landmark reforms to emerge from the relatively young yet prolific Financial Justice Project, launched by San Francisco in November 2016 and housed in the Office of the Treasurer. The project works on the premise that fees and fines, levied partly to generate revenue to balance public budgets, can have an unintended impact of pushing people into poverty. Often, the hardest hit are people of color and those on a low income.

For example, Californians who have their driver’s license suspended because they cannot pay a traffic fine may find it difficult to get a job and support their family. Unpaid parking tickets spiral into unmanageable late fees and recovery costs for towed vehicles. Homeless people who get a $200 ticket for sleeping on the sidewalk may see this grow to $500 if left unpaid. And, people exiting the criminal justice system begin their new life with a bill for thousands of dollars in probation administration fees.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s research found that the income it generated through such fees and fines was slight compared to the cost of recovery. It also shows that the city levies more fines per capita than most California local governments.

It was this ‘lose-lose’ scenario for people and for government that prompted the city to seek a more equitable solution to fines and fees that could both hold people accountable and recoup costs without causing them financial distress.

Championing economic empowerment

Stuhldreher traces the thread of her current work back to the 2015 U.S. Department of Justice Ferguson report following the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American man shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. The report drew national attention to the negative impact of intense ticketing, fees and fines on low-income Americans and people of color. It revealed that Ferguson officials had aggressively raised revenue through fining residents. Fines were the city’s second largest source of revenue in 2013.

“The report showed a pattern of a ticket of a few hundred dollars going to folks who couldn’t pay it,” she explains. “The consequences would start to snowball — their credit could be impacted, their driving license suspended, they could go to jail for non-payment.”

Social justice advocates in California quickly noted that “this was not just a Ferguson problem,” as demonstrated in the eponymous 2015 report on how traffic courts drive inequality in the state. The report showed that four million adults in California had their driving license suspended because they couldn’t pay traffic tickets. Meanwhile, uncollected court-ordered debt accounted for $12.3 billion. In 2013, California brought in $2.6 billion in revenue from fines and forfeits, more than any other state.

And the issue was by no means limited to California or Missouri. Granted, cities rely on fine and fees revenue to balance their budgets. However, the 2007 recession and a drop in tax collections prompted many to dramatically expand this source of revenue to fund services.

Stuhldreher is a self-confessed policy geek with a focus on economic empowerment for low income groups. Her public-private partnership approach has helped deliver San Francisco programs such as the Working Families Credit and Kindergarten to College, and the WE Connect Campaign across the state in her role as senior policy advisor to former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 2015, she was working as a senior program manager at a health justice foundation, The California Endowment, and was hearing stories from community organizers about the impact of fines and fees on marginalized groups. So, she began to cast around within her networks for possible solutions.

“I started talking to people at City Hall here about finding a better way,” Stuhldreher explains. “About the fact that we should be able to balance our books but not on the backs of the lowest income people in our city. And we should be able to hold people accountable without impoverishing them.”

Identifying fines & fees pain points

San Francisco city and county treasurer José Cisneros – a champion of financial justice initiatives such as the Bank on San Francisco program to widen access to checking accounts for low-income residents –recognized the need for local government intervention around fines and fees.

Stuhldreher left her philanthropic role to help San Francisco become the first city in the nation to have a financial justice project. As the first-ever Director of Financial Justice for the city and county of San Francisco, she oversaw the work of an exploratory task force of community groups, local government and the courts to identify fine and fees “pain points.”

The taskforce identified a wide range of problems related to San Francisco’s fees and fines, and made a raft of recommendations to help address these issues. Of particular note, it found that in San Francisco, the burden of these fines and fees was falling heavily on the African-American community. For example, the city’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood has a relatively high rate of poverty (23.5 percent) and a driver’s suspension rate more than three times the state average.

Stuhldreher says charges related to the criminal justice system were an immediate concern: “We were handing people a bill when they got out of jail, asking them to pay for their probation supervision and their electronic ankle monitors, for their pre-sentence reports, their drug tests. It added up to several thousand dollars.

“You think about people coming out of jail — most of them don’t have jobs, they have no money, then when they do have a job to have this [to pay]. It is incredibly self-defeating and makes it very hard for them to reintegrate into the community. It’s also a horrible source of revenue.”  She adds that collection rate on the largest fee of $50 per month was just nine percent.

So in July 2018, San Francisco became the first county in the nation to eliminate all local administrative fees charged to people exiting the criminal justice system. “We wrote off $32 million dollars in debt that was hanging over 21,000 people That’s debt that would never really come in. It was a burden and a weight on low-income people and people of color in San Francisco.”

The latest example of the Financial Justice Project’s work in the criminal justice arena came last month when San Francisco announced that it will make all phone calls from jail free and end all county markups on jail store items. Currently, if an inmate makes two 15-minute phone calls a day in San Francisco, it will cost $300 over 70 days (the average jail stay), or $1,500 over the course of the year. Analysis done by the project estimates that 80 percent of phone calls are paid for by inmates’ support networks, primarily low-income women of color.

Stuhldreher explains the impact of not being able to afford phone costs: “You’re getting closer to potentially being released but you can’t tell your family, can’t sort a place to live, can’t start looking for work. You can’t call a social worker or anyone in your support network.” The move follows New York City’s decision earlier this year to make prison calls free.

She adds that the average county markup of 43 percent on items from the jail commissary places an unnecessary burden on incarcerated people and their families. The plan is funded in San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s recently announced budget and the Sheriff’s Department will implement these reforms over the next fiscal year.

Partnership approach leads buy-in

The Financial Justice Project has also tackled towing in San Francisco, where it costs $575 on average if you get your car towed and 10 percent of cars are never retrieved. “Losing your car is really onerous. A lot of times, it’s a person’s biggest asset, it’s how they get around,” says Stuhldreher. “Also, it’s a money loser. When someone doesn’t retrieve their car, you’ve got to store it, pay a towing vendor, dispose of it, or sell it.”

The project worked with the Municipal Transit Authority (MTA) to halve towing fees for people who are below 200 percent of the poverty line, and to allow people to pay off citations over time through a payment plan that cost $5 to sign up for rather than previous $65. In the three months following implementation, the MTA saw a 400 percent increase in payment plan sign ups.

“If you make fines and fees more reasonable, people are more able to pay and pay them more readily. So your revenue can actually go up,” asserts Stuhldreher, who also stresses the need to bring those implementing the changes into the conversation to build buy-in.

San Francisco’s library service contacted Stuhldreher last summer with concerns that late fines and blocked library cards were stopping people from visiting their library. The city is now getting rid of library fines, writing off unpaid fines, and introducing measures such as more frequent reminders and automatic renewals where possible.

After San Francisco tackled the probation bill issue, neighboring Alameda County followed suit, with Contra Costa County and Los Angeles working towards similar measures. Oakland banned library fines earlier this month. Stuhldreher says Chicago, New York City and Washington, DC. are eyeing a similar approach around fees and fines. She takes a call “every week” from a city that wants to do the same, or just learn more.

Meanwhile, The National League of Cities has set up the Cities Addressing Fines and Fees program to support six cities across the US to assess and reform the status quo, with learning contributed by San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project.

Stuhldreher is cheered by the project’s progress to date: “We’ve now at this point either eliminated or adjusted dozens of fines and fees, we’ve lifted millions of dollars in debt off of tens of thousands of people.

“I feel like we’re building this muscle locally just to be more thoughtful about what we’re doing.”

But she also advocates for more careful consideration of fines and fees – which should recoup costs and not be punitive – as a means to generate revenue. “These fines and fees are very blunt instruments. You can kind of get on to autopilot and just increase them a little bit each year, add them to cover things. All of a sudden, they’re big, they’ve increased in scope and severity.”

Looking ahead, Stuhldreher is interested in the ‘day fines’ means-adjusted approach to traffic tickets, and is concerned about industries making money from the criminal justice system.

“If you think about people getting out of jail, you want them to stay out of jail. The recidivism rate is so high. If you can cut that, that’s a bigger cost saving. We don’t want to be taking $100 from someone who’s getting by on $500 a month That’s for groceries and shoes for their kids.”