Housing

Cordwood and Community

In nearly 30 years together, neither Linda nor I had built a shelf or a box without something being crooked. How did we talk ourselves into building a cordwood and straw bale cottage? The answers boil down to the twin goals of building community and committing ourselves to live lightly on the earth. Wood for the posts and cordwood walls came from the surrounding land, the straw bales from a local family farm. Scrap sawdust—mixed with lime to keep the critters out—and fireproofed recycled blue jeans serve as insulation. We’ve planted a living roof (that includes 6,000 pounds of compost) to keep us cooler in summer and warmer in winter. And a few tons of local clay, sand, and straw have been laid for an earthen floor that in winter will absorb the warmth of the sun and radiate the heat back at night. Nearby trees and large overhangs will prevent the summer sun from baking us.

How did such inexperienced people accomplish this? With some reading and training, but most of all through the helping hands and spirits of others—people we knew well and friends of friends that we had never laid eyes on before.

This project often has been energizing and hilarious, sometimes exhausting and frustrating. But overall we’ve had a wonderful experience of stepping into the unknown and being encouraged and pulled forward by a community of people who are more and more like family.

Scot and Linda DeGraf worked at Sojourners for a combined total of nearly 20 years. Now both work at Capitol Hill Day School in Washington, D.C. For more information on this project, visit www.rollingridge.net/staffhouse.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2008
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Mortgage Blues

Today, 2 million families face foreclosure on their homes in the aftermath of what should be called the “subcrime”: Many credit-poor families were seduced into buying houses with so-called subprime loans (pricier than most ordinary loans) that the lender knew they could not afford. The mortgages had interest rates that were initially attractively low, but which quickly reset upwards. Families living on the edge soon found themselves in an unaffordable situation—especially as other costs, such as gas and food, went up. Many homeowners are now caught in a squeeze that could cause far more homelessness than Hurricane Katrina.

And they’re not the only ones in trouble. Financial markets are melting down. To keep them afloat, the Federal Reserve and its counterparts in other countries have had to inject hundreds of billions of dollars into the banking system. More than 140 companies have already imploded. Thousands in the housing industry are out of work. Economists fear a serious recession and are scaling back their projections for growth.

How was this allowed to happen? These days, instead of holding onto mortgages they make, most banks sell them to Wall Street. There, prominent firms make millions recycling mortgages into securities and other exotic financial instruments, often using them to provide financing for even bigger deals—and sanctioning the unrestrained greed and unregulated chicanery of the predatory lending industry.

It became a classic “the emperor has no clothes” story when it was revealed that many of those “asset-backed securities” had no real assets behind them. Suddenly, the paper proved worthless and the markets panicked. Soon there was a “crisis of liquidity” in financial circles, as it became clear that bad deals had been funded by bad debts. That’s where we are now: trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not, as the markets melt down and mortgage companies that engaged in predatory lending implode.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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Housing a Firm Foundation

The Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee celebrated victory after a two-year organizing campaign resulted in the local council passing an ordinance to create a Housing Trust Fund (HTF) for subsidizing affordable housing. The November resolution budgeted $2.5 million issued in a bond that will provide initial financing. Milwaukee is ranked the seventh poorest city in the U.S., and the fourth in child poverty; the homeless population numbers about 2,000 on any given night. "Our hope is to have some shovels hitting the ground by the fall," Heather Dummer Combs, director of the HTF campaign for the Interfaith Conference, told Sojourners.

The National Housing Trust Fund movement was launched in 2000 by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. More than 390 cities, counties, and states have developed housing trust funds to provide affordable housing for low-income citizens.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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Attack of the Monster Houses

They sit on treeless hillsides, big as the barns they may have replaced. Or they squeeze onto modest lots in older suburbs, as average-size bungalows cower in their shadows. What they often lack in style they compensate for in sheer mass. Some call them monsters; others fondly call them home. Coming soon to a neighborhood near you, they are The Big Houses.

How big is big? According to the National Association of Homebuilders, the size of the average new single-family home in the United States hit an all-time high of 2,434 square feet in 2005. That's more than double the 1950 average of around 1,100 square feet, and almost a third more than the 1,645 square feet of 1975. Twenty-three percent of new houses built in 2005 were 3,000 square feet or more.

The effect of all that bulk can be dramatic. A January 2006 report from the Department of Neighborhood Planning and Zoning of Austin, Texas, describes an area of that city where houses of 1,300 square feet have been replaced by ones from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet. It's not just floor plan numbers that get skewed. In December The Tennessean newspaper reported on new tax assessments in a long-affluent part of Nashville that, for example, values one 2,074-square-foot house at $8,000 while the lot where it sits is valued at $936,000. In several parts of the city, the real value of small houses has been determined to be in having them "scraped" (demolished) and replaced with much larger ones that may be assessed at $1 million or more.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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Affordable Housing: A Place to Call Home?

Jack, a father of four young children, works three jobs: full-time as youth pastor at an Armenian church making $40,000 a year, part-time at Fuller Seminary’s African-American Church Studies Program, and as owner of a small business. Even with these jobs, Jack and his wife so far have been unable to purchase a home within a reasonable distance from his church.

“Through Pasadena Neighborhood Housing Services, I qualify for their First Time Home Buyer Program,” Jack explains. “I’ve attended the classes and will receive assistance—if we find a home within the required price range.”

Ana Martinez has found affordable housing and it’s changed her life. “I feel like I’m in heaven living here,” says Ana of her housing complex—formerly decrepit apartments that with the help of HUD funds were renovated into pleasant, affordable housing. “In the run-down one-bedroom apartment where my daughter and I were before, the rent increased every two months for two and a half years,” Ana says. “Ninety percent of our income was being spent on housing!”

“Now I pay much less for a beautiful two-bedroom apartment. When neighbors are home, they leave their front doors open. When I walk by, they ask if there’s anything I need,” says Ana.

HARD-WORKING low- and moderate-income workers like Ana and Jack cannot make ends meet without some kind of housing subsidy, be it from relatives, tax credits, or tax breaks. In fact, few people stop to think about how the wealthiest Americans enjoy the largest housing “subsidy” in the country through mortgage interest deductions.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2007
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Extreme Community

What makes a house a home?

What makes a house a home? The roof overhead? The people who reside there? The comfort and attractiveness of its furnishings?

These questions are answered more thoroughly than one might expect by ABC-TV’s feel-good reality show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, now in its second season. The show’s premise is to bring in several telegenic designers (backed up by 100 or more laborers) to completely renovate a "deserving" family’s dilapidated, damaged, tiny, and/or otherwise substandard housing in seven days.

This is wholesome fare - notable since the show is produced by a wing of Endemol, the same megatransnational that created the original Big Brother and Fear Factor creep fests. But Makeover is a Glenda the Good Witch cousin to those reality concepts. No one is voted out of the house or humiliated in order for someone to "win." The only thing that might cause nausea is host Ty Pennington’s loud, zany, surfer-dude shtick; he’s cute but cloying, and one of these days I suspect someone will lose it and attack him with a nail gun. Otherwise, aside from their blinding whitened teeth, the designers are surprisingly genuine.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2005
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This Will Not Stand

Two of my colleagues—highly respected in the nonprofit community—recently had their homes and offices raided by the FBI. Their names were smeared in the newspaper and false accusations brought against them through the efforts of forces opposing their work. The investigation ended with no charges filed. There had been no wrongdoing—the entire affair was politically motivated.

The big-money politics of neighborhood development have turned Washington, D.C., into a battleground of class warfare. Upper-income forces of gentrification increasingly overpower the voices of low-income residents and nonprofit groups who struggle to maintain diversity and create opportunity for those on the low end of the economic ladder.

Today, virtually none of my organization's new affordable-housing developments goes unchallenged. Recently one of our projects was blocked by the zoning board—which had just previously supported an almost-identical project designed for upper-income people.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams is aggressively campaigning to attract more than 100,000 new upper-income residents, along with a major league baseball team. He aims to build a new stadium, using $339 million in city funds, despite studies that show there will be little or no benefit to local residents and neighborhood economies. All this at a time when crucial city services are being slashed and the poor displaced.

We are locked in a struggle for the soul of our city. Will ours be a city designed for the affluent? Or will it be an inclusive community, a city that aims to have a place for all—with a special concern for those near the bottom of the economic ladder? Real estate prices have escalated such that lower-income people simply cannot afford to live here without help. Displacement is occurring on a significant scale. Homelessness is increasing.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2003
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Seattle: Changing the Rules

From the pulpit, I looked out over the standing room only crowd and could feel the electric excitement in Seattle’s St. James Cathedral. It was Sunday night, just before the week of scheduled protests that would rock the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting and the world. We were all gathered for a religious service organized by Jubilee 2000, the grassroots campaign to cancel the debt of the world’s poorest countries. Just before I preached, a text was read from Leviticus 25, which proclaims the biblical jubilee—a periodic economic redistribution in which slaves are set free, land is returned, and debts are forgiven. Jubilee is a call for a regular "leveling" of things, given the human tendency toward over-accumulation by some while others lose ground. The Bible doesn’t propose any blueprint for an economic system, but rather insists that all human economic arrangements be subject to the demands of God’s justice, that great gaps be avoided or rectified, and the poor are not left behind. As I listened to the prophetic scripture being read, I marveled at how it was being used that night—as a relevant contribution to a public discussion on the rules of global trade!

However, the official discussion planned in Seattle was never meant to be public. A quiet and private WTO meeting of a very elite group had been scheduled to determine the rules of the global economy. But the events of the next several days would shout a message heard around the globe—that the talk about how to conduct international trade would no longer be a private conversation. Instead of a small, behind-the-scenes meeting to determine the rules of global trade, a very noisy public debate ensued, asking who makes those rules, who benefits, and who suffers.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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Voice of the Voiceless

Anyone who knows anything about the current realities of Chicago’s public housing would agree that its developments desperately need repair. Years of low or no maintenance have taken their toll on buildings that have housed thousands of low-income residents and their families for years and, in some cases, generations.

In 1996, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandated the demolition of more than 100,000 units of public housing nationwide. Of that number, 18,000 units—nearly 20 percent—scheduled for demolition are in Chicago, making the Windy City the target of the largest public housing demolition in the country’s history.

An outside observer might conclude that tearing down unsightly and poorly maintained buildings is the most logical thing to do. But HUD, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and the city of Chicago do not have in place an adequate housing replacement plan for the 42,000 residents—most of whom are women and children—who would be left homeless after the demolition. Experts say there are already 15,000 homeless people in Chicago and nearly two families for each available low-income unit.

To ensure they have a voice in this issue, residents joined with Chicago advocacy groups in 1996 to form the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. The coalition is comprised of residents and four other main groups: the Community Renewal Society, the Chicago Coalition to Protect the Homeless, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. "These groups work together to change the face of public housing without changing the faces within public housing," said Wardell Yotaghan, resident and coalition leader.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1999
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Housing Summit at Pine Ridge

Housing and Urban Development officials and Native American tribal leaders are launching a project to build and renovate housing on tribal lands. The "Pine Ridge Building Summit II" will take place at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and will result in 300 new or rehabilitated homes by the year 2000.

The Oglala Lakota Tribe and its partners are preparing for a seven-day build, July 30 through August 7. More than 1,000 volunteers will be recruited to help construct and rehabilitate the homes. The goal of the program is to help more Native Americans become homeowners.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1999
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