Reflecting Back on an Impactful 2018

Another year ends, and it is with deep gratitude that we look back over 2018 to reflect on all the amazing accomplishments achieved by the array of incredible local and national community leaders, thought partners, and funders we’ve had the privilege to work with to make America’s communities thrive. As someone who cut her teeth working at the federal level, it has been beyond depressing to see the vitriol, decay and lack of leadership by Congress and this administration. Yet against this backdrop, innovation and a commitment to greater racial and economic equity is exploding at the local level.

To share just a few examples: Local elected officials and advocates in Minneapolis are literally writing the next chapter of land use planning – throwing out old zoning approaches that have exacerbated residential segregation and increased the cost of housing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, powerful tech sector employers are finally stepping up to work with the public sector, philanthropy and community advocates to address that region’s soul crushing housing and homelessness crisis – showing that these are issues that government alone cannot solve, and that require new thinking, new partnerships, and new structures.

Richmond’s new Bus Rapid Transit — the Pulse — provides reliable, convenient connections not seen since the days of the streetcar. (Source: M Zimmerman)

Richmond’s new Bus Rapid Transit — the Pulse — provides reliable, convenient connections not seen since the days of the streetcar. (Source: M Zimmerman)

Here in my community, the Richmond region is experiencing a mini-transit revolution with new rapid bus service, a redesigned transit network and finally a transit connection to the region’s employment hub in suburban Henrico. Even the American Planning Association spent time is examining how it can better advance and embody a deeper commitment to racial equity within the planning profession, and to better understand the implications for infrastructure as planners face a rapidly changing and uncertain future influenced by climate change, new technologies, shifting fiscal assumptions, and changing demographics.  

MZ Strategies touched each of these efforts, in different ways, and in the process our own thinking about creating thriving, inclusive and healthy communities evolved.* In the coming year, please check back on our blog as Founder and Principal, Mariia Zimmerman shares her reflections on becoming “woke” to the hard truths about persistent and reinforced racial inequality in our collective failure to deliver equitable transit-oriented development ( eTOD), as well as emerging examples that give hope, inspiration and tangible examples of equity in action. (Join our blog mailing list!

Because this has been a year of so much action and hard work, here are a few spotlights from MZ Strategies work in 2018:

LIGHTING A SPARCC TO FIGHT DISPLACEMENT

Gentrification has become a buzzword, but there is no longer an option to deny the impact that emerging urban markets and a failure to adequately grow the supply of affordable housing is having on displacing low-income residents, local businesses, and changing the historic nature and local culture of many neighborhoods and large cities. We are also seeing unprecedented climate-related displacement caused by natural disasters from hurricanes to large-scale forest fires to record breaking flooding and freak tornadoes. Climate-related risks are influencing markets, insurance industries and the capacity of local governments to make critically needed investments – which in turn is pushing low-income residents out, often to more climate vulnerable neighborhoods.

MZ Strategies helped to coordinate anti-displacement threads within the national SPARCC initiative where collaboratives in six very different regions – Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis, and the San Francisco Bay Area are on the frontlines of creating strategies to realize community-led investment without displacement.

On December 4th, 2018 SPARCC brought together national and community leaders working at the forefront of tackling residential, economic and cultural displacement for “Investment without Displacement”. The day-long convening explored strategies that can help cities and regions around the country achieve equitable, inclusive growth informed by the voices, needs, and interests of those communities most threatened by growing displacement pressures.

Professors Manuel Pastor (USC) and john a. powell (Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, UC Berkeley) grounded the December 4th “Investment without Displacement” event with a candid conversation about race, “otherness” and examples of how community-led investment is changing the narrative. (Source: SPARCC)

Professors Manuel Pastor (USC) and john a. powell (Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, UC Berkeley) grounded the December 4th “Investment without Displacement” event with a candid conversation about race, “otherness” and examples of how community-led investment is changing the narrative. (Source: SPARCC)

What we are finding, and working to proactively address through SPARCC, is how best to reconstruct the relationship between investment practices and community voice, ownership, and benefit. Historically, investments aimed at building regional health and resilience – transit-oriented, mixed-use development, pedestrian- and bike-friendly greenways – are compounding the uneven patterns of public and private development and investment that have systematically benefitted some while burdening others. In the coming year, the SPARCC network will deploy and test new models for investing capital, building community leadership and pushing policies that better protect people, the planet and public health to mitigate, and hopefully avoid further displacement. Visit SPARCChub.org to see what we’re learning, hear the stories of those doing this frontline work, and to watch the December 4th webcast featuring Manuel Pastor, john a. powell, Vien Truong, Melissa Jones, Alana Samuels, and other inspiring local leaders!

 

NURTERING INTERGENERATIONAL PLANNING

City Builders Housing Policy Flyer.png

Closer to home, MZ Strategies supported the “City Builders” program in the Highland Park Neighborhood in Richmond, VA – a predominately African-American neighborhood on the frontlines of gentrification pressures. Like many other communities of color, long-term disinvestment and pockets of concentrated poverty create challenges of blight, underperforming schools, personal safety, and community trauma. At the same time, this neighborhood located only a few minutes from the booming downtown is seen by many as a prime location for housing that is affordable to teachers, health care workers, and other professionals creating a prime scenario for house flipping, speculation, and the potential racial and cultural transformation of this neighborhood.

Through the City Builders program – led by Groundworks RVA and other partners at the 6 Points Innovation Center (6PIC), local youth are working with residents and business owners to influence this trajectory to make sure that new development benefits the existing community. With a focus on trauma-informed planning, MZ Strategies and 6PIC are helping the community articulate its own housing priorities and recommend actions that people can take within the neighborhood and at City Hall to stabilize a community on the edge of gentrification. In this work, we’ve had a great partner in City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, and in the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation who helps to fund the City Builders program.

RETHINKING PUBLICLY OWNED LAND

MZ Strategies has worked in Mariia’s home state of Minnesota for the past six years on a variety of projects and with a variety of clients and partners. It has been pretty exciting to watch their transit and livable communities stories take root and grow into a gorgeous array of colors. Two new mayors ushered in fresh leadership for Minneapolis and Saint Paul, but it’s been the action of local city councils that has been most amazing to watch in terms of innovation and commitment to action. Beyond the groundbreaking Comprehensive Plan 2040 approved 12 to 1 by the Minneapolis City Council earlier this month, suburban cities along the Southwest Light Rail Corridor (now officially and finally under construction!) are stepping up to rethink what affordable housing leadership looks like. As noted in the recent Family Housing Fund newsletter, “Cities throughout the region are adopting policies aimed at protecting renters from sudden displacement when buildings change hands. Learn about recent ordinances passed in St. Louis Park, Golden Valley,, Bloomington, and Minneapolis.”

Over the past year, MZ Strategies supported work by the Family Housing Fund to establish resources and model ordinances to prioritize public lands for affordable housing. A growing number of cities and regions from Seattle, to the Bay Area, to Cook County, IL and others are advancing strategies to inventory, assess and prioritize surplus, vacant, and underutilized public lands for public benefit. Building upon recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force on Housing released earlier this year, Family Housing Fund is encouraging cities and counties to see their surplus real estate as precious community resources and that must be part of the region’s housing solution. Click here to download the “Public Lands for Affordable Housing and Other Public Benefits Model Ordinances and Best Practices.”

 

ELEVATING REGIONAL HOUSING APPROACHES

MZ Strategies supported regional level work to address growing housing crises in the Bay Area and Portland, Oregon. What is striking about both regions is that they benefit from some of the highest functioning regional agencies in the country – Portland METRO and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (which is merging many functions with the Association of Bay Area Governments to be known as Bay Area Metro). Despite this, neither regional agency has had the funding tools or authority to directly engage in housing issues in a meaningful way. That is all about to change.

Mariia Zimmerm and Lorelei-Juntunen of ECO Northwest discuss intersection of housing and transportation at the WEA 2018 Fall Forum (Source: WEA)

Mariia Zimmerm and Lorelei-Juntunen of ECO Northwest discuss intersection of housing and transportation at the WEA 2018 Fall Forum (Source: WEA)

This year voters in the Portland metropolitan area passed the first regionwide housing funding measure that brings substantially new resources to the table. Measure 26-199, referred to the ballot by the METRO regional government, will provide over $650 million to fund new affordable housing in Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas Counties.  Over the past several years, MZ  Strategies worked with public agencies across the region to identify new strategies to increase funding and policy support for affordable housing. In just a few years, the Portland region has evolved from one with relatively few tools to fight displacement and incentivize more affordable housing production to having one of the most robust set of policy tools in place. Part of this progress reflects grant funding by METRO (supported through the Federal Transit Administration’s TOD Planning grant program) to local governments along the proposed Southwest Light Rail Corridor to specifically identify equitable development strategies. In October, Portland City Council adopted its final resolution for the Southwest Corridor Equitable Housing Strategy. In addition to her work with METRO, Mariia spoke to local elected officials, developers and housing advocates at the Westside Economic Alliance’s fall forum.

In the Bay Area, regional leaders spanning very different political jurisdictions, economies and sectors have come together through the Committee to House the Bay Area (called CASA), to propose a bold set of strategies to aggressively fix the lack of affordable housing and growing homelessness.

Included is a proposal to create a new regional housing entity – potentially within Bay Area Metro (BAM) – as proposed by Enterprise Community Partners in a report issued last December and co-authored by Mariia Zimmerman. This may sound like a bit of inside bureaucratic baseball, but it has the power to be truly transformational. And the need is great: less than 1/3 of the housing needed for very-low, low- and moderate-income households has been built in the last 10 years. Over half of low-income Bay Area households live in neighborhoods at risk of displacement, and the waiting lists for homeless shelters across the regions far exceed available beds. The culmination of Proposition 13 and the loss of state redevelopment funds has devastated local communities’ ability to respond. Recent statewide legislation regarding housing, transportation and climate change all create the opportunity for a more coordinated, comprehensive and strategic regional housing support.

 

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019

The coming year will prove whether or not these recent developments succeed in their implementation, but they create a powerful and exciting landscape for lifting up solutions to complex and disheartening equitable development challenges. As the new year begins, MZ Strategies is incredibly excited to partner with Steve Bingham of Public Engagement Associates to support the Purple Line Corridor Coalition in Maryland to develop a set of implementation actions to support housing options along this dynamic transit corridor currently under construction. Despite a rocky start given state political dynamics (a common story in the world of transit, unfortunately), the Coalition is already ahead of many regions in assembling a cross-sector collaborative including local government stakeholders that has endorsed a Community Development Agreement to articulate a “collective vision for vibrant economic and community development along the corridor and strategies to achieve that vision.”

In Richmond, Mariia Zimmerman will join the RVA Rapid Transit Board and is also lending her support to developing a regional housing strategy – the first of its kind, that can help to provide a comprehensive framework to inform policy makers in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield Counties where rapid growth, alarming eviction rates, and growing displacement pressures are layered on top of decades of under-investment in public housing, and deeply embedded racial segregation policies and cultures. Suffice it to say, 2019 will be an interesting year.

The opportunity to support peer networking and learning across the different cities and regions where MZ Strategies work, and between our partners and clients, remains one of the greatest and most satisfying accomplishments we bring to this work of equitable development. While it is true that one person can make a difference, all of us working together is what makes a lasting impact.

A rare, snowy December day at the University of Richmond (Source: M Zimmerman)

A rare, snowy December day at the University of Richmond (Source: M Zimmerman)

Wishing you peace, prosperity, partnership, and possibility in 2019!

* With acknowledgement and gratitude to Rachel Jordan and Brenna Hill – two terrific research assistants who supported MZ Strategies this past year.

NOITE: The work we all do is simply not possible without the many incredible local advocacy organizations and non-profits who get up every day working to advance equity, community development, and a host of other critical issues. As we wrap up another year, please consider giving to the organizations that make a difference in your community or in those you work!