Meeting in the Middle

Finding Common Ground on Housing and the Environment

Thanks to colleagues at the Coalition for a Livable Future, Tasha Harmon, a housing advocate in Portland, Oregon, doesn’t worry so much about missing regional planning meetings anymore. “If Mike Houck from Portland Audubon is there and housing comes up, he’s as likely as anyone to speak up and say, ‘Hey, what about affordability?’ she says. “And people say ‘Hey, Mike! Birds! You’re supposed to be talking about birds!’ But he’s well versed in housing stuff now.”

In 1997, some New Jersey local officials and state legislators, mostly from rural areas, tried to blame affordable housing, rather than proliferating luxury housing and commercial strips, for the loss of New Jersey’s remaining open space. But when state legislators began considering bills that would seriously weaken the state’s fair-share affordable housing measures, they found not only affordable housing advocates, but also environmentalists, opposing them. The bills were defeated.

These examples of unity aren’t serendipitous. They arose from two of the coalitions springing up that are not only refusing the divisive false choice of environment vs. jobs and housing, but are actually linking issues into common platforms.

The New Jersey Coalition for Affordable Housing and the Environment (CAHE) has had to be deliberate and careful about trust building from the start. “It would be wrong to say there wasn’t some mistrust between the two movements,” says Paul Chrystie, the coalition’s coordinator. “Not between the individual people, but the movements.” So in spring 1997, affordable housing advocates and developers, state environmental lobbyists, and local environmentalists held a two-day retreat at which they aired old conflicts, respectfully discussed differences and, most of all, explored common ground. “We discovered that we share a lot of the same goals,” says Betsy Russell of Camden Lutheran Housing, such as reinvesting in cities to help preserve open space. The formal coalition was born.

Current CAHE projects include defending the fair share housing measures, encouraging the State Planning Commission to pay attention to urban areas (and vice versa), and advocating for property tax and brownfields policy reform. As they hoped, there has been strength in numbers and unity. During a campaign to get a public question on open space preservation on the November 1998 ballot, the coalition held a press conference in support of the measure, pointing out its benefits for all locations, including the possibility of urban riverfront parks or tot lots. “It showed the public and the legislature that this is not just for wealthy people out in the sticks who want to preserve the piece of space next to them,” says Arnold Cohen of New Jersey Affordable Housing Network.

In the 1980s, rapid growth was driving up the cost of Vermont’s housing and displacing low-income tenants, while pressuring farmers into selling land and gobbling up the farms and woods that to most Vermonters were the very essence of their state. Faced with a common enemy, the state’s land trusts, affordable housing advocates, historical preservation groups and environmentalists formed the Housing and Conservation Coalition, hired an attorney, drafted a bill that would create a joint trust fund, and launched a successful lobbying effort to pass it in 1987. Elizabeth Humstone, director of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl, remembers an incredulous State Senator “saying something to the effect of, ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing all of you sitting at this table together.’”

The resulting Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund has been continuously funded and supported by Vermont legislatures and governors, and has both provided affordable housing for over 10,000 people and saved 165,000 acres of farms and valuable open space.

But new collaborations are never simple. James Libby Jr., a lawyer from Vermont Legal Aid who was present throughout the process, wrote in an article for Clearinghouse Review, “At first, the housing advocates worried that conservationists, sometimes referred to as the ‘green sneaker bunch,’ would not be able to understand or address poverty and homelessness. At the same time, the conservationists and farmers were afraid that the housing and low-income advocates would be too radical and too dogmatic…”

These fears were slowly dispelled as they worked together on a common goal. For example, the coalition decided that the quasi-governmental corporation that distributes the fund’s money must justify itself to the legislature if it spends more than 70 percent of one year’s funds on either housing or conservation. It never has, despite repeated attempts by state legislators to divert all of the fund to one cause or the other. “The success we’ve had has been because we have stuck together even when people have tried to divide us,” says Elizabeth Kulas of the Rutland County Community Land Trust.

Smart Growth coalitions, much lauded by Al Gore and the Environmental Protection Agency, and organized specifically around combating urban sprawl, are another place where housing advocates and environmentalists find themselves working together.

The necessary communication isn’t automatic in all Smart Growth endeavors, however. Take for example, Maryland, a state in the vanguard of Smart Growth, but without a formal working relationship between the state’s affordable housing and environmental groups. In 1997, Maryland actually passed Smart Growth regulations that eliminated state subsidies to development outside cities and other county-designated growth centers. But the laws, meant to stop sprawl by eliminating subsidies for infrastructure, also have the effect of limiting the locations of affordable housing, thereby preserving suburbs for the rich, says Becky Sherblom of Maryland Center for Community Development.

Sherblom tried to raise the issue of affordable housing’s treatment under the regulations during the campaign to pass Smart Growth. The result? “We got a lot of abuse from the environmental groups,” she says. “They thought that any questioning of Smart Growth was ‘pro-sprawl.’”

These kinds of questions lie below the surface everywhere, but the coalitions in existence are betting that their formal working relationship, their cooperation where they have common ground, and their process of learning about each other will help diffuse the differences in the long run.

Despite the many challenges, these pioneering coalitions have brought affordable housing and environmental groups into dialogue. And in some cases, as Betsy Russell says, not only are there more people on each side of the table, but “it’s not even like opposite sides anymore.”