Preserving Low-Income Communities through Non-Profit Development Initiatives

By Michael Pyatok

Recent federal housing policy and conventional wisdom among a new generation of housing professionals assert that, to overcome problems of poverty in lower income communities, those communities must either be dispersed among higher income neighborhoods or injected with a massive dose of higher income households so that the lower income households become a minor presence in a newly ‘branded’ or gentrified neighborhood. Presumably, disadvantaged children gain from their association with children in educationally enriched households that are headed by working adults. These efforts, however, destroy existing functional social networks and dilute cultural identities within lower income communities, and much like gerrymandering or colonial occupation, serve to weaken the community’s potential political power.

Moreover, governments are increasingly looking to private developers to produce such ‘mixed-income’ neighborhoods, adopting inclusionary zoning strategies that require private development projects to include a certain percentage of affordable units. Yet these developments are generally guided by market criteria rather than the needs of low-income residents and can further aggravate the negative consequences associated with a ‘mixing’ of income groupings. When inclusionary policies are applied to older inner-city communities, where there is a long tradition of racially and culturally cohesive lower income neighborhoods with their own community-based development corporations, indigenous efforts can be undermined as governments shift some of the limited pool of public subsidies to private developers

Locally-based non-profit corporations can often accomplish the goal of providing affordable housing in a superior fashion to private for-profit developers for five reasons. First, the term of affordability is long since non-profit corporations have no intention of cashing out or refinancing in the future. Private developers, in contrast, seek to make the term of affordability as short as possible. Second, the housing is often ‘service-enriched,’ providing childcare, family counseling, job training and other social services that meet the specific needs of lower-income households. In market-rate housing, by comparison, everyone is expected to blend into the majority population; special services required by low-income, minority populations are not considered. Third, the housing is managed by non-profit corporations or for-profit corporations with substantial experience in serving the needs of lower income households. Fourth, the process of designing the housing is often inclusive and participatory, since the organizations use it as a political and community organizing opportunity. Market-rate housing, on the other hand, is often undertaken behind closed doors, restricting community input to the minimum public hearings required by Environmental Impact Reports. Finally, the housing is often designed to express the specific culture and pride of the people it is intended to serve. This differs from market-rate housing, which will often project either a bland homogenous image to lure the broadest population, or a hip, modern expression to target a smaller, higher income class.

To help illuminate these points, three case studies are presented below of projects designed by the author’s firm in Oakland, California. These projects illustrate how lower income communities, in collaboration with professionals, can organize their own non-profit development corporations and produce improvements in their communities that maintain income homogeneity. In the process, they produce places whose design character and programming maintain rich, diverse cultural identities that market-rate residential developments ignore, or even purposefully avoid.

Fox Courts The north side, with a child-care center on the ground floor, faces the main plaza and park of a new market-rate development. The top floor contains lofts for singles and couples, including formerly homeless. The middle floors are 2-story homes for families.

Photo: Frank Domin

Securing a Non-Profit Affordable Housing Alternative in a Climate of Pro-Market Housing Provision

In 1999, a national, for-profit development corporation wanted to build 800 units of housing in a downtown neighborhood. It voluntarily offered to include 20 percent as ‘affordable’ to households between 60 and 100 percent of the area median income (AMI). Then-mayor Jerry Brown believed that Oakland had too much affordable housing, so he actively discouraged the corporation from including any affordable units. The corporation’s policy, however, was always to include about 20 percent ‘affordable’ units, more in the income range of 80 percent AMI. It did so partly to improve its chances of acquiring subsidies, not exclusively for the affordable component but to underwrite the infrastructure costs associated with the entire development, thereby improving the profitability of the market-rate units as well. The corporation sought about $64 million in local public assistance, yet they proposed only 160 affordable units among the 800 and made no provision for special services for lower income households.

In response to this, a coalition of advocates, the Workforce Housing Coalition, formed to challenge the proposed development. The coalition’s activism stemmed from a long tradition of community-based non-profits successfully completing thousands of affordable units in Oakland, assisted by the city’s tax increment dollars accrued from redevelopment efforts. They saw this form of inclusionary housing by a private developer as an incomplete solution if it produced only for households at 80 percent AMI and without services. Moreover, the project would drain limited local housing subsidies, which could be used to revitalize other low-income neighborhoods. So, the coalition demanded that the inclusionary component be increased to 30 percent, with the additional 10 percent (eighty units) built as a stand-alone affordable development that would be owned and managed by a local 25-year-old non-profit organization and would include social services, childcare and job training for residents.

After two years of applying constant pressure on the developer, the mayor and the City Council, the coalition succeeded. The resulting development of eighty units is on .9 acres, and families have their own two-story town homes stacked in four floors, so each dwelling has natural through-ventilation, with walkways only on every other floor serving the living levels of the homes. A portion of the building has a childcare center on the first floor, with two-story homes above, and on the fourth floor are lofts and studios for very low-income singles and couples, some of whom were formerly homeless. All of the households are linked to a series of social service providers facilitated by the non-profit owner-developer.

As the development is located in an Art Deco section of downtown, the non-profit developer hired artists to work with the local arts high school to design murals depicting the youth culture of Oakland for the building. The non-profit developer also retained an artist who enhanced the lobbies with mosaic portrayals of life in Oakland, and a tile artist who produced custom tiles, located along the base, which depicted the flora and fauna of the region stylized in a manner that reflects Latino, Asian, African and Native American approaches to pattern design.

Converting an Abandoned Site into a Culturally Diverse, Low-Income Housing Project

The second case is a community-based effort in the 1990s to redevelop a site in East Oakland that was an abandoned supermarket, in an area long ignored by the private market. A 35-year-old non-profit corporation, primarily serving the Asian community in Oakland’s downtown, recognized that many new Southeast Asian refugees were settling in East Oakland, where the African-American and Hispanic-American communities had settled over the last five decades. To achieve harmony between the racial groups, the Asian-serving non-profit elected to joint venture with a neighborhood-based non-profit that had primarily been serving the African- and Hispanic-American households in that neighborhood. Together they sponsored a series of participatory design workshops to include local participation in the project’s planning and design.

The resulting project includes ninety-two affordable units as well as a childcare center, a community center and 8,000 square feet for small, incubating retail businesses. The elevator-serviced front boulevard buildings contain the smaller households with few or no children. The other half of the units, for larger families, have their own two- and three-story homes located at the rear of the site above a parking garage. The retail space was included as an economic development strategy to help spawn small local businesses that could also serve the community. The clients and design team applied for and won $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to hire local artists from each of the racial groups living in the community. The artists embellished the development in a way that represented their histories and traditions.

The project, now fifteen years old, has won six regional and national design awards. It also required ten different funding sources, with a key source being the City of Oakland. If an “inclusionary zoning” requirement had been instituted at that time, this non-profit joint venture partnership would have been forced to compete with private developers, who typically contribute to local City Council and mayoral campaigns, for these local funds. A for-profit developer would have used the city funds to make just 20 percent of a market-rate project affordable, and would have served a higher income level. The housing would also not have been built in a low-income neighborhood, filling a vacant lot. Furthermore, there would have been no social services or childcare, no economic development component and no expression of a neighborhood’s cultural diversity and local self-help pride.

A Native American Mixed-Use Complex

The third case concerns a medical and dental clinic in East Oakland that was founded by the Native-American community more than thirty years ago and by 2001 had outgrown its facilities and needed a new building. Recognizing the value of inner-city land, the community realized that a single-purpose building within blocks of a BART station and on a boulevard with several bus lines should be converted to a mix of uses: a clinic with housing above. With no experience in housing development, they formed a joint venture in 2002 with the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation. Together they developed an infill parcel of .7 acres with thirty-six family units above a 20,000 square foot medical and dental clinic, and public spaces that served as a community center and forty-five car garage. While the facility distinctly expresses the presence of the Native American community in East Oakland, it serves all residents of East Oakland in need of affordable healthcare. It also includes two courtyards—one on the ground for the clinic with a kiva-like talking circle for outdoor community meetings and ceremonial dancing; and one located above the clinic exclusively for the residents.

As difficult as it was to raise the funds to produce the clinic, the organization went further and raised several hundred thousand dollars more to pay for artists from the Native American and immigrant communities. These artists included major works expressive of the Native American presence in the community and what the Native Americans have done to help all those who came to the Americas later as immigrants. This dramatic cultural expression would never be expected from private developers because their intentions are to develop a mixed-income project that serves a broad public, and thus they would fear that any special cultural expressions, particularly on the part of minorities, might alienate the clientele they seek to attract. In such mixed-income developments, minorities must assume a subservient role and accommodate themselves in cultural expression of the dominant culture.

Seven Directions The entry into the medical and dental clinic is flanked by two totem poles carved by a member of Alaska’s Tlingit tribe. They tell their tribe’s story of the birth of their people.

Photo: Mike Pyatok

Hismen Hin-Nu Terrace The central court is shared by families in townhomes, and singles and couples located in the elevator-served, stucco-clad buildings. A child-care center and community center open onto their own fenced areas.

Photo: Mike Pyatok


Many U.S. cities have proud, capable, lower income neighborhoods and networks of non-profits, both neighborhood-based and citywide. In Oakland, these non-profits are responsible for nearly all of the affordable housing produced in the last thirty years, many receiving national attention for their quality programs and designs. It is their successful performance that throws into question the assertion that such neighborhoods lack the ability to improve themselves unless higher income residents move into their midst in sufficient numbers to improve the neighborhood’s quality of life. Yet their programs are undermined when the limited supply of subsidies is redirected to private developers for ‘inclusionary’ projects. If there is to be inclusionary zoning, private developers should pay for such housing primarily from their own profits or pay in lieu fees to local affordable housing trust funds at sufficient levels to accomplish the task. Other compensation can be granted for those obligated to include their fair share, such as expedited processing, fee reductions or waivers and density bonuses. The financial support for self-determination and capacity-building in the non-profit sector, whether from local or state sources, should not be siphoned off to assist for-profit developers but should be directed to those organizations that can best serve the needs of low-income populations.

Michael Pyatok has been an architect and professor of architectural design for forty-three years. He is currently a professor emeritus at the University of Washington. Since opening his own office in 1984, he has designed over 35,000 units of affordable housing for lower income households in the U.S. and abroad, and developed participatory design methods to facilitate community involvement throughout the design process.

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