Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Tragedy of the Housing Commons

During my extensive traveling for Green Corps, I came across and fell in love with the city of Denver.  I had to move to the Mile High City and was fortunate enough to be offered a position there with the Sierra Club.  Appreciating the security of inheritance from my father's death several months earlier, I decided to splurge and rent a two-story studio apartment for about $1,150 per month in the fall of 2011.  

The view of the Uptown neighborhood in Denver. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
Fast forward a year, I started to hear from my neighbors trying to renew their leases complaining about being priced out, essentially evicted, seeing several hundred dollars increase in rent.  By the time I left, similar studios as mine were going for $1,500+ for month.  Evidently, I wasn't the only one who fell in love with Denver.  

I'll be the first to admit I'm a privileged white male who grew up in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, Fairfax County, but I understood what I experienced in Denver as a consequence of rapid immigration and growing wealth was just a mere hint of the challenge lower-income communities have facing gentrification.

Gentrification is the transition of a neighborhood, and thus community, through the buying and renovation of homes and stores by those with higher wealth.  From scraping lots to intricate remodels, the property values in the neighborhood go up and often displace those with lower income.  The process is a double-edged sword, as more resources are invested in a community there is an increase in quality of life.  The other serrated edge is, just like I was priced out for my apartment, families who may have been living for generations suddenly find themselves forced to move-- usually to places where there is less available services, less social capital, and higher environmental risks like toxic power plant emissions. 

What It’s Like To Lose Your Home To Gentrification
Posted by BuzzFeed Video on Thursday, January 15, 2015

BuzzFeed's Video on Gentrification in San Francisco.
When it comes to accessible, affordable housing, I believe Denver is facing a humanitarian crisis.  Rents are skyrocketing, rising 10.2% over the last year with vacancy rates as low as 4%.  To support a modest two-bedroom home in 2014 Denver, the minimum wage needed was $18.46/hour.  Some advocacy groups say fair cost-of-living wages should be up to $23/hour.  

Either way, a minimum wage earner in Colorado would have to work at least 90 hours per week to keep up with the market from their $8.23 wages.  Those dramatic hours are less time for someone to invest in their family, education, community, and a potential home down payment while putting a heavy toll on mental and physical health-- thus, those with less income become the first causalities of inequality in a gentrifying region.

In recent months, families have been put on the streets because of notices to vacate.  Take this dramatic story from the Sloan's Lake redevelopment project:

Did you notice the math?  Denver Mayor Michael Hancock committed to build 3,000 affordable housing units in three  years.  In one year, applications for housing subsidy vouchers increased from 18,000 to 23,000.  At this rate of growth (assuming the housing boom doesn't let up in the same time), there could be upwards of 40,000 people applying for 3,000 to 4,000 affordable housing units in a few years.  For what is available, existing units can often be dilapidated, as my unfortunate friends Kathay and Jason have learned the hard way.

If this isn't a crisis, I don't know what is.  The question is as we wrap up municipal elections: what will the city do about it?

My blog coming up-- from food co-ops to neighborhood cleanups, how I'm taking action against the negative costs of a gentrifying neighborhood while finding ways to promote intersectionality.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

4/16, Compassion, and Intersectionality

4/16 is a deeply engraved date in the Virginia Tech Community, like 9/11 was for the United States and world.  Except instead of thinking it as 4/16, as those who were in our community do, the world calls what the community in Blacksburg, Virginia experienced that horrid day in 2007 as the "Virginia Tech Massacre."

A student walks to the candlelight vigil being held on the evening of April 17th, 2007. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
The Virginia Tech community begins to gather to commemorate the 1st anniversary of the shooting in 2008. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
This time of year I take a moment to pause and remember the lives lost, reflect upon the torment our community went through--both with the act itself and the media onslaught after, and the comfort provided by the overwhelming support from around the world.  I've written enough about those stories over these years. 

This year, I'm now writing to ask myself and to challenge my friends and former classmates after eight years: How have we grown since 4/16, and how have we lived for 33*?

(Credit: Bryce Carter)
Here are two points I found myself reflecting on:
  • I strive for compassion because of what our community recognized in its peril - * Let me note I am sincerely sorry to those who read this and are offended by recognizing the shooter as a causality of the day, but he was in fact within our community.  I don't intend to highlight him over the friends and family taken from us, but to express the tragedy of what we lost encompasses him as an individual as well. In an act of deep and resolute compassion, the first several days the community itself put out 33 temporary Hokie Stones before the politics got complicated and his was removed and the slogan "Live for 32" was embraced.  The fact his stone existed, even temporarily, is a level of compassion and forgiveness I feel I must recognize, constantly strive for, and am inspired by today.

    A white rose with a black ribbon was placed on the dorm signage in which the shooter had lived. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
    The shooter, for the first few days after the tragedy, was included in the ad hoc memorial. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
  • I strive every day for solutions to promote community and intersectionality -
    For anyone who knows me, the pursuit of triple-bottom-line sustainability (balancing equality, environment, and economy) for our communities is deeply in my heart and who I am.  I believe the more sustainable a community, the naturally more resilient and interconnected it is.

    Blacksburg's slogan is "A Special Place," and I wholeheartedly agree (enough that I even ran for Town Council in 2009).  And after traveling the country in the years that followed, I realize Blacksburg is special because it is a close, generally open-minded community where you will run regularly into friends.  Every time I biked somewhere I would find myself stopping to talk to someone in the community on the street.  As a small university town in concept and design, Blacksburg naturally promotes intersectionality and in turn, promotes growing commonalities.

    When I reflect upon 4/16, I think about how our community came together and supported each other from the base of resiliency we naturally already had.  As one might expect from those first few weeks, months, and years, I saw the blinding resilience and camaraderie we shared right after the tragedy fade more with every graduation (see my letter to the editor I wrote senior year).

    I believe creating intersections is key to creating resilience, because diverse people and communities find themselves interacting and building appreciation for their commonalities.  This is why over the years since then, I've devoted myself to promote the intersections of sustainability at every opportunity with the goal of better balanced, healthier communities for all.  
Every year on campus the day before the anniversary, I brought friends together to offer "Free Hugs."  My rationale: why do we need a tragedy to embrace our community? (Credit: Bryce Carter)
Fast forward to today: the Sierra Club and NAACP have partnered on a series of Healing Hikes to not only embrace the healing power of nature, but also promote intersectionality between our two groups. (Credit: Bryce Carter)

How do you live for 33?