This Program Is Like Airbnb, but Only for the Formerly Incarcerated

*Last name has been removed to protect privacy
After a person leaves prison, they face a new set of challenges. Are they able to contact their family? Can they find a job? How are they going to eat?
And perhaps most urgently: Where will they sleep that night? 
Many formerly incarcerated individuals don’t have a support network to turn to, which can make finding a place to live post-release an insurmountable task. Affordable housing can be costly and difficult to obtain, and landlords frequently won’t rent to formerly incarcerated individuals. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, former inmates are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. 
“For people getting out of prison, the penalty hasn’t ended and re-entry is its own obstacle course that everybody has to navigate,” Alex Busansky, a former prosecutor and president of Impact Justice, a nonprofit that works in justice reform, told NPR. “And housing is essential to being able to get through that obstacle course. If you don’t have a place to sleep, to shower, to keep your things, it’s very difficult to think about doing anything else.” 
Enter the Homecoming Project: an Airbnb-like program for former inmates in Alameda County, California.
Impact Justice launched the Homecoming Project pilot in 2018. This program pairs people recently released from long-term incarceration with homeowners who have bedrooms to spare.
After a lengthy screening process for both the formerly incarcerated and their hosts, the Homecoming Project sets up potential roommates. By pairing like-minded people (think cat vs. dog lovers, night owl vs. early bird, clean vs. messy), the hope is to create a positive living situation with the potential for friendship. Before moving in together, the pair meets to discuss rules, preferences and if it feels like a compatible match or no. If yes, the host receives a subsidy of $25 a day and the former inmate gets a room for up to six months.
While the project is still in its pilot phase, as of this past April, 10 former inmates have been matched with hosts, and program officials hope to double that figure by the end of this year. The first former inmate has successfully left his home and moved to his own place.
For DeLora*, she gained more than just a place to rest with the Homecoming Project.
After serving eight years for conspiracy to distribute heroin, the 32-year-old had no job or stable shelter. Then she found the Homecoming Project and was welcomed into Sabina Crocette’s home.
 “I just saw her as a dynamic young woman who could come back into the community and be a great resource to others,” Crocette told KPIX. “You have to recognize people’s humanity. People are not the thing that they have done. That is not who they are.”
Since arriving in Crocette’s home, DeLora has been mentored by Crocette, and in return, DeLora has mentored Crocette’s daughter.
“We didn’t know that the hosts were going to be serving — by proxy — as a role model, showing them what it’s like to live in the community,” Homecoming Project coordinator Terah Lawyer told KPIX.
Just as Airbnb has expanded across the globe, leaders at Impact Justice hope to create the same ripple effect in this compassionate twist on the sharing economy. 
“[The Homecoming Project] says you’re a person and we’re going to treat you like a person and give you the footholds and the scaffolding to be able to come back home and to be a full member of society just like anybody else,” Busansky said.
If you live in Alameda County and have a room to offer or are in need of a place to stay, visit the Homecoming Project.
More: People in Prisons Are Learning to Code — and It Might Alter the Course of Their Lives

The Houses That Help Keep HIV at Bay

At the Belle Reve group home in New Orleans, residents are running for cover. What started as a sunny day in early October quickly turned into monsoon weather, with more than three inches of rain slamming the city within an hour and flooding the streets.
But on the back porch of Belle Reve, an assisted-living facility for low-income and homeless people living with HIV, executive director Vicki Weeks calmly takes a drag off an American Spirit.
“Are you ready?” she asks, stubbing out her cigarette before taking me to meet a few of the residents, some of whom have been there off and on since Hurricane Katrina decimated parts of the city in 2005. “This storm is nothing. At this place, we’ve been through a lot. And damned if I tell you we’re not being tried right now.”
Weeks is referring to the millions of dollars it takes to keep the nonprofit operational — hundreds of thousands of which are in jeopardy by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agency has determined the needs of people living with HIV have changed as the virus has become increasingly manageable and is no longer seen as a death sentence. As a result, the government is planning to shift funds and grants away from group homes like Belle Reve in order to direct more resources to helping HIV-positive people find permanent housing instead.
But for cities with high rates of HIV among homeless or drug addicted populations — New Orleans ranks second in the U.S. for transmission rates — group homes are critical in preventing the virus from spreading. Many of these facilities also treat drug abuse and offer other support services, like counseling, medical oversight and life-skills classes. This wraparound support helps keep the virus in residents at healthy, undetectable levels, making it statistically impossible for them to transmit HIV to others while also boosting their chances of obtaining work and, eventually, living on their own.

Ronnie, a resident of Belle Reve, has been living with HIV for almost six years after contracting the virus from a sexual partner. After years of addiction and homelessness, his time at Belle Reve helped him become sober and undetectable.

There are homeless shelters in New Orleans, of course, but the options for people who are both homeless and HIV positive — especially those who are also in need of drug rehabilitation — are limited. That, despite the fact that facilities housing HIV-positive patients have been shown to improve their health outcomes.
The group-home model helped Phaedra, a 55-year-old woman living with HIV, start to get her life back on track. Phaedra, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy, credits the New Orleans nonprofit Project Lazarus, which provides housing as well as classes, therapy and case management, for her progress. After leaving the home in 2017, Phaedra has been living with her boyfriend and actively searching for work.
“I’m doing my best, and I can say I’m really trying,” she says.
Diagnosed with HIV over 20 years ago, Phaedra has been abusing drugs on and off for decades. “I did everything that could give me HIV, including using IV drugs,” she says now. “I wouldn’t even know whose needle I was using.”
Through proper medical care, her viral load is now at undetectable levels. In that sense, Phaedra is lucky: According to a 2013 report from Human Rights Watch, injection drug users in Louisiana were more likely to develop AIDS within six months of receiving an HIV diagnosis due to a lack of social services.
This dearth of statewide support and services is an obstacle that administrators at Project Lazarus are trying to account for by offering former residents aftercare assistance. So people like Phaedra are paired with specialists who guide them through the job-application process and help them secure permanent housing after they leave — all of which is crucial to keeping them healthy and unable to spread HIV.
This aftercare support is a large departure from the original mission of Project Lazarus and similar facilities caring for those with HIV and AIDS, most of which were established in the late 1980s and ’90s at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
“This used to be a place for people to come and die,” says Nicole Kiernan, an aftercare specialist at Project Lazarus, explaining that the home was formerly used for hospice care for people dying of complications from AIDS. “You didn’t come here to move out at some point, like most people here do now.”
Though medical advancements in treating HIV and AIDS no longer make end-of-life care as critical as before, group homes are sorely needed — at least in New Orleans — as the virus shifts away from primarily affecting gay men. Today, that burden is shared disproportionately with poor communities of color, particularly in the South. Even more to the point, several studies have linked homelessness with a higher risk of contracting HIV, especially for those who are both homeless and young.
“Sometimes we only have one bed available, but have five people who are applying to get it,” Weeks says. And it’s an issue that Kiernan alluded to as well: In an area with over 1,100 homeless people at risk of contracting HIV, there’s just not enough places to shelter them and provide them with life-prolonging medication.
That’s making things worse in Louisiana, where in the past two years HIV diagnoses among drug users has almost doubled, according to the state’s Department of Health quarterly report released last spring. In 2017, nearly 5 percent of those diagnosed were injection drug users. By March of this year, that number increased to just over 9 percent.

              “We’re the ones standing here helping
               these people, and we will continue to do
               so until time runs out for us.”

Complicating an already dire housing situation? Access to funds — or rather, lack thereof.
Group homes that rely on grants from HUD through the program Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA) are expecting for the first time in 25 years to see their funding reduced.
“We’ve surveyed the people who get this money and we found that a lot of people who would use these funds actually need them more for permanent housing and not transitional [housing],” a spokesperson for HUD tells NationSwell, referencing that medical trends in HIV care have pushed the department to reevaluate where funds should go. “Even the name of the grants refers to people living with AIDS and, in reality, it’s just not at the prevalence it was. We need to modernize.”
Outside of Louisiana, that trend proves true, according to Kira Radtke Friedrich, services manager for the state’s STD/HIV program that monitors rural HOPWA funding.
“We saw a shift in the late ’90s to early ’00s. People didn’t want to live in group homes anymore,” Friedrich tells NationSwell. “We started hearing from our clients that, ‘I’m independent. I don’t want to live in a group-home setting.’”
But Friedrich admitted that the needs of rural populations are different from the needs of cities, where group facilities for homeless or addicted populations living with HIV are still warranted. “The burden is definitely heavier in New Orleans and Baton Rouge,” she says.
“We’re consistently ranked one of the worst in the nation for HIV and AIDS,” says Belle Reve’s Weeks of Louisiana’s two largest cities. “That’s not going to get any better if we just push these people out. And most of the people in these homes can’t function in permanent housing immediately.
“We’re the ones standing here helping these people, and we will continue to do so until time runs out for us. I just hope we can hang on.”

This is the second installment in NationSwell’s multimedia series “Positive in the South,” which explores the HIV crisis in the Southern U.S., and profiles the people and organizations working to alleviate it.

Buffalo’s Recent Economic Boom Leaves Longtime Residents Behind

Ordering lobster from gourmet food trucks in Buffalo, New York, might’ve been ambitious a decade ago. Now, it happens weekly.
The food trucks that line Buffalo’s Larkin Square on Tuesdays during the warm summer months attract locals from all over the city, including its suburbs. But its lack of diversity is what shocks me most: Almost half of the city’s population are people of color, yet nearly everyone in the park is white.
Even the music reflects this fact, with a boomer-aged jam band rocking covers of Jethro Tull and Chicago.
I’m being shown around the square by Kayla Zemsky, a project manager with her family’s company, Larkin Development Group. Her family is responsible for some of Buffalo’s most well-known revitalization projects, including the newly built parklet that we’re wandering around that night. But the square, along with many other Zemsky family developments, are notorious among locals, who talk about how these kinds of developments have brought about gentrification in parts of this economically depressed city.
Zemsky tells me about the importance of revitalizing old neighborhoods, where abandoned and blighted homes litter residential streets (Buffalo has one of the largest shares of abandoned homes and properties in the state).
It’s all part of an idea to make Buffalo economically viable again, which appears to be working: A newly revitalized city is bringing back tourists through its architecture and history, and the city’s nightlife and cocktail culture has been drawing in travel and leisure writers en masse.
But the money flowing into the city seems to benefit only certain people — or at least that’s what longtime locals and activists tell me.  
“We cost the same as downtown Chicago right now,” says Sage Green, a community advocate at People United for Sustainable Housing, or PUSH Buffalo, a housing rights group.“That’s unreal; $1,500 a month in Buffalo blows my fucking mind.”
That should, indeed, blow everyone’s mind, if only for the fact that despite Buffalo’s current boom, it maintains its status as one of the nation’s poorest large cities.
The increase in the city’s property values and rents have made it one of the top 10 cities with the fastest-growing rents in the nation. Much of that bump has to do with the city’s real-estate boom: developers get close to 40 percent in tax breaks to build on Buffalo’s historic building stock — some of the most well-preserved architecture in the nation. And the state has coughed up $1 billion in a stimulus spending plan to help make Buffalo more attractive for tech manufacturers, including Tesla.
Despite an increase in popularity and interest in Buffalo, by and large the city’s residents haven’t seen the same benefits. Wages have only increased marginally, and employment in the city continues to be focused on retail and service work — much of which are by and large minimum wage jobs. As a result, people who could barely afford their mortgages or property taxes before are now in dire straits and at risk of losing their homes.
But Green’s group, PUSH, is working to keep residents in their homes by doing the most basic of renovations to the city’s old homes: insulating them.

Buffalo housing 2
PUSH at the 2018 Our City coalition public meeting.


October in Buffalo is a tense time for thousands of local homeowners. It’s the time of year when many find out if soon they will be homeless.
Every year, the city puts on an auction of homes whose homeowners have been in arrears with their property taxes or sewage fees. If you are behind any amount above $200, your home could be foreclosed on by the city.
“It used to be even lower than that,” says Gretchen Gonzalez, deputy director for the Volunteer Lawyers Project, a group that helps homeowners who have defaulted on their taxes work out payment plans to keep their homes. “A lot of our clients are economically disadvantaged people who live paycheck to paycheck. For those people, it just takes one tragedy or one lost job to end up behind. And these are people whose homes have been in their families for generations.”
Over a third of Buffalo’s residents are homeowners, with houses willed down or bought for cheap when the city’s economy was still spiraling downward.
And until recently, it was relatively cheap to be a Buffalo homeowner.
In 2013, most of Buffalo’s housing stock was priced between $30-60,000. Now, with Buffalo’s boom, more homes are now worth $70-90,000, according to recent ACS one-year survey numbers.
And with rising property values come a rise in property taxes, which are expected to dramatically increase with property reevaluations underway. The last time Buffalo did property reevaluations was in 2010, which has translated into less taxes — about 40 percent less than expected — coming into a city that has seen an exceptional boom in home values.
But increased property taxes is an issue for a city in which almost half of its residents live paycheck to paycheck and where 51 percent of its children live in poverty. As of now, between 2006 and 2018, an average of close to 3,000 homes every year are threatened on the auction block for failure to pay taxes.  
Housing advocates worry that the number is sure to rise after the city finishes its reevaluation next year.
“We’re certainly thrilled to see Buffalo’s economic turnaround, but it’s going to affect homeowners. And if people are having a hard time making ends meet right now, it’s only going to get worse,” says Kevin Quinn, an attorney with the Center for Law and Justice who has been representing dozens of homeowners in the past few months leading up to the city’s foreclosure auctions, which happen in mid-October.
But the cost of home ownership in Buffalo goes beyond property taxes. Before the recent housing developments in Buffalo overtook the market, residential areas were made up of homes that were built at the turn of the last century.
“All of these homes are old, old, old,” says Luana DeJesus, a program assistant at PUSH. “You better believe many of them don’t have proper insulation… A lot of people don’t even know what proper insulation is. And without that, you’re looking at bills costing into the hundreds when in reality it should be a quarter of that.”
And that’s where PUSH has found a niche as a unique problem solver to impending tax foreclosures: Keep people within their homes by insulating the homes.


The houses on Prospect Street, on Buffalo’s West Side, are quaint. Each of the colonial-style homes are two stories tall, with green lawns, flagpoles and raised patios. They’re also very old, sometimes well over 100 years — back when it was relatively cheap to heat a home.
But that’s not the case any longer.
On a Wednesday morning in September, I’m meeting with DeJesus outside of a home on Prospect. The home, owned by a local family that I was told had a hard time paying their utility bills, didn’t have any insulation. And that’s not an uncommon story in Buffalo.
“These are old homes — so many of them don’t have the proper insulation they need to keep warm during the winter here, so the costs are way more than what you’d normally expect than from newer homes,” DeJesus says.
According to National Fuel estimates, since 2015, gas prices to heat a home for five months has gone from $500 in 2015 to an estimated $560 this year. But that’s for energy-efficient homes.
In order to make homes energy-efficient — a process that can include an inspection and attic and wall insulation — it can easily range in the thousands of dollars. And for a number of families in Buffalo, that’s just not a viable option.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority offers free weatherizing for families who meet income guidelines that are 60 percent below the state’s median income, but there is little outreach from the state to get families to apply and weatherize their homes.
That’s where PUSH comes in. Once a week, members of PUSH go into poor neighborhoods and talk to residents about weatherizing their homes. For families that can afford weatherizing on their own, PUSH gets them set up for the process. For families that can’t afford the initial audit or the insulation, they partner with homeowners to get the free services through the state.
The result is thousands of dollars in savings each year for each home — more than enough to help families who struggle with their tax payments.
“PUSH [has] made a world of difference for people who didn’t even know what was going on with energy issues,” says Lucy Velez, a volunteer with PUSH. “My community doesn’t think about those things, we’re trying to keep our homes and pay our bills.”
Anecdotally, the process is working. Green, the community advocate, points out that families that were formerly on the auction block are now able to stay in their homes and finance their tax bills and city usage fees.
But she recognizes that lowering bills serves only as a band-aid for a much larger problem: a lack of affordable housing in the Buffalo area.
“These are band-aids, and band-aids are really important things. But they don’t address the problem. It’s easy to say something is bad and try and quickly fix it. It’s harder to ask why,” she says. “We’re in this space now, where we can’t just yell about public infrastructure. The middle ground is building infrastructural assets that can be controlled, designed and owned by the community so that we can build long-term neighborhoods.”
Just a few miles east, that’s exactly what’s happening.
The Fruit Belt section of Buffalo has been plagued with a declining population since the ’50s. The area — named for its flowering fruit trees — dropped from 11,000 in the ’70s to just over 2,000 people currently.
The decline in population has also translated to blocks of empty and vacant lots. Until now.
As of May this year, residents of the Fruit Belt neighborhood have successfully petitioned to create a land trust that would ensure people are not being priced out of their neighborhoods.
Residents who buy properties through a land trust split the equity of the home — most of it stays within the trust — which then keeps the price low for the next homebuyer.
Denice Barr, a resident of the Fruit Belt, is one of those residents who were instrumental in advocating for the land trust.
“People just moved into our neighborhoods without any thought about us, who’ve lived there for decades,” she says. “Now, we have the ability to take a stand against people moving in and selling off our community from under us.”
This solution isn’t unique to Buffalo. Community land trusts have been created in cities including Washington D.C., New York City and throughout Florida. But with a city that has seen a tremendous amount of growth in industry and city spending to make Buffalo more attractive, it could be a helpful tool for residents who have felt left behind in the city’s self-proclaimed renaissance.


This is part two in a two-part series on how solutions can both help — and hurt — communities. To read part one, on how the city of Buffalo is using architecture to help fuel a tourism-boom, click here.

In Atlanta, Affordable Housing Boosts School Performance, Tenant Health

Among the rolling hills and dense pine canopies east of Atlanta’s I-285 bypass, down the street from a halal meat market, two Buddhist temples and Good Times Country Cookin’, sits the Willow Branch Apartment Homes. The complex is tucked behind a flapping “Welcome” flag, which is emblematic of Clarkston, a small but famously global suburb that has been coined “Ellis Island South” and “the most diverse square mile in America.”
Built in 1971, Willow Branch looks like any other aging metro-Atlanta apartment building and dozens around Clarkston, save for its unique mansard roofs. But after school one warm afternoon in February, what used to be the pool house transforms into another thing that sets Willow Branch apart: a banner-bedecked classroom where a circle of refugee children, representing more than 30 ethnicities, sit squirming and giggling. The kids, all of whom are residents, play a clapping game, each contributing another word to a growing sentence they pass around the room like a hot potato: “Valentine’s. Day. Is. About. Moms. And. Dogs.” The last word sparks hysterical laughter.
“A lot of them, their parents don’t speak English and can’t help with their [school] work,” says Allie Reeser, the program director of the nonprofit Star-C, which runs the afterschool program at Willow Branch. “Socially, it’s a great place for kids to go.” Nearby, 8-year-old Elizabeth Mawi, who emigrated with eight siblings from Burma, concurs in a mousey voice: “It’s good, because we can share, and we help people.”
Held for four hours each weekday afternoon, the Star-C afterschool program is one part of a dynamic model — piloted here at the 186-unit Willow Branch, where the residents’ average income of $18,750 is well below the U.S. poverty line — that’s showing how affordable housing can boost performance in local schools, increase resident health and even quell crime.

For young Willow Branch residents, many of whom are not native English speakers, afterschool enrichment programs are an essential tool to succeed in school.

Alongside its fundraising arm, 3Star Communities, Star-C was founded by Marjy Stagmeier, 55, a successful manager of commercial and residential real estate around Atlanta. Her model, supporters say, is basically a three-way win for residents and investors in blighted apartment complexes in that it boosts social and environmental aspects for tenants and generates greater profits for landlords. Stagmeier’s research has uncovered no other program in the U.S. that combines wraparound services of housing, education, and medical care in the same way, though Yesler Terrace Apartments (operated by the Seattle Housing Authority) and Eden Housing (a California nonprofit housing developer and property manager) have similar components.
“If I had 10 more Marjy-run properties in Clarkston, there’s no doubt that our crime rate would drop even more, test scores would go up even more, and our community health and connections … would increase,” says Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry. “She’s creating a long-term, sustainable paradigm in multifamily housing that will pay dividends to our community for years to come.”
And Willow Branch’s successes, Stagmeier says, could be only the beginning in metro Atlanta — where recent studies show a deficit of more than 80,000 affordable housing units — and beyond. 


Philanthropy wasn’t always in Stagmeier’s heart — entrepreneurship was.
She grew up just two miles from Willow Branch in Stone Mountain, the middle of three daughters whose parents were serial entrepreneurs investing in everything from pig farms to electrical- and mechanical-supply companies (all three girls would eventually own businesses). After studying accounting at Georgia State University and passing the state’s CPA exam, she worked in banking and real estate for a decade, socking away her money and publishing a revered book in 1994, “Real Estate Asset Management: Executive Strategies in Profit Making.” Managing a portfolio of $500 million by the mid-1990s, she teamed with a German investor and started her own company to buy and manage workforce housing, including Willow Branch in 1996.  
Complexes with early versions of the afterschool program and stable rents stayed roughly 95 percent occupied, eliminating costly turnover and transiency, which drags down student performance. (What’s more, parents who knew where their children were after the final school bell could work longer hours, earning more rent money). A blighted apartment community in the northwestern suburb of Marietta provided Stagmeier’s “a-ha!” moment, she says, as she began to see how a single complex can drastically impact the schools it feeds.

Entrepreneur Marjy Stagmeier developed a unique model that combines housing, education and healthcare to revitalize struggling communities.

By 2014, Stagmeier had sold her other properties to focus on honing the Star-C model at Willow Branch. In order for the program to work, she says, the purchasing price of any new complex has to be less than $40,000 per unit, which allows rents to stay affordable and thus turnover low. (At Willow Branch, tenants pay an average of $615 a month.) She channels $3,000 monthly into the Star-C program, which employs three full-time people, with fundraising covering the rest of costs. Word has spread, and volunteers from throughout the region, primarily church groups and students, log nearly 8,000 hours at the complex each year.
Now, Star-C’s academic results are a particular source of pride, for both Stagmeier and the parents of the 300 kids under age 10 who call Willow Branch home.
As recently as 2013, neighboring Indian Creek Elementary School was the second worst-performing school in Georgia. Following a partnership with Star-C, the elementary has been named a “Platinum Performer” — the highest classification awarded by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement — three years running. Nearly 90 percent of students passed the Georgia Milestones assessment test last year and have average GPAs of 3.25.
“That’s impressive,” says Stagmeier, “considering English is new to most of these kids.”
In addition to the free education component, Star-C has partnered with a nearby health clinic to offer residents dentistry, primary care and OB-GYN services at $50 to $70 per visit. If residents are still unable to pay, the nonprofit will cover their visits out of its fundraising proceeds.
Another healthy facet of life at Willow Branch: a community gardening program, which costs residents just $20 a year (this covers the cost of deer-netting). In 40 tidy gardens that consume about an acre, Hispanic tenants grow peppers, Asian residents cultivate roselle hibiscus, and religiously significant marigolds are popular with just about everyone. Along with the recently erected fences that keep out the neighborhood’s gang members, the gardening initiative gives residents reason to be outside and has all but eliminated crime, Stagmeier says.
Statistics that paint an accurate picture of crime in the immediate area are tough to come by, as residents often don’t call police because of language barriers and mistrust. But hundreds of people — including what Stagmeier describes as “harsh gangs,” which twice attacked a security officer, periodically flashed guns on the property, and stole from residents — formerly cut through Willow Branch to access a commercial district. “That’s all gone away since we put up the fence and started the gardens,” says Stagmeier. “Grandma in her garden won’t put up with that type of behavior.”
Savings on food, healthcare and rent have had cumulative, positive effects. Of the 39 families who moved out of Willow Branch last year, 16 were able to buy their first homes.
“That’s going from poverty to mobility,” Stagmeier says. “That’s what we do here.”
Marjy Stagmeier (left, in purple) with a group of Willow Branch residents.


As of this writing, Stagmeier was under contract with her second property for the Star-C model, a 244-unit community called Summerdale Commons just south of downtown Atlanta. It’s among the city’s top 10 worst complexes for crime, and it’s next door to another low-performing elementary school, she says.
Through the course of 170 meetings with everyone from homeless people to Atlanta’s mayor, Stagmeier has grown determined to work within Atlanta city limits, where government is supportive of her efforts and an inclusionary zoning ordinance was adopted in January to boost workforce housing. It’s also where Stagmeier lives in tony Ansley Park with her husband, John.
“We’re buying the roughest properties that have the highest crime that the neighbors are sick of,” she says. “Luckily, we’ve got the city behind us.”
Beyond Summerdale Commons, Stagmeier is eyeing three or four other properties. She’s also starting to recruit younger partners, in hopes of breathing more life into the nonprofits and, eventually, bringing her successes to a national level.
“I think her model will catch on the more that elected officials and compassionate investor groups learn about it,” says Terry, the Clarkston mayor.
Back at Willow Branch, a group of teens from the philanthropy club at Atlanta’s Benjamin Franklin Academy arrives one afternoon. They’ve collected four boxes of books representing a variety of cultures.
The high schoolers are eager to read to the kids. But first, Stagmeier has a question. “Do you know what’s going on here?”
Blank faces.  
“Do you want me to tell you what’s going on here?” she asks. “What the goal is?”  
She launches into a primer, pointing to the community garden and the filled-in pool, which now serves as a mini soccer arena. And she mentions the part about families buying their own homes, essentially graduating toward their American dream.         
“That’s incredible,” says sophomore Zach Arais. “I had no idea about the level of this project. I mean, it’s really impressive.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Yesler Apartments in Seattle is operated by Catholic Community Services, not the Seattle Housing Authority. We regret the error.

How One Local Government Intelligently Invests in Local Business, A City That’s Keeping Housing Affordable for All and More

Berkeley Votes to Boost Co-op Economy in the Face of Gentrification, YES! Magazine
The co-op already thrives in Northern California. But in an effort to keep locals in the area (which has an extremely high cost of living), the city council in Berkeley, Calif., is throwing even more support behind the model. Similar to initiatives already passed in New York City; Madison, Wisc.; Cleveland; and Richmond, Calif.; Berkeley’s move provides tax incentives, support for worker-owners and financial aid to small businesses — making it easier for co-ops to become powerful job generators.
The Miracle of Minneapolis, The Atlantic
The Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., metro area has a higher median household income than New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago. Despite the Twin Cities’ wealth, affordable housing remains in reach for most residents. Unusual plans that encourage rich neighborhoods to share tax revenue with middle class and low-income residents —  a move referred to as “fiscal equalization” — means that the American Dream is alive and thriving in Minnesota.
Giving Students What They Really Need, Bright
No matter how good a school is, a child’s learning suffers when he or she is subjected to chronic stress. But schools often add to or ignore kids’ anxiety and tension, instead of teaching tips and strategies to diffuse it. Turnaround for Children* is teaching social-emotional skills, such as stress management and self-regulation, in the classroom, enabling all kids (namely low-income ones and those that suffer from abuse or neglect) to be high achievers in an academic setting.
*Editors’ note: Pamela Cantor, founder of Turnaround for Children, is a NationSwell Council member.

A House That’s Actually Affordable to Those in Poverty, Stories of Innovation from Coast to Coast and More

This House Costs Just $20,000 — But It’s Nicer Than Yours, Fast Co.Exist
Is it possible to build a house that’s cost-effective to someone living below the poverty line? The answer is yes, according to students at Auburn University’s School of Architecture, who worked on the design and construction dilemma for more than 10 years. Last month, they revealed two tiny houses in a community outside of Atlanta that cost just $14,000 each.
How America Is Putting Itself Back Together Again, The Atlantic
As writer James Fallows says, “As a whole, the country may seem to be going to hell.” But as he’s discovered while visiting various towns across America in his single-engine prop plane, there’s actually a groundswell of renewal and innovation already happening — from impressive economic growth in an impoverished area of Mississippi known as the Golden Triangle, to an investment in the Michigan public education system and a creative movement in more than 10 cities where artistic ventures are being celebrated.
Here’s What Happened When This School Made SATs Optional on Applications, Mic
Along with prom and getting your driver’s license, taking the SAT or ACT is a teenage rite of passage. But that’s no longer the case for some college-bound students. In a bold move, George Washington University made standardized test results optional for undergraduate applicants. The positive outcome: A more diverse candidate pool, including a sharp uptick in applications from African-American, Latino and first-generation college students.
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One Small Town in Maine Is Trying Something Radical to Keep Its Population From Decreasing

The problem facing some Maine towns: declining enrollments and budget crunches in public schools.
As a result, some local schools have been forced to close, and the community must send their kids elsewhere for their education. The town of St. Francis, for example, was about to lose its local elementary school because only 32 kids were enrolled. Closing the facility would save the district $170,000, but result in hour-long bus trips to Fort Kent, 16 miles away.
But the residents have come up with an innovative idea that could save their elementary school: give the building to the town. Part of the structure would continue to serve as classroom space for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students, and the other part would be converted into much-needed housing for town seniors, whose rent would contribute to running the school.
Although there is much to be worked out before the plan can go ahead, both sides involved agree that it’s a good idea. The school district superintendent Tim Doak tells the Bangor Daily News, “The more we talked about it, the more it looked like a win-win for everyone. It would help keep elderly residents in the community, it keeps the kids at school and it could provide jobs.”
Local representative John Martin has introduced legislation to allow this transfer to happen. At a recent school board meeting, he said, “There is currently nothing in the law that gives [St. Francis] the ability to do what they want to do: generate income from elderly housing [and] put them in the position to apply for grants.”
Doak is hopeful that this solution could help other struggling small-town schools in Maine. “I do think this idea for St. Francis can work,” he says. “We just need to move carefully, [and] this could be a model for the rest of the state.”
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Gentrification Doesn’t Have to Drive Out a Neighborhood’s Original Residents

As poorer neighborhoods become upscale and hip through gentrification, the residents — often artists — who have made the place what it is often get lost in the shuffle.
But in East Harlem’s El Barrio neighborhood, the nonprofit Artspace is making a home for the neighborhood’s artistic innovators in an old elementary school.
Without the desks, chairs and chalkboards, PS 109 is now offering high quality apartments for cheap prices for artists. So far, 53,000 people have applied for the 89 available apartments, and the first tenants moved in at the end of December, according to Fast Company.  With studios renting for $494 a month and two-bedrooms for $1,022 a month, PS 109 is trying to ensure the survival of Harlem’s artists.
This isn’t Artspace’s first project; it actually has 35 years of experience developing affordable housing options for artists across the country. Started in Minneapolis, the organization’s mission is to keep creative types in their neighborhoods and prevent them from being displaced by the gentrification they helped bring about.
While Artspace’s goal is to provide housing for all artists, it’s particularly interested in providing housing for neighborhood artists, which is why at least half of the new tenants in PS 109 will be locals of El Barrio neighborhood.
There are a few stipulations for potential residents. Applicants must meet the annual income $19,000-$35,000 for one person and $35,000-$50,000 for a family of four, reports Fast Company. Secondly, applicants are interviewed to determine if they meet the artist’s preference criteria and display enthusiasm to participate in the community.
Gloria Duque is one such hopeful applicant. For the past 27 years, she has lived and worked in El Barrio. With space hard to find in New York City, Duque is eager to land a spot in PS 109, which has its own gallery and community areas.
Ultimately, PS 109 is meant to preserve and grow the art scene that makes the area unique.
“The danger of a gentrifying New York is that every community starts to feel the same. The cultural ecosystems become not only less diverse, but the culture of New York as a whole becomes less vital,” Shawn McLearen, Artspace’s vice president of property development and project director for PS 109, says. “Today, you can go in any community, and it feels like it’s a community. That’s the sort of thing we need to invest in.”
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L.A.’s New Homeless Shelter Offers More Than Just Four Walls and a Roof to Those in Need

When most of us think of helping the homeless, images of homeless shelters and food kitchens probably come to mind, not community gardens and running tracks. But Los Angeles thought the latter would be beneficial, so that’s what they developed.
The City of Angels and the Skid Row downtown area, in particular, has a chronic homeless problem. And since other policies and endeavors haven’t worked, the city decided to try something different. So they built the Star Apartment complex.
Not only does the 15,000-square-foot apartment complex offer 102 units, but it also boasts a community garden, library, running track, art room and exercise facility.  The purpose of the apartments is to instill a sense of normalcy for the residents — all of whom were previously homeless.
“The community that lives here should have a similar environment to anybody that could afford something more expensive,” Star Apartments designer Michael Maltzan tells the L.A. Times.
Sharing the building is L.A. County’s Department of Health Services Housing for Health Division. Using a variety of services, the Department works to improve the lives and health of the county’s homeless. Over the next 10 years, the Department’s goal is to provide housing for 10,000 people, according to the Huffington Post.
All of this is possible due to the efforts of the Skid Row Housing Trust, which helps find affordable homes for those with disabilities, poor health, mental illness and addiction and the low-income. In order to finance Star Apartments, the Trust received low-income housing tax credit equity from Bank of America and the National Equity Fund.
Any occupant of the Star Apartment complex who earns a salary must allocate 30 percent of it to their rent.
While it may seem that providing housing and amenities for the homeless would be costly to taxpayers and the city, it’s actually saving money. According to the 2014 study by the Central Florida Commission of Homeless, right now it costs about $31,000 a year to provide for one homeless person (due to the high cost of paying for medical and psychiatric hospitalization, jail time and emergency rooms), whereas operating the Star Apartments will only cost about $10,000 per resident for a year.
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With Parking Spaces Sitting Vacant, Atlanta Has a Bold Plan to Merge Communities With Transit

Everyone who lives near a city knows all too well how much location – specifically, proximity to the commuter rail — matters. The shorter the drive is to the station, the better. And the ability to walk there trumps just about everything.
Such convenience is about to come to thousands in Atlanta. That city’s metro system MARTA has started making real estate deals to build housing to unused transit parking lots. MARTA plans to turn the space at the King Memorial, Edgewood, and Edgewood/Chandler Park stations into combination residential and retail developments.
“People have been looking at these parking lots for decades wondering why they were just sitting there,” Amanda Rhein, senior director of transit-oriented development at MARTA, told City Lab.
Now, that is finally changing — and it’s not only helping commuters, but also the railroad itself. Without state funding, MARTA’s bottom line is very easily impacted by the ups and downs of the economy. So, when Keith Parker took over the agency in 2012, he decided that a bold project like this is what was required to keep it competitive. The development will not only produce revenue from all the train riders, but also with each unit sold, will raise money for the transit system that it can use for improvements.
And so far, Parker’s decision is looking like a good one. MARTA has successfully leased land to developers for mixed-use buildings that are focused on the adjacent transit opportunities, including a project on a four-acre unused parking lot that features 13,000 square feet of retails space and 386 housing units.
The boon does not only belong to the railroads, though; it is the entire community’s as these projects could decrease traffic on the roads. And on top of that, there is more to the new spaces then one might think. Beyond all the great new housing and shops, each development will also feature a public park as well as have at least 20 percent of the units dedicated to affordable housing.
While construction has yet to start, there’s already hope for more in the future since this model is good for both the city of Atlanta, its citizens and the transit system itself.
“We’re going to make the stations themselves and the surrounding areas more pleasant and more easily accessible, and we’ll be providing amenities to our riders and to the surrounding community. So I think people will realize that and give MARTA a chance,” says Rhein.
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