'A Right to Housing'
For Rachel Bratt, housing issues aren't something to be discussed in lofty, abstract terms. To her, housing is a basic human right.
"It's so blatantly self evident that it's almost ridiculous to have to argue that you need a roof over your head to take a shower and go to work in the morning, to take care of your kids, to feed your family," says the chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy at Tufts. "Why do I have to keep arguing that housing should be fundamentally available to everyone, regardless of income?"
This deep-seated belief stems in part from Bratt's upbringing in a Brooklyn apartment building; her mother had always wanted to own a home.
"I always grew up with a sense that housing issues, for her, were very important," she recalls. "I kind of tucked that away in the back of my mind."
An interest during college in social psychology, particularly how environments impact people, led her to a career in urban planning, focusing on the importance of affordable housing. People seeking housing, she says, are increasingly being priced out of affordable options.
Bratt has extensively studied the role of nonprofit community organizations in providing affordable housing to communities, including the role of community development corporations. CDCs, which draw their membership heavily from the immediate community, are formed to create affordable housing opportunities as well as foster economic development and, to some extent, provide social services.
"I tend to like the nonprofit sector as producers and managers of affordable housing," she says. "For them to grow in effectiveness, they need more support."
Local and larger regional nonprofit groups often work together to complete business and real estate deals that lead to the creation of affordable housing, although that feat is often easier said than done.
According to Bratt, the average deal can involve seven or eight different funding sources, creating a maze of legal and bureaucratic complexity that poses a significant challenge to making affordable housing a reality.
"Nonprofits have to be among the most sophisticated, savvy developers to get the deal done," says Bratt. "What nonprofits need is a more streamlined source of affordable, low-interest capital that they can access easily and quickly, that provides not only front-end construction support but also long-term financing that makes the units affordable."
Another thing that affordable housing providers must keep in mind is the need to make the housing affordable in perpetuity. Some subsidies expire after 10, 20 or 30 years, and longtime residents of a subsidized community can be surprised with substantial rent increases or even eviction notices after that time.
And as communities evolve, due in part to the work done by the CDC, the organization could find itself obsolete.
When a community's quality improves, she explains, the market will shift accordingly and longtime residents could be priced out. As new people move in, they may desire less rental housing or fewer affordable home ownership opportunities.
"It's one of the ironies," she notes. "The more successful you are as a community developer, the more you essentially put yourself out of business."
As place-based organizations, the shifting nature of the market can be especially challenging for CDCs.
"It would be OK if they all went out of business tomorrow if we no longer had the problems. But the problems keep moving spatially," she explains. "We still have poor people, but they're just moving to other locations as the markets keep shifting."
Bratt never planned to become an expert on housing issues, but in the past three decades she has served on several housing boards and consulted to numerous organizations on housing issues, crafting a career out of advocacy for affordable housing. She recently co-edited a book entitled "A Right to Housing: Foundation for a New Social Agenda."
"I didn't go into this thinking I was going to be a professor. I thought I was going to be a city planner," recalls Bratt, who worked in that role for Worcester, Mass., early in her career.
But Tufts is a place in which she feels right at home. Bratt calls Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning students "the lifeblood of the place," noting the multiple initiatives they are involved with across the communities surrounding Tufts. "We have a great faculty, also," she adds. "This department really prides itself, as does the university in general, on being a teaching university."
Both in the classroom and out, Bratt's convictions about housing as a core component of both the community and the individual's well-being continue to drive her work. She hopes to see increased subsidies, political support and media coverage drive increased public awareness around housing and community development issues.
"Rhetoric," she asserts, "does not build housing."
Profiles written by Georgiana Cohen
Photos by Alonso Nichols for Tufts University
This story originally ran on Feb. 19, 2006.