Thursday, October 20, 2022

Did Someone Say Affordable Housing?

Words have power… and no other word in this current environment has quite as much power as the word affordable. If you want to start a culture war, couple affordable with housing and use the two in a sentence together, and the imagery that is typically visualized are people, particularly people of color, living in subsidized housing. This image usually coalesces people both black and white to line up to voice their opposition about what it will do to their community, when in fact affordable housing means nothing more than safe, decent, and affordable. Furthermore, affordable, by definition as a standalone, means nothing more than not having a cost that is too high.

If we were to further examine how affordability income is defined, it is commonly accepted that a home is considered affordable when a household spends no more than 30% of its income on either rent or a mortgage. Here are the numbers for practical purposes:

  •  According to research provided by city sources, $50,282 is the average yearly salary for a worker in Duval County.  
  • That equates to roughly $24.17 an hour, $966 per week, or $3,867 per month.  
  • Therefore, a housing burden should not be more than $1,160 per month.

Obviously, these numbers fluctuate depending on where you are on the professional scalehowever, Duval County has entire communities in which earning $50,000 a year makes you the exception rather than the norm. Since the pandemic, the cost of housing has been commoditized at such a rate that housing is no longer seen as an essential need but is more of a luxury item! No matter if we like it or not, “safe, decent,” and “affordable” are all adjectives that are associated with ones capacity to pay. If we are not careful, the aforementioned will be replaced with affordable housing that means nothing more than a roof, walls, and a door– completely foregoing “safe” and “decent.”

Communities across the country have unconsciously stood by while increasing numbers of properties are concentrated in the hands of private investors, single-family housing supply is being squeezed, the number of single-family homes being converted to rental properties has more than tripled, monthly rental rates continue to rapidly rise, and a larger portion of the population is subject to potential eviction. This inaction has consequences in the form of teachers being homeless while teaching our most vulnerable citizens; or hospitals and nursing homes being understaffed because nurses are having to live an hour or more from work because adequate housing near hospitals is unavailable.

Our current housing crisis and the one that preceded it has shown us that if left to our own devices, institutional power, and its need to fill corporate coffers, will trump the average consumer every time. The mitigating factor we the people have is our capacity to leverage the government on our behalf. Therefore, now is the time for our elected officials to lean in and create sensible housing policies/solutions that work for we the people we the people before that brand new electric vehicle has to double as a mobile home in the parking lot of the local Walmart.  


Monday, May 23, 2022

Gun #Everybody Got A Pistol

On Saturday, June 4th, LISC Jacksonville and community partners from all over the country will take part in a national day of recognition called Wear Orange to recognize the victims of gun violence. While personally I don’t purport to be someone who is vested in the gun argument, what I do acknowledge is that guns kill people. No matter if the assailant is a mentally challenged person with a penchant for racist ideology or someone who has lost their cool and reacts to an offense, the outcome is still the same: someone had access to a gun, and now someone or some people are dead or seriously injured. According to research provide by the Pew Research Center, in 2020, 45,222 people met their maker due to gun violence. Another way to look at this is every day, 124 people in the United States die due to a gun. 


In communities that LISC serves across the country, “residents are 10 times more likely to die from gun homicides and 18 times more likely to be injured by guns,” based upon research provide by Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading voice in the area of gun safety advocacy. To make this point even more salient, every single day, 30 African Americans will die from gun violence. As of this writing, according to data provided by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office there have been 50 murders so far in Jacksonville. What is even more shocking is that nationally, according to the latest CDC report homicide is the leading cause of death amongst young Hispanics and African Americans between the ages of 10-24. 


On June 4th, LISC Jacksonville will pause and stand with other community organizations locally and across the country to Wear Orange to honor survivors of gun violence and to commemorate those whose lives ended because of gun violence. We serve with and stand alongside community partners such as Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety and those victims both living and deceased to collectively acknowledge the senselessness of gun violence. It is also to acknowledge the trauma that comes as a result of gun violence.


For LISC Jacksonville, June 4th is not about the political posturing inherent in the gun discussion. It is about acknowledging this issue relative to the communities we serve, and the implications gun violence has on them. It is about affirming our position regarding the outcomes and interventions that we know work for those very same communities. Our work seeks to create systems of safety amid various forms of violence in our most vulnerable neighborhoods. 


We cannot and should not stand by and allow the narrative to continue that suggests if you live in certain areas of town, you are likely to die due to gun violence. Our commitment to better outcomes has to be bigger and bolder than that. Furthermore, if we are to address the current affordable housing crisis, we must be prepared to address the issue of gun violence in these same communities because they must be a part of a desirable and larger housing solution. 

That's My Truth and I AM Sticking To It


Dr. Irvin PeDro Cohen

Executive Director LISC JAcksonville

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Transitioning Families Out of Poverty

One of the major catalysts when it comes to doing work in under-resourced communities is FACTS. It has always been my personal belief that emotions are simply not enough to sustain the work over time. There is always bigger and more compelling work to do. Furthermore, people who are not engaged in the space simply cannot fathom some of the disparities that exist right outside their door. They tend to be idealized as far-off scenarios that simply do not exist within their very own communities. A few examples of FACTS that have guided our work include:
  • While the national unemployment rate hovers near 5.2% and locally near 5.4%, in the zip codes in which LISC Jacksonville is most active, the rate is closer to 12%.
  • In the four council districts that LISC Jacksonville does the majority of its work, there are over 61,000 people living in poverty, which represents 41% of the total population living in poverty within Duval County.
LISC Jacksonville’s work in the space of Family Wealth Creation was specifically born out of the above referenced FACTS and the need to address such. While our work alone does not represent a magic potion to get people out of poverty, it does represent a prescriptive approach to giving people back some of the power and dignity that poverty takes from them.

In Jacksonville, Family Wealth Creation for LISC is centered around our work within three areas. First is our Financial Opportunity Centers (FOCs), which are career and financial coaching service centers that focus on the financial bottom line for individuals living with low-to-moderate incomes. The cornerstone of the FOC model is providing these services in an integrated way—rather than as stand-alone services—and with a long-term commitment to helping clients reach their goals, while simultaneously narrowing racial wealth gaps in historically under-resourced communities.

The second aspect of our work around Family Wealth Creation focuses on heir’s property. Our goal here is to help transfer generational wealth by assisting with financial and estate planning, probate, clearing titles, and consolidating property ownership. Our research has led us to discover that heirs face an increased risk of forced sale or eviction, cannot qualify for rehab programs or secure financing for needed repairs, and cannot qualify for loss mitigation programs when facing foreclosure. All of which can lead to deterioration of housing stock or loss of homeownership.

The final leg of our work relative to Family Wealth Creation focuses on home production. While LISC itself is not a developer, our role in creating family wealth centers on our ability to provide the necessary capital for developers to build affordable homes in areas that are underserved. This is of particular importance given that research continuously shows that purchasing a home tends to be the single largest investment that a person will make in their lifetime. To that end, over the next 12 – 18 months, LISC Jacksonville resources will be used to bring roughly 229 affordable housing units to the market, which includes Project Boots.

In the end, we recognize that the work of transitioning families out of poverty into sustainable lifestyles that afford them the ability to have options is not done alone nor in a vacuum. It takes a concerted effort on the part of several entities like United Way, Lift Jax, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, the Community Foundation, the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund and Lutheran Social Services, just to name a few who have come together.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Redefining the “Gentry”

One of the hardest challenges I have faced in my professional career is to conduct systems change. It’s emotionally, spiritually, and physically taxing. Systems are built to sustain a process, and over time as they become more engrained into our collective consciousness, their inability to be moved becomes just as resistant to the forces that would cause them to be altered. Poverty is a system, lack of access to affordable housing is a system, and all the accompanying social ills that give way to negative outcomes all feed into a larger system. 

In creating Project Boots, our collective goal was to look at what aspect of the larger system we could disrupt through our collective work. We understood that by creating affordable housing we have disrupted the grip of systemic poverty, which ultimately gives way to family wealth creation. We also understood that by creating pathways to family wealth creation, we availed ourselves to better educational outcomes. Those educational outcomes ultimately allowed participants a more informed seat at the collective table.  

However, our greatest challenge remained in redefining the idea of who the gentry was and how we would intertwine them with the people that were indigenous to the neighborhood. Therefore, we started with people who were reared and developed in the community (the gentry) and saw their success as a result of – and not in spite of – the current conditions the larger community found itself in. Having them at the table helped us establish a metaphorical bar that we hope will become aspirational for those that are currently there. 

At the same time, we simultaneously crafted programmatic offerings for new residents that met their sociological, ontological, political, and fiscal needs. For example, incentivizing new residents through a matching savings program that will be the seed money for their down payment and closing costs. Program participants must commit to attending monthly workshops that address the aforementioned areas and agree to build their homes in the community.

The state of the indigenous residents was not lost upon us, and how they factored into our collective work was broad and required more of a systems approach because of the varying partnerships. Those partners included, but were not limited to LIFT JAX, United Way, the Community Foundation, the City of Jacksonville, and Goodwill just to name a few. Out of this partnership came a refurbished community market, the Melanin Market, and a home repair program, by which over 100 homes will have some work done to them by 2022. 

Therefore, as you can see, we collectively redefined what gentrification was by simply redefining who we identified as the gentrifier. We redistributed the wealth by starting with those who are indigenous to the community and giving them an equity stake in what was happening on the ground. The conclusion is not written yet as we are still writing chapters to our book. However, we do have a solid work plan that will allow us to build next steps that raise the bar for the future. 

That's My Truth and I AM Sticking to it...


Dr. Irvin PeDro Cohen

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Impact of Strategic Partnerships

Let me start by saying the work of revitalizing distressed communities is HARD. The navigation of issues associated with social detriments that ultimately impact social outcomes is inextricably tied. However, in distressed communities, the consequences of failure can be the difference between life and death. Ask anyone who does this work, and they will have countless stories about the challenges associated with the de-coupling of inter-related social issues that impact distressed communities. However, they will also say that strategic partnerships are essential to producing success.

Further, the challenge with revitalizing the aforementioned communities is poverty begets every other social detriment and one must be prepared to navigate the impact it has before change can begin. Therein lies the work of LISC. By coalescing around people and organizations that are closest to the problem, you afford yourself the greatest chance for success, as suggested by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in his seminal work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” This same belief system is what led to the creation of LISC back May of 1980. 

LISC’s approach to revitalizing distressed communities centers around a fundamental systems-change model commonly referred to as collective impact. This approach to revitalization allows LISC, its partner organizations, and the people who are indigenous to the community to develop a common set of metrics, a common dialog relative to said metrics, a common agenda, and a set of mutually reinforced activities that will drive revitalization. In most cases, LISC serves as the entity bringing parties together — a convener of sorts. In action, this looks like the following:

  • Working alongside local and state government leaders
  • Listening to resident leaders and developing their internal capacity
  • Bringing innovative solutions based upon our national scope and reach
  • Working to remove barriers that institutional policies have created

Locally, evidence of this process can be seen throughout neighborhoods such as Springfield, Historic Eastside, the Rail Yard District, and Metro North, just to name a few. LISC Jacksonville’s catalytic investments in projects that have served as transformational opportunities for both neighborhoods and the larger city are north of $100 million dollars and $365 million dollars in terms of dollars leveraged.  

North Point Town Center
North Point Town Center

While the dollars are laudable and speak to the charitable nature of our donors and our capacity to make philanthropic dollars work, the transformation relative to place is just as impressive. Fostering real change and revitalization within our most vulnerable communities takes a collective effort. It is not a singular venture that can be undertaken by one entity successfully. Our quality of life and even our projection of who we are as a city is tied to our ability to develop strategic partnerships for the greater good. The work LISC does in the communities we work in, along with our broad list of partners, simply reflects the success of partnership at its highest and broadest level, achieving the greatest good for our most vulnerable neighbors and communities.

Housing Resiliency is a LISC Priority

Resilience as a scholastic theory has been evolving over the past 70-80 years and has enjoyed a renaissance in the past two or three decades. However, I would argue that resilience as a practical form of survival for under-resourced communities and BIPOC people has always been simply a way of life. Under-resourced communities as a whole have never had the luxury of sitting back and waiting for market corrections to change their outcome. They have always had to have a spirit of resiliency if they wanted to survive.

I would offer it is that spirit of resiliency that has helped LISC as a national organization grow to over 35 markets across the country. However, unlike any other time in our country’s history, resiliency has been tested in every form within the last five years. To that end, LISC Jacksonville, like many of our partners, has taken up resiliency as one of the core tenements that guide our work. On the ground, that translates into three fundamental strategies for us in the area of Affordable Housing:

  • Production – We view the work associated with Project Boots addresses this. Project Boots is our bold, audacious plan to work with our local CDC’s and for-profit builders to build homes that meet the demands of essential workers (teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, etc.). It is my belief that we have to make neighborhoods, particularly those north of downtown, destinations to live for the class of workers previously referenced. 
  • Preservation – This includes our work associated with home repair. Indigenous people to a community must be supported because they are the fiber and the back story to all that has happened there. Therefore, as a resiliency strategy, we have made home repair a part of our Affordable Housing work.
  • Protection – Our work in this area is probably the work I am most excited about because it addresses the issue of heirs’ property and the residential property appraisals and taxation system within some of our most vulnerable communities. It also affords us an opportunity to partner with the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies and other key partners. 

Over the next nine months, LISC will invest $25,000 in legal services to preserve title ownership and sustain $1 million of assessed home values, which furthers LISC’s Project 10X goal of generating lasting equity and wealth through homeownership.

While the work of LISC Jacksonville is no panacea relative to affordable housing, it represents one aspect of the work that has to be done in the resiliency space. It represents more than the occasional lip service and scholastic treatment that is often levied upon those who live in under-resourced communities.

LISC is Larger Than Jacksonville

There was a quote that I heard recently on a commercial and it suggested that “size was everything.” As I reflect on that and look at the scope of work conducted by LISC Jacksonville, I have to smile and say I tend to agree. I agree in as much as our size has allowed us to partner with the City of Jacksonville to address some of the most pressing issues that face our under-resourced communities. It has allowed us to partner with Fortune 500 companies to deploy capital during the COVID-19 pandemic in an unprecedented manner. Finally, our size nationally has allowed us to leverage and develop a technical resource base that serves over 38 major metropolitan areas and rural communities.

While to a great degree our size does matter, LISC Jacksonville has not lost sight of the humanity our work requires or the directional dexterity that is often required when you are working with some of the most under-resourced communities. I would offer that it’s all those elements combined – size, humanization of the issue, and dexterity – that puts us at the front lines of our work and makes us the go-to partner for resource and programmatic deployment.

To that end, much of the aforementioned is maximized when we as a local office partner with our national team to bring resources and programmatic offerings to Jacksonville, such as the Uber Vaccination Program, which provides rides to vaccination locations at no cost. We have also partnered with Chipotle’s Juneteenth “Round Up For Change” initiative and the Macquarie Group Foundation to garner support for our work around criminal justice reform. These are just a few examples, with much more to come, of how partnering with those outside our county’s borders can have a direct impact in our own back yard. 

In this newsletter, we also address how to leverage the power of our national office in the areas of disaster recovery and resiliency. And yet, all of this is still just a taste of everything that is possible. While size can be relative, I would argue that LISC nationally and locally have maximized our size and abilities to generate an unprecedented level of impact in our under-resourced communities and beyond. And as our community increasingly recognizes the positive, city-wide economic and other impacts of uplifting our most challenged neighborhoods, LISC – both locally and nationally – will continue to play a leading role in bringing the necessary resources to the table to improve the quality of life for our most vulnerable neighbors and our city overall.