Experiential learning, service, and community in Albertus’ Urban Studies program

From guest blogger Dr. Matt Waggoner, Chair, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Albertus Magnus College

Students in “Housing and the Right to the City” (part of the new Urban Studies program) spent the past several weeks examining adult, youth, and LGBTQ homelessness; the rise and demise of public housing; the Section 8 voucher program; government-supported real estate practices, such as redlining, that have negatively impacted black homeownership, wealth, and neighborhoods; the Housing First movement; the financialization of housing and its role in the 2008 recession; and the causes and consequences of the lack of affordable housing in the US today. In the weeks to come, our focus shifts toward New Haven’s housing issues and solutions to the nation’s housing crisis.  

Recently, we met at Columbus House in New Haven, which provides short and long-term housing as well as other support services for the homeless. We met with its director, Margaret Middleton, in the “overflow building,” a large room with bunk beds used mostly in the winter months when the main building is at full capacity. That day, it was empty and provided a space for her to have a conversation with us. The students asked some important questions – are there safety issues for residents in the facility and how are they handled? Are there young people at the shelter? Are there families? How many homeless people are there in New Haven? Are residents able to transition into permanent housing? Can homelessness be eliminated and if so, how? What are the main causes of homelessness in New Haven? It was a terrific conversation, very impactful and informative. A student majoring in social work was invited to apply for a position to work at Columbus House. In a few weeks, we will walk from campus to the site of one of Columbus House’s newly constructed permanent housing sites, which was designed and constructed in collaboration with Columbus House by students in the Yale School of Architecture’s “Building Project” program. Our students will have a conversation with the director of the Building Project about design choices specific to sheltering those who have experienced housing trauma and insecurity.

The week before our visit to Columbus House, we had a virtual visit from Jonathan Cabral, who works for CT’s Housing Finance Authority (CHFA). He explained the function of HFA’s, but more specifically, he very clearly and dynamically walked us through the morass of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, which CHFA manages in CT and which has become, nationwide, the largest source of new “affordable” housing. It’s a complex program that involves the IRS annually issuing tax credits to each state’s HFA based on the size of its population, and HFA’s awarding those credits to developers whose projects will include a percentage of affordable units for at least 15 years (the more affordable units provided, the larger the credits). Developers then sell those tax credits to investors, which are usually banks seeking to satisfy the obligations of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Investors can claim the tax credits for ten years and the developers use the capital from the sale of the credits to fund construction of the project. The students had studied the program in advance. They had also used HUD’s database to find and make video presentations about a LIHTC project in or near the towns where they’re from. They found it interesting that some wealthy towns had none at all, an issue that will be addressed later this month when we’re visited by the director of DesegregateCT to discuss zoning restrictions and CT’s new inclusive zoning law. For Mr. Cabral’s presentation, the students showed up with serious and well-informed questions about how LIHTC actually works in the real world and its strengths and weaknesses. Mr. Cabral was candid and engaging. He has degrees in urban planning and has worked for CHFA for many years, and he expressed to me an interest in adjunct teaching for the Urban Studies program at Albertus in the future. 

Finally, there’s an exciting new outcome that was seeded by the Housing course. On our first day of class, we constructed a “tent city” near the campus community garden. Sitting on the lawn, surrounded by camping tents (erected entirely by students, most of whom hadn’t done so before), we discussed the tent city that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had planned for the Washington Mall in the weeks leading up to his death in 1968. It was to be part of the Poor People’s Campaign to demand federal support for full employment and decent, affordable housing. Students that day suggested the idea of a camping trip. Perhaps they were kidding, but with support from our VP of Academic Affairs, Dr. Sean O’Connell, we went camping in Niantic last month. During the discussion around the campfire, the students decided they would apply to SGA for an Outdoors Club, which was approved last week. They asked me to be the faculty adviser, which I gladly accepted. So, lots of adventures to look forward to. My goal is to find ways to tie outdoor experiences to an awareness of environmental justice, climate change, land use decisions, class dynamics, and the role of New Deal programs in creating and preserving possibilities for many of these outdoor experiences.

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