Nicaraguan Neighborhood Provides Housing to the Poorest

This post is an English translation of an article that was originally written in Spanish by Andrea Penman-Lomeli. The original article can be found here.

Their plan allowed for the urbanization of an area that had been unoccupied for ten years, providing services and recovering the city’s investment.

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Currently, Faniz Jirón is the owner of her home, where she can plant fruit trees near her house. She lives in what today is the housing cooperative Juntando Manos, but ten years ago she had no other option but to rent. “I sought alternatives to save for a house but I could not find them,” says Jirón. She and a lot of people who are low-income in León—the second most populous city in Nicaragua—found a solution thanks to the Urban Expansion Project of Southeast León.

Before, this was a rural area that had no housing or services. However, through this project, in five years the city managed to produce 3,000 lots for low-income people. At the same time, in ten years, the city managed to recover the investment that it had made.

The initiative started with a $1,408,000-dollar seed capital fund, a result of a collaboration between the city of León and the city of Utrecht, Netherlands. It is estimated that in fifteen years, 6,416 lots that house 32,000 people have been developed. It went from being a vacant and deserted piece of land to an environment where there is pavement, electricity, storm drainage, drinking water, public transportation, and other services. This earned it the recognition of “best practices” in urban planning issues from the United Nations Habitat (UN-Habitat). But how is it that such a large space was developed in a progressive and equitable manner?

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

When the city council approved the Plan in 1996, there was a strong need for land in the region. According to UN-Habitat, the annual growth rate was at 4.3%, this because of the migration of people from rural areas to the city of León. In 1998, 32.7% of the urban population was identified as living in poverty. All of this was happening after a period of civil war and economic restructuring, were there was not much public investment. After the 1990 elections, the cities were to be responsible for their own urban development. “All of the cities were saying ‘Who is going to help us?… Nobody,’” explains Marc Pérez-Casas, researcher at the Universidad Politécnica de Cataluña in Barcelona, Spain and consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank. “They had a good amount of land without infrastructure, without electricity, water, etc. They wanted a way to develop this space and provide an opportunity to purchase it.”

During the first phase (1999 – 2008) of this plan, the cities of Utrecht and León created the Office of Urban Expansion of Southeast León/Oficina de la Expansión Urbana de León Sureste (EULSE). The EULSE would sell the land and give credit to low-income families with family wages between $120 and $440 dollars (the average wage in Nicaragua is of $330 dollars a month) and who could prove that they did not own other property. The lots, which were vacant, cost between $1,100 and $4,500 dollars and the families would buy them with a financing option of a 10% interest rate from the EULSE—which continues to be a very favorable rate in Nicaragua. According to a study done by Pérez-Casas [and Francesc Magrinyà Torner], microfinance institutions offer financing to low-income families at interest rates that range between 26% and 36%.

“There was financing accessible to low-income families so that they could purchase this type of dwelling…this is what is new,” says Pérez-Casas. The family could not occupy the land until they had paid half of the loan, which in general took a year and half to do so. “I pay a lot less a month than when I was renting,” says Jirón. Before, her rent was $70 dollars a month. Today she pays $30 dollars a month, which will result in the ownership of her home.

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

In the analysis of the first phase (1999 – 2008), it was found that the cities had recovered their seed capital investment and that the land had been progressively urbanized. “In the year 1999 or 2000, all of the infrastructure had not been built, rather it was done little by little. In fact, it took them five or six years to have water and electricity,” says Pérez-Casas.

The plan depended in a revolving fund, meaning that it is a fund that invests the profits in the same plan to purchase more lots and infrastructure. “The most important thing of all of this is that since that urbanization was coming from the public sector, they had reserved spaces for public facilities,” says Pérez-Casas. In those areas, the government built schools, health centers, community centers, and parks.

The urban expansion of southeast León has been a learning process through action. Innovations that continue to influence the community emerged from the plan. For example, the cooperatives. In these [cooperatives], the families gathered to ask for budgets and buy land in groups, which ended up creating a community.” It was a very nice experience because not only is it a housing cooperative but we also ended up being partners and developing a community. There is a more humane coexistence,” says Jirón. Organizations such as We Effect supported these cooperatives and created models that were replicated in many neighborhoods. She was a part of one of the first cooperatives and worked five years for the mayor, to support others that were trying to do the same.

Building Group of Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Building Group of Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Another unexpected development was the interest in the Urban Expansion Project from the private sector, who would buy the lots from the city at a higher price and then resell them to middle class families. “[The city] took that capital gain, that extra income that they had, and were able to invest it to finance part of the structure,” explains Pérez-Casas. Here two interesting processes occurred. “You have the private sector build where one wants, in other words you are facilitating an area of expansion,” says the expert. “[On the other hand], they sell to families with moderate incomes; therefore, you mix different social classes.” This is positive since you minimize the segregation and diversify the communities. In the second phase, of the 3,200 lots that were sold, 1,500 of these were for the private sector and the other 1,700 [lots] were for the public sector.

In the future, Pérez-Casas says that the control of prices will be a challenge, since during the time that the urbanization has taken place, the prices of the land have increased. This makes it difficult for cities to buy more lots.

While other cities depend on private financing for their urban development—Nicaragua has no urban planning laws and recently in 2000 it passed a housing law—León has found an equitable way to do it. According to the study of Pérez-Casas [and Francesc Magrinyà Torner], this formula can also be replicated in other cities. “For me, one of the most important things is that the city projected where the population was going to grow, but it also developed a land policy,” says Jirón. And this policy has impacted her daily life. “Now we have more security, more control over our lives.”

Credits: Data and images linked to sources.

H/T CityLab Latino


Plans to Revitalize Los Angeles’ Jordan Downs now in Jeopardy over Federal Money


Jordan Downs Public Housing Project in Watts, Los Angeles, California

In March of 2014, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) learned that it would not receive a $30-million Choice Neighborhoods federal grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The decision represented a setback in the revitalization of the Jordan Downs housing project. It also was the cause of concern among some residents who, in the past, have experienced disillusionment when proposals to transform Jordan Downs have fallen apart. However, there is hope from the developers that funding for the project will come from other sources.

Jordan Downs is a 714-unit public housing project located in Watts, California. It was named after long-time residents of the area, David Starr Jordan and Samuel Elliot Downs. The premises consist of 103 buildings that range in size from one to five bedrooms. Owned and managed by HACLA, the apartment complex was originally built as semi-permanent housing for war workers during World War II. However, in the early 1950s, HACLA converted the dwellings into public housing.


Jordan Downs Public Housing Project in Watts, Los Angeles, California

Plans to revitalize Jordan Downs began in the fall of 2008 when HACLA and the City of Los Angeles issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) and Request for Qualifications (RFQ) package for the redevelopment of the apartment complex. City officials also made it clear that they sought to create a “vibrant urban village that is sustainable, mixed-used, mixed-income community that includes green development and encompasses all the amenities that enable communities to ‘sustain’ over the long term.” That same year, HACLA acquired a nearby 21-acre piece of land for $31 million. The purchase serves as an indicator of their intent to expand upon the existing housing project.

It is envisioned that this $700 million multi-phase redevelopment project will replace the existing 714 public housing apartments and add up to 1,400 affordable and market-rate homes. Furthermore, the urban village will include neighborhood-serving retail, community centers, and parks. The plan also proposes the development of a comprehensive Human Capital Plan to provide family support, job training, and community programs for residents to move forward toward self-sufficiency. Collaborating in this vision is a private development team hired by city officials, the for-profit Michaels Organization and the non-profit Bridge Housing. The retail component of the proposed project will be undertaken by Primestor Development Inc., a Los Angeles company known for working in underserved areas.


Jordan Downs Public Housing Project in Watts, Los Angeles, California

Today, plans to move forward with the proposed project continue. However, HACLA and its team will have to address some concerns that have been conveyed by local residents, advocacy groups, and other interested stakeholders. Among these are:

  • Secure funding that will enable the revitalization of Jordan Downs housing project;
  • Confirm that there is no contamination of the soil in the proposed site or sites adjacent to the proposed project given the history of heavy industrialization in the area;
  • Ensure that existing residents are not displaced as a result of this redevelopment project;
  • Implement the proposed Human Capital Plan;
  • Attract investment into the community;
  • Continue to decrease the crime rates in the Jordan Downs.

What redevelopment initiative has served as a catalyst for revitalizing your community into an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable neighborhood? How have local officials in your community addressed financing challenges in publicly funded projects?

Credits: Images by Marisol Maciel-Cervantes. Data linked to sources.

*This blog was originally posted in August 2015. H/T The Global Grid

Will Metro’s TOD Projects Gentrify Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles?


Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California

In December of 2013, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) issued separate Request for Proposals (RFPs) for three Metro-owned sites in Boyle Heights. Since then, Metro has announced several transit-oriented development projects by the Gold Line stations. Specifically, these are the Mariachi Plaza Commercial Development, The Santa Cecilia Apartments, Las Mariposas Apartments, Los Tulipanes Apartments, and the Chavez/Soto Mixed-Use project, all of which are near the Mariachi Plaza or Soto stations. This means new space for retail, medical offices, affordable housing, and parking in the area.

The Mariachi Plaza Commercial Development is one of the projects that Metro hopes will attract more riders to the area. This proposed $49-million project will consist of two structures:

  • A three-story building with a gym, restaurants, and shops;
  • An eight-story building with six levels of parking and two floors of medical offices

The proposed development would result in the demolition of several small businesses, such as J&F Ice Cream, Santa Cecilia Restaurant, and Libros Schimbros. Furthermore, it already presents a dramatic transformation of Mariachi Plaza, a public space that has served as a gathering place for musicians since the 1930s and is considered a cultural icon by many of its residents.

In response, the community of Boyle Heights has expressed their discontent and disappointment at the lack of inclusion in the planning process. They have vocalized that as proposed, this project is not taking account their needs, culture, and current socio-economic situation. Many residents fear that said construction will only lead to higher rents and consequently displace those who cannot afford to pay said increases. In fact, some have already stated that rents are going up in Boyle Heights.


Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California

In addition to holding community meetings, Metro could also do the following to gain the trust of local residents and come to a compromise that would benefit all of those involved:

  • Form partnerships with local community-based organizations to participate in the planning process of the proposed project and form a community advisory board.
  • Schedule charrettes meetings in which municipal officials, developers, community-based organizations, and residents participate and partake in the creation of joint solutions to the proposed project.
  • A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) to address any remaining differences between the residents and developer.

Back in February [2015], Metro’s Deputy Executive Officer of Countywide Planning, Jenna Hornstock, acknowledged at a community meeting that the agency had made a mistake by excluding the residents of Boyle Heights from the planning process. She stated that it would start over, request new development proposals, and make the process more inclusive. However, it is uncertain if Metro will achieve this when there is great discontent among the residents and concerned that their neighborhood may become gentrified.

Are there any indicators that gentrification is taking place in your neighborhood? How has your community’s capacity to organize benefited the sustainable development of your community? 

Credits: Images by Marisol Maciel-Cervantes. Data linked to sources.

*This blog was originally posted in July 2015. H/T The Global Grid