Many Goals, One Field
By Miriam Axel-Lute Posted on July 17, 2013
What is a CDC? Many a meeting among those in the field has descended into argument about what is inside and outside the line. It was inevitable that in designing a focus issue on the “CDC model” that we would be asked to examine that question as well. After all, if we’re going to have our authors critique it, defend it, and suggest ways it should be transformed, shouldn’t we know what “it” is?
I’m going to respectfully decline. (Though we do “report on some survey results”:http://www.shelterforce.org/article/3331/what_is_community_development/ that include what our readers think.)
_Shelterforce_ takes a very expansive view of community development. We believe it can encompass anyone working to create healthy communities in low-income neighborhoods and empower their residents. There are community development corporations, community organizing groups, regional advocacy organizations, community-based neighborhood-change agents, membership-based community organizations, specific-issue neighborhood-based groups, fair housing organizations, Habitat for Humanity affiliates, affordable housing developers and advocates, community land trusts and co-ops, community development financial institutions, asset-building coalitions, community gardeners, community arts organizations, community planners, neighborhood associations, transit advocates, homelessness organizations, and supportive housing groups. Just as important to the well-being of our communities are groups working primarily on education reform, health, safety, civil rights, a fair economy, and fighting poverty.
The most important questions to ask about this varied field are not “Who’s in and who’s out?” or “Who gets called what?” but “What is everyone actually doing and what are they trying to achieve with it?”, “How is it working?”, “How do they interact with each other?”, and “How could it be working better?”
The “What are they trying to achieve?” part is important as we try to overcome our fragmentation and build alliances and collaborations. Often we are pursuing similar or complementary goals. Too often, not being clear about our goals and our differences leads to rocky interactions.
I’ve seen this particularly in the intersection of affordable housing advocates and developers and community-based neighborhood-change organizations, many of which call themselves CDCs. As many people point out in the following pages, CDCs started from a base of community organizing and economic development, but for better or worse, most of these organizations ended up making affordable housing the core of their programs. This aligned them with affordable housing advocates and associated them with larger affordable housing developers—both of whom have a core mission focused on making sure there is a large enough supply of affordable housing.
These are complementary goals, but they are not the same. Sometimes affordable housing advocates have trouble understanding why a CDC would develop moderate- or mixed-income housing. There are delicate conversations between putative allies over the balance of focus on affordable homeownership vs. rental for the extremely low-income. Sometimes CDCs, especially those trying to get back to their comprehensive roots, are frustrated with solutions that focus on unit count to prove “impact” or don’t include funding for non-development work like community planning, organizing, or programming.
Sometimes an affordable housing advocate describes the challenge facing CDCs as “looking around after a few decades and realizing they haven’t closed the housing affordability gap,” while the CDCs may have had a different goal in mind. On the other hand, sometimes a CDC focused on revitalization looks around and realizes that without permanent affordability and anti-displacement organizing on their agenda they have helped to revitalize both themselves and their former constituency out of a neighborhood.
We need both of these orientations, just like we need those focused on all the other sister causes. But these two pieces of the puzzle seem to often be confused with each other, making it hard to support both and figure out how they should interact.
These questions of clearly defining your goals play into some very live questions about the particular value of CDCs and the evolving roles they should or shouldn’t play in the larger ecosystem of community development. Should they pass off affordable housing development and management to “larger, higher-capacity groups"http://www.shelterforce.org/article/3341/growing_a_stronger_nonprofit_housing_sector/? Should they take a lead role in “comprehensive efforts”:http://www.shelterforce.org/article/3344/can_successful_community_development_be_anything_but_comprehensive/? Should they be “neighborhood representatives in regional equity work”:http://www.shelterforce.org/article/3334/the_regionallocal_dance/? Should they become “more”:http://www.shelterforce.org/article/3339/the_changing_model_of_cdcs/ focused on product or “less”:http://www.shelterforce.org/article/3335/scale_schmale._what_about_impact/?
These conversations are hard to have. It’s hard to critique colleagues or question ourselves in the hearing of our funders and supporters. But collected in this issue we have a range of voices who are adding some thoughts to the pot. We hope that as a collection they will prove inspiring and useful and provocative. We encourage you to chime in with how you envision yourselves in the community development ecosystem and what would help that ecosystem as a whole be stronger and more effective than any of us can be alone.
Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.