From Movement to Industry and Back Again

A remarkable thing has happened over the past three decades. Throughout the country, in urban and rural communities, nonprofit community-based development organizations (CBDOs) such as CDCs, faith-based groups, and community action agencies have stepped forward to undo the damage done by bad government policies, the cruel and greedy hand of the market, and the remaining intolerance of too many Americans.

In Coming of Age, The Achievements of Community-Based Development Organizations, the National Congress for Community Economic Development (NCCED) identifies nearly 3,600 such CBDOs. Over the years, they have produced more than half a million units of housing, created 247,000 jobs, and brought countless numbers of people into the economic mainstream through job-training programs, almost $2 billion in loans, and advocacy for community reinvestment. Many CDCs go beyond physical revitalization, building “social capital” among residents, as authors Susan Saegert and Gary Winkel describe in this issue of Shelterforce.

All this good news, however, must be tempered by two observations.

The first is that, although new CBDO formation continues and many of these groups have matured and expanded in scope, most remain fragile. No matter their size, they are plagued by the lack of consistent core support, inefficient management systems, poor staff and leadership development programs, and a host of other deficiencies. In the past few years, we’ve seen a number of surprising failures of both big and small CDCs.

One of the most surprising and disturbing was the fall of Eastside Community Investments (ECI). One of the original “Title VI” organizations, ECI was rightly held as a model for its vision, scope, and effectiveness. Carol Steinbach presents the story of ECI’s fall and uncovers some warning signs for the whole industry. In companion pieces, Robert Zdenek identifies eight key characteristics of effective CDCs and Mark Weinheimer distills the lessons in capacity building derived from the $250 million, 10-year National Community Development Initiative.

These lessons are more than just casual observations. The CDC industry must pay close attention, before additional surprises befall us.

And that leads to our second observation. While the community development field has much to be proud of, during the decades of its growth, income inequality has worsened, segregation has increased, poverty has increased, and racism remains a potent force. In a moving speech given at the joint NCCED and National Low Income Housing Coalition policy conference in March, HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo reminded our industry not to become too seduced by the “deal.” Our mission is not to build housing units; it is to fight poverty and create a just society. Our industry is a movement in every sense of the word, and the rush to professionalize, no matter how vital, shouldn’t obscure that.

As a movement, we face an interesting problem. Over the years, we’ve become fragmented and narrowly focused. Some of us work only in urban areas, some only rural. Some concentrate on advocacy, some on production. Some of us work to revitalize mixed-income communities, and some work for the benefit of those with the fewest assets and the least power.

We now have a HUD that seems to genuinely care about poor people. We also have a national infrastructure, albeit insufficient, for housing development based on federal grants, tax credits, and a growing network of skilled intermediaries. Now it’s time to accelerate the process of collaboration between the disparate players in the housing and community development field to articulate and implement a national housing policy that will bring to fruition the goals of the 1949 Housing Act, including “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.”

A New Hope for Public Housing?

It’s easy to hate public housing. The picture of a giant, dangerous, ugly, dehumanizing project predominates in the national eye. These hulking, decaying monsters are often sited in the center of poverty or on the edge of prosperity. They create ghettoes of poverty, usually racially segregated. But close observers know this isn’t what most public housing is like. The vast majority of the more than 3,200 public housing authorities run decent projects. Fewer than 10 percent of the residents live in the worst public housing, and most of these projects are located in large cities

HOPE VI may be one answer to public housing’s problems, but the program itself raises many questions. The goals of HOPE VI are unassailable, but, as the saying goes, implementation is everything. As Shelterforce Washington Editor Winton Pitcoff shows us, the problems with HOPE VI are significant, including displacement, limited resident control, and a continued retreat from housing those with the fewest resources.

HOPE VI, when fully realized, may help revitalize communities and reform the image of public housing held by the general public. But it is at best only part of the solution to America’s housing crisis. The solution is a national commitment to provide housing assistance – a hard unit in a tight housing market, a voucher with mandatory acceptance requirements in a looser market, or some form of homeownership opportunity – to every person who needs it, including the 5.3 million households (by HUD estimates) that qualify but do not receive assistance. We need to see a national policy that builds on HUD rhetoric and sincerity and supplies the resources to create appropriate programs.

Moving an Agenda

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

In an effort to build consensus on a national policy for community revitalization, Shelterforce invited leaders from key national housing and community development organizations to the first in a series of roundtable discussions. In a lively two-hour session, participants identified some successes, obstacles, and goals for our movement. That discussion will be published in the next issue of Shelterforce, and the roundtable will be reconvened every four months for in-depth examinations of the issues we face.

Series NavigationCommunity Development Legislative News >>New Hope for Public Housing? >>
Harold Simon is the former executive director of the National Housing Institute and former publisher of Shelterforce.

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