Charting a New Future

In late 1996 Southern California CDCs were reeling. The recession of the early ’90s had bottomed out but recovery was at least a year away, smoke from the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest seemed to still hang in the air, and rubble from the 1994 earthquake was still visible in vacant lots. Moreover, federal housing dollars were contracting and the state administered tax credit program had become a lottery. It seemed only fitting that at the end of 1996, the housing bonds approved in the mid 80s were depleted – with no more on the horizon.

CDC staffers looked ahead nervously. Some thought they might fold. As Christina Duncan of Hollywood Community Housing Corporation said, “we had to close, merge or figure out something new – we certainly weren’t going to continue the way we had.” Melanie Stephens of Esperanza Community Housing adds, “We knew what had worked. We knew how to produce housing. What we didn’t know was how to change – quickly.”

Flash forward to 1999. The region’s CDCs are not only surviving but thriving. They’ve established a pipeline of projects, diversified their portfolios, and become sophisticated fundraisers. One could even argue that they are in better shape for having weathered the worst of times.

What happened? How did they manage to have such control over their own futures?

One factor for a number of CDCs in and around Los Angeles was an opportunity to collectively examine their world, their field, and their organizations. Convened by the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing (SCANPH) in Spring 1997, 30 organizations began a process that would allow them simply to talk about the whirlwind of changes around them. This “space” (which some described as both a luxury and a necessity) offered a chance to explore alternatives to their present way of operating.

Originally conceived as five sessions over a three-month period, “Future of the Field” (participants themselves provided the name) began with presentations, background reading, and free-flowing discussions. CDC leaders from other parts of the county were invited to talk about how they had changed their portfolios. Nonprofit developers that had merged were asked to share how they did it and what it meant to their organizations and communities. The participants listened to and debated with academics, funders, lenders, and intermediaries about where the field is headed and where resources might come from.

At the end, the folks expected to return to their organizations with ideas and information that could help them make informed decisions about their futures.  Instead, they had just begun the process of defining where they were, what they needed, and how to get it, so much so that when the “last” session ended, the group decided to stay together – and continued to meet for a year-and-a-half.

Industry vs. Movement

To focus their discussions, the group alternated between what they termed “cost efficiency” and advocacy – between “industry” discussions and “movement” discussions.

The cost efficiency sessions focused on how to do more with less. Directors compared notes on their internal systems; negotiating points for tax credit projects; core competencies and expertise; what worked and what didn’t; and what services they received from their lenders, attorneys and accountants – and what they paid for those services. In these sessions they honed their skills as industry leaders.

In the advocacy sessions, they worked through every possible policy – local, regional, state and national – that could affect how they operate. They argued about what policies enhanced their operations and what hindered them. They talked about organizing themselves and their neighborhoods. In these sessions, they were unabashed movement advocates.

Through these discussions the individuals began to trust one another with more and more information about their own organizations. The more they shared information, the more they learned about how the field as a whole operates – and how their organization was both the same and different as others.

This knowledge was clearly part of what cohered them, but they went further than strictly factual information-sharing. The group also spent two months working on and agreeing to a “statement of shared values” – not a mission statement, not a plan of action, but a simple statement of what they do and why they do it. According to Nancy Franco, the group’s facilitator, “The shared values statement was key. In addition to being spontaneous to their process, it allowed them to take bigger risks with one another because they had a shared framework.” This framework militated against the notion of competition for resources. “Even if we don’t realize it, the competition we face fosters isolation in our work,” says Scott Figenshow of Project New Hope. “Future of the Field broke down this isolation.”

At the one-year mark, the group spent a day in Santa Barbara assessing where they were.  This session proved to be the most open discussion of the whole process, with each participant talking about what was important to them – how they were thinking of change, what had changed, what was working for them, and what wasn’t.  At the end of the day, it was clear the group had learned first-hand how the field actually works as a whole; how CDCs complement each other in addition to how they compete.

This insight and understanding has had major ramifications for these CDCs. A recent survey of the individuals found 17 groups engaged in some form of collaboration with at least one other CDC.

A few examples are indicative of the type of collegiality that grew from Future of the Field:

  • One group provided consultant services for another on the potential for self-management.
  • A three-party collaboration on AIDS Housing was extended to a fourth partner: the collaborative shares resident manager staff for their AIDS projects.
  • Two other organizations are sharing asset management staff.
  • Two CDCs based in Ventura County are working on development projects together.
  • Several organizations changed lenders after learning of better services from other banks. One changed auditors and one changed attorneys.
  • In three instances, CDCs looking at the same property discussed the problem and were able to prevent competitive bidding, keeping the cost down.
  • Section 8 vouchers and tenant referrals have been passed between a number of groups.
  • Two groups that had never met are now regularly exchanging information about both rural and urban issues.
  • At least four CDCs expanded the type of development they do and/or their geographic target area.
  • Three organizations made comprehensive visits to others to learn how they provide resident property management, on-site child care and job training.
  • Through the leadership of one Future of the Field member, several groups are exploring the limits of their property management software and have raised the possibility of a joint business venture if they can’t find what they want.

Cooperation and Collegiality

While the midwifery of Future of the Field brought about a range of opportunities, the most important, according to Joan Ling of Community Corporation of Santa Monica, were the cooperation and collegiality that have made the groups more aware of the social justice part of their work. Ling is now meeting, along with Karen Flock of Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation in Ventura County and Paul Zimmerman of West Hollywood CHC, with a group of progressive architects, planners, and builders to understand and craft a working hypothesis on the relationship between land-use, the environment, and affordable housing.

Future of the Field participants plan to reconvene this summer for a “check-in” and assessment of where the collaborative work has gone and what issues are now pressing. And at the group’s request, SCANPH has committed to crafting another phase for members that missed the first one.

Reduced resources and increased need may well be the continuing status quo for CDCs everywhere. And in the regular course of events and with the inherent risks of real estate based development, some organizations may close their doors. But projects such as the Future of the Field prove that talk of major failure in the field is premature. With the opportunity to have the expertise and capacity of the field passed from organization to organization, CDCs with deep roots in their communities will continue and thrive.

Jan Breidenbach is executive director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, 3345 Wilshire Boulevard, Ste. 1000, Los Angeles, CA 90010; 213-480-1249. The statement of shared values developed by Future of the Field participants is available below.


STATEMENT OF SHARED VALUES

We are a group of community builders who share a set of beliefs and values based on the democratic principles of this country and the ecumenical faith of all religions. We believe that individual efforts and community support can unleash the boundless human potential. We have faith in a sustainable environment, economic security and spiritual progress that are fostered by our creativity, imagination and cooperation.

Our country stands at a crossroads. Exceptional improvements in technology and sustained economic growth have created tremendous wealth for many over the last few years. At the same time, phenomenal corporate earnings and robust salary increases for some sectors are juxtaposed against a wracking depression of wages at the lower end of the employment market. Income disparity between rich and poor has grown over the last 15 years, and is now the widest since the Great Depression. Five percent of the population earns 50% of our national wealth. Twenty percent of families command 85% of our resources while the remaining 80% get by with 15% of our national pie.

Large disparity in income is anathema to our national values and detrimental to our national health. Poverty robs individuals and families of opportunities to realize their material and spiritual potential. Limited access to economic resources harms communities in the form of more crime and illness, which in turn, costs more to rectify. In a globally competitive economy, educational opportunity underpinned by a basic material support system is essential to the well-being of our nation and the growing prosperity of other nations.

We believe that each person has the right to acquire food, shelter, health care and education as well as the responsibility to ensure the same access and opportunity for others. It is through the care of self, love of family and commitment to community that we can sustain a world where each person has the means to be self-sufficient, to decide on a life path and to contribute fully to family and community. Our affluent country will be richer when all of us who live here, and all the communities that make up this great land, can participate fully in our abundance.

We urge each other to work for systemic changes toward social justice, economic viability and community spirit. We invite our corporate, private and public partners to share our common agenda to fairly distribute our national goods and resources, not out of charity but the knowledge that we need all capable hands to meet the challenges of our time. We invite the economically poor to join forces, to be counted in the political process, and to share in the fundamental rejuvenation of our national spirit of optimism and cooperation.

We call for America to act with integrity, to respect the dignity of individuals regardless of their station in life, to live up to the legacy of our forebears, and to pass on a fuller, richer world to those who are yet to come. Accordingly, we call for a new social contract with America, committed mutual responsibility for the betterment of all individuals, all families, and all communities.

9/5/97

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