We Build the Road as We Travel

Twenty five years ago, Chicago’s west side had suffered rapid racial change, disinvestment, five riots (quelled by National Guard troops), and disintegration of community institutions. Earlier national efforts such as the War on Poverty and Model Cities had suffered demise and defunding, and little hope existed of major infusions of government dollars.

The 150 mostly African-American members of Bethel Lutheran Church looked out at the abandoned and deteriorating buildings and the garbage strewn vacant lots, and bravely determined to begin a housing ministry so the church would have a community to call home. Since then, that ministry has grown with the times, moving through several evolutions from bricks and mortar to comprehensive community development, even changing its name from Bethel Housing to Bethel New Life in 1980.

“Development without displacement” was the housing ministry’s original theme, seeking to develop affordable housing through rental units, sweat equity, and cooperatives. Bank turn-downs (prior to the Community Reinvestment Act [CRA]) forced the church to lend its building as collateral for the first loans, which opened the door for future developments. Bethel was part of the very first CRA bank challenges and the neighborhood lending programs fueled by the CRA. Over the next 20 years Bethel developed almost 1,000 affordable housing units, bringing nearly $100 million dollars of new investment into a credit-starved community and building the first new single family homes since the 1960s racial shift.

But affordable housing isn’t affordable if people don’t have jobs, so Bethel’s community board expanded its focus in the early 1980s to include a three-pronged employment strategy: job placement services, trying to bring companies into the community, and creating new jobs in the community through an asset-based approach. “Jobs, jobs, jobs” became the focus, placing about 350 people a year in full employment.

As employment strategies evolved into related services (childcare, healthcare, education, etc.), “an affordable, livable, just community” became the theme. Tax credit rental projects became too narrow in eligibility for the mixed-income community Bethel wanted. Housing initiatives continued, but now in more condensed locations, more for special needs populations such as the elderly and homeless, and more focussed on homeownership over major rental projects.

In the early 1990s a closing transit line and the drug invasion threatened the viability of our community development efforts, and community organizing became an all-important addition, bringing with it a creative tension between the different functions of development and organizing.

By the early 1990s, Bethel’s successful efforts to create jobs in the community through environmental and health related initiatives and senior services had made it a major employer. With 350 employees, Bethel had to evolve a more sophisticated management infrastructure to deal with ongoing operations. Around this time, Bethel also opted for outside management of its rental units, since the continued struggle against deterioration and drugs had made rental property management much more difficult.

In 1990, Bethel’s board took on its largest effort to date, the adaptive re-use of a former 434-bed hospital on a 9.2 acre campus. It has taken 10 years, a lot of risk, and creative piecing together of financing to complete this $25 million effort with 125 units of elderly housing, childcare, a small business center, a cultural and performing arts center, and a hospital medical clinic.

Out of a new awareness of environmental concerns and concern for the future, “a healthier, sustainable community” became the new theme, “sustainable” meaning economic viability, environmental integrity, high quality of life for all, and public participation in decision-making. Rounding out this focus are environmental initiatives, efforts to redevelop and market brownfield sites, transit oriented development, commercial development, and a partnership with Argonne National Laboratory to address the environmental concerns through technology transfer.

With the turn of the century, Bethel again reorganized its existing efforts under a new theme that reflected our awareness of regional issues. “Smart growth in an urban community context,” includes a focused-area housing development with traffic calming, parks, and defensible spaces; transit-oriented development in the form of commercial development around a transit stop with housing in walking distance; brownfield development through an environmental triage process that identifies the most developable sites; and new job creation. Energy efficiency, air quality, and green spaces are included as part of all efforts.

Bethel has survived the many changes and challenges over the last 25 years due to a dynamic community board, dedicated leadership, and a willingness to take risks, try different things, and build the road as we travel. And we have seen the scene change significantly for community development corporations:

Housing development is no longer the only CDC function. In fact, funders, who once criticized Bethel for trying to do too many different things, are now sponsoring comprehensive community initiatives, understanding better the connections between education, jobs, housing, safety, and families.

Many CDCs have become sophisticated groups. They do complex financing and venture capital and put deals and development partners together with significant bottom lines.

Many more CDCs like Bethel are identifying their faith base. There’s a new national focus (from HUD’s Interfaith Center to the Welfare to Work Charitable Choice legislation to the rhetoric of all the Presidential candidates) on the identified greater effectiveness of faith-based efforts, and the inherent dangers and opportunities of this “discovery.” A new resurgence of faith-based community organizing has also expanded into many cities.

Community economic development has come of age. There are graduate-level programs, trainings, intermediaries, and a beginning body of literature. Emerging leaders are considering community development as a profession.

Our inner-city neighborhoods have been discovered as the next growth area. The “competitive advantage of the inner city” is luring new marketplace developers back into our once-shunned neighborhoods. The challenge is to ensure that these developments improve the economic life and assets of their communities of location through first-source hiring agreements, joint ventures, etc.

The greatest challenges ahead for CDCs in the next 20 years include:

Concentrated and persistent poverty, the widening gap between the rich and poor, and the demise of once-guaranteed institutions of democracy and opportunity. As Robert Reich discussed in “Secession of the Successful,” (New Perspectives Quarterly, Spring 1996) many of the “successful” support private schools, cars and highways, the internet, and gated communities over public institutions such as public education, mass transportation, libraries, police, etc.

Sprawl, regionalism, and the journey to smart growth. How do we maintain a sense of place while becoming actors in regional dialogs? Developing coalitions that can press equity issues in regional thinking and realignments is challenging but necessary.

Racial diversity and changing minority populations. By 2005, experts predict, Latinos will be this country’s largest minority, and by 2050 whites will be the largest minority. Community constituencies will change in ethnic character, and place-based groups with a single ethnic focus will be challenged to change.

For-profits taking over once solely nonprofit functions. Hospitals, prisons, schools and services for the elderly are new markets for large for-profit industries that stress efficiency and profit over place-based development strategies. Many are taking a competitive stance that threatens the viability of community-based efforts that deal with all conditions and people, not just the cream.

Technology as marketplace engine. Our ill-equipped schools and communities lag far behind in preparing people to compete in such a world.

New mandates regarding outcomes and accountability. These require new strategies and effective focusing of resources and skills for greatest results, leaving little room for riskier strategies and initiatives that forge new paths with no guarantees of results.

Mergers, consolidations, and collaborations. Survival strategies are needed for the coming years to avoid competition for funding and duplicative administrative functions.

These are challenging and exciting times. Enabling people and enhancing community development will take the best efforts and skills of all of us.

 

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