#112 Jul/Aug 2000

Empowerment – From Rhetoric to Reality?

At its outset, the community development field was about resident empowerment. From the War on Poverty to the forging of the community development corporation industry, the goal has been – […]

At its outset, the community development field was about resident empowerment. From the War on Poverty to the forging of the community development corporation industry, the goal has been – at least on paper – to arm residents with the knowledge and skills necessary to guide their neighborhood’s destiny through participation in and engagement with the political and economic worlds encumbering their fate.

Over the nearly four decades since the War on Poverty was announced, the goal of resident empowerment has only occasionally been met. Sometimes the politics of engagement so threatened entrenched power structures that political support for resident empowerment programs faded. More often, “empowerment” became identified with the accomplishments of organizations active in their communities. In the past few years, we’ve seen the growth of thousands of CDCs, faith-based organizations, and other community-based groups that have accomplished a remarkable amount of physical development. But have they empowered their community’s residents to effectively engage with the disenfranchising forces surrounding them?  The answer is not simple or without controversy. It is a question we return to frequently in Shelterforce, and pick up in this issue.

In our lead article, we look at the latest offensive in the war on poverty, being fought in scores of cities and rural areas around the country. The Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community Initiative (EZ/EC), administered by HUD (and USDA in rural areas), aims to improve economic opportunities for the poor. Using tax credits and grants, EZ/EC attempts to entice business into neglected areas. But more than a simple business incentive program, EZ/EC is, rhetorically at least, about empowerment – about assuring that residents are in charge of the ensuing economic changes. So after decades of false starts, inconsistent commitment and underfunding, are the people finally in charge? In this issue, Winton Pitcoff examines EZ/EC’s strengths and weaknesses.

Economic Empowerment

Of course, economic empowerment is nothing to scoff at. And the first step to such empowerment is a living-wage job. But a livable wage is not the only answer. Knowing how to save and use your money is just as important, especially for those who want to leverage their income to create such “assets” as an owned home, a better education, a new business or improved job skills. And knowing how to avoid financial predators selling exorbitantly expensive home improvement or “payday” loans, or providing shoddy and overpriced services is key to maintaining economic empowerment.

But in low-income neighborhoods, such knowledge is not always easily available. In this issue, we look at two types of the growing number of programs that remedy this lack – financial literacy training and housing counseling. Katy Jacob of the Woodstock Institute explains how financial literacy programs work, their benefits and the added value nonprofit organizations bring when providing such programs. Similarly, Karen Hoskins of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation looks at the range of housing counseling services available.

George Knight

George Knight joined the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation in 1976 and became its executive director in 1990. Under his leadership, NRC increased its investments in housing ten-fold. But more than units built or loans made, George measures his success by the success of the people he’s been associated with – those within NRC and those touched by its staff and affiliated organizations. In September, George Knight leaves an organization with over 200 affiliated groups, doing over $1 billion in development annually and providing training to community builders around the nation. In an interview with Winton Pitcoff, George reflects on his years of service.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Millions of Americans live in apartments they rent. Millions more live in homes they own. But 19 million people live in both at the same time and in the same place. These people live in “mobile homes” they’ve purchased, which sit on land they rent. While hoping to have the best of both worlds, mobile home residents often suffer from the worst of both instead. And although they number in the millions, few housing advocates in urban centers know the extent of the problems suffered by these residents. Phil Rosenbloom provides us with an overview of life in mobile home parks and the policies (or lack thereof) that affect it.


  • EZ’er Said Than Done

    July 1, 2000

    The Empowerment Zone Initiative is becoming a model program for community revitalization. Will these programs lead to real community empowerment or will they become just a collection of tax incentives for businesses? The initiative's experience to date offers clues and warnings.

  • Learning the Ropes

    July 1, 2000

    At first, John Taylor, education coordinator for Chicago Commons Employment Training Center, had doubts about the idea of partnering with a local bank for a financial education program. The Center’s […]

  • Rekindling Hope in the American Dream

    July 1, 2000

    The East Baltimore neighborhood where Bette Ramsey lived with her adult daughter and 10-year-old grandson was a war zone, complete with drug dealers, gunfire, and crack houses. The Ramseys were […]