George Knight

After nearly 25 years with Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation (NRC), and ten years as its executive director, George Knight is leaving NRC this September. Knight has been a tireless and outspoken advocate for the poor, from his roots as a community organizer in 1960s Chicago, where he successfully organized communities against redlining, to his years with NRC, where he has overseen the growth of the organization and the NeighborWorks® Network into a national network of more than 200 community based organizations that helped 26,000 lower-income families secure affordable housing in 1999 alone. On June 16, Knight spent some time with Shelterforce, reflecting on his work as a housing advocate, and on the strengths and challenges facing the affordable housing movement.

 


What attracted you to Neighborhood Reinvestment, and what were your first impressions when you came here?

It was terribly exciting to be able to work with peers who were devising strategies to revitalize their communities. I was instantly struck by how varied situations are from one place to another. As both an organizer and a consultant I had already seen the Washington mentality of designing a program sort of in abstract and then depositing it on the world not work. It was very exciting to see an organization that was approaching it from an upside down point of view, saying OK, resources are key, here are some resources, now what are you going to do with them locally? Frankly, I think that’s still the most exciting part.

What has been your proudest accomplishment during your time at NRC?

Clearly the growth of the Network, both in terms of numbers and strength. To have started in the ’90s investing less than $100 million a year, to last year investing a billion dollars, really indicates the growth and the impact of the organization. Secondly, how our training institutes have become the community development industry’s platform for networking and training.

Have the organization’s goals changed since you arrived?

I don’t think they’ve changed in their basic thrust – to work with local partnerships to help them achieve their mission of local revitalization. I think our sophistication has grown. We understand a lot better what we can do well and what we can’t do well, what really has to be local initiative.

How about changes in strategy? Two things that come to mind are the move toward emphasizing homeownership and the move toward comprehensive approaches.

From the very beginning the strategy was to strengthen and support homeowners in the community. But I think from the very beginning there was a recognition that you’ve got to have decent affordable rental and strong homeownership in a neighborhood, and you’ve got to pay attention to the cultural and physical aspects if you’re going to be successful. It would be foolish for anybody to think that homeownership will solve every problem. A third of families are in rental housing. The rental stock is terribly important to the vitality of the community. The need for high quality, well run rental or mutual properties for families earning below $15,000 is critical.

Ironically, while our campaign for homeownership has certainly attracted a lot of attention, the growth in the ownership of multifamily units has exploded in the last five years. The Network now owns over 22,000 multifamily units.

What would you say you’ve learned the most from your experience working at Neighborhood Reinvestment? 

I think what I continue to learn, which continues to humble me, is the creativity, the local initiative, the schemes and strategies that are devised when you get people in a room who are bringing distinctly different viewpoints. As long as they’re focused on achieving a positive end, it’s incredible the strategies and the ideas that come up, if we can stand out of the way and deliver flexible resources.

Whatever similarities the organizations in the Network have, none of them are identical. How do you try to measure success uniformly, or do you?

Fundamentally, success is measured by the local group. They have to determine at the end of the day, at the end of the year, did we achieve what we set out to achieve, and how are we measuring that. But how does that get translated beyond the local group to Congress or foundations or national lenders? You have to collect certain kinds of data.

But there can be a backlash from local organizations, particularly those that are not focused on the kinds of data you’re collecting. If you’re collecting data on the number of rental units that the organization owns and their economic performance, that’s very meaningful to members of Congress, but that may not be very meaningful if the group doesn’t see rental as the chief issue in their community. You’ve got to define success locally.

The organization has grown a lot since you’ve been here, and the housing world in general has changed as well. What are some of the challenges that you’ve had here, both internally and externally? 

The largest challenge and yet the largest success is always the people. Neighborhood Reinvestment has been blessed ever since it was the Urban Reinvestment Task Force, with having just outstanding people. Hanging on to them in a wage-constrained environment is a challenge, there’s no question about it.

Externally, I think the challenge is sometimes more a challenge of expectations. Because people see success in one community or one section of a community they expect that success to be multiplied overnight in a broader area. The community development world in general is given tasks to take on that are beyond its means.

What has changed about funding for community-based organizations?

The most interesting thing on the funding side is that a number of organizations have begun to take capital accumulation seriously as their long-term driver to success. By owning their own capital, managing it in a way that returns some funding for operation, we have seen a number of organizations move to virtual self-sufficiency. It’s been easier for some of the organizations that own multifamily property, but even some of the organizations that are purely lenders are getting close.

If you’ve come from the traditional organizer or social service mindset, it’s a shift to say yes I want to accomplish those goals, but I want to use my capital in a way that returns, so I can actually still be here in the neighborhood, so the community still has an asset. And that means paying attention to balance sheet strategies, which I think is part of the new growth for community development leaders.

It is very painful to raise money for 106 Main Street, then discover that someone else gave you money for 106 Main Street. Now you have a surplus that would allow you to go back and tackle 104 Main Street, [but] you have to go back and go through a lot of paper drill to get the money shifted from 106 to 104. Funders sometimes ignore the administrative drag of reporting on small organizations. If you are an organization that’s putting together a multifamily deal, a homeownership mortgage pool, an effort to work with youth, if you’re putting together a multi-source funding operation and you’re reporting back to six, eight, 10 sources of funding, you’re consuming a lot of resources, and what I would describe as friction, in just producing reports.

How does an organization stay true to being community driven?

It takes commitment on the part of the CEO to radical confidence that CDC should stand for Community Driven Corporation, and that that means residents are not only a numerical majority on the board, but are an active driving force. I’ve never been in a neighborhood where if you sit down and talk to people they can’t tell you what they would like to see done in their neighborhood.

It’s very tough as an organization gets bigger. It’s easy to drift away from being really community based to being staff driven, technocratically oriented.

What is the key to encouraging and increasing resident participation?

The first thing is you have to believe in it. You have to believe, down to your core, that residents in a community have the right and the capacity to name what they want in their community, and, given opportunities and helped with tools, will be able to achieve that. If you don’t really believe that, then you’ll end up either doing it for them, or making the decision yourself as to what should be done.

I don’t buy the premise that people in low-income communities don’t have the time to participate. They do have the time, and they do have the drive and they do have the interest. The question is, do you draw them out, or do you sit down with them in their home or on their front porch? And at what point do they have the confidence to move from their front porch to their neighbor’s front porch, and work together? And what is that working together going to look like, what do they want to achieve?

What they want to achieve in the beginning is usually fairly small in the grand scheme of things, but huge from their point of view, because we’re really talking about trust and confidence. They’re building trust in you, you’re building trust in them, they’re building trust in each other. They are part of a broader system that has often left them feeling shortchanged, and they expect to be shortchanged. And so why should you with your good intentions somehow appear different to them when they’ve been conned time and time again in little and large ways? You have to really start from where they’re at.

You said that people have to be given the opportunity and the tools. What kind of tools?

Tools of self-confidence. The change in expectations to: if we did this, something could happen. A new way of seeing themselves. Self-respect in a different way. A confidence in being in the public eye, even if the public is just defined as my neighbors. Then articulation, being able to clearly state what they want. Those are the essential tools.

To me, the individual who sits on a board and says ‘I don’t understand our budget’ – that’s not only a brave individual, but that’s an individual taking charge of their organization. And then insisting that the budget materials be developed and presented in a way that they can understand, that they clearly know – are we making money or are we losing money? Is the money going to what we want it to go to, or not?

How have you seen federal housing policy change in the past 20-30 years, and where do you see it going?

Public housing is probably one of the most under-appreciated and under-utilized resources the country has. If the recent changes are changes that help liberate public housing agencies from the dogma or detail to be more creative forces to provide decent housing for the lowest income families in their community, then I think that’s terrific. I think that public housing should be one of the most treasured pieces of policy that we have as a country. Most people in public housing earn $10,000 or less. These are families for whom income is not going to produce any kind of shelter on the marketplace. So we have to start by providing shelter. That’s then the basis on which everything else can be done – education, health, employment.

While the marketplace operates regionally, federal policy as it’s carried out operates jurisdiction by jurisdiction. We’ve got to figure out how federal housing policy can operate co-terminously with the marketplace, so that public dollars are allocated to regions to figure out how to deal with the provision of housing on a regional basis.

What’s the role of the advocacy community in the affordable housing movement?

I think that advocacy is a continuum. And for those of us who are in a provision of services role, I don’t think it’s either appropriate or reasonable to also expect us to be in the purest of advocacy roles. Certainly we need people and organizations that are willing to advocate on behalf of those who are being left out, and to advocate strongly and maybe in ways that others find upsetting. There’s still very much a role for the community organization that is not wedded to outside funding sources, that is really focused on expressing the community’s drives and needs. But we also need to recognize that there are those of us that are working in partnership to achieve some of the same goals who are not going to be able to take those positions.

Also, in the community development field a role we tend to forget is to help people actively participate in the political system, to vote, to express their opinion, to use the ballot box to send messages.

What particular stories stand out in your mind from your time at NRC?

You know, the stories that strike me the most are the individual stories. A woman in Maryland who hesitantly approached the NeighborWorks® organization to see if she could buy a home, and today she’s sitting on the city council. A woman in California, who owned her home and was concerned about the community’s deterioration, particularly the kids not having anything to do, and started a tutoring program in her garage, and who now is known throughout California not only for that, but for her community leadership.

I’m struck every time somebody who has been helped to rehabilitate or purchase their home walks you through it. I was in Laredo last year with a family that had moved from about 700 square feet – I think they had four children – to a home where each child had a bedroom and their son and daughter, who previously had had academic trouble were now doing very, very well. I think we tend to forget that housing’s about security. It’s about long-term planning. It’s about building a future for your kids. And that’s what drives the people we work with.

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