Staying With the Story

Drawing media attention to housing and other community concerns is difficult in the best of times – just ask the members of the Millennial Housing Commission. But when war dominates the airwaves and news coverage in general, it can be nearly impossible. That’s why what 11-year-old Adrienne Wear of Sarasota, FL, accomplished is so impressive.

The sixth-grader’s family had complained to public housing officials without success about the conditions in the Janie Poe Apartments. According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Adrienne had borrowed a video camera from her middle school for a class project, and decided to complete her assignment by catching on tape the raw sewage that flowed outside her family’s front door and the cockroach infestation and black mold inside the apartment. Adrienne’s mother delivered the tape to the local TV station, which aired the seven-minute tape in March. The next day the mayor of Sarasota was at the Wear apartment, and the Sarasota Housing Authority ultimately replaced the faulty sewage pipes and began to clean up the mold in the poorly ventilated complex. (Of course, the director of the housing authority said he had planned to get rid of the mold before the video aired.)

Adrienne got an A for the project; many of her classmates cried when they saw the tape of how their friend lived. But the story isn’t over. Adrienne is working on a sequel because the mold has become widespread and the housing authority hasn’t finished its job. Because of the mold, she and her brother must now use inhalers. So Adrienne also learned an important lesson about how the world works. There’s no neat, happy ending to most news stories – global or local – no matter how much we’d like to control the narrative and make everything come out all right. It’s important to stay with the story, to see what develops. In fact, the local press reports that Adrienne already has a good idea for a close-up in the sequel: she and her brother drawing breaths on their inhalers, looking into the camera and gasping, “See how we live now?”

Seeds of Renewal

Ceola Davis also knows how to stay with a story – and write a few new chapters, too. She lives in East St. Louis, IL, which attained notoriety with its economic collapse in the 1980s. The city and its failing school system were singled out in the classic Jonathon Kozol book, Savage Inequalities. Kenneth M. Reardon, who writes about East St. Louis in this issue, says many residents felt Kozol’s emphasis on the negative merely confirmed biases and ignored “seeds of renewal” stories. Reardon, who directed the East St. Louis Action Research Project, examines those “seeds,” many of which were sowed by Ceola Davis and the Emerson Park Development Corporation.

Davis’s organizing and advocacy on behalf of her city and neighborhood are part of a long tradition in the housing and community development field. For those who would consign those tactics to the past, Gregory Squires provides a timely reminder of how critical they were to the development and passage of the Community Reinvestment Act – and how important they remain as we continue to move a fair lending and community reinvestment agenda.

Assets, Cont’d.

In the last issue of Shelterforce, Bob Zdenek provided us with an overview of strategies that community development corporations are using to help working families build assets, such as the earned income tax credit and individual development accounts. In this issue, Michael Sherraden and Jared Bernstein give us their perspectives on asset vs. wage-based strategies, and the shape of social policy in the 21st century.

The current troubling economic climate and the Bush administration’s proposals to deal with it have undercut the asset-building approach – at least on behalf of the working poor. Innovations to lift up those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder are slow to happen in the best of times. With the return of the national deficit and state budgets in turmoil, they appear even more unlikely.

An Urban Portfolio

As executive director of the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland, David Bergholz commissioned photographers to illustrate the foundation’s annual reports over 12 years. These photographs were recently donated to the Cleveland Museum where they were exhibited in the show, “A City Seen.” In the hard copy of this issue we offer a selection of those images, which so effectively convey the foundation’s “mission statement” of concern for the people and places of Cleveland.

Welcome

Ethan Rouen has joined our staff as an associate editor. Ethan attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he edited a literary magazine and a Sierra Club newspaper and wrote editorials for the school paper. Since graduating in 2001, he has worked as a reporter for the Dow Jones Newswires and as a librarian at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.

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