Real Life

The latest variation in “reality” TV shows was announced this summer. Take a couple of privileged young women who are more familiar with charity balls and fashion shows and drop them on a farm in Arkansas – to live among real people who work for a living. Sit back and watch with glee as the young women put on overalls, dirty their hands, milk the cows, etc. Why not? If we can’t have a more equal society, let’s humiliate the people who have choices most of us only dream about. And ridiculing rural people has been a staple of TV for a very long time.

But why stop with a rural family that can at least feed itself? Why not place a couple of wealthy folks among the working poor? Watch the intrepid contestants live in overcrowded, overpriced housing, attempt to feed a family on food stamps and obtain adequate health care. The show would give new meaning to the word “survivor.”

Of course, these “reality” shows have as much to do with reality as “The West Wing” has to do with the real White House. Someday, “reality” TV and its many variations will run its course. Unfortunately, we can’t change the channel on the only reality that matters.

The Bush Administration and its Congressional co-conspirators have cut taxes for the rich, expanded the military budget and driven deficits up so high that domestic spending is strangled. When it comes to the public good – housing, schools, the environment – let the states and a few faith-based institutions take care of it. As we all know, the states are suffering under crushing record deficits themselves and are in turn cutting social spending. And (except for isolated victories like the passage of an affordable housing bond issue in California and the doubling of the real-estate transfer tax that funds the Ohio Housing Trust Fund) most states are taking away their support for housing programs and grassroots organizations. To make matters worse, the bad economy has led to decreased foundation funding.

This debilitating situation has prompted a growing number of nonprofits to move away from dependency on government and foundation support and towards the market. In this issue, Ethan Rouen profiles Housing Works in New York City. Over the past decade, Housing Works has been a vocal advocate and developer of housing for people with AIDS and has launched a series of businesses that now account for 85 percent of its funding. Housing Works represents a growing trend that we will be exploring in detail over the coming years.

The reuse of urban brownfields is another trend that we will follow closely. Building affordable housing is far more difficult than building market rate housing – securing title is often a nightmare, financing is always complex and there is rarely enough free cash to support organizational growth. So it’s not surprising that most CDCs avoid developing on brownfield sites. But, it may not be as hard as it seems. Paul S. Kibel shows us two examples of how neighborhood organizations successfully redeveloped brownfield sites in California and Minnesota.

For many of us, the past five years have seen remarkable growth in the value of our homes, which, coupled with the lowest mortgage rates in 40 years, has kept our economy from deteriorating even further. As a result, homeowners have been able to refinance their mortgages and obtain cash to spend on other things. But it’s also pushed up prices on starter homes and apartments, making housing unaffordable for a growing number of low- and middle-income people. Eric Belsky reminds us that this nation has no real policy to meet the growing demand for affordable housing, a demand the private market is still unable to meet.

Race and Community Development

It’s a reality that most people in the community development field are uncomfortable discussing, but one that must be addressed: many of the most prominent organizing groups are white-led, but their constituencies are overwhelmingly people of color. Mark Winston Griffith’s analysis of this issue first appeared on www.gothamgazette.com. We hope it will stimulate a thoughtful, ongoing discussion in our pages about race consciousness and the work that we do.

Goodbye and Hello

This month we lost our associate editor Ethan Rouen to Columbia University’s School of Journalism. While here only a short time, he helped us through a period of significant transition. His article on enterprising nonprofits leads this issue. We expect to see more of his work in the future.

Joining us as our new associate editor and Web master is Nichole Brown. Nichole received a bachelor’s degree in Marketing and Communications from Clemson University in 1995. At Clemson, she was assistant editor in the university’s Publications and Promotions Department. She wrote and edited copy for marketing and promotional material including admissions, minority recruitment and Clemson World, an alumni magazine. For nearly two years, Nichole worked for the Dodge Reports, a trade publication of the McGraw-Hill Companies, where she researched and reported on construction news.

Finally, we want to say congratulations and so long to Miriam Axel-Lute. Miriam joined us in 1997 and has, at one time or another, performed every job at NHI and Shelterforce. She recently relocated to Albany, where she will be the news editor of the weekly Metroland newspaper. Although her day-to-day role at Shelterforce is now officially over, we will continue to benefit from her insight and experience, and look forward to publishing an occasional article from her as well.

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