CDCs in Gentrifying Neighborhoods

When community development corporations were created in the 1960s, their biggest challenge was assisting in the revival of neighborhoods that were physically and spiritually scarred by vacant land, abandoned buildings, declining real estate values, weak business districts and social institutions. Despite these origins, CDCs have for decades thrived in working-class and middle-class urban neighborhoods. They grew out of urban renewal battles, tenant organizing efforts and community organizing. The model of a community-controlled development entity was attractive to activists from a variety of neighborhoods. These organizations have worked to preserve affordable housing, develop new housing and organize tenants, among other activities.

Today, many of those CDCs are now situated in gentrifying neighborhoods and face questions, internally and externally, about defining their role in this new environment. Gentrification is often defined as the influx of higher-income residents, changes in the kind of retail businesses serving the community, rising housing prices and new market rate development. The 2000 census indicates a national trend toward the gentrification of central city neighborhoods and a decrease in concentrated poverty. Boston, San Francisco, New York and other cities have CDCs that pursue strategies specifically in response to the forces of gentrification. The recent emphasis on smart growth will increase pressure for dense high-income development in what are already desirable city neighborhoods and we can expect the issues faced by gentrifying city neighborhoods to increase in the next decade.

There is another aspect to gentrification that has to do with new character demographics, specifically people with fewer place-based ties. For example, an August 2003 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described a decade-long effort by city officials to maintain the economic diversity of Decatur, GA, where a rising market has emptied church pews as newcomers with weak social ties replaced longtime residents. The experience in Decatur resonates in the Allston Brighton neighborhood of Boston. Kevin Carragee, a community activist in Allston Brighton, spoke at a community meeting about the loss of Little League coaches and of activists from the neighborhood organization he founded, as younger, transient residents have replaced families with children. Gentrification in mixed-income urban neighborhoods can result in a loss of what is now called “social capital.” Those able to afford the higher housing prices and who want to live in the city are usually people under 35 without children who are not prepared to make a long-term commitment to the neighborhood. The reputation of urban schools, combined with high housing prices, drives these young people to relocate outside city neighborhoods when they are ready to start a family. They view the city as a transitional place and are less likely to become involved in the community.

Jane Jacobs described the same phenomenon more than forty years ago. “A city neighborhood can absorb and protect a substantial number of these birds of passage, as our neighborhood does,” she writes. “But if and when the neighborhood finally becomes them, they will gradually find the streets less secure, they will be vaguely mystified about it, and if things get bad enough they will drift away to another neighborhood mysteriously safer.” In other words, the safety of a healthy diverse urban neighborhood can be lost if the neighborhood is dominated by transient residents, as sometimes happens in a gentrifying neighborhood. The conventional wisdom has long been that gentrification is accompanied by the swift displacement of low-income residents, but recent research argues otherwise – and makes a compelling case for the continued relevance of CDCs. Lance Freeman of Columbia University found that low-income residents of gentrifying neighborhoods are more likely to remain in their apartments than residents of non-gentrifying neighborhoods because of the improvement in the quality of life that accompanies gentrification. Freeman contends that while the stock of affordable housing does shrink over time, the process is slower than many assume. Thus, CDCs can help low-income residents secure housing, build assets and skills and serve as vehicles for social integration.

Steve Meachem of City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston recently framed the issue this way: “We’ve succeeded in turning around neighborhoods and now we need to figure out what we do to ensure that our success doesn’t destroy the communities we work in.” Based on my experience in the Allston Brighton and Fenway neighborhoods of Boston, I believe there are important reasons to encourage and support the activities of CDCs in gentrifying neighborhoods. Neighborhoods with active CDCs give low-income residents a chance to benefit from the rising tide instead of drowning in it. To be effective in this environment, CDCs must not only work to preserve and develop affordable housing but also organize residents and assist with employment, training and asset-building strategies. Although many CDCs in different areas engage in these activities, they take on different dimensions in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Organizing
In Massachusetts, community organizing in a CDC context has benefited greatly from the joint initiative of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. The Ricanne Hadrian Initiative for Community Organizing (RHICO), named for a talented CDC staff person who initiated the effort but died tragically, not only funds organizing but also promotes best practices and peer learning in organizing among CDCs.

In Allston Brighton, tenant organizing by and large occurs in private housing and in privately owned subsidized housing, not in housing the CDC or its residents already control. Our largest affordable housing development was the result of nearly 10 years of tenant organizing with the residents of 235 units of subsidized rental housing. As a result, the CDC and the residents were able to buy and rehabilitate the housing for permanent affordability. Not every tenant organizing effort is on this large a scale; at times it resembles a form of low-intensity guerrilla warfare. Small but decisive victories have made a difference. The Allston Brighton CDC has worked with tenants in three- and six-unit buildings who were fighting rent increases or bad conditions or both. In some cases these organizing efforts resulted in cash settlements that residents used as a down payment for a home. In other cases landlords agreed to accept rental subsidies that they had previously refused to honor. Tenant counseling has also been an effective strategy. Six years ago when the last remnants of rent protections in Boston disappeared as a result of the 1994 statewide referendum, Allston Brighton CDC aggressively sought out elders affected by the end of rent control and worked with an elder care agency to provide support and access to a special set-aside of rental subsidies. The organization now has a tenant-counseling program that serves hundreds of tenants every year. Sometimes individual tenant counseling can lead to organizing in a building when the issues faced by one tenant are shared with neighbors.

Organizing to support efforts to win more resources for affordable housing at the city, state and federal level is also important and can provide a focus for the work of neighborhood activists. Several CDCs in Boston played significant roles as part of the successful campaign for a Massachusetts Affordable Housing Trust Fund in 1999 and 2000. CDCs brought in more than 20,000 of the 126,000 signatures that were gathered overall in the effort led by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. The most active CDCs were Allston Brighton, Fenway, Dorchester Bay and Jamaica Plain – all but one in gentrifying neighborhoods. Trust fund resources have been vital to projects that the CDCs have undertaken. These CDCs took a leading role in the 2001 effort to pass a property tax surcharge for housing, open space and historic preservation in Boston, and supported the ongoing efforts of the Boston Tenants Coalition to restore a moderate rent protection system. Development in gentrifying neighborhoods is more expensive and perhaps generates a greater sense of urgency to get more dollars for housing.

CDCs should organize around issues other than housing. Allston Brighton CDC has worked to create two ethnically based committees to strengthen leadership both within our own organization and in the broader community of Latinos and Asians. Their efforts began with cultural events but have moved to more political concerns. The Asian committee helped coalesce a fight by parents over the closing of an elementary school with a large number of Chinese students. The Latino group organized cultural events, helped to register voters and organized tenants to respond to housing conditions, most notably bed bug infestations.

During 2003 Allston Brighton CDC convened a series of “community conversations” which culminated in a “Community Summit” in October 2003. That event had broad participation from immigrants, tenants and long-term homeowners. Over 275 neighborhood residents spent the best part of a Saturday discussing the future of the community. That event symbolized the role that CDCs can play in developing what sociologist Mark Warren called “bridging social capital” – relationships that cross boundaries of race and class. Among the issues that emerged from the summit were controlling institutional growth, encouraging homeownership and improving the quality of the public schools, a relatively new issue for Allston Brighton CDC. Since the summit, six action groups have each met twice to develop priorities for a second community-wide meeting in March 2004.

There are tensions in doing both organizing and development work, but it is possible. In many neighborhoods CDCs are the only community-controlled institutions with the resources and stability to support community organizing. National organizing networks like the IAF and ACORN can play effective roles but in most cases they don’t have enough organizers to address neighborhood issues and choose to focus on citywide or regional concerns instead. The IAF affiliate in Boston, which counts our organization and nine other CDCs as members, has three full-time staff members to serve the 100 member organizations in a large metropolitan area. In a few neighborhoods a CDC is lucky to have an organizing group as an active partner. For example, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) has worked very effectively in partnership with City Life/Vida Urbana. Occasionally City Life can play the “bad cop” to the CDCs “good cop” but the JPNDC does organizing as well and does not rely solely on the organizing work of City Life.

The CDCs in gentrifying neighborhoods that have not pursued an organizing strategy experience a decline in their community relevance and scope of action. The South End of Boston has had some successful CDCs in a neighborhood that has been experiencing gentrification in some measure for 35 years. However, the CDCs have increasingly focused inward on residents who are housed in their completed developments and seem increasingly separate from the surrounding community. Two successful CDCs in Cambridge, a town that has experienced rapid gentrification in the last eight years, have not had an organizing component to their work and have turned to housing development opportunities outside their home community.

When organizing, a CDC must pick its battles. You can fight City Hall but you can’t fight it all the time or on every issue. I think the most effective approach is one similar to the current practice of the Industrial Areas Foundation. In his book Dry Bones Rattling, Mark Warren provides a good description of what the IAF calls relational organizing: combining “careful research and planning by its leaders with large scale mobilizations to public actions.” CDCs have ongoing relationships with city government, banks and other institutions. Early confrontation can be awkward. To organize successfully, CDCs must operate like the IAF, paying lots of attention to building relationships and institutional power so that the target institution negotiates in advance of confrontation. It is important on broader community issues for the CDC to work in partnership with other kinds of organizations that can take a more confrontational posture when that is called for. But these organizations need the power that an active and deeply rooted CDC can bring to the issue.

Jane Jacobs discusses the importance of “hop/skip” – people who can communicate the concerns of smaller groups, such as block associations, to city government and other powerful institutions. Settlement houses used to be one place where these “hop/skip” people were found, and their efforts represented an early version of “bridging social capital.” Today, CDCs can and do play that role in many communities, and are especially important in working across class and ethnic lines.


Development
Although housing development in gentrifying neighborhoods poses significant challenges it is crucial for maintaining economic diversity. Acquiring land and buildings is costly, and there are rarely large publicly owned parcels that can be developed for housing. Consequently, development costs are higher on a per unit basis than in neighborhoods where public land is available or where the private market is weak. In these areas, CDCs and other affordable housing developers have to make the case for development on the basis of economic and social integration.

High prices for land are not the only obstacle where transactions occur at a rapid pace. The ability to buy property quickly before permanent development financing is secured is vital. Low-income housing tax credits and HOME funds take time to secure and CDCs often do not have sufficient capital to buy and hold large properties while permanent financing is assembled. Acquisition depends on nerve, luck and the lender’s appetite for risk. On the positive side, rarely do CDCs in a gentrifying neighborhood have a problem renting or selling a house.

The Allston Brighton CDC experience provides several clear lessons. To launch a $15 million affordable housing project with 50 units, the organization put down as much of its capital as it could afford toward the acquisition of a $2.6 million property – $100,000. The CDC was able to line up acquisition financing without all of the permanent financing committed because of its track record and because of the early commitment to the project by Harvard University, which gave lenders confidence.

Jobs and Assets
Helping residents obtain employment is another critical strategy for CDCs in gentrifying communities. The JPNDC and the Fenway CDC provide career advancement training for people employed in low-paying jobs in the Longwood Medical Area, adjacent to the two neighborhoods. Allston Brighton opened community centers to provide computer skills training. CDCs can sponsor individual development accounts (IDAs) so that low- and moderate-income residents can begin to build assets to use towards education or homeownership. The first IDA program sponsored by the Allston Brighton CDC was created for the residents of CDC-sponsored housing.

For eight years, Allston Brighton CDC has had a program that trains first time homebuyers and provides counseling, down payment assistance and other incentives for low- and moderate-income homebuyers. This has been very important to many immigrant families but as prices in the neighborhood have risen, low- and moderate-income buyers have been forced to look outside the neighborhood and even outside Boston. As a result, Allston Brighton CDC is developing new units for sale to first time homebuyers as well as new rental housing.

CDCs facing similar challenges in Boston’s gentrifying neighborhoods have worked closely as part of RHICO – Fenway CDC, JPNDC and Allston Brighton CDC. These organizations have shared experiences for several years and are now seeking ways to work more effectively with City Life/Vida Urbana and the Boston Tenants Coalition. One direction is to intensify our tenant organizing work to seek more collective bargaining with landlords as City Life has begun to do in part of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.

Allston Brighton plans to build on its recent community summit and find ways to maintain the community as a place for families of all incomes. The organization also plans to expand its asset-building efforts in technology training and IDAs to a scale that can serve every interested resident of the community.

CDCs were created with struggling urban neighborhoods in mind, but it is clear that they can also be flexible and adaptable vehicles for achieving community goals of social mobility and integration in gentrifying communities.


The Allston Brighton neighborhood of Boston has 70,000 residents, including many recent immigrants from Latin America, Russia and China. It also is a neighbor to three large universities – Boston College, Boston University and Harvard University. The neighborhood has seen continuing pressure on rents with the growth of these universities over the last 30 years. Currently the largest issue facing Allston Brighton is the acquisition of over 200 acres of land by Harvard University for a new campus in Allston. (Harvard Business School and Harvard’s athletic complex have been in Allston for most of the last century.) The Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation was founded in 1980 by a group of neighborhood activists and 23 years later has developed 370 units of affordable housing with 62 more units under construction.


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