Challenging Ourselves

Let’s start by saying what isn’t said often enough. Affordable housing and community development practitioners and advocates have done extraordinary work for many decades. CBOs and their allies have fought slumlords and segregation, rehabbed whole neighborhoods, defended CRA and created jobs and hope all across America. From San Francisco to New York City, places once abandoned by the market and wrecked by racism and hate are recovering and many are thriving.

But the picture is far from perfect. In spite of all our work, more children are now in poverty than have been in years, joblessness is rising, income inequality is obscenely high and racial tensions still exist. Many cities have seen decline for years as manufacturing jobs moved offshore and those with resources left for the suburbs and beyond.

These trends have led to a large number of cities with high rates of housing vacancy and abandonment, joblessness and poverty. With few resources, such cities typically have poor schools and provide limited services. Even with the persistent efforts of CBOs and others, these cities remain weak.

While many of the reasons behind this condition seem beyond the control of CBOs, perhaps some of the fault lies at our own door. Maybe it’s time to take an inward look and challenge some of the ways we work. In this issue, we offer three challenges to our thinking.

Reviving Democracy
At first look Lawrence CommunityWorks seems like an ordinary, if ambitious, CDC. Taken separately, their programs are similar to those of many others, and their accomplishments not insignificant. But, as William Traynor and Jessica Andors tell us, their programs are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. LCW recognizes that no matter how hard it works to create homeownership opportunities or savings programs, for example, such programs don’t address the real problem or offer a permanent solution.

In their thinking, the problem isn’t a lack of housing or jobs or even poverty. These are symptoms of a much deeper and more destructive problem: the breakdown of a functioning civil society. While their tools are available to every CDC, their intentions are to build a functioning and sustainable local democracy. They measure their success not only in units built or assets accumulated, but the desire and ability of those previously excluded to effectively engage in the political life of their city.

Challenge one: Do we build houses or citizens?

Rebuilding the Market
Every weak city once had a strong market. There were jobs, homes, economic diversity and, to make municipal government hum, rateables. But as the market abandoned these cities they were forced to carefully allocate their funds, often using a kind of municipal triage to target the neediest areas. And CBOs, committed to creating and preserving affordable housing, scrambled to fund their projects, which were often located where the needs were greatest. Is that the best way to use scarce housing dollars? Is there a more strategic approach?

While it may be impossible to recreate the type of manufacturing environment once common to weak market cities, NHI’s research director, Alan Mallach, suggests that by targeting housing funds – with one eye on urgent needs and the other on long-term recovery – market forces can be harnessed to revive whole neighborhoods and cities.

Challenge two: Are we creating long-term solutions or stopgaps?

Remaking the Market
Capital mobility and globalism may be here to stay, but perhaps communities – engaged and strategic – have a greater measure of control than they realize. The first step, says Jerry Kloby in his book review, is to understand the forces at work. The next is to consider a different set of tools. From local currencies to employee-owned businesses to land trusts, communities can shape their markets to be responsive, sustainable and local.

Challenge three: Do we serve markets or make markets serve us?

Budget Blues
As the 2006 federal budget makes its way through Congress, the realities of the Administration’s class war politics become more evident. By now, the most egregious attacks on the safety net have been well discussed, including the plans to cut billions from CDBG, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit (the irony of tax cut defenders proposing what amounts to a huge tax increase on the working poor is stunning). If you haven’t had a chance to examine the budget proposal, or are unsure how much damage it will do, take a look at the analyses done by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the National Low Income Housing Coalition. It is important for all of us to understand how this budget undermines the work we do and puts everyone’s welfare at risk.

Goodbye to a Friend
The world of affordable housing and social justice lost one of its leading lights and closest friends on March 17, the day Cushing Dolbeare died. Cushing was brilliant and gracious. Her knowledge about, and commitment to, affordable housing was unique. She will be missed. A celebration of her life will be held on May 2 during the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual meeting.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

Series NavigationBack From the Brink >>Restoring Neighborhoods, Rebuilding Markets >>
Harold Simon is the former executive director of the National Housing Institute and former publisher of Shelterforce.

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