For everyone working in community development, the scenes and the stories from New Orleans reminded us of the importance of our work as well as the need to bring it to scale. The loss and devastation exposed deep-rooted obstacles in our collective mission, raising the stakes for a new and larger approach to ending poverty and empowering low-income communities. As we chart that course, we must bear in mind several broad but relevant issues that Hurricane Katrina called to the forefront.
The first is globalization and its dramatic impact on the U.S. economy. The New Orleans we saw on television depends on an economy fueled by typically low-paying service industry jobs in retail, tourism and the casinos. Yet globalization’s worldwide pricing on products and services signals a stagnation of wages. A global economy also threatens to worsen the nation’s educational and technology divide, meaning we face a future with even fewer opportunities for workers with minimal skills and education.
The second issue that Katrina underscored with stark, disturbing clarity is racial and economic inequality. Outdated policies, many instituted before desegregation in the United States, still shape the development of cities nationwide. Although we have moved beyond locating public housing projects in remote, undesirable locations, we’ve seen a subtle shift to economic segregation through zoning, suburban sprawl, housing prices and the siting of affordable housing. Without a more thoughtful approach, current policies – federal, state, local and societal – will continue to concentrate poverty in both the inner cities and first-ring suburbs.
Finally, we must confront the bipartisan consensus that our nation’s fiscal direction is weak and misguided. Not surprisingly, leading thinkers on opposite sides of the spectrum propose fundamentally different solutions. But both scenarios forecast fewer federal government resources for creating the kind of holistic, sustainable development that Katrina proved so lacking.
How do we use the lessons of recent events to embark upon a more prepared and organized track? Enterprise believes that several guideposts could prove instructive and valuable to the industry.
Leadership and policy matter – and set the framework for everything that follows. Deliberate policies and market forces are steering the outcomes in low-income communities across the United States. Together, we must work to change them and incorporate best practices around affordable housing and community development. While economic globalism has emerged as a driving force, no national policies or programs are countering its ill effects. We should invest significant, needed resources in retraining workers, creating regional housing plans that are in sync with economic trends, and preparing the people and communities being left behind for a viable future. This entails a redoubling of efforts to improve and support failing schools and communities that need the most help.
Scale matters. The community development industry has learned and achieved a great deal over the past 30 years. Now we must heed macro-economic forces and take the field to the next level of size, scale and impact. Only in this context can we address some of the racial and economic inequalities inherent in our system. Consider: Enterprise is financing affordable and supportive housing in concert with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to rezone whole areas of the city. Critical to that initiative, Enterprise and its partners are developing a $200 million acquisition fund to put community developers on equal footing with private developers for private site acquisition so that mixed-income, mixed-use communities will result. Near Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore, Enterprise has helped land bank 80 acres in the heart of the city and helped create a tax-increment financing system to support the development of mixed-income housing. In Denver, Enterprise has supported mandatory inclusionary zoning, which has been enacted. In Albuquerque, we have supported a downtown redevelopment effort that, if successful, will direct resources into a civic trust to preserve affordable housing and support arts and culture. These strategies are but some of the many that need to incorporate community development in a larger framework.
The times demand voice, vision and innovation. Community development confronts two major challenges that on first glance appear at odds. On one level, we must reconnect with our industry’s grassroots origins and core values. Organizing residents, registering voters and tapping into some of our field’s rich activist roots promise a more dynamic, true, national coalition. At the same time, we must operate with greater efficiency and sophistication at greater scale in our efforts to create affordable housing, employment and other services. Mergers, joint ventures and strategic alliances are critical in a time of diminishing resources. Finding a funding system that values not just bricks and mortar but the human side of community development is critical. Funders, intermediaries and grassroots participants need a conscious set of policies – not ad-hoc tactics.
As we evolve, we must get serious about extending the reach of our voice and speaking in unison with the environmental movement, transportation advocates, the education sector and economic development leaders. New and broader alliances will increase our relevancy and access to a diverse and enlightened constituency.
Finally, in a time of diminishing federal and other governmental resources, we need to rely on the market and other forces for larger scale answers. Inclusionary zoning in strong markets, tax increment financing, larger foundations using the financial power of their endowments for social purposes and tapping into individual and family foundations that will see an exponential transfer of wealth over the next 10 years. In short, we need to stabilize the public part of the public/private partnership and greatly expand the private part until this country has the will to properly address its human needs.
Hurricane Katrina issued a call to arms of sorts for the community development industry. We must challenge the status quo and propose proactive development policies, funding strategies and other innovations. Together, we must seize this opportunity and strengthen and elevate our field or risk allowing it to become marginalized.