In December 2004, Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn held a press conference to celebrate city council approval of a massive plan to modernize L.A. International Airport. A centerpiece of the press conference was a $500 million community benefits agreement (CBA) that would dramatically improve quality of life for low-income communities near LAX.
Aside from the size of the agreement, most striking was the breadth of its support. Labor unions, environmental groups, business leaders, community-based organizations, elected officials – all offered words of praise for this legally binding contract that covered everything from reduction of air and sound pollution to job training to enhanced opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses.
Months and months of arduous negotiations paved the way for this consensus. In the end, nearly every sector recognized the value of the CBA, both as a means for addressing economic and environmental concerns as well as a way to transcend the customary acrimony that accompanies large-scale development projects.
The LAX CBA was a groundbreaking achievement for a number of reasons. It was by far the largest such agreement ever negotiated and also the first with a governmental entity rather than a private developer. But perhaps the most significant dimension of the agreement, and the process that led to it, was the broad-based alliance that made it possible. Thus the agreement highlights not only the promise of CBAs as a policy and organizing tool, but also the power of coalition building to advance social justice campaigns.
Coalition Building and the Promise of Community Benefits
Community benefits agreements – project-specific contracts between developers or cities and community organizations – are safeguards to ensure that local community residents share in the benefits of major developments. They allow community groups to have a voice in shaping a project, to press for community benefits that are tailored to their particular needs and to enforce developers’ promises.
The CBA process begins with interested members of the community, who identify how a proposed development project can benefit residents and workers. Once a list of potential benefits is determined, community members meet with the developer and/or city representatives to negotiate an agreement. Each CBA is unique, reflecting the needs of a particular community.
The CBA concept was pioneered by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), which in 1998 worked with then City Councilmember Jackie Goldberg to incorporate community benefits provisions into the development agreement for Hollywood and Highland, a large entertainment and retail project in the heart of Hollywood. The first full-fledged CBA came in 2001, when a large coalition of community groups negotiated a far-reaching agreement with the developer of Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment District. This was followed by four more CBAs on projects across Los Angeles. A dozen additional projects in Los Angeles have community benefits provisions incorporated into their respective development agreements.
Many communities across the country are now using the community benefits model. Groups in New York, Milwaukee and San Diego have recently won far-reaching CBAs, while in San Jose two projects have incorporated community benefits provisions into development agreements. Groups in numerous other cities, including Denver, Seattle, Miami and New Haven are actively pursuing community benefits agreements.
At the heart of the community benefits strategy is coalition building. The logic is simple: if enough stakeholders come together with a common vision for economic development, savvy developers are likely to want to negotiate an agreement. The CBA process offers developers an attractive alternative to litigation and polarizing public debates, which can delay or doom a project.
CBAs are critical because of the current “back to the city” movement. For the first time in decades, many large U.S. cities are experiencing population growth. Sports stadiums, entertainment arenas, hotels, office parks, “big box” retail outlets, upscale residential projects and other such developments are occurring much more often in already-inhabited areas. These projects offer tremendous opportunities for low- and moderate-income neighborhood residents, but hold tremendous risks as well.
While many of these projects are bringing sorely needed jobs and tax revenues back to areas that have been disinvested, there is usually no guarantee that the “ripple effects” of the projects will benefit those residents who need them most. CBAs give community residents a role in the process and help ensure that the people who remained loyal to the cities during the darkest years share in the benefits as urban areas are rediscovered.
Developers of these large projects have a particular social responsibility, not only because they are moving into existing communities, but also because taxpayer dollars subsidize their projects. Large redevelopment projects almost always benefit from subsidies such as land parceling through eminent domain, new streets and other infrastructure, property tax reductions or abatements, tax increment financing and industrial revenue bonds or other loans.
The process of negotiating a CBA encourages new alliances among community groups that may care about different issues or have different constituencies. This is critical because developers often use a “divide and conquer” strategy when dealing with community groups, making just enough accommodation to gain the support of one group, while ignoring the concerns of others. (Sometimes this accommodation is seen as little more than a monetary payoff to a single group.) The developer can then claim that there is some community support for the project and obtain necessary government approvals, even though most community issues have not been addressed.
Similarly, a developer may agree to build a project with union construction labor, while ignoring the concerns of those unions whose members will fill the project’s permanent jobs, and then claim the project has “labor’s support.” By addressing many issues and encouraging broad coalitions, the CBA process helps counter these “divide and conquer” ploys.
If neighborhood groups are poorly organized and, therefore, have little leverage over developers and governmental agencies, seeking a CBA will not help and could result in a poor precedent being set for future projects. CBA negotiations cannot be effective without a certain amount of working political capital. Of course, if the CBA negotiation process becomes routine, then community groups’ capital should generally increase. In addition, the coalition-building aspect of the CBA negotiation process should increase a community’s bargaining position.
One of the advantages of CBAs is their flexibility: community advocates can negotiate for whatever benefits their particular community needs the most. In fact, when community groups come together over a proposed development, it is an excellent occasion to assess the community’s needs. This assessment – and the coalition building that can accompany it – can spark organizing and advocacy well beyond any single fight.
A New Model for Social Justice
In order for progressives to build power, they must create broad and permanent coalitions. The price of fragmentation is all too evident in the setbacks of the past three decades. Likewise, the promise of strong, diverse alliances has been demonstrated by numerous victories over the past several years.
In Los Angeles, for example, the success of such high-profile battles as the Justice for Janitors and living wage campaigns was made possible by the emergence of a formidable labor-community coalition that has grown steadily over the last decade and now wields considerable power. This coalition is broad-based and continues to expand its reach to include new constituencies. One critical partner has been the religious community, which has largely been organized by the trailblazing Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE). CLUE has succeeded in mobilizing a large swath of the region’s congregations using an interfaith approach that has brought Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Unitarian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and other denominations into the battle for social justice. Community-based organizations have also played a central role in coalition building. Some of these are pre-existing issue-based groups, such as housing and environmental organizations, while others have formed around the principle of economic justice. Elected officials have joined the movement as well, as have teachers and academics.
The emergence of the labor/community/clergy model reflects a hard-won realization by each that a progressive agenda simply cannot be advanced without a stable and diverse power base. Equally important is a sophisticated analysis of how to leverage this power. In Los Angeles and a number of other cities, this analysis has given birth to organizations capable of waging a “comprehensive campaign.”
The comprehensive campaign model recognizes that a multi-pronged strategy is needed to translate political power into concrete progressive change. Policy, research, organizing, communications, litigation – all must be part of a progressive organization’s tactical arsenal. Groups that engage in organizing without a research capacity, for instance, often find themselves stymied because they lack a strategic understanding of the opposition forces arrayed against them. Other groups may have a strong research capacity but are limited without the base provided by an organizing program.
Progressive organizations that have adopted the comprehensive campaign model are winning impressive victories. In 2004, Wal-Mart suffered a crushing electoral defeat in Inglewood at the hands of a labor/community/clergy coalition that also included many elected officials and small business leaders. All the elements of a comprehensive campaign – research, organizing, political advocacy, litigation, communications – were employed to stop Wal-Mart’s attempt to build a Supercenter without any public review or planning process. In the end, despite a $1.5 million war chest, Wal-Mart was outflanked by a progressive alliance that drew upon years of power building and strategic savvy to win over public opinion.
The living wage victory in Los Angeles and its aftermath similarly highlight the enormous potential of a model built around a vision of economic fairness and security, supported by power building and a comprehensive strategy. Progressives chose a clear injustice – poverty wages subsidized by tax dollars – and forged a broad-based coalition to address it. Based on credible research, a policy solution was proposed and then advanced through a dynamic organizing and lobbying campaign, while a values-based communications strategy conveyed a powerful message to the public and to policymakers.
In the end, not only did the living wage law pass over the strenuous objection of a popular mayor, but the political culture of the region was transformed. The idea of a living wage is now embedded in the public mind, and it exerts substantial influence on policy debates at the city, county and even state level.
In cities across the country, labor unions and community-based organizations are joining forces. These labor/community partnerships form the cornerstone of powerful coalitions capable of advancing a progressive agenda.
The Future of Community Benefits
Over the past several years, community benefits work has evolved into a bona fide movement, with an increasing number of organizations across the country using the CBA model as an integral part of their advocacy. The growth of the CBA model is inextricably linked to the creation of new broad-based coalitions willing to embrace partnerships with both traditional and nontraditional allies.
As progressives seek to reverse the gains of the right and advance an agenda of social and economic justice, they would do well to study the community benefits movement, which has offered a way to transcend the differences that too often have splintered progressive forces. Indeed, community benefits provide a potent example of coalition building that extends beyond progressive groups to a wide array of stakeholders. Such alliances point the way toward a promising future in which the common aspirations of the majority are harnessed for social progress.