On the surface, the practice of community development looks roughly the same in any community or neighborhood, but practitioners of community development in rural areas can attest to profound differences between their work and that of their urban counterparts. It’s not that the core functions of organizing, planning, and implementation are dissimilar, but seen through the rural lens they become markedly different experiences.
For example, distance is a huge factor in rural communities—the distance across a rural service area, the distance between projects, the distance between communities. Organizing presents distinct challenges when the focus is not six city blocks, but three rural counties.
Another aspect of rural community development is the role that CDCs often have to play to augment and support thinly staffed, small-town governments. It’s not unusual for a rural CDC to conduct local or regional community needs assessments, prepare Community Development Block Grant applications on behalf of rural municipalities (often as a consortium of communities), and then contract with the consortium should the region be fortunate enough to get the grant.
Affordable housing development is likely to involve similar construction and management techniques everywhere, but rural CDCs cannot count on infrastructure basics such as water and sewer hook-ups, electricity, or even roads to access the sites.
Take the St. Lawrence County Housing Council (SLCHC), a NeighborWorks America organization serving the largest of New York’s counties along the Canadian border. SLCHC has earned high marks for providing quality affordable housing in rural communities with older housing stock and a growing gap between housing costs and prevailing wages. Like most CDCs in rural areas, SLCHC doesn’t concentrate on development alone. In order to get to the affordable-housing and other community-development projects that the region needs, SLCHC has found that it must invest more in the front end of its development efforts and provide community-planning and grant-writing services to the thinly staffed rural municipalities that may not be able to produce them. There is very little capacity in St. Lawrence, so by partnering with the regional planning commission, SLCHC provides services on a loss-leader basis to generate work for their core housing business.
Developing a sustainable business model for sparsely populated rural communities can be especially challenging. Smaller projects scaled to meet local market demand (fewer people = smaller projects) must carry fixed development costs over fewer units. This requires either deeper layers of subsidy, decreased affordability, or smaller fees for the nonprofit developer. All too often in rural projects, it’s the nonprofit developer fees that shrink first and most. The pressure on rural-serving CDCs to adopt a more business-like model has led them to work in mixed urban/rural service areas. The assumption is that high-density urban and mixed-urban markets provide a healthier business environment when the CDC’s services are priced right.
Rural community-development practitioners invariably point out that no two rural markets are alike. From land-title and sovereignty issues in Indian Country to the lack of core infrastructure in the colonias (unincorporated communities along the U.S.-Mexico border), to rural landscapes transformed by natural forces (wind, water, fire), to areas of perennial rural poverty with subsistence economies too thin to drive the slenderest of mortgages, the diversity is staggering and contributes mightily to the complexity of rural community development.
Despite the aspects of rural development that add degrees of difficulty to an already challenging field, rural CDCs continue to adapt and change. While the pressures have never been greater on local community-based organizations, the opportunities have never been more plentiful. As the field has matured, funders’ expectations have become much higher. Instead of offering traditional grants in support of altruistic mission statements, both public and private funders today want to see detailed business plans and measurable outcomes. Lacking corporate headquarters and other options for private-sector partnerships that urban and suburban CDCs can tap, rural CDCs have always relied on the public sector for grants and other subsidies. Today there is far more competition for limited public resources.
As individual rural CDCs diversify their funding sources to mitigate the risk of losing a core funder, they feel pressure to grow both their programs and their service areas. On the other hand, for the rural organizations that outperform their peers, there are opportunities to merge with or take over other organizations, to expand successful lines of business, and in general, to be broadly viewed as an indispensable asset-building institution within their service area.
The NeighborWorks organizations, with 234 charters that serve more than 4,000 communities in widely varied markets across America, is a good example of how rural-serving organizations have evolved. NeighborWorks’ relationship with each of its chartered organizations involves multiple interactions over time, including periodic organizational assessments. This insight gives NeighborWorks a unique perspective on a slice of the field as a whole. The trends among the 90 organizations within the NeighborWorks network that serve rural communities not only show how far this segment of the field has come over the past 30 years but also help us anticipate future directions for rural community-development work.