The Regional/Local Dance

Q & A with Kimberley Burnett

What are the challenges facing community development and the CDC model?

We have built and rebuilt a lot of housing, but we didn’t necessarily lift people substantially out of poverty. For many CDCs, we lost sight of this larger outcome and too often thought our jobs ended with the housing. We built housing that is beautiful and affordable but not necessarily connected to schools, jobs, transit, or fresh food. You go a lot of places and you say, “Why the hell did we build a house here?” In Youngstown, Ohio, you’ll find a beautiful affordable house on a block with two abandoned houses and a bunch of vacant lots. How is that lifting someone out of poverty and connecting her to opportunity?

Even place-based funders are asking different questions now — how are you connecting that neighborhood to opportunity? They know that a neighborhood is not an island unto itself. Unless a house is connected to opportunity, you’re just rebuilding the ghetto. How you do connect disadvantaged communities to opportunity — the regional economy, good schools, middle-skill jobs, wealth creation?

What should the role of CDCs be in this regional work?

They have an important role, but I’m not sure it’s fair to ask a CDC to be all things to all people. I think where we’ve gone wrong was thinking CDCs are supposed to be the solution. I’m seeing broader coalitions now around regional issues, and CDCs are not even at the table, unless their footprint is more than a neighborhood. It takes whole bunch of people coming to the table to make a solution. How do we support CDCs to be at that table? They don’t have to convene it, but they need to at least be part of it.

I know there are CDCs out there that are more comprehensive, but [most of them are] affordable housing developers. Affordable housing is a support service. Where we used to lead with the housing, now more and more [we see] housing like childcare; it’s a supportive service enabling someone to be gainfully employed and move out of poverty. That’s why it makes sense to expect CDCs that are mostly housing focused to be part of these larger conversations — part of the solution — but not to expect them to be “the” solution. The challenge exceeds most CDCs’ scope.

In transit-oriented development we look at region, corridor, then station-area plan. No one is advocating for the neighborhood any more. What legitimacy does a CDC have in a place? Maybe it should be back to the role of neighborhood broker. We need to come at it with fresh eyes: what’s needed, what’s hindering CDCs from playing that role, how might we address that?

How could CDCs be stronger?

What’s the mission that they are trying to fulfill? Are they trying to provide affordable housing for low-income people? In which case there isn’t a place-based requirement written into it so they shouldn’t necessarily limit themselves to a neighborhood footprint. Or are they committed to rebuilding their neighborhood? In which case they should be a lot more comprehensive and doing a lot more planning, brokering, and community organizing. I think that’s the question — are CDCs still committed to neighborhood revitalization, healthy thriving neighborhoods that provide access to opportunity for all? Is the goal about a product, i.e. housing; about a whole neighborhood; or about the people in that neighborhood? The answer leads to very different strategies for CDCs.

If some are developers and some are comprehensive, what makes a CDC?

I think CDCs have to decide who they want to be when they grow up and be ok with that instead of constant anxiety and handwringing. We’ve been at this for a long time. What are we about now? It would be sad to focus on the CDC label rather than what problems we are solving and working with the other people trying to solve them.

Companies reinvent themselves all the time. Who are you today? Is there even a CDC field? I think there is a comprehensive community development field but I wouldn’t necessarily put all CDCs in there. Rather, there could be CDCs as part of an affordable housing field, an income/assets building field, or a comprehensive revitalization field. CDCs are merely organizations in service to a goal — be it comprehensive community development, housing, etc. I think we are confusing the vehicle with the objective. I’m more interested in getting to the objective in the right vehicle for the job than worrying about homogeneity in the vehicle fleet. We have a lot of challenges and we just need quality organizations of any type to help us address them.

Kimberley Burnett is a consultant in Denver, Colo., and a nonresident fellow with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. She served as the program director for the Surdna Foundation’s Strong Local Economies program and began her interaction with community development working for Reach CDC in Portland Oregon.

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