Future CDCs Should Be Organizers, Not Developers

October is Filipino History Month.

It won’t have its official grand opening before the end of the month, but Larry Itliong Village in Los Angeles’s Historic Filipinotown (the HiFi) got its Certificate of Occupancy just in time to be celebrated (at least for the purposes of this blog post) as having been finished in Filipino History month.

The building—45 units of affordable housing above 7,000 square feet of community facilities and resident service space—was developed in partnership between the Pilipino Worker’s Center (PWC) and LTSC Community Development Corporation (LTSC) with support from a mind-blowing 16 different private and public (local, county, state and federal) funders.

In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for almost 12 years at LTSC and am currently on their board. It was during my tenure there as real estate development director that this project was initiated.

This building is worth celebrating for many different reasons. In addition to its most obvious benefit—permanent affordable housing for low-income families and formerly homeless people (with approximately half of the units with project-based vouchers)—I want to focus on a few benefits that are more particular to this specific project and expand from the specifics of the project to talk a bit about the future of community development.

Brownfields and Community Revitalization

Converting contaminated brownfields into community assets is part of the ongoing revitalization of Los Angeles’s HiFi neighborhood, just north and west of downtown Los Angeles. Like many neighborhoods where poor AAPIs live, the HiFi is a diverse, mixed neighborhood where AAPIs are not the majority but have a residential, commercial, and institutional presence. In the early part of the last century, the area had many active oilfields, including many operated by unregistered wildcat drillers. The area is difficult to develop (lots of added costs for environmental mitigation) and this project’s site had six abandoned oil wells. With support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of California Department of Toxic Substances Control, and the nonprofit CALReUSE, this project took an underutilized brownfield and turned it into a flashy, modern building—a strong gateway marker at the southeastern boundary of HiFi, helping to anchor the neighborhood both in terms of identity and long term community assets.

Young, Activist Organization

PWC, the project partner who will have its new home in the building, was founded in 1997 and is a young, innovative organization that, as suggested in the naming of its new home, has an eye to the history and legacy of its community. It has an organizing/activist approach at the heart of all of what it does but it is firmly rooted in a place and has a community development impact/dimension to its work. PWC has also innovated programming that increases the financial vitality of their community—including a non-usurious remittance program and a lending circle (supported in part by the Mission Asset Fund). The Larry Itliong Village provides a permanent, rent-free home for PWC, helping to shore it up into the future and to establish it as an ongoing social asset in Historic Filipinotown.

Established CDCs and Community Asset Building

LTSC was the real estate development partner for the project. As part of its ongoing strategic vision for community development, LTSC has had a sustained investment in working with other communities and helping to build up other CBOs—it is part of the ethos and culture of the organization that community empowerment is important and that we all should be mutually invested in the success of those around us.

Over 30 years ago, an established CDC (then called the Los Angeles Community Design Center, now Abode Communities) helped LTSC—then a neighborhood-based social service center—to complete its first affordable housing project. After getting a few more projects under its belt, LTSC has consciously sought out opportunities to help other organizations in the same way that it has been helped. Over the last 20 years, through technical assistance and direct partnering, LTSC has worked with over a dozen CBOs across the Los Angeles region to produce 19 completed projects totaling over 650 units of affordable housing and over 100,000 square feet of community facilities/service space (with another handful of additional projects either under construction or soon to start). Projects have included traditional multifamily affordable rental projects, preservation projects, supportive housing, DV shelters, a group home, a theater/artspace, a clinic. In Historic Filipinotown, LTSC has also done deep work with Search to Involve Pilipino Americans and other collaborative work with groups like FASGI and FACLA.

The Future of Community Development

Conventional wisdom in the community development field is that the number of CDCs should be contracting. But I believe, if community development is going to continue to survive and be relevant, it needs to be able to renew itself, to test new ideas, to be able to reach new populations in new places. It needs growth and optimism and new innovations. This means new and more CDCs. But none (or hardly any) of these new organizations should be real estate developers. This means we need a new definition of community development and what it means to be a CDC. Or maybe a new definition that is really a throwback to older definitions.

I’ve argued that community development needs to revitalize its relationship to community organizing. And this is a good part of what I’m talking about. The new, young, emerging CDCs that I’m thinking about should have an organizing/activist bent. But it’s not just about organizing. It’s also about commitment to a place and commitment to the people who make up the place and make the place special. And about having an entrepreneurial/activist approach to work in their chosen place, to be innovative and try new things even while honoring and respecting those who have come before, like PWC.

But even though this next generation CDCs may not be/may never become direct real estate developers, there will still be needs within communities for affordable housing, community facilities, etc. And even though there are multiple ways to impact the built environment without doing direct development (zoning/land use controls, community planning, project by project activism, community benefits agreements, redevelopment policy, landlord/tenant law, etc.), there will still be need for experienced (in the real estate development sense of the word), technically adept CDCs, who can be respectful of local community agency and self-determination and come in and partner with local CBOs to do capital projects, like LTSC. This is the promise represented by Larry Itliong Village. This, I hope, is the future of community development.

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