CDCs: You Don’t Have to Develop Real Estate to Be a Success

This is part two of my post on community development and community organizing. In my first post, I argued that community development corporations needed to revitalize their relationship to community organizing to survive. In this post, I'll discuss why organizing is important for CDCs in their reach and to see results. 


Earlier this year, we (National CAPACD) released a study about Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) poverty.  One of the findings of the report is that AAPI poverty is growing the fastest in parts of the country where there is the least AAPI community-based organization community development infrastructure (i.e., in the South, the Mountain West, parts of the Midwest).  Similarly, the Brookings Institution has released a book, Confronting Suburban Povertyabout the dramatic growth of poverty in the suburbs—another place outside the typical reach of traditional CDCs.   In our current economy, poverty is growing everywhere, but is growing fastest in places where there are no CDCs or limited CDC capacity.

I think growing poverty in places with no CDCs means we need more CDCs.  But most people chortle dismissively when I say we need new CDCs. Lots of community development practitioners and thinkers say that the field is saturated. If anything, they say, there needs to be more consolidation, not expansion.

But if community development is not expansive, if it is not producing new CDCs, if it is not extending the reach of the field to places where need is growing, then it is a dead end field. Maybe not a dead end, but a niche or boutique field. Something exclusive and limited and expensive. It means that, despite whatever achievements CDCs make in the places where they are, it will not be enough to address the leading edge of the problem.

If community development is to take seriously the value of community empowerment and control and the value of meeting people where they live, community development needs a set of programming that is applicable to these places and that can be adopted and adapted by indigenous organizations already existing and starting up in these places. 

Here again, community organizing shows a way forward. A renewed commitment to community organizing as central to community development represents a model of community development that is more broadly applicable (it doesn’t matter if there are no traditional housers in the area and it doesn’t  matter as much if the municipality is full of suburban NIMBYs or if it has a miniscule HOME and CDBG allocation) and is cheaper to start up.

Most of the trepidation about new CDCs comes from the assumption that new CDCs mean new affordable housing/nonprofit real estate developers. As described in my last post, community development funding for capital projects is already stretched thin. On top of that, most emerging organizations don’t have the balance sheet to be bankable or the cash to put at risk in order to carry a project even to the point where it could get predevelopment financing.  For these and many more reasons, it would be dumb to recommend to a start-up CDC that it take up affordable housing development. But, as described above, community development is not and should not be centrally defined by affordable housing production.
There is no reason for emergent CDCs to take on capital-intensive projects when they are not ready, may never be ready. Re-emphasizing the community-connection commitment of community development means that new CDCs in new places should first and foremost be community organizers.  

In addition to community organizing, these emergent CDCs should layer in a mix of other non-capital-intensive community development approaches that are strategically selected to impact the people living in the place in which the CDCs work, with the mix of activities and programs to vary by community assets and needs. For example, include community planning, youth services, education, community beautification and promotion, advocacy, civic engagement, business assistance, job development, financial education, etc. Affordable housing development and other capital projects can be done in partnership with more established, experienced and specialized developers.

Within National CAPACD’s membership, we see positive examples of newer CBOs who have had successful community development impact in their communities (Thai CDCChhaya CDCAEDA, to name just a few) without being themselves becoming independent real estate development developers. We also have examples of more experienced, more traditional CDC members (LTSC, EBALDC)  who have adopted regional-scale real estate development models that rely on partnering with neighborhood-based orgs/emergent CDCs to provide affordable housing and community facilities in neighborhoods across a region.


Circling back to the MACDC statement that “a community's residents can come together to effect change and to help transform their own neighborhood together,” I can think of no CDC that better illustrates this principal than Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) in San Francisco. San Francisco Chinatown (like New York Chinatown) is one of the densest, poorest neighborhoods in the country (regardless of race or ethnicity), but you might not know it to look at it. Recently named one of the top ten neighborhoods in the country by the American Planning AssociationSF Chinatown is commercially vibrant, walkable—the streets are packed with local residents and tourists alike. While other Chinatowns across the country have been undercut and diminished by urban renewal, downtown development, gentrification and displacement, San Francisco's Chinatown is still going strong. It's a hub of activity, a home to cultural, social and faith-based organizations, a relatively affordable neighborhood in an increasingly expensive city.  But it is a daily struggle to keep it so.

San Francisco Chinatown could have easily become a historic marker, some dragon gates and a remnant, struggling chop suey house. But the community is alive and thriving. And, more so than most neighborhoods in San Francisco, Chinatown is relatively equitable and affordable. It is a cradle for political and social activism in a politically and socially active city. All of this is largely because of the historic and ongoing vision and leadership of CCDC and its unwavering, 40-year-plus commitment to community organizing.

The scale and depth of CCDC’s organizing is impressive. Through the creation and support of a series of independent, resident-led tenants associations, CCDC staff has ongoing and regular interaction/involvement with thousands of neighborhood residents.  This organizing base has supported CCDC in a combination of timely use of planning/land use policies, strategic acquisition/rehab of properties, landlord/tenant policy advocacy, etc. that has fought off successive waves of encroachment, speculative real estate developers, etc.  This organizing base has helped CCDC preserve an important and vital neighborhood.

But the benefits of community organizing go beyond the boundaries of a particular neighborhood.  While affordable housing development funding is being cut across the country and particularly so in the State of California (e.g., the complete loss of affordable housing funding that came through CA Redevelopment Agencies), the City of San Francisco voters recently passed a proposition to raise a projected $1.2 billion or more for affordable housing development over the next 30 years.  CCDC was instrumental in the conception and negotiation of the proposition and in the campaign to pass it.  Along with other activists and concerned citizens across the city, CCDC organizers, volunteers, and Chinatown community residents covered the city (important in a city that is over 1/3 Asian American, including over 1/5 Chinese American).

In this concrete way, having an active base can preserve and expand the resourcaes available for other aspects of community development.  And if this model were to be taken to scale, more and wider-spread and more coordinated neighborhood organizing could give community development the people power to protect and expand capital funding for community development at the local, state and national level.  In this way, community organizing would not only help CDCs empower people and shape neighborhoods, it could also help with renewed support for our work.

Click here for Part 3


  1. This is exactly what we did. Sold off all of our RE except for vacant lots and rebuilt. Created a model of leverage, organizing, lending through our CDFI, partnerships, and intensive public policy. If you have partners, you reduce your risk, need for resources, etc. So you don’t get all the fees or cashflow. Who cares, if you get projects built and policy shifts your way? Our balance sheet is the strongest its ever been; developers want to work with us to co-develop, neighborhood folks want to organize for change, jobs get created, and we were the subject of a Chicago Fed Profitwise cover story. Maturity and restraint has help to rebuild our neighborhood and our organization.


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