Rick Cohen, a Shelterforce contributor, passed away suddenly on November 17. Known for his prolific writing focused on nonprofits and responsible philanthropy, and most recently a national correspondant for Nonprofit Quarterly, Cohen began his career in the community development world, working at both LISC and Enterprise, and as the head of Jersey City’s Dept of Housing and Economic Development. We asked two of Shelterforce’s founders who knew Rick well to share some memories of him with our readers:
“Rick Cohen was so smart. He was not just a ‘peoples' planner,’ but a guy who knew how to get policy enacted. He served in public positions like in Jersey City in the late ‘80s and fought alongside neighborhood activists to implement an inclusionary agenda. All of us from Jersey will really miss him.” —Patrick Morrissy, executive director, HANDS Inc.
“In the 1980s, a few years after a group activists, including me, started Shelterforce, I discovered Rick Cohen. Besides Shelterforce we also had been organizing tenants, winning rent control, and helping build a statewide progressive group called New Jersey Citizen Action. Because of Rick's excellent reputation as a consultant on housing issues for several municipal, state, and federal agencies, I had talked to him several times.
Then something unusual occurred. In 1985, a progressive, Anthony Cucci, got elected as mayor in Jersey City in a state dominated by conservative machine politics. Cucci had campaigned and won on a platform of promoting development with a commitment to helping low-income people. He chose Rick Cohen for the daunting task of accomplishing this by appointing him to the director of Jersey City's Department of Housing and Economic Development.
I thought ‘Good luck to you, Rick,’ given the power of local landlords and developers. There is nothing harder in New Jersey, or anywhere for that matter, than trying to make changes that really mattered to the poor, working inside the establishment as a local appointed official. But Rick did. He quickly became a pioneer fighting for rent control and condo conversion laws, as well as forcing developers to contribute to training, job creation, and the cost of building affordable housing through his innovative linkage program.
He left the Jersey City job to play the outside game by pressuring politicians as an investigative journalist, a staffer for housing advocacy groups such as Local Initiatives Support Corporation and the Enterprise Foundation, and an advocate of progressive philanthropy. A rarity among anti-poverty activists, Rick effectively promoted progressive policies and politics both inside and outside the establishment.
In all these endeavors he was generous, kind, and most of all managed to stick to his deeply held principles. He was an inspiration for all of us at Shelterforce as well as housing activists across the country.” —John Atlas, author of the book Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group, and presently working on a new documentary about ACORN.
(Photo by Eleanor Cohen)