Trump Era a Time to Build Power, Not Buildings

Illustration of muscular hand lifting scales of justice.
Power + Justice by John, via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Last December, I spoke at the Philadelphia Association of CDCs whose conference announcement posed the provocative question, “Will there be a community development industry next year?” I answered that I wasn’t sure there would be a community development industry, but that there would surely be a community development movement in 2017 and beyond.

Now, more than six months into the new administration, few things are clearer and it remains an unpredictable and dangerous time.

As of this writing, under the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development congressional subcommittee’s proposed budget appropriation, community development is not as badly off as it could be. We still have CDBG and HOME, and project-based Section 8. But we shouldn’t view this as a victory, even this year, nor as any indication of what the future will bring for federal funding. We don’t know how the full spectrum of federal programs we have come to depend on will fare over the coming three and a half years. Also looming on the horizon is tax reform, which will surely impact the value and marketing of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the New Markets Tax Credit programs, as well as other programs that affect our communities, including the Earned Income Tax Credit.

But these tax policy and funding issues are only the tip of the iceberg.

  • What will we do as CDCs if ICE raids come looking for tenants in our affordable housing projects? Or into our retail storefronts, workforce programs, or childcare centers looking for our workers?
  • What will we do if large numbers of our building residents lose or cannot afford their health care? What if they lose other safety net benefits?
  • What does it mean for CDCs if we keep our funding but our residents become less safe, less healthy, and less empowered?

We cannot depend on historical precedent of previous Republican administrations because there is no foundational ideology in this current administration. This time there is no call for “Compassionate Conservatism” or “1,000 Points of Light,” which both Bush presidencies promoted. This time there is no historic shift in federal revenue sharing as President Richard Nixon championed as examples of his governmental philosophy of devolving federal programs to states and localities. This time there is no pretense about a different ideological philosophy to help poor people or cities. This time is different.

It would be a big mistake to just look at our work in this historic time as only being about saving CDC-related federal programs and projects, or about “survival” to feed our development pipelines. We must try to understand the policy and political framework as it evolves, and be prepared to articulate our narrative nationally more effectively than we have. Our advocacy and political capital must expand beyond our traditional community development concerns—projects and programs—to embrace the full spectrum of attacks on our residents and our communities.

This is a time that calls for us to start thinking a little less like an “industry” and more like a movement.

How a Movement is Born

Let me shift gears and tell you about the Notre Dame Senior Housing project, which the Chinatown Community Development Center (CDC) acquired and rehabilitated in 2000. At the time, it was the single largest expiring-use project in San Francisco with 200 senior housing units. Half of the residents who lived in the units were Chinese and half were émigrés from the former Soviet Union. Our involvement with it started a decade earlier in our organizing role to inform the tenants that their housing was in jeopardy of being converted to market-rate units, and help them organize on their own behalf.

Notre Dame was supported by some wonderful tenant leaders, particularly Bao Yan Chan. Chan led the Chinese tenants and formed a coalition with the Russian tenants, who had strong leaders as well. The tenants waged a high-profile campaign to save their homes, and the Chinatown CDC, subsequently selected as the new owner/developer, undertook a major rehabilitation of the building with tenants in place.

But the housing victory is only part of the story of Notre Dame. In the early 1990s, when Chinatown CDC first became involved with the tenants, President Bill Clinton was proposing his version of welfare reform, which included a provision that would have removed Supplemental Security Income (SSI) eligibility from all immigrant seniors who were permanent residents but not American citizens. The Chinese and Russian seniors at Notre Dame were among the strongest opponents of this provision of welfare reform.

In San Francisco, Norman Fong galvanized support from the San Francisco Council of Churches and was a leader in a national campaign that brought together Asian American organizations like the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium and the National Coalition For Asian Pacific American Community Development with Jewish organizations serving Soviet Union émigrés and other immigrant rights groups nationally. Fong flew to Washington to meet with then-Vice President Al Gore. The campaign eventually succeeded in the retention of SSI for permanent residents.

But that’s not the end of the story.

The senior leaders at Notre Dame knew that the national campaign might not succeed, and they needed to plan for the worst. So Chan, a former schoolteacher in China, organized her own classes of Notre Dame seniors to become American citizens. The classes were later replicated by the Russian tenants and other Chinatown seniors and by the end of a two-year period, Chinatown had over 550 new American citizens, most who had also registered to vote.

The story of Notre Dame is about tenants fighting to save their homes and forming coalitions within their buildings and the larger community. It is also a story of how local organizing can impact national policy, both housing and immigration, and how the infrastructure and momentum for organizing that starts with one issue can be mobilized for another.

In current times, with immigration-related issues as our example—deportations and ICE raids, the Muslim travel ban, attacks on sanctuary cities, and the proposed border wall—I fear there are many other policy challenges (and opportunities) to come that will need engaged activism from those most affected. We’ll need to build strong local and national coalitions with multi-pronged strategies to deal with issues as they evolve.

I bring up the Notre Dame story not as a precise model to follow, but to stand as an example of the type of work that CDCs will have to do more of. We need to do more of this organizing, not just project by project, but by looking for ways to link our organizing efforts across buildings, regions, states, and the country.

A New Strategic Plan

In the months and years ahead, we can expect periods of chaos when it seems like the sky is falling, with myriad issues on the front burner simultaneously. You will surely experience no shortage of advice about what we need to do. There will be no shortage of articles and books, emails, blog posts, speeches, and conferences, all with good ideas. But none of this will make any difference if you do not manage time and resources—yours and your organization’s.

That’s why we need to be as strategic as possible in charting our organizational work priorities over the next three and a half years. All those great strategic plans made a couple of years ago will have to change, along with that 2017 annual work plan you did last fall. You will have to challenge most of the assumptions in your earlier organizational planning. This is not business as usual. This time is different.

You need to free up “organizational space” so you can respond to the new stuff that you will be challenged to address, stuff that may not directly impact your organization, but will certainly impact your constituencies, your tenants, and your clients. Maybe you don’t do that tax credit project and instead ask the city to help you land bank it. Maybe you don’t open that satellite office next year in that other city that asked you to. Maybe you don’t expand your youth program to another neighborhood. These will be difficult, even painful decisions. And you will need to be honest with your partners and funders about them, perhaps looking at deferring them or even asking another organization to take them on.

And I don’t have to tell you that “delegating” some of your stuff to another overworked staff member is not going to cut it. Adrenaline only goes so far and we need to sustain our capacity for the long term. We must first take care of ourselves and maintain our personal health and personal strength for the long haul. Since we are all already stretched too thin, we need to plan what old stuff we will need to defer or not do at all, if we are to have any capacity for the new. Here’s a list of things to think about:

  • Respond to the threats to health and income that your current project residents and program clients may be facing. Our first organizing responsibility is with the people we have already organized or housed in our buildings.
  • Join other organizations and churches to engage your broader communities that are facing the same threats.
  • If organizing resources are stretched thin, we as CDCs should help support other grassroots organizations financially.
  • Plan with your public, private, and funding partners to assess what restructuring may be needed in your grants and contracts, and demand new resources for civic engagement, organizing, and policy.
  • Dedicate staff time and organizational resources to work on state and local campaigns to enhance resources to buffer federal cuts.
  • Participate in local and state coalitions to help develop broader strategies, craft local narrative, and integrate stories into the national narrative.

Our narrative must be formed in concert with our allies and peers in other silos and other movements. We must craft a national narrative for the role of community development as a vehicle for preservation of communities and for job creation, and this narrative must be strongly placed in the broader context of what makes a just society.

Similarly, we must have strong messaging about the value of our allies’ work in health and human services, organizing, education, arts and culture, civil rights, women’s rights, LBGTQ rights, environmental protection, etc. We cannot allow this administration to divide and conquer, to typecast, to foster mistrust of ideas, and to fool people to act against their long-term interests in order to get a short-lived, more immediate reprieve with one program or project over another. It is time for us to think and act like a movement, not as an industry.

This piece is based on remarks given at the California Community Economic Development Corporation conference in May 2017.

1 COMMENT

  1. I resonated with this important and challenging piece. His recent book, Building Community Chinatown Style is also a good and valuable read from one of the most thoughtful and pragmatic leaders in the community development movement.

    Community development is all about connectivity, and Gordon reminds us that we can’t ignore what is going on with deporting our fellow citizens, gutting of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), disavowing climate change environmental justice, reigniting the war on drugs, etc. These horrendous policies really impact our work. It is the people not the buildings that ultimately matter.

    The primary focus of his article is on community development becoming more of a movement and less of an industry. From my 40 years in community development, I have always thought of community development as both a movement and industry. I led the National Congress for Community Economic Development (NCCED) with many great practitioners during the Reagan and Bush I era. We realized early in a mostly hostile political environment, that we were more than a trade association growing a membership and industry. We were a movement birthed by Civil Rights, CRA, Faith-based and other social justice activists. We have collectively built significant relationships and partnerships with health care, environmental justice, immigration activists and others in the past decade. We need to make the case that there are no healthy communities without community development, and that eliminating ACA will be a disaster for low-income residents that many of you serve. Gordon is right that we have to organize and build power as well as develop. He offers sage advice and suggestions.

    What attracts other sectors to community development is both our track record of performance, and that we can operate as mission, value-based businesses within the community development industry. That is a powerful combination. Organizations want to partner with community development, which is what Dee Walsh and I found over extensive research and interviews in our upcoming book Navigating Community Development.

    Like Gordon said, we all need our individual and collective voices raised at the local and national level. Now is the time for a stronger and unified community development voice that draws from the wonderful breadth of the community development world. We also need engaged young leadership driving the discussion along with the experience and time of many community development veterans.

    Let’s continue to finance and build buildings, income, businesses, and employment, but not in the absence of Gordon’s call to action for a strong and coordinated voice for our collective movement. There is no time to waste. Count me in!

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