The Future of Community Development — It is Ours to Lose

By Harold DeRienzo

There has been much discussion of late concerning the future of Community Development Corporations, or “CDCs.”  CDCs have been referred to as irrelevant, inefficient, lacking in creativity, stuck in failed models, unable to compete with the private sector or undertake high-impact projects, incapable of developing neighborhood wealth and basically passé as effective development vehicles.

CDCs are being challenged to “scale up” by merging operations in order to better compete against our for-profit counterparts who are slowly dominating the field of affordable housing.  We are implored to adapt to changed circumstances that have already caused hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of financing for low income housing flowing to private, for-profit developers and the transfer of substantial numbers of formerly not-for-profit controlled, social housing flowing into private, for-profit hands.  We are being marginalized in a political environment where numerical output is more important than making a meaningful impact on communities and on people’s lives.  In other words, how many units we can produce –without regard to local hiring, local support, paying living wages, providing decent benefits, preventing the public burdens caused by homelessness, engaging residents, facilitating leadership development, or encouraging citizen participation – trumps all other considerations.

But let’s be real about this.  Non-profit CDCs collective efforts in the field of community development are as important as ever.  We remain the early warning systems for social and economic upheaval caused by human error and greed.  We follow up the work of first responders by doing the long, hard work of re-building neighborhoods beset by natural disasters.  We offer opportunity where only desperation would prevail.  We offer hope and relief to the very real, daily struggles of too many people who must spend every waking moment of their lives on the economic margins between subsistence and destitution.  For many of us in this sector, relinquishing control of our housing portfolios to a centralized ‘cartel’ would further attenuate our connections to our grass roots origins, our missions, and our reason for being.

So what has changed in our sector to cause this marginalization?  Only one thing has changed.  Through our collective efforts, CDCs have made the inner city areas of New York and this country safe for profit-making development.   We, and the local residents we work with every day, are truly the victims of our own success – a success that has a meaningful history that needs to be seriously considered, appreciated and heeded.

Most histories of the community development movement recite rather dispassionate facts to explain the birth of the CDCs.   Those who were in power at that time are shown to have exhibited an enlightened sense of self- interest served by an understanding of the problems facing inner city residents and a willingness to make political accommodations to address recognized social ills such as poverty, decrepit housing, debilitating economic circumstances, lack of educational opportunities, and more.  As reported on in recent Shelterforce articles:

The modern community development field had its roots in the neighborhood revitalization movement of the 1970s, in reaction to the decline of urban neighborhoods and a rejection of government-sponsored urban renewal as a solution. Activists and progressive local government officials saw redlining, disinvestment, and suburbanization had pulled the rug out from under healthy urban neighborhoods and they sought to fight back. A stable, healthy community was their goal.  [Morissey]

The community development field had to emerge from the shadow of the top-down approach embodied in the urban renewal and public housing bureaucracies. The anti-poverty crusaders realized that they had to combine a passion for social justice with viable management and business practices. They had to learn to keep practitioners accountable for their work and to measure their accomplishments.   In 1966, Bobby Kennedy and his aides conceived the idea of a “community development corporation,” a prototype of which they worked to set up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, the Bedford-Stuyvesant project would “get the market to do what the bureaucracy cannot.”  [Von Hoffman]

These and other reviews of history ignore, or at least underplay, other social factors that shook the foundations of the political and economic establishment in those troubles times.    In 1963, in Harlem, Jesse Gray led a massive rent strike in a 15-block section in Harlem.  Such a concerted action by organized tenants had not been seen since the Great Depression.   But civil disobedience did not win the day.  Frustration led to riots in Harlem a year later.  And more riots ensued, claiming scores of lives, most notably in Los Angeles (Watts) in 1965, in Chicago and Cleveland in 1966, in Detroit in 1967, and in Memphis, Chicago and Baltimore and other cities in 1968.  As much as any sense of human concern motivated actions — even if that concern included a belief that local control of government and private resources should drive political and philanthropic efforts to address inner city ills — confusion, unease, foreboding and outright fear were at least equivalent motivating factors.   It is out of these troubling times that CDCs were born.

And support came from both the government and private sectors, a fact borne out by changes ranging from amendments to federal law to permit funding of CDC groups, to the creation of civic-minded entities such as New York Urban Coalition, created by Fortune 500 companies in the mid-sixties to address inner city racial tensions through support of housing, education, job training, employment and other programs.

That was then; this is now.  And in present circumstances, CDCs are increasingly being relegated to the smallest and most difficult projects.  So what do we, in the community development sector, do?  We learn from our own history.

In the turbulent sixties the civil rights era came of age, eventually destroying conventions that defined an entire culture of discrimination and tacitly-accepted violence.  Student protests and mass mobilizations against the Vietnam War threatened long-standing institutions and military-industrial dominance in the economy.  Labor unions, even non-municipal unions, commanded bargaining power within the political economy.  And urban riots became a too commonplace occurrence in those long, hot summers leading into the seventies.  These conditions and trends created a platform for community development.  But they also created motivation for middle class (white) abandonment of urban areas and for the search for low wage havens by industry, creating an exodus of working class jobs that provided decent wages and the opportunity for generational advancement.  Locally, this developed into what became the near collapse of New York City, which could be viewed as being caused by the displacement of the political reality of New York City (the five boroughs) by a regional New York metropolitan area, where residents working and deriving wealth from the city, fled with that wealth each day at five o’clock to the burgeoning suburbs.

So while a platform was created, so was the vacuum left by white flight and industrial departure to greener pastures, first in the South and then (and now) to places like the Philippines where manufacturers can develop product for as little as a few dollars-worth of labor a day.  CDCs came of age by boarding that platform and filling that vacuum.  But there is no power in a vacuum.  And once the vacuum was filled with profit-driven air, we in the CDC sector soon discovered that any power we believed we had was illusory and that we were permitted to continue to operate as long as we maintained competency, and what is being perceived as ever-dwindling utility.

But all is not lost.  What we have now that we did not have prior to the 1970s is a talented and dynamic sector, an expansive infrastructure, and a potential connection to a latent constituency.  The challenge is to recreate the platform that we once had (and took for granted) and enliven it through organizing and civic engagement.  Beyond that, we must then ensure that our institutions are enhanced and, where necessary, transformed into meaningful vehicles for community empowerment, with a vested constituency exercising political power that forces the placement of meaningful impact above pure numerical outcome in the expression of public policy through community development programs.

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