The Aspirations of Community Development

The Aspirations of Community Development

We in community development haven’t done enough, and we owe it to our aspirations and our sense of purpose to do more.

This blog post is part of the series “Closing the Racial Gaps: Together We Can” which highlights efforts across the United States that show promise for closing racial opportunity gaps and creating a more equitable future.

The field of community development and investment has evolved in profound ways over the past 25 years, and in particular over the last decade. Living Cities has led the way at several key turns, often shining a spotlight on what works and establishing pathways for experimentation in new ways of working. Living Cities was an early voice urging us to expand beyond our traditional silos of housing and physical infrastructure, and was among the first to understand the role of connecting low income communities to regional job opportunities through forward-thinking transportation strategies. Living Cities’ groundbreaking Integration Initiative challenged us to expand our scope to include human capital development strategies and multi-sector initiatives into areas like health care, schools, workforce development, and anchor-based economic development.

LIIF now intentionally supports “community quarterbacks” that implement comprehensive initiatives integrating people-and place-based approaches…

Organizations like the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF), where I am President and CEO, have taken this idea and run with it. LIIF now intentionally supports “community quarterbacks” that implement comprehensive initiatives integrating people- and place-based approaches, and tracking progress toward social outcomes. This and other multi-sector initiatives represent a major evolution in our work. Although we have a ways to go before integrated approaches becomes standard practice, we have taken huge strides forward over the past few years.

Living Cities has also led the way in helping our sector think and act at the scale of metropolitan regions, beyond the four corners of the poorest neighborhoods. This approach has involved forming partnerships with institutions that operate at scale but work outside our sector—like transportation and health care agencies—with complementary goals and considerable resources. One example is Living Cities’ Connect initiative and its early support for the Bay Area Transit Oriented Affordable Housing (TOAH) Fund . TOAH is a $50 million public-private fund to support affordable housing and communities facilities adjacent to transit, seeded by a $10 million investment by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which controls federal transportation dollars in the San Francisco Bay Area. Following TOAH’s success, the constituency for equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD) strategies continues to expand; agencies and foundations pursuing environmental and public health goals are now making sizable investments, helping to connect low-income families to opportunity.

Over the last 18 months, cellphone images and video coming from many major cities…make it clear that too little progress has been made in creating a just and fair society.

Despite these advances, the community development sector faces significant challenges to its goal of eliminating poverty and increasing access to opportunity for low-income people and places. In particular, our areas of investment still only cover a small share of structural imbalances in our society that prevent poor people—and racial minorities in particular—from getting ahead. Over the last 18 months, cellphone images and video coming from many major cities—Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, Cleveland, and others—make it clear that too little progress has been made in creating a just and fair society. Racial, gender and class discrimination in many areas of life continue to perpetuate inequality and challenge the core values of our civic society.

It is time for us to rethink community development’s paradigm, our theory of change and our practice. Living Cities can be a leader for us on this, as it did with Connect and the Integration Initiative. It is time for us to more actively pursue equity and social justice within our strategies. Doing so will necessarily involve partnering with different kinds of organizations—civil rights and labor advocates, litigation efforts, media, and more. And there’s much we can do within the sector to take on structural inequality; the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has helped us down this road with its new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. But we must do more, we must create a system of carrots and sticks to support our social goals, as we have done in the past with the Community Reinvestment Act, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, the CDFI Fund, the Capital Magnet Fund and the New Markets Tax Credit.

Who can blame an African-American mother who wakes up every day fearing for her family’s safety, who cannot depend on local schools to educate her child, and who does not feel certain that citizens outside her neighborhood care about her struggles? We in community development haven’t done enough, and we owe it to our aspirations and our sense of purpose to do more.

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