News

Learning about the Intersection of Community Development and Health

August 6th, 2014 by Joe Kriesberg

I have spent most of my personal and professional life trying to avoid the health care industry. Not only do I hate going to the doctor, but I avoided getting involved in health care policy because it seems so incredibly complicated and fraught. I am now starting to change my ways.

Having turned 50, I now have no choice but to see the doctor more often. And in my professional life, we are seeing a convergence between the community development field and the health sector that has me dipping my toes into the health sector!

This week, I participated in a terrific discussion during the “How Housing Matters for Healthy Child Development Roundtable,” sponsored by the Urban Institute and the MacArthur Foundation here in Boston.  The Roundtable brought together about 40 professionals from the fields of housing, community development, public health, and medicine. It also included a diverse mix of researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and funders. The diversity of the group made for a wonderfully interesting discussion, although we frequently had to slow down to spell out acronyms or explain jargon to our colleagues from the other sector. Some of the most interesting parts of the discussion for me were:

  • We know a lot, but we don’t know everything: Despite the growing body of evidence that demonstrates the importance of housing and neighborhoods to health outcomes for lower income people, much of the discussion was about what we don’t yet know about the connections. Indeed, I was struck by the way researchers focus on what we don’t know whereas practitioners are trying to apply what we do know (or think we know!). These are fundamentally different orientations and it can be challenging sometimes to bridge them.
  • Housing quality has improved, but affordability is getting worse: While 83% of poor people nationally have housing affordability problems, 22% suffer from overcrowding and 12% from poor housing quality. These numbers were substantially different 50 years ago and the changes reflect the significant progress made over the past several decades in housing code enforcement and the improved quality of publicly-assisted housing developed by CDCs and other nonprofit and private developers. Indeed, some of the growing affordability challenges are likely due to the overall improvement in housing quality.
  • Shifting funds from health to housing won’t be easy: There are many efforts underway to begin to realign spending priorities to put greater emphasis on social determinants of health, including housing and neighborhood conditions. This will create opportunities for community developers and should restore some balance to our use of public resources. Health outcomes, however, are impacted by so many factors that it is very hard to isolate the impact of housing or neighborhood quality. There may be limits to how precisely we can measure their impact or monetize the health benefits of housing interventions. These data limitations, along with strong political forces, will limit our ability to shift substantial funding from health to housing. Rather than focusing on taking money away from health, we need to use the research to justify increased spending on housing and community development. The health benefits will flow, as will the savings, even if the two are not directly linked through financial contracts.
  • Defining what works is complicated: Community developers often talk about programs that “work” and the need to drive funding to programs “that work.”  U.S. HUD Assistant Secretary, Katherine O’Regan, pointed out that in the health field, the question is “for whom does the intervention work and to what degree does it impact different populations.”  She suggested, correctly I believe, that we need to understand these nuances and not look for silver bullets.
  • Health Impact Assessments are vital, but they’re still an evolving tool: Health Impact Assessments (HIA) are being used across the country to assess the way different projects, programs and policies can advance health outcomes. The tool provides a structured way to engage stakeholders, review relevant research and assess alternative options. There was a strong sense, however, that we need to refine our use of this tool to ensure that the Assessments are completed efficiently and quickly enough to impact practice and policy. Mariana Arcaya from the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies noted that while the standard HIA requires a multi-step process, perhaps some steps can be abbreviated or eliminated in certain contexts. MACDC is working with MAPC, Health Resources in Action, and MA DPH on a major HIA that is looking at the health impacts of the Community Investment Tax Credit program. We plan to release it publicly in late September, so be on the lookout for a notice about this event. Mariana 
  • Community developers need to learn yet another acronym - CHNA: We also learned about the Community Health Needs Assessments (CHNA) that nonprofit hospitals are required to complete every three years. This process, which has some similarities to the Community Reinvestment Act for banks, is designed to get hospitals to engage with local community stakeholders to identify needs and to implement community-based programs that address the social determinants of health. We learned about a terrific effort by Mass General Hospital in Chelsea where they have worked closely with the local CDC, the Neighborhood Developers, and other community groups to address substance abuse and other issues. Many called the MGH program the “gold standard” that should inspire others to pursue similar efforts (although we were reminded by the other hospital leaders in the room that most hospitals don’t have as much money as MGH!). I left thinking that this was a critical opportunity for all CDCs, although I’m still unclear on how much money might be available from hospitals.

The bottom line is that the convergence between community development and health is accelerating and both community developers and health professionals need to get engaged in the conversation, learn their counterparts’ jargon, acronyms and policy frameworks, and build relationships with their new and future colleagues. MACDC will be looking to help with this effort and we invite your suggestions for how we can best contribute to this important work.

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Making Campaigns Matter

June 24th, 2014 by Joe Kriesberg

An Op/Ed Column by Joe Kriesberg, MACDC's President

As this year’s gubernatorial campaign heats up, community developers, like others, are beginning to focus on the different candidates and considering what this election will mean for our field and our communities. Many non-profits, including MACDC, want to do more than simply observe the process and speculate on the outcome.  We want to engage and shape it. But how can we do that? As non- profits, we cannot endorse a candidate; and no matter who wins, we have to work with the new Administration.  Indeed, during my time at MACDC, I have worked closely with five different Administrations (Weld, Celluci, Swift, Romney and Patrick) and fully expect to work successfully with a new one next year regardless of who wins.

But political neutrality does not mean that we should sit on the sidelines.  Campaigns don’t just determine who will govern, but they also shape how the winner will govern.  Campaigns help identify the top tier issues for the next Administration and campaigns often generate promises and commitments from all the candidates, including the eventual winner.  Do they keep all of those promises? Of course, not. But do their campaign promises influence their behavior after the election? Absolutely.

In 2006, Governor Patrick, and two other candidates for Governor, came to the MACDC convention at the Hynes Convention Center on October 14.  At a candidate forum moderated by Pam Cross from WCVB, we asked each candidate three questions: (1) Would s/he fund the Affordable Housing Trust fund at $40 million? (2) Would s/he fund the state’s newly established Small Business Technical Assistance program? And (3) Would s/he enact legislation to preserve expiring use properties?  Candidate Patrick said “Yes”, “Yes”, and “Maybe”.  He expressed skepticism about expiring use legislation and whether it would be fair to both owners and tenants, but he promised to listen and to work with us to explore possible solutions. (Side note: We did not ask about the Community Investment Tax Credit because we had not even come up with the proposal yet!)

So what happened? In his first capital budget, the Governor proposed just $35 million for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. After a short, but vigorous response from the housing community, he quickly restored full funding. I can assure you that his campaign promise was a big reason for the quick turn- around. He then funded the Trust Fund at $40 million for the next seven years.

With respect to the Small Business program, the Governor kept funding the program even as the state budget crisis unfolded during the recession. He kept the program alive by funding it “off-budget” through the Mass Growth Capital Corporation and then this year he helped secure a $2 million appropriation from the legislature, restoring the program to full funding:  8 years of funding – just as he promised in 2006.

Expiring use legislation was harder, but the Governor kept his promise and listened to the views of all stakeholders and then helped to fashion a compromise bill that was enacted in 2007 as MGL Chapter 40T.   This law has now helped to preserve nearly 10,000 homes as affordable housing.

Three for three, by my count.

MACDC is thankful that Governor Patrick kept these commitments and we know it reflects his commitment to these issues. But we also know that a Governor has to balance hundreds of competing priorities, so we were glad to help the Governor fulfill these commitments by working closely with his Administration (and the legislature) throughout the process.  In other words, campaign commitments matter, but they don’t complete the task. Advocates have to stay with the process after the election too.

So as the 2014 campaign heats up, MACDC and its members and allies need to engage the gubernatorial candidates.  The MACDC Board of Directors has already met with six of the candidates (Baker, Berwick, Coakley, Falchuck, Grossman and Kaymen) to have thoughtful discussions where we were able to introduce them to the CDC field, learn about their priorities and discuss important issues to our communities.   We are now cosponsoring a major Candidate Forum on Affordable Housing with our colleagues at CHAPA and throughout the housing field on July 9 at 2:00 at Faneuil Hall.  And on October 25, 2014, MACDC will host another convention, this time at the Westin Hotel in Back Bay, where we expect to hear from all the candidates who make the final ballot. 

What questions should we ask them this time? What commitments will they make? Which ones will the next Governor keep?

My plea to community developers and nonprofit advocates around the state: Don’t just wait to see what these answers are. Get involved and help shape the answers.

I hope to see you on July 9 and October 25. And most of all, plan on voting on November 6, 2014. 

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Small Businesses Get Boost from State Budget

May 30th, 2014 by Joe Kriesberg

MACDC Legislative Campaign Yields $2 million

Small businesses throughout the Commonwealth will have expanded access to high quality business support services thanks to recent funding approved by the Massachusetts Legislature and Governor Patrick.

The FY 2014 Supplemental Budget bill recently signed into law includes $2 million for the Small Business Technical Assistance (SBTA) program administered by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation (MGCC). The funding appropriation follows a major campaign led by MACDC and its members to secure stable funding for this highly successful program.

The SBTA program was originally created in 2006 with an appropriation of $2 million in that year’s economic development legislation signed into law by Governor Romney. A few months later, then-candidate Deval Patrick promised at the MACDC Convention that he would fund the program in his budget every year, for each of the two terms he hoped to serve. For seven years, Governor Patrick was able to keep that commitment, even during the budget challenges spawned by the Great Recession. Since 2010, the Governor has funded the program off-budget with MGCC capital, but now for the first time in several years, the program will be fully funded through state appropriations. Eight years later, the Governor’s pledge as a candidate has been fulfilled.

Such funding is well deserved given the outstanding track record of this program. Last year, MGCC allocated $700,000 and achieved a tremendous return on investment with more than 900 businesses receiving help with business plans, financial accounting, marketing, permitting and access to capital. These businesses created nearly 500 jobs and preserved another 300 jobs. One of those business owners, Josiah Mayo, co-owner of Chequessett Chocolate on Cape Cod, spoke at MACDC’s Lobby Day last month.  With an increase in funding, MACDC is confident that these numbers will be even higher next year.

The success of this campaign is due, in no small part, to the amazing champions we had throughout the legislative process. Representatives Kulik, Peake, and Wagner played leadership roles in the House, while Senators Flanagan, DiDomenico, Donaghue, and Dorcen Forry led the charge in the Senate. Dozens of other elected officials also weighed in at critical moments. And, of course, this funding would not have been achieved without the support of Rep. Brian Dempsey, Chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, Senator Stephen Brewer, Chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray.

MACDC also recognizes the terrific work done by our members and other nonprofit organizations that held dozens of meetings with their legislators both in their districts and during the MACDC Lobby Day on April 16th.  MACDC also greatly appreciates the highly professional advocacy work done by our colleagues at O’Neil & Associates, Matt Irish and Chris Niles. They helped shepherd this proposal throughout the legislative process.

Update: The Jamaica Plain Forum recognized MACDC's successful campaign in a recent e-newsletter. 

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Seven Early Impressions from the Roll Out of the Community Investment Tax Credit

May 22nd, 2014 by Joe Kriesberg

Denise Coyne, COO of Greenfield Savings Bank, celebrates with John Waite, Executive Director of Franklin County CDC, their increased support of Franklin County CDC through the CITC program.  With the CITC program, Greenfield Savings Bank tripled their contribution from 2013 to Franklin County CDC.

The enactment of the Community Investment Tax Credit in 2012 represents the biggest new public/private investment in Massachusetts Community Development Corporations in a generation. It is also part of a larger strategy to refresh, re-energize, and expand the community development movement to meet the challenges of our times. CITC is being watch locally and nationally as a possible model for how to systematically strengthen the community development sector. So, nearly two years after enactment, how is it going? Here are seven of my “first impressions:”

1. Last minute legislative changes made the program stronger:  MACDC’s original legislative proposal called for the tax credit to begin in January 2013 with $2 million in credits, then $4 million in 2014 and $6 million in 2015 and beyond. The Legislature modified the plan by providing $1.5 million in start-up grants for 2013 and then $3 million in tax credits in 2014 and $6 million in 2015 through 2019.  While Governor Patrick cut the grants to $750,000 (demonstrating one of the key advantages of tax credits over appropriations), the start-up grants did allow DHCD to put resources into the community quickly so that CDCs (and MACDC) could engage in critical planning and preparation work prior to the roll out of the tax credit program. The Legislature also modified our proposal, at the recommendation of the Department of Revenue, to make the credits refundable rather than transferable – simplifying the program tremendously and expanding the range of potential donors. I wish we had thought of these ideas ourselves, but we are thankful that the Administration and the Legislature made the program even stronger.

2. Rolling out a new program takes time:  The Legislature was also wise to delay the implementation of the tax credit until 2014 because we needed every one of those extra months (and then some) to get the regulatory infrastructure in place.  Both DHCD and DOR had to develop regulations and guidelines for this new program and it has taken significant time to do so. While I think things could have moved faster, I have come to accept the reality that bureaucracies move slowly for a reason and that tax credits need to be designed carefully to avoid unintended consequences. Creating a fair application procedure, appropriate reporting requirements, and clear procedures for processing transactions has taken a while, but now that these things are in place the program should move forward smoothly.

3. Community Investment Plans Matter – The CITC is built around the requirement that DHCD award tax credits based on the quality of the Community Investment Plans submitted to DHCD. The two most important elements in these plans, according to DHCD’s scoring rubric, are community engagement and organizational track record. Tax credit allocations ranged from $50,000 to $110,000, so it’s clear that the quality of the plan matters. Over time, we expect to see the quality of these plans improve, as well as the ability of CDCs to execute their plans and measure results. We will begin to see how this is playing out with the second CITC RFP later this year and the first year reports in 2014.

4. CITC is pushing CDCs and MACDC to sharpen our message: One of the reasons that we structured this program as a tax credit for private donations was to incent and reward CDCs to become more effective at telling their story. Over the past year, we have held several trainings on this topic and we have seen CDCs invest in new marketing materials, websites, and data systems. MACDC itself developed a new “theory of change to more effectively talk about the diverse work of our members and we completely revamped our website.

5. Large corporations seem less interested than small businesses and individuals: So far, the major financial institutions that have been the field’s biggest private supporters have not yet jumped into the CITC pool. These national banks don’t yet have the systems in place to allocate the future tax savings back to the local philanthropy budget. By contrast, community banks, smaller businesses and individuals have an easier time seeing the tax benefits and translating those benefits into larger donors. That said, the first large financial institution to figure this out will have a major competitive advantage over the others.  Who will that be?

6. CITC opens doors and ears, but will it open wallets?  For the past year, MACDC has been reaching out to donors, donor advisors, accountants, lawyers and others to educate them about the tax credit and how it can help high net worth individuals and companies increase the impact of their philanthropy. We have found many of them to be very interested in this new tool and we have met with dozens of people who might otherwise not be that interested in hearing our pitch. The question remains whether these meetings and conversations will translate into actual donations, but we are optimistic that CITC will achieve one of its key goals – attracting new donors to the field.

7. Different strokes for different folks: Much as we expected, CDCs are deploying different strategies to find donors to use their credits. Some CDCs are focusing on smaller individual donors, others on larger, five-figure donations; some are looking to community banks while others are talking to construction companies, law firms and other vendors active in the field. While most CDCs transferred the maximum of 50% of their allocation to the United Way’s Community Partnership Fund, several others transferred less or none of their credits – confident that they can find enough donors to use all of their credits (a total of $1.1 million was transferred, giving the United Way the opportunity to raise $2.2 million). Many CDCs are using credits to enhance sponsorships and donations associated with annual meetings and fundraising galas. Perhaps the most challenging question for CDCs has been whether to focus on getting existing donors to step up with larger donations or whether to take the extra time to solicit new donors – or some combination of both. We have also been pleased to see many CDCs engage their board members in this process, providing them with training on how to raise money and in one case, having the board run a “phone-a-thon” to call over 100 prospects in a single evening.

The CITC program is very much a work in progress. We should expect some confusion and even some stumbles, but I remain confident that over time the program will become easier and more predictable to use (for donors and CDCs alike) and that it will have the desired impact of meaningfully improving communities and the lives of the people who live there. 

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A statement on the State of the Union by MACDC's President

January 28th, 2014 by Joe Kriesberg

“We applaud President Obama for making income and wealth inequality a central theme in his State of the Union Address. We agree that growing inequality is harming families across this country and threatening the long-term health of our economy, our democracy and our way of life.  Our members are working to help families by engaging them in efforts to improve the neighborhoods and communities where they live and work. We believe that confronting inequality among families requires confronting inequality among places – that means eliminating blight and spurring investment in our lower-income neighborhoods. It means providing safe and affordable homes, helping to start and to grow businesses and expanding local jobs. It means creating safe neighborhoods where parents can raise a family.  We know that local residents and stakeholders are already doing the hard work to build and sustain such neighborhoods.  We need the federal government to be a partner in these efforts and welcome President Obama’s efforts to create and support those partnerships.”

Learn more about what CDCs are doing Massachusetts.

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“Enjoy My Country, But Don’t Try to Understand It” - Impressions from a week in Cuba

December 30th, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

In December, I travelled to Cuba with 19 community development colleagues for a week of learning, research, network building, and yes, fun.  Our trip was organized by Common Ground, a nonprofit organization in Western Mass led by Merri Ansara that is dedicated to building connections between Cuba and the United States.  It was a wonderful experience and it left me with a range of contradictory and somewhat confused impressions and observations. As such I tried to remember the advice we received from one of the many wonderful community activists that we met when he gave the suggestion that is now the title of this blog post: “Enjoy my country, but don’t try to understand it.”

Cuba has many wonderful features – historic architecture, a fascinating history, impressive health care, educational and social service systems, fantastic American cars from the 1940s and 1950s, creative non-governmental organizations, wonderful countryside and natural areas, beautiful beaches, and people who are friendly, resilient and impressively entrepreneurial. At the same time, Cuba can be a bit depressing with significant poverty, widespread physical blight, dirty and often dilapidated buildings, noxious fumes from the old cars and trucks, and an economic system that seemed to promote both equity and inequity at the same time. I can’t say I fully understood everything that I saw and heard, but I do want to share some impressions that may lack precision, but I think will give readers a sense of the country.

  • Havana is a striking city, with amazing historic architecture that makes the city feel almost frozen in time. Unlike American cities that experienced widespread urban renewal, Cuba still has most of the buildings it had 50 or even 100 years ago. Sadly, many are in a state of disrepair, but those that have been renovated are absolutely wonderful. The City has a detailed plan to systematically renovate every building (at least in Old Havana) and we were told that 37 percent of them had been renovated in the past 20 years. To be honest, it felt more like 25% but either way it is an impressive achievement in a relatively short period of time and with little resources. Much of the funding for the renovation comes from tourism dollars as the City’s Office of the Historian uses all profits from tourism to fund its programs. The Office has its work cut out for it as we were told that the Government did very little renovations in Havana from 1959 until the 1990s, as the government prioritized other parts of the country and other issues. The Office was established in the mid-1990s to be an entrepreneurial, quasi-public entity that operates more like a business, but is still owned by the government and still fulfills a public mission.
  • Cuba’s housing policy seeks to provide every Cuban with at least some shelter and it includes a broad range of housing styles and tenures. Many Cubans own their own apartments and have the ability to sell or trade those apartments. Others seem to be more like renters, although frankly we were often confused about whether those terms had the same meaning in Cuba as they do here. Most Cubans do not pay rent and don’t have a mortgage and those who do have a mortgage are able to pay it off within a few years. Multi-family buildings do have some sort of resident association (or is it more like a condominium association) that is responsible for maintaining the property. Still, it often sounded fairly informal and ad hoc.  When one of our group members asked the building superintendent who fixed things that broke, like a toilet or boiler, the response was that they had someone on the 4th floor who did it.  We were left with the impression that there is a significant informal economy in Cuba where people do things for each other in exchange for other favors (I’ll fix your bathroom, if you fix my car).
  • While Cuba does not have CDCs in the American sense, they do have an emerging array of NGOs, community associations and community activists that are pushing to improve the quality of neighborhoods and to lift living standards for lower-income Cubans. We met with people at the Martin Luther King Center, which provides an array of social services to seniors and families and recently renovated 60 blighted homes in the neighborhood. We met with the Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos School & Workshop that is training young people in architectural renovation so they can help rebuild their own city. We met with professional and grassroots leaders involved with the Group for the Comprehensive Development of the Capital, which has been working for more than 20 years to train community leaders and build community capacity to participate in urban planning decision making (this program was greatly assisted by Mel King and other community development leaders from Boston who started coming to Havanna 20+ years ago to offer trainings and workshops. These types of organizations and leaders provide a nascent infrastructure for ensuring that Cuba’s transformation to a more market-based economy does not erode the social safety nets now in place.

  • Cuba’s economy is changing quickly. The Government is allowing more and more private enterprise with family-owned businesses and cooperative businesses becoming more and more common in such areas as barber shops, food stores, restaurants, and taxi cabs. I believe 500,000 Cubans are now in the private sector. While large industries are still entirely public, those Cuban Companies are gaining more independence from the politicians and operating more like private companies with independent decision making and the ability to retain more of their own profits.  In my mind, these companies are like the US Postal Service, or Massport, or perhaps Mass Housing or Mass Development.
  • Private investors from Europe and Latin America are gaining a foothold in the Cuban economy. While foreigners cannot own real estate or companies, many foreign companies are participating in Joint Ventures with Cuban companies and/or operating under long-term service contracts to operate businesses like hotels (the very fancy hotel across the street from us was run by a European Company).  Notably, our self-defeating embargo policy is giving our competitors a big head start in Cuba. That said, the U.S. Embargo is also providing the breathing space for Cuba to figure out how to manage foreign investment before it must confront a massive wave of American capital.
  • Cuba has two currencies and appears to have two very different economies. One currency, the peso, is for local people to use. Government workers are paid in pesos and make very small salaries – perhaps $25 a month for school teachers and a bit more for doctors. Even with free health care, education, retirement security, housing and even some free food, this is a small salary. Foreigners use a hard currency called the C.U.C., which is worth significantly more than the peso and can be converted into dollars, Euros or other currencies. Those Cubans who are lucky enough to work with tourists and get paid in C.U.C.s can earn 10, 20 or 30 times more money per month than those who don’t.  The women who cleaned my hotel room for one week received more in tips than a school teacher earns in a month. And I’m sure she cleaned more rooms than just mine! The imbalance between the Peso economy and the CUC economy was a source of constant bewilderment for all of us and seems like a giant inequity in a country built around equity.  At a market for tourists, I paid $5 for a used book. At a store for Cubans, a colleague bought a brand new book for 40 cents. It is our understanding that Cuba is moving toward a single currency, but the transition is going to be very hard and create some significant winners and losers.
  • It was hard to get a clear read on the state of political freedoms, like free speech, public dissent, and democracy. Many of the Cubans spoke openly about the challenges and problems in their country and a few were willing to explicitly criticize the government. But most of the criticisms were about past decisions, not current policy and most of the people were quick to balance any criticism with comments about the positive aspects of the Revolution and official policy. It was hard to discern whether they were truly sincere about the benefits of the Revolution, perhaps a bit defensive about how American’s might perceive their country, or being careful out of fear.
  • Often Cubans would talk about their country as a work in progress, trying things, making mistakes, suffering from the American Embargo, learning from mistakes, and adapting.  Surely this is true – Cuba is a very young country that was poor when it started in 1959 and suffered tremendous hardship when the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped supporting the Cuban economy (Cuba lost 60% of its economy in one year). In many ways, the Cuba of today was born in the mid-1990s when for the first time it began to build a new society independent of the Soviet Union, or the United States or Spain.  (An aside, but sometimes people sounded similar to those I have met in Israel on recent trips, i.e. we are a young country, still finding our way in a hostile environment.)
  • One of the ways that the country is slowly becoming more “democratic” is a push to give more power to local governments.  In Cuba, people elect their local government officials (similar to city councils) so local government is relatively accountable to the citizenry. At each higher level of government, however, the power of the people is diminished as the city councils elect their provincial government (i.e. state legislature), which in turn elects the national Parliament, which in turn elects the President (Raul Castro).
  • The internet is also opening up the flow of information as people now have access to media and news from around the world. While internet access is not as ubiquitous as it is here, many people have cell phones, smart phones and computers. With more and more tourists coming to the country, the flow of information increases as well. In fact, I was able to watch CNN and ESPN in my hotel room (I had no email and no cellphone, but at least I had SportsCenter every morning!)
  • One of the most striking features about Cuba for an American is the fact that there is ABSOLUTELY NO ADVERTISING anywhere (other than political billboards celebrating the Revolution!)  At first, this seemed disorienting and depressing.  No smiling faces drinking Coca Cola; no bright lights enlivening the night; no pictures of pretty people using modern products that I don’t yet own, no images designed to create demand for consumer products.  I began to wonder how Cubans could figure out what to buy and where to shop without any ads to tell them.  Within a few days, I began to get used to the lack of advertising. It became a welcome vacation from the onslaught – especially during Christmas season!
  • Another aspect of city life in Cuba that is very different than here is the fact that there is virtually no street crime or drug use.  We would walk down dark, blighted streets with dozens of people hanging out and yet feel no unease or fear. Virtually everyone was friendly and we were never hassled or threatened at all. We saw a few people panhandling, but no more than in any American city and they were rarely aggressive and never threatening. I’m sure their criminal justice system is not something we would want to emulate, but it was nice to feel safe when walking around town.
  • We visited a wonderful community arts program dedicated to promoting Afro-Cuban Culture. Indeed, Cuba is home to diverse cultures emanating from different waves of immigration over the years (there is even a Chinatown!)  There seems to be less discrimination and inequity between/among white, black and mulatto people than in the U.S. and most other countries. As one of my African American colleagues put it “everyone is poor!”  That said, a few of the black people we met hinted at continued inequities, presumably dating back to the days of slavery and blatant discrimination under Spanish rule (Slavery ended in Cuba 20 years after it ended in the U.S.)  I would have liked to gain better insights into these issues during our trip.
  • We had the opportunity to travel beyond Havana for a couple of days to see the countryside and small village life.  I’m no expert on Agriculture, but it seems like Cuba could benefit from a more modern farming system. I saw little signs of modern irrigation and many of the cows and horses looked emaciated. Much of the land was unused and for better or worse Cuba cannot afford to use pesticides or chemicals.  The Cuban government has encouraged many rural residents to move to new, government-planned communities in order to improve the condition of their housing and to cultivate an eco-tourism economy. The natural beauty of the country certainly gives them the basis for building this industry.
  • We also spent one glorious day at the beach.  It might have been the best beach I have ever seen, with perfect sand, sun, and waves.  And in Cuba you can get drinks brought right to your beach chair and have a full, hot lunch of seafood right on the beach!  It was hard to leave, even as the sun began to set.
  • OK, I can’t write about Cuba without saying something about the cars.  I knew there would be old cars in Cuba, but I had no idea that there would be so many. It seems like 25% of the cars on the road are from before 1959.  Many of the cars are wonderfully restored – we even saw a perfectly restored 1914 Model A Ford.

  • We took a couple of rides in these cars – many operate as taxis – and it was both fun and a bit terrifying. These cars feel like death traps, frankly, with no safety features whatsoever! We often saw cars broken down on the side of the road, but people simply fix them and get back on the road.  The cars symbolize one of the most amazing things about this country – its resiliency. People preserve in what some call a survival economy.  They are creative, innovative, collaborative, entrepreneurial, competitive, and intelligent.  They do what it takes to survive and to help their families and friends survive. It is truly inspiring.
  • In the end, I was struck by the fact that this small, poor country is trying to forge an economic model that might be unique in the world, one that leverages private capital and entrepreneurial energy, but retains a strong social safety network and remains true to Cuba’s unique culture, history, environment, and assets.  If Cuba can find its way toward balancing these goals, while expanding political freedom and democracy, it has the opportunity to become a model for other poor countries.  It’s my humble view that the United States should be actively supporting this transformation, pushing for political freedom, while providing the financial, technological and infrastructure that the country needs. The U.S. Embargo is an antiquated and counterproductive policy. Let’s hope it changes soon.
  • In the meantime, I encourage Americans to go to Cuba now; to see this incredible country before the transformation is complete. Common Ground can organize a trip for a small group and they will ensure a great experience.  The U.S. travel “ban” requires a bit of paperwork and extra expense, but it is not a real obstacle. By going to Cuba now, you will accelerate and support the changes now underway, while seeing a country that is truly unique in the world. And while you may come home confused and even confounded by what you see and hear, you will definitely enjoy yourself because Cuba is an amazing place.
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UPDATED: Mayoral Race Candidate Questionnaires on Housing Issues

September 25th, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

What do Marty Walsh & John Connolly have to say about housing?  Check out their Housing & Community Development Candidate Questionairre responses.

CLICK HERE for John Connolly's responses.

CLICK HERE for Marty Walsh's responses.


Housing is one of the most important issues facing the City of Boston and must be at the top of the new Mayor’s priority list.  Therefore, Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), MA Association of Community Development Corporations , Boston Tenant Coalition, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership , Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance and the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston came together to develop a Mayoral candidate questionnaire on housing and community development issues to better inform the public about how each of the candidates would address these issues.

Questionnaires were mailed and emailed to all candidates on July 15th, included 15 questions, and allowed candidates to use up to 50 words for each answer.  The completed questionnaires are presented here exactly as they were received. Not all candidates followed the format provided (as can be seen when clicking on the individual PDFs).

As a tax exempt organization our goal with this survey is to educate the public. Publication of these questionnaires should not be construed as an endorsement of any candidate.

 

CLICK HERE to read the Mayoral Candidate Questionnaire Survey Press Release.

Candidates Charles L Clemons, Jr., Robert Consalvo, and Charles C. Yancey did not respond.

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Affordable Housing Bond Bill Advances, But Troubling 40B Language Tempers Excitement

August 5th, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

MACDC and other affordable housing advocates were very pleased to see the State Senate pass a $1.4 billion Affordable Housing Bond Bill on July 30 that will ensure continued funding for state housing programs and also increases the State Low Income Housing Tax Credit from $10 million annually to $20 million. The bill, which has already passed the House, now goes to a Conference Committee to resolve the relatively minor differences between the two bills. It will then go to the Governor for his signature – possibly as soon as this September.

Unfortunately, the Senate included troubling language related to Chapter 40B, the state's affordable housing law, designed to address specific concerns in the towns of Milton and Norwood. This is the first time that the Legislature has enacted legislation that amends Chapter 40B and sets a dangerous precedent that might motivate opponents of 40B projects in other cities and towns to pursue similar legislation. This sort of ad hoc, case-by-case approach to Chapter 40B would dramatically weaken the law, increase the risk to developers and cause chaos in the development community. It is precisely the wrong direction for a state that needs more housing and more affordable housing – not less.

MACDC will be working with CHAPA and others to urge the Governor to veto this language and we are confident that we can sustain such a veto – but only if the entire housing community rallies to the effort.

MACDC thanks those Senators who voted to protect the Affordable Housing Law: Senator Jamie Eldridge (Housing Bond Bill Senate sponsor), Senator Michael Barrett, Senator Gale Candaras, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Senator Katherine Clark, Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, Senator Sal DiDomenico, Senator Benjamin Downing, Senator Barry Finegold, Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, Senator Robert Hedlund, Senator Michael Knapik, Senator Richard Ross, Senator Bruce Tarr, and Senator Dan Wolf.

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A Community Development Agenda for the next Mayor of Boston

July 14th, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

Boston is widely known across the country for having one of the strongest CDC networks in the United States.  One reason for our success has been the close partnership between the CDCs and City Hall during the tenure of Mayor Thomas Menino and his predecessor, Mayor Ray Flynn.  Both Mayors have worked with CDCs as partners and the results speak for themselves. In particuar, under Mayor Menino’s Leading the Way Initiative, CDCs and the CIty of Boston have successfully built and preserved thousands of homes and created thousands of jobs.  Can you imagine what Boston neighborhoods would be like today if the Mayor and the CDCs were in conflict and competition, instead of collaboration? Personally,  I’d rather not think about that!

With the campaign to succeed Mayor Menino now fully underway, the MACDC Boston Committee has developed a 10 point Community Development Agenda that we are releasing as part of our effort to ensure that this extradorinary record of achievement and collaboration continues regardless of which candidate emerges as the winner.  We recommend the following:

  1. Enact a strong Inclusionary Development Ordinance:  Such an ordinance should (a) require that a minimum of 15% of the units in new market-rate developments be affordable, (b) establish “pay-out” fees sufficient to produce a comparable number of off-site units, (c) ensure greater transparency at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, (d) ensure neighborhood equity, and (e) empower DND to administer IDP dollars along with other housing funds.
  2. Strengthen the City’s Linkage program:  This requires increasing the linkage payments for housing and workforce development and allowing linkage funds to be used for a broader array of community economic development and small business development programming.
  3. Continue Leading the Way: The City of Boston must continue to “Lead the Way” on affordable housing by establishing ambitious, measurable multi-year goals for housing and by growing the City’s annual Leading the Way appropriation from $5 million to $10 million per year.
  4. Leverage public land disposition: The City should establish land disposition policies that require or at least favor affordable housing development and price such land to enable developers to build homes that are affordable to Boston residents. The City should also prioritize selling properties to community based non-profits that propose development plans consistent with neighborhood priorities. The City should also exercise leadership to ensure that state-owned parcels are developed with similar guidelines and priorities.
  5. Support neighborhood economic development: The City should fund a robust and city-wide small business development support system that leverages the capacity, expertise, and physical presence of CDCs and other community based organizations across the City. Such a program should provide training, technical assistance and financing to existing and aspiring entrepreneurs and should be designed to leverage private, federal and state dollars.
  6. Promote Mixed Use and Transit Oriented Development: The City should partner with CDCs and other private developers to support mixed use developments, especially those near transit nodes, which help create the lively, vibrant urban neighborhoods that Boston resident’s desire. This means strategically leveraging housing dollars, CDBG funds, public land, and zoning tools to make it easier and less expensive to bring those projects to completion.
  7. Enact the Community Preservation Act: The new Mayor should lead a campaign to win ballot approval of the Community Preservation Act to provide new funding for affordable housing development, historic preservation and green space. The CPA would establish a 1% property tax surcharge and leverage millions of dollars in state matching funds.
  8. Partner with community based organizations: The City should leverage the assets and capacity of local community based organizations, CDCs and others, to implement housing, economic development, workforce development and other city priorities.
  9. Ensure the Casino benefits Boston residents: If Boston becomes home to a new casino, the new Mayor must ensure that Boston residents are able to access jobs during both construction and operation of the facility. Local, minority and women owned businesses must have access to contracting opportunities and community mitigation funds must be provided to impacted neighborhoods.
  10. Advocate for state and federal resources: The next Mayor of Boston must be a leader at the State House and with our Congressional delegation to make sure Boston has access to state and federal dollars for housing, economic development, brownfields recapitalization and many other programs.

 

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Are poor families stuck in place?

July 8th, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of a new book by the Brookings Institute called Confronting Suburban Poverty that highlights the growing number of poor people living in suburbs and small cities across America.  While I have some strong concerns about the book, it does draw needed attention to the changing demographics of poverty in America. Interestingly, when I bought the Brookings book on-line, Amazon.com kindly recommended that I buy another new book that highlights the persistent and long standing problem of concentrated poverty in the inner city. This book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality, by Patrick Sharkey, provides new insights into this old problem.

Drawing on detailed, longitudinal data about white and African American families over the past several decades (comprehensive and long term data does not exist for more recent immigrant groups), Sharkey documents that the negative impacts of concentrated poverty deepen as successive generations of the same family live in poor neighborhoods, especially for African American families.  Some of Sharkey’s key findings:

  • Disadvantage can be inherited just like wealth can be. Says Sharkey, “to understand neighborhood inequality we must think in terms of generations not single points of time or even single periods in an individual’s life.”
  • Neighborhoods clearly account for some, but by no means all, of the social and economic disparities that exist between African Americans and whites.
  • African Americans not only have less upward mobility than whites, but they have significantly higher rates of downward mobility.  In other words, those African Americans who do attain middle class status are often unable to sustain it over time as they are “caught between two worlds, one dominated by the ideals of education and advancement up the income ladder, the other dominated by the presence of gang activity, poorly functioning schools and violence.” Moreover, the social and family connections that can be a source of support for some African Americans can pull others downward.
  • There is strong evidence that when neighborhoods do improve “the economic fortunes of black youth improve and improve rather substantially.”
  • The “most common pattern of neighborhood ‘improvement’ for African Americans in the 1980s entailed improvement in the economic status of residents combined with ethnic diversification in the form of a rise in Latino and foreign born newcomers.” This is very different than the “common conception of gentrification which often connotes a racial turnover where new white entrants …displace original minority residents,” writes Starkey.
  • Mobility programs that help families leave low income neighborhoods have shown mixed results with the most significant impacts on families who left the most devastated neighborhoods and moved to suburbs outside the central city.  Less dramatic changes in neighborhoods generated less clear results.

Based on these findings, Sharkey has important policy recommendations to offer:

Programs that work only at the neighborhood level can be overwhelmed by larger economic forces, but efforts to focus on regional and national economic strategies often leave challenged neighborhoods behind. Therefore, he concludes, we need to have policies working at all of these levels at the same time.

  • Given the generational nature of the problem, we need a “durable” set of policies that are sustained over time, unlike the War on Poverty programs that were quickly abandoned or scaled back after a few years. There is no quick fix to these long standing problems.
  • Mobility programs have a role to play, but they cannot be taken to scale, almost by definition. We can’t move everyone out of the inner city and if we were to move a significant number of people they are likely to end up in newly concentrated areas of poverty – assuming we could find the housing and the political support needed for such a policy. (He does not mention, but I will, the problem of what happens to the people left behind in poor neighborhoods if mobility programs were to scale up and depopulate these places.)
  • Placed based programs that work to comprehensively improve poor neighborhoods are essential and need to be sustained over time.
  • “One of the most formidable challenges to maintaining cohesive urban communities in the years and decades to come will be dealing with the destabilizing consequences of mass imprisonment.”
  • Sharkey offers a resounding endorsement of CDCs. He writes that “local community organizations focusing on housing and physical development, economic development, asset building, and resident organization must continue to be supported, as these types of organizations provide a stabilizing force in city neighborhoods, even in the most challenging economic and political climates.”

While the problems detailed in the book can be overwhelming, it was refreshing to read such a detailed and honest account of the challenges we face and such a balanced and thoughtful approach to the policies we need.  He recognizes the need for many different strategies, emphasizes the long term nature of this work, and cautions against policies that look for a quick fix.  With all of this, Starkey remains hopeful as there is significant evidence that we can make progress if we as a society are prepared to make a deep and durable commitment to doing so.

For those who want to see our country make that commitment, Sharkey’s book is essential reading.

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