News

Ten Unsolicited Suggestions for our New Governor

November 13th, 2014 by Joe Kriesberg

Since Election Day, many people have asked what I think about the new Governor and what his election will mean for the Community Development Field.  My quick answer, in light of the commitments he made to us at the MACDC Convention last month (Watch VIDEO), is that I’m optimistic.  And the appointment of Jay Ash as Secretary of Housing and Economic Development is another great signal that this Administration will be a friend of community development.  My longer answer is that it is incumbent on those of us in the field to work hard to build a productive partnership with the new Administration. In that spirit, I thought I would offer a few suggestions to Governor-elect Charlie Baker:

  1. Set ambitious housing goals:  The Administration should set ambitious goals that can be used to shape policy, motivate public agencies, attract private partners, overcome bureaucratic inertia, and be used to measure progress, make adjustment and ultimately refine policies as needed.  To ensure balance, the Administration should set goals in several areas, such as: new first-time homebuyers accessing state support mortgage products, new permits for multi-family housing, affordable housing production and preservation, reductions in family and individual homelessness, a reduction in the number of households paying over 50% (or 30%) of their income for housing, and the number of towns/cities that exceed the 10% goal for affordable housing.
  2. Invest strategically to address housing market deficiencies:  I was pleased that Mr. Baker said at our Convention that he would at least maintain the current $190 million capital budget for housing and consider increases in the future. Increases in the capital budget, along with increases in state tax credits, brownfields funding and rental assistance are necessary to meet the growing demand for reasonably priced housing that the market can’t produce by itself.  We also need to invest in a balanced approach that includes housing production & preservation; rental & homeownership; new construction & rehab, large & small projects; and investments in urban, rural and suburban communities.
  3. Embrace smart growth policies:  For the past 12 years, starting with Governor Romney and continuing with Governor Patrick, the Commonwealth has embraced a smart growth framework to guide our economic development, housing, environmental and transportation policies. Adopting policies, like those outlined by the MA Smart Growth Alliance, will save money for public infrastructure, provide the scale and density necessary for sustained economic growth, address climate change, respond to the growing market demand for urban, walkable places, and protect the Commonwealth’s natural resources.  Smart growth also promotes regional equity – improving the quality-of-life in distressed neighborhoods and expanding opportunities in higher income places so we all benefit.
  4. Grow local economies: The Governor-elect has already committed to put at least $2 million in his budget for MGCC’s Small Business Technical Assistance program that provides grants to local nonprofits working to support small businesses, in particular those run by immigrants, people of color and women.  The new Administration should build on this by supporting MGCC and a network of strong local/regional CDFIs that can provide loans to new and growing small businesses who are not yet bankable.  And the Administration should embrace the newly enacted Transformative Development Initiative for Gateway Cities and look to expand it if it proves successful during its pilot stage.
  5. Leverage the power of place: In recent years, a number of exciting programs have demonstrated the power of investing in cross-sector, placed-based efforts to expand economic opportunity and improve the quality-of-life in our neighborhoods and towns – without displacing the very residents who help make those improvements possible.  The Federal Reserve Bank’s Working Cities program, the Smart Growth Alliance’s Great Neighborhoods program and LISC’s Resilient Communities/Resilient Families program offer terrific models for state government to use in crafting its own approach.
  6. Support municipal capacity: The Baker Administration should build local municipal capacity to get things done. This should include actively encouraging/helping cities and towns to enact the Community Preservation Act, to establish Business Improvement Districts, to develop long-term housing plans, to zone for smart growth, and to pass inclusionary zoning ordinances that promote equitable development for people across all income levels.
  7. Strengthen the CDC sector: The Governor-elect has enthusiastically committed to fully implement the Community Investment Tax Credit by deploying all $6 million in credits each year and helping to recruit private sector partners to the program.  The state can further help by investing directly in the myriad projects and programs offered by CDCs in partnership with local residents and stakeholders.  These investments provide taxpayers with an important “two-fer”: (1) a well-designed, community-driven project or program, and (2) increased local capacity to ensure long-term stewardship and further investment.
  8. Promote family asset building:  Income and wealth inequality are growing problems not just in Massachusetts, but across the country.  Reversing these trends will be difficult, but the state can help by supporting programs that empower families to save money, build assets, gain financial skills, avoid predatory financial products, and in some cases, become homeowners.
  9. Connect the Dots:  There is a growing body of evidence documenting that investments in strong neighborhoods and safe, affordable housing provide returns across a wide array of social goals, including public health, educational attainment, environmental protection, energy efficiency, and public safety.  We need to invest more in these up-stream measures that reduce long-term costs and improve life outcomes for children and families.
  10. Collaborate with community-based organizations – I was pleased to hear Governor-elect Baker say at our Convention last month that he would want to meet with us on a regular basis throughout his administration.  He has already demonstrated that interest during the campaign, meeting with the MACDC Board of Directors, visiting local CDCs and coming to our Convention. We look forward to building a strong partnership with the Administration.

Good luck with the transition, Mr. Governor-elect.  And please know that the CDC community is ready to help and ready to get to work.

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Candidates for Governor Highlight MACDC Convention

October 31st, 2014 by Joe Kriesberg

Yes. Yes. Yes.

That’s how four candidates for Governor answered three of the four questions MACDC asked them in front of more than 600 community development leaders and residents from across the state who had crowded into a ballroom at the Westin Hotel in Boston on Saturday, October 25 for MACDC’s 2014 Convention. The answers came as part of our Gubernatorial Forum which was attended by Martha Coakley (Democrat), Charlie Baker (Republican), Evan Falchuck (United Independent Party) and Jeff McCormick (Independent candidate).  All four of these candidates agreed, if elected, to

  1. Provide at least $2 million in their budget for the Small Business Technical Assistance Program
  2. Fully implement and support the Community Investment Tax Credit
  3. Meet with MACDC after the election to discuss how to achieve shared goals

MACDC also asked the candidates to increase the state’s capital budget for affordable housing by $32 million in 2016. While none of the candidates made a firm commitment to this dollar amount, all of them expressed strong support for investing in affordable housing and targeting more resources toward homeownership development.  You can watch video of each candidate’s remarks.

The Gubernatorial Forum was just one aspect of the day-long Convention, which also included opportunities for learning, networking and celebrating.  The Convention included eight different workshops on a range of topics, the release of MACDC’s 2015 Policy Agenda and the presentation of Awards to outstanding leaders in the public, private and CDC sectors.   Aaron Gornstein, Undersecretary for Housing and Community Development received the Excellence in Community Service award and then spoke about the great work that local CDCs are doing in their communities every day.  And Boston Mayor Marty Walsh spoke about his plans to work with CDCs to implement his agenda for housing and economic development in the City.

The event was also a great opportunity to roll our a new Social Media campaign using the hashtag #cdcswork.  You can see a review of all the social media activity by looking on our Storify page.

The Convention was made possible by generous support from Bank of America, Citi Foundation, MHIC, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, and dozens of other sponsors (Complete list of sponsors).  MACDC is grateful to all the sponsors as well as the volunteers, speakers and participants who made the 2014 Convention a major success.  We are already excited about the next convention – in 2018!

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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.
Commenting Closed

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.

Commenting Closed

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