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.


Commenting Closed

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, 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.

Commenting Closed

Is Poverty Growing in the Suburbs or the Cities? Or Both?

June 8th, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

What do Lynn, Brockton, Lincoln, Westwood, Watertown and Revere have in common? According to a new report by the Brookings Institute “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” they are all suburbs of Boston, despite their vast differences.  Does this seem strange to you? It does to me.

The Brookings report is getting a great deal of attention in recent days because it offers a compelling and challenging message:  Suburban poverty is exploding across America and our federal policies are poorly designed to meet this challenge.  Many people are already citing the report as evidence of the need for a new anti-poverty strategy.

I would agree that we need new approaches to reducing poverty. Indeed, perhaps the most stunning finding in the report is how much poverty has grown over the past decade in cities and suburbs, largely as the result of the deep economic recession. Hopefully, that will turn around as the economy slowly recovers, but deep structural problems in our economy will likely result in high poverty rates for years to come unless we embrace a much larger national commitment to reducing poverty. I would also agree with Brookings that smaller municipalities struggle with addressing poverty because they have less financial and technical capacity than larger cities. Regional collaboration – a core recommendation of the book – is certainly a part of the solution.

All that said I have some questions about the report’s findings and recommendations.

1. What is a suburb?

Brookings defines “suburb” as any municipality with less than 100,000 people regardless of its wealth, density, housing stock, or anything else.  Therefore, according to the report, wealthy communities with mostly single family homes can be considered “urban” while dense, poor cities with significant rental housing can be considered “suburbs”.  Such an incomplete and inaccurate definition makes the use of the word “suburb” meaningless at best, and misleading at worst, especially in Metro Boston.  It is a serious mistake to conflate truly suburban communities like Lincoln and Westwood with smaller urban cities like Lynn, Brockton and Revere because they face different challenges, have different resources, and need different solutions.  There may in fact be more poor people in the “suburbs” as Brookings contends, and maybe this even means that we are moving to a more equitable distribution of poverty in our region.  I’m skeptical about this, at least for Greater Boston.  What might be happening instead is that our smaller cities are getting poorer and the true suburbs remain largely exclusive.  The Brookings data clearly indicates that poverty is dispersed across metro regions, but without further analysis, the Brookings findings do not help us to understand whether this is a suburban phenomenon or a small city one. The difference matters, especially in Massachusetts where we have many small cities with significant poverty.

2. Are  federal dollars too focused on so-called place-based programs?

Brookings goes on to contend, based on these flawed definitions of “urban” and “suburban” that the Federal Government’s anti-poverty programs are too “placed-based” and overly focused on “urban” areas.   Yet, the largest anti-poverty programs by far in America are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps.  None of these are placed-based! Moreover, Brookings definition of “placed-based” does not make much sense as it includes programs such as HOME and LIHTC that provide housing in urban, rural and suburban communities.  The report even includes mobile housing vouchers that are explicitly not placed-based and the new HUD Sustainable Communities Program, which is explicitly regional.  I worry that Brookings perpetuates the false impression that the Federal Government actually spends significant money outside of our core entitlement programs on fighting poverty. With recent budget cuts, this is less true than ever, and the Brookings report could reinforce the false notion that federal programs are too expensive, ineffective and should be slashed.

Of course, Brookings does not advocate for federal budget cuts. Rather, Brookings says on its website that “the answer to these challenges is not to shift limited resources from poor urban to poor suburban communities.” That sounds good until you read the next paragraph where they propose to do just that by taking 5% of the funding now focused on so-called “placed-based” programs and creating a new Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge program.  This might be a great new program, but robbing Peter to pay Paul is not an effective strategy.

3. Are we really still debating the efficicacy of placed-based vs. people-based programs?

There is a growing body of evidence connecting place to social/economic outcomes.  I find it strange that Brookings is now suggesting that we move away from efforts to improve places.  I thought we were done with the tired debate about place-based vs. people-based efforts and that it was widely understood that both were needed. (The same is true for the newer, but already tired, debate about whether to focus on regions or neighborhoods.)

4. Will the Brookings report help re-energize a national commitment to reducing poverty?

There is no doubt that we need a more thoughtful and direct approach to addressing poverty in suburbs and smaller cities, as well as our larger cities for that matter.  Our members struggle with these challenges every day.  If the Brookings report helps spur that conversation and drives resources to that effort, then it would have a positive impact.  By making it clear that poverty is an American problem not just an urban problem, perhaps the report can generate more public support for progressive policies. And the report is likely to push a very important conversation about regional equity and reducing concentrated poverty. But I would encourage you to read beyond the headlines and examine the report’s assumptions, definitions and recommendations. And I would encourage Brookings and others to conduct a more fine-tuned analysis. The stakes are too high to misdiagnose what is going on with poverty across America.

Commenting Closed

Is there a common theme that unites the CDC sector?

June 1st, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

What does an organization supporting fisherman have in common with one that’s cleaning up a brownfields site along the Housatonic River in Great Barrington?  What does a foreclosure prevention counseling program in Roxbury have in common with a small business microloan fund in the Quaboag Valley?  The answer is these are all programs run by CDCs.  If CDCs are this different and this varied in the services they provide and the communities they serve, is there a common theme or thread that binds them all together?  Are all the CDCs operating from a same “theory of change” implicitly if not explicitly?  Is there a common framework that can be developed to evaluate and measure their impact?

I would like to offer a tentative yes to these questions.  With due respect for the individual qualities and attributes of each CDC, and with recognition that CDCs are not equal in terms of scale, capacity and impact, I do think there is a unifying theory that captures what CDCs do.

The power of the CDC model, I have come to believe, is providing a vehicle for local residents and stakeholders to initiate, implement and steward community change by fostering a virtuous and reinforcing cycle that builds the local civic culture, improves the places where we live and ultimately changes lives.  Let me elaborate.

The first step is to change the way people in a community work together to create a functioning civic culture that includes everyone and allows things to get done. In many places, each constituency has just enough power to stop things, but none have enough power to get things done on their own. This can lead to gridlock. Effective CDCs help people in the public, private and nonprofit sector work together.  They also help address another common problem in the civic life of many communities – the fact that certain groups in the community are not always at the table – lower income people, new comers, linguistic minorities, youth and disabled people are generally less likely to be engaged unless there is an intentional effort made to include them.

As communities begin to come together, the physical environment in a neighborhood or community can begin to change. New housing, businesses, jobs, parks, and infrastructure can provide residents with the stability, safety and access to opportunities that they need to improve their lives. CDCs have the technical, financial and yes, the political capacity to undertake, and/or spur others to undertake, the complex development projects that are needed to create and sustain effective local economies, while also creating safer and healthier environments for local residents. Often, CDCs are able to drive a series of development projects over a period of years to completely transform a neighborhood.

As these neighborhoods improve, people can begin to change their life trajectories. Stable housing enables adults to better compete for jobs or obtain the job training they need. Students with a stable home do better in school and have the ability to pursue their dreams and talents. Safer streets, improved community facilities and new businesses bring new opportunities to local residents. CDCs often complement their placed based work with a wide variety of programs designed to help residents enter the economic mainstream and connect to the regional economy. These programs can include financial education and savings programs, homebuying classes, foreclosure counseling, ESOL and youth programming.  As these efforts help to stabilize people’s lives and they gain entry to the economic mainstream, they are better able to participate in the civic life of their communities. Time and again, we see participants in CDC programs become leaders in their communities, helping to pay it forward for the next family that needs help. And the cycle begins anew.

This approach is validated by the experience of practitioners across the country. More and more academic research is also coming out that documents the ways that improved neighborhoods, stable housing and economic security produce positive outcomes in public heath, educational attainment, public safety, and environmental sustainability.  Policy makers at the state and federal level are recognizing these linkages in new programs like Choice Neighborhoods and Promise Neighborhoods at the federal level and the Community Investment Tax Credit recently enacted in Massachusetts. Going forward, we need to improve our ability to collect meaningful data and evidence that allows us to evaluate the efficacy of this approach, refine our models, build our capacity, and tell the story of our field so we can obtain the resources we need to scale our impact.

Commenting Closed

Did law school teach me something about evaluation?

May 3rd, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

My teenage sons enjoy making fun of me for spending three years in law school and then getting a job that does not involve being a lawyer. I try to explain that you learn a lot in law school that is useful for other professions (how to write, think, and argue, for example), but they remain skeptical.

I was thinking about this recently because I was engaged in several conversations about program evaluation and how we can better understand whether our efforts are having the desired impact.  As I wrote in my last article, our field is often wrongly and harshly judged because poverty rates in America have not declined in the last fifty years. For some, this is evidence that what we are doing is not working. What if poverty rates are the wrong benchmark to measure our field’s success?  If so, how do we measure our efficacy and overall performance?

I certainly don’t have a simple or complete answer for these questions, nor does anyone else. At some level, it is impossible to answer given that the community development field seeks to serve many different constituencies with different needs and goals. And many actions and programs may benefit some at the expense of others.

Given the complexity of the questions and the murkiness of the data, I would like to suggest that we consider applying some legal thinking to the question.  Perhaps, the way our legal system resolves conflicts – in particular civil law suits – offers some guidance.

First, in a civil legal case, the jury must make a decision based on a preponderance of the evidence, unlike a criminal case in which the burden of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  This strikes me as the right standard for community developers because the complexity of human life means that there will always be some doubts about what caused certain outcomes. But that does not mean we can’t make judgments and decisions about what is or is not working; about which programs should be funded or not funded.  Most of the time, a preponderance of the evidence will point in one direction or the other; at a minimum it can significantly reduce the guess work.

Second, in a civil case, the attorney assembles as much evidence and data as s/he can to support his or her version of the case.  This evidence can take many forms – physical evidence, testimonials, statistical data, photos, and other sources of information. The fact that there may be some evidence that is contradictory, confusing or incomplete does not automatically negate the case depending on the overall weight of the evidence. This can be applied in our context, where community developers and others can use stories, anecdotes, output data, surveys, population level data, pictures, and other forms of information that begins to paint a picture of what is happening.

Third, and most important, a good trial attorney puts the evidence into a story that the jury can understand. Like all good stories, a lawyer’s story must have a beginning, middle and end, with a logical flow throughout that allows a jury to conclude, “yeah, that makes sense.”  Without a story, the evidence is just noise and is likely to be unconvincing. Without a story, jurors will have a hard time reconciling contradictory evidence and they will be unable to fill in the blanks if the evidence is incomplete. With a clear and logical story, jurors can make reasonable assumptions and inferences based on the inevitably incomplete evidentiary record. Jurors can also rely on scholarly research to help them understand the evidence and how it fits in the story. In fact, jurors can even apply common sense!  All of this is also true in our context. We need to have a story (in evaluation jargon we might say “theory of change” or “logic model”) about how we think the world operates and how we can change or alter its course. Data and evidence can then be used to see if things are playing out in a manner consistent with our story/theory/logic model that we have developed – or not.

As we work with DHCD and our members to devise an evaluation system for the newly enacted Community Investment Tax Credit program, I hope we can apply some of these ideas. CDCs should be able to articulate a theory or story about why they think their efforts are creating the desired change. They should have both quantitative and qualitative evidence that can shed light on whether they are having the desired impact.

We should not expect proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but rather a preponderance of the evidence as to whether our efforts are working. Gaps in data or knowledge should not be seen as evidence that programs are failing, nor should the complexity of human and community behavior deter us from seeking better understanding about the impact of our work. 

In future articles, I will offer some thoughts on an overall theory of change for the CITC program. I will also reflect on what I have learned from collecting data for the GOALs initiative for the past 10 years and how those lessons might be applied in the CITC context.   With a clear story or theory about our work and with more accurate and complete data, I am confident we will be able to effectively evaluate the work of our member organizations and the CITC program itself.  Of course, this model does leave a major challenge which is aggregating and comparing the work of different CDCs given that each group may have a slightly different approach and set of goals.

I’m not sure I needed three years of law school to figure this out – most people know the basic elements of a civil trial.  And I suspect my kids will always think that I wasted my time and money going to law school.  But for me, I continue to believe, based on a preponderance of the evidence, that I made the right decision to go to law school.  If nothing else, I met my wife during law school and my kids ought to see the value in that – even if meeting someone was not part of the logic model that motivated me to enroll in the first place.

Commenting Closed

“Does persistent poverty in America mean that community development is failing?”

April 28th, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

Community developers, like others fighting to improve the lives of low and moderate income people, are rightly frustrated at the persistently high rates of poverty in our country. A new book called “Investing in What Works for America’s Communities,” frames the issue in the following manner: “It may seem obvious, but the most important reason why community development needs to evolve is that it is not solving the problem it was set up to fix-namely, reducing the number of people living in poverty. The percentage of Americans living in poverty when the War on Poverty was underway was about 15 percent, and it is about 15 percent today.” 

In fairness to the authors, the book proceeds to give a much more balanced and nuanced explanation of what is and is not working in the field and the reasons for persistent poverty. But this simple statement “seem[s] so obvious” that it is frequently repeated in various ways by countless policy makers, scholars, funders and even practitioners. Indeed, it has become so widely accepted as to reach the level of “conventional wisdom.”   It is often used not just to critique the community development field, but the much larger anti-poverty movement and most if not all government programs designed to address poverty.  And it is a big part of the argument made by advocates for so called “pay for success contracts” and social impact bonds (see my article on this topic for more discussion of those models.)

But is it true?

My first objection to this argument, as I noted in an earlier article I wrote for this blog, is that I don’t think that community development was “set up” to simply to reduce poverty. I certainly agree that poverty reduction is one of our goals but we are just one small part of a much larger effort in that regard. If we expect community development to solve poverty than we are setting ourselves up to fail – even if we are successful at the more limited (yet still important) goals we can actually achieve like improving the quality of life for local residents, providing some economic stability for low income families, helping many of them break out of poverty, increasing resident control over community assets and local development, and simply enabling low income people to live with greater dignity, hope and pride. Those goals are hard enough!

But let’s put that issue aside for a moment. Is it fair to suggest that persistently high poverty rates is evidence that non-profit and government programs are ineffective and need to be redesigned and reinvented? Do we need to adopt “pay for success” contracts so we stop wasting money on supposedly ineffective programs as many now argue?   I think not.  Many nonprofit and government programs may very well need reinvention, but persistent poverty rates is hardly evidence one way or another. In fact, several other factors have a much bigger impact on our high poverty rates – stagnant wages, tax policy, social welfare policy, immigration, labor policy, globalization, institutional racism, growing numbers of single parent households, and even oddities in the way “poverty” is defined by the U.S. government.  For today, I want to focus on two of these other issues because they reveal the danger in this new conventional wisdom.

I believe that immigration promotes economic growth and significantly benefits our economy. That said, it is certainly true that over the past fifty years millions of impoverished people have come to our country (as my grandparents did 100 years ago) seeking opportunity. These immigrants arrive poor and often remain poor for most if not all of their remaining lives. In this respect they add to our poverty rates and contribute to the perception that we are failing.  Yet, according to a recent New York Times article on immigrants, second and third generation immigrants are doing substantially better than their parents and grandparents.

•  “Immigrant Latino households have a median income that trails the national median by $24,000 (or more than 40 percent). Among second-generation Latino households, the gap is only $10,000, according to a recent Pew Research Center report;” and

•   “For decades, the average Latino immigrant has had slightly more than a junior-high school education. An average child of a Latino immigrant today completes high school and attends almost one year of college. A typical grandchild attends more college,” said the article.

This is immensely encouraging. It suggests that it is still possible, indeed still perhaps common, for low income immigrants, with limited education, to come to America and to see their families eventually make their way into the economic mainstream. Perhaps part of the reason the overall poverty rates remain so high is that America continues to attract lower income immigrants to our shores where they can find new opportunities. That’s good for them and good for America, even though it may not be good for our poverty statistics. This is evidence that some of our programs are working – not failing.

A second reason poverty rates remain so high is that we have decided as a society that most of our assistance to the poor should be in the form of providing things rather than cash.  Most assistance now comes in the form of free or subsidized food, shelter, day care and health care. Indeed, health care benefits to the poor have risen dramatically along with the cost of health care nationwide. But these benefits do not factor into the poverty rate, even though they substantially improve the quality of life.  What if the poverty rate did consider these benefits? However, New York City uses a different standard than the federal government, one that takes account of non-cash assistance to the poor, but also reflects the higher cost of living in New York. (The official federal definition of poverty is absurd, but that is another article for another day.)  A recent New York Times article reported that researchers have found that affordable housing subsidies reduce the City’s poverty rate by 6.2 percent.  This is just one example of a government program (one that often involves non-profit agencies) that helps poor people even if it does not reduce the official US poverty rate.  This is evidence that our programs are working – not failing.

I don’t mean to sound naïve or to diminish the extraordinary hardship that poverty continues to bring to millions of families in America. I also am not suggesting that we be complacent about the need for non-profits to continually improve our efforts.  However, I fear that focusing on non-profit performance to the exclusion of other, more significant issues, is a dangerous distraction that will impede progress, not advance it.  One problem is that we may wrongly conclude that effective programs are ineffective because we are using the wrong benchmarks or flawed data (like poverty rates.)  Worse, by perpetuating the myth that social programs are largely ineffective, we provide a political excuse to cut the very programs that we need to help lift people out of poverty.

Commenting Closed

MMCA & MACDC Launch "Boston Pilot Program"

April 1st, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

The Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC) and the Massachusetts Minority Contractors Association (MMCA) Launched the "Boston Pilot Program" in April at the Kroc Center in Dorchester with over 100 supporters to support business growth and expansion opportunities for minority contractors, and local women-owned and small businesses. The goal is to ensure 30% of the work goes to MBE contractors and 10% to WBE contractors.

MACDC and MMCA are linking minority, women, small and local businesses to "targeted pipeline projects" slated for development by local Community Development Corporations (CDCs) to create business expansion and growth opportunities in Boston's neighborhoods. The Boston Pilot Program was created through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between MACDC and MMCA to identify and implement strategies to increase minority, woman-owned and local small business participation on construction projects developed by local CDCs.

Participating Community Development Corporations (CDCs)
- Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation
- Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation
- Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation
- Madison Park Development Corporation
- Nuestra Communidad Neighborhood Development Corporation
- Urban Edge Neighborhood Development Corporation - See more at:

Commenting Closed

Are we props or citizens?

March 24th, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

A few weeks ago, Boston Globe columnist, Joan Venochi, wrote an op-ed entitled “The Props for Patrick’s Wish List” in which she urged the Governor to “respect the public’s intelligence and stop using fellow citizens as props in a tired political play.”  She was referencing several public events that the Governor had held in recent days with various groups and constituencies that are supporting his call for increased revenue to support transportation and education investments. It was one of those columns that can really upset an otherwise quiet Sunday morning in my house.

I tweeted and I wrote a letter to the editor which was published the following Sunday. But her column still rankled.

Why did it get under my skin? I don't consider myself naïve about the nature of politics. There is much about which to be cynical and skeptical -- the influence of money, apathy, petty personal feuds, the lack of competitive races, the weakness of the Republican Party, back room deals and much more. Political theatre can be silly or worse and motives are not always pure. I have certainly voiced those views on many occasions both privately and publicly.

But of all the problems we face in our civic and political culture, I would not put citizen engagement on the list. We should be celebrating when citizens organize themselves to petition their government. We should be proud when we have a Governor who wants to engage citizens and work with them to achieve shared policy objectives. It is encouraging when the people most impacted by government programs are able to participate in the process – even if that participation is limited to showing up at a rally or press conference to lend their support. As Woody Allen famously put it, 80% of success is simply showing up. This is especially true in politics!

That is why, every year, MACDC brings people to the State House for our annual lobby day.  (This year’s event will be on May 1.)  Every year we hear from people who have come to the State House for the first time. These folks are inspired and awed by the fact that legislators actually listen to them in their meetings.  And they do listen. They may not agree, but I know they do listen. And often, they act on our behalf to pass important legislation like the Community Development Partnership Act or anti-foreclosure legislation, or funding for affordable housing. I take pride in creating an opportunity for people to experience the State House for the first time - or the 100th time for that matter.   Sure, some of it is theatre (Joan Vennochi is right about that!) But all of it is democracy and I don't think it is fair to dismiss the citizens who take the time to participate as mere props for elected officials. Indeed, when it comes to the need for new revenue it is more accurate to say that Governor Patrick is responding to citizen pressure than the other way around.

For me, the current debate about taxes and revenues is democracy in action. The Governor has put forward a thoughtful proposal. Legislators are engaging in vigorous debate. Citizens are making their voices heard, both pro and con.  My side might win the debate and we might lose it. Most likely the legislature will land somewhere in the middle. Either way, I’m proud to be participating in the process and grateful to live in a state where we make important public decisions in this manner.

Joan Vennochi may think that I’m a prop for the Governor. I consider myself to be a citizen.

Commenting Closed

The Hardest Part of Leading an Association

February 6th, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

Perhaps the hardest part of directing MACDC is balancing the valid, yet competing, interests of our diverse membership. This challenge came to the forefront at a recent MACDC Member Policy Summit in Framingham.

The main agenda item at the summit was to discuss how we think the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) should allocate its limited affordable housing resources.  With the competition for housing dollars tighter than it has been in years and with developers waiting in line for years before they can secure the needed subsidies, this is a critical question.

Should we prioritize the preservation of existing affordable homes or the production of new ones?

Should we locate more homes in higher income communities or focus resources on traditionally underinvested neighborhoods?

Should we prioritize seniors or families? the working poor or homeless families? Should we build a smaller number of large projects or a larger number of small projects? Rental homes or homeownership? The list of competing interests goes on and on.

The Massachusetts Housing Partnership made a significant contribution to the discussion recently by looking at the 403 projects and 20,973 units financed under the Patrick Administration.  Did you know that “non-urban” areas received 26% of the units and Gateway Cities 31%? Did you know that 63% of the units were Preservation units and 7% were for Special Needs populations? Do those numbers seem like good outcomes to you?

When we presented this data to our members there were many opinions. Most thought that DHCD has done a good job balancing competing goals, and that DHCD’s decision to institute a pre-application process and clearer funding priorities should help the system function better. That said, most agreed that there is room for further improvement and refinement. We also agreed that MACDC members need to talk further to see if we can fashion specific recommendations for the future and our policy committee will be tackling these questions in the months ahead.

In the meantime, I offer these thoughts about how we can approach these challenging questions.

  1. Grow the pie: We can’t allow these competing interests to distract us from the need to increase the resources allocated to affordable housing. This means passing the Affordable Housing Bond Bill this year, maintaining the state housing tax credit at $20 million per year, and increasing the state’s annual capital budget for DHCD.
  2. Take a balanced approach:  We need a balanced approach that responds to the different housing needs across the state – it should not be an all or nothing equation. One approach to doing this would be to set goals (or ranges) for key objectives so people understand that the state will fund a diverse mix of project types. EOHED does this in the MassWorks program and DHCD has done it as well for particular items - we currently have a goal of creating 1,000 supportive housing units over the next three years.  Boston Mayor Thomas M Menino’s Leading the Way program is another example of how this can be done. Goals should be flexible and multi-year so they don’t get applied in a rigid manner, but they are a useful way to express state objectives, drive performance,  and to measure progress over time.
  3. Look for “two-fors”:  While most of the resources allocated to DHCD are housing dollars, it is important to remember that state has both community development and economic development goals as well.  DHCD should prioritize projects that advance multiple state objectives across program silos. One welcome advance in this direction is new language in the Affordable Housing Bond bill filed by Rep. Honan and Sen. Eldridge that would make it easier for DHCD to finance mixed use developments.
  4. Put homeownership back in the mix: MACDC understands why the state stopped funding new homeownership projects during the housing meltdown that began in 2008. However, over the long term, our housing agenda must include both rental and homeownership development.  Rental housing should remain the priority but allocating 5-10 percent of the state’s resources to homeownership development seems like a reasonable balance.
  5. Use flexible dollars flexibly: Tax credits are by far the largest resource in the housing system (78% according to MHP) and therefore most projects will be funded with tax credits and subject to the rules and constraints of this resource. Thankfully, the Massachusetts Legislature and Governor have wisely allocated significant state resources to affordable housing (over $80 million/year) that can be allocated more flexibly to finance deals for which the tax credit program does not work (e.g. smaller projects, homeownership projects and deals serving slightly higher income levels.) Unfortunately, over 80% of those flexible state dollars are being used to support LIHTC deals, leaving very little money left over to fund anything else.  If (say) 50% of the state's flexible funding was allocated to non-LIHTC projects, the state could fund more smaller rental projects which are often the best fit for special needs populations, rural and suburban communities, and for key sites and buildings in distressed urban neighborhoods. (Of course, this would mean fewer LIHTC deals funded each year and it would require adjusting program rules related to caps on tax credits so I'm sure some of my readers would object to this recommendation!)

Any reallocation of existing resources will involve winners and losers so it is never an easy conversation or decision. As hard as it is within the MACDC membership, it is even harder when all the stakeholders are brought into the conversation so I offer these ideas as a way to advance a conversation - not to suggest that there are easy or obvious answers.  And in the meantime, MACDC will devote most of our time and energy to the first suggestion - growing the pie - because that makes all of the other decisions a bit easier!


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My New Year's Resolutions

January 2nd, 2013 by Joe Kriesberg

Our former board chair, Charles Rucks, has a wonderful expression that the “biggest room in the house is the room for improvement.”  In that spirit, I have been thinking about some of things that I want to improve on in 2013. While I’m sure my family could think of many things I could do better at home (cook more, nag less), I’m focusing this post on some areas for professional improvement. So here are some key challenges that I will be working on this year:

  1. Travel more: With my office located in downtown Boston and most of my regular meetings also in downtown Boston, I need to make more of an effort to visit our members across the Commonwealth. I also hope to travel a bit around the country this year to see how the field is evolving nationally as we can learn a great deal from our colleagues in other states.
  2. Collaborate better: Virtually everything MACDC hopes to achieve in 2013 will be accomplished through various collaborations and partnerships. This includes implementing the Community Development Partnership Act (working with DHCD, DOR, United Way, and others), passing a new Affordable Housing Bond Bill (working with Building Blocks Coalition), enacting Transportation Finance Reform (working with Transportation for Massachusetts), advancing smart and equitable development policies (working with MA Smart Growth Alliance), and successfully staffing the Mel King Institute (working with LISC and our many other partners.)  Therefore, I resolve to be a better partner this year. This means listening first, searching for common ground, sharing credit and following through on the commitments that I make.
  3. Read more: I’m going to make an effort in 2013 to read more about what is happening in our field and related sectors so that I can be a more thoughtful and informed leader for MACDC. When I read something that I think others might find interesting, I will be tweeting about it, so I hope you will read alongside with me by following me on twitter.  (And send me your suggestions for what I should be reading.)
  4. Speak more clearly: One of the key challenges for our field is clearly articulating what we do and why it is so vital for our communities. Community development is a broad term and I have struggled at times to find a way to express what it is, and what it is not.  I will be working with my colleagues at MACDC this year, including our new Director of Communications, John Fitterer, to tell the story of our field more effectively. This will include building a new website, designing a new MACDC logo, and a revamping the social media strategy for our organization, so be on the lookout for those changes!

In addition to these new resolutions, I need to follow through on a very important commitment that I made last year when lobbying the Legislature and the Governor to support the Community Development Partnership Act.  Throughout the year, I repeatedly told them that we would implement the law in a way that would make them proud. With the Community Investment Grant Program starting in 2013 and the Community Investment Tax Credit scheduled to start on January 1, 2014, now is the time to fulfill that promise and I am resolved to make sure we do. Of course, I made this promise on behalf of the entire community development field so we all have to work on this one together!

Feel free to suggest more opportunities for me to improve – and to hold me accountable on these resolutions!

Happy New Year!

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