News

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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: http://macdc.org/about/news#sthash.2JhWf80V.dpuf

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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.

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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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Was 2012 Really the Best Year for Massachusetts CDCs since 1982?

December 17th, 2012 by Joe Kriesberg

Last January I received a good bit of teasing for a blog post that I wrote entitled Could 2012 be the Best Year For Massachusetts CDCs Since 1982? Many of my colleagues thought that I was, at best, hopelessly optimistic or, at worst, strangely naive.  The truth is that I was shamelessly promoting both MACDC's 30th anniversary (we were created in 1982) and our campaign to pass the Community Development Partnership Act, which I suggested would be the most important piece of community development legislation in at least 30 years.

I will leave it to others to rank 2012 in the history of Massachusetts CDCs, but with all the challenges we faced due to the economy and declining public funding it was still quite a year:

  • * We did in fact pass the Community Development Partnership Act in August, creating a $66 million revenue stream for CDCs between 2013 and 2019. We see the program as a way to dramatically increase the scale and impact of community development efforts around the state.
  • * The Legislature enacted a two year, $20 million increase in the state low income housing tax credit.
  • * Governor Patrick increased the capital budget for affordable housing by $10 million.
  • * The Attorney General secured $318 million in foreclosure relief funds as part of the National Foreclosure Settlement, including $21 million that went to CDCs and other nonprofit organizations to support their programs.
  • * The Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation increased its suport for small business technical assistance programs from $600,000 to $725,000.
  • * The Mel King Institute offered more trainings to more participants than ever before.
  • * Election day brought more good news for those of us who support a balanced approach to federal budget issues and for the seven cities and towns that passed the Community Preservation Act locally.
  • * MACDC celebrated its 30th anniversary with over 200 friends and colleagues, providing an opportunity to celebrate both our founders and our future.
  • * CDCs themselves showed remarkable resilience as they continued to build housing, create jobs, support local businesses and engage local residents at near record levels despite the difficult economic times.  The MACDC Goals Initiative issued a report showing that CDCs had generated $336 million in economic activity in 2011 - the second highest total ever recorded.

For me, 2012 was a reminder that collective advocacy still matters as we were able to secure millions of dollars in new resources for our communities by working together and with others to make our case.  Hundreds of people and dozens of organizations helped pass the CDPA in what was undoubtedly the biggest and most exciting policy campaign in MACDC's history. And it was a reminder that the work we do in the community development field has meaning for those who live and work in our communities as well as for policy makers who are looking for concrete solutions to challenging problems.

Of course, many of the resources generated in 2012, includng the CDPA, won't hit the street until 2013 and beyond. This means that we have a great deal of work to do next year to ensure the timely and effective implementation of these programs. This is a big part of our new Strategic Plan.  If we are successful, the achievements of 2012 will soon be eclipsed by the results we generate in the years to come.  In the end, I don't think I'm being overly optimistic or naive to say that the community development field's best year won't be 2012. Our best year is yet to come.

Happy New Year!

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What works . . . and what doesn’t - a new book on the future of community development

October 2nd, 2012 by Joe Kriesberg

“Let’s invest in what works,” is a common and recurring slogan that has gained currency in recent years and why shouldn’t it? Who is going to advocate that we invest in what’s broken? So I was not surprised to see a new book built around this idea called “Investing in What Works for America’s Communities,” co-edited by Nancy Andrews, President of the Low Income Investment Fund and David Erickson from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.  The book urges us to “break through silos in our programs, our financing streams and our thinking” and to use “data-based rigorous analysis to direct scarce resources to what works.”  This is an important book with contributions from leading thinkers in our field so serious community development practitioners and students would be well advised to read it.

That is not to say that I liked or agreed with all that I read. Many of the articles were interesting, insightful, thought provoking and even inspiring. I found myself reacting with enthusiasm to many of the ideas in the book. And Ellen Seidman writes a wonderful summary of the many ideas presented that is worth reading even if you don’t have time for the entire book. As a whole, I think the book offers an important contribution to the on-going discussion about the future of community development in America, but I also think it exemplifies some of the trends in our field that make me very nervous.  So let me share with you some of what I think works about “What Works,” and what I think does not work.

What works about “Investing in What Works for America’s Communities:”

  • • I agree with the general theme throughout the book that we need to take a comprehensive approach to community development. Virtually every article hit on this theme and it is consistent with the direction we are pursuing here in Massachusetts.
  • • I was also pleased to read articles by a few of authors that emphasize the importance of engaging local residents and working at the neighborhood level.
  • • It was gratifying to see a strong recognition of the importance of neighborhoods and neighborhood level work, in addition to the now common calls for regional solutions. We need to work at both levels and I think the book makes that point effectively. Thankfully, the pendulum is slowly swinging back to the center on the perpetual debate between regional and neighborhood level work.
  • • The book includes interesting and thoughtful articles about a range of issues from health care, to housing, to education, to transit oriented development, to crime, to economic development and how these issues intersect with each other– there are good lessons and good ideas throughout.
  • • Thankfully, the book avoids the tired old debate about place-based strategies and people-based strategies and endorses both approaches.
  • • And the book includes one of the best histories of community development that I have read in a long time in a chapter by Alexander von Hoffman that traces the field’s history without focusing entirely on federal policy as many do.

What does not work about “Investing in What Works for America’s Communities:”

  • • Amazingly, this 419 page book about the future of community development, a book with 30 authors, does not include a single page written by someone from Community Development Corporation. There are articles by academics, government officials, foundation executives, national non-profits, CDFIs and more, but not one by a CDC practitioner.  Now I would certainly not argue that CDCs should be the only voice in such a book, but how can that perspective be entirely excluded?  The national conversation about the future of our field must include a more diverse set of voices – we can’t allow it to become a small echo chamber.
  • • Much of the book is focused on community development finance, an important topic to be sure. But it reinforced my growing concern about the sector is becoming too “finance-centric” just as we begin to move away from a “real-estate centric” vision of community development. Many of us have bemoaned the fact that our economy is increasingly dominated by the finance industry, but now we see the community development field is increasingly organized around finance.
  • • While I am a strong proponent of comprehensive community development, I think this book might be taking the concept too far. Community development can’t be everything for everybody. The term loses meaning if we use it to describe every activity and program that benefits low income people or neighborhoods. Moreover, as the Aspen Institute has pointed out, too much comprehensiveness can be a problem too, as initiatives collapse under the weight and complexity of trying to connect every dot and solve every problem.
  • • Similarly, the core premise of the book seems to be that the goal of community development is to dramatically reduce poverty in America. I don’t think that was or is the goal of community development, and certainly not the defining goal.  I certainly agree that community development needs to be part of the solution, but it can’t do it alone. 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, and increasing community control over community assets and local development.
  • • I also worry about the hyper-focus on outcomes and data. Now how can anyone speak out against achieving outcomes and measuring them with data? It’s impossible, right? And certainly, I think we should measure outcomes with data. But there are risks with data that were not sufficiently addressed in this book. Sometimes data can mislead. Sometimes, data can be flawed. Sometimes, data miss important elements. For example, poverty data does not account for housing subsidies, food subsidies, child care subsidies or health care subsidies, so providing those forms of assistance do not reduce poverty, at least as measured by our government. But do they help people make ends meet? Do they help people gain economic stability? Of course they do.  And a focus on population level outcomes can quickly create incentives to displace low income people and exclude them from the population being studied. Data is a tool that can be used wisely or poorly. Let’s use some wisdom along with our data.
  • • Finally, the book fails to sufficiently talk about the vital role that advocacy and organizing play in shaping public policy at the local, state and national level. Any serious attempt to reduce income inequality and poverty in America has to include changes in policy. I believe that the community development movement has to be part of shaping that new policy framework.

 

“Investing in What Works for America’s Communities” makes an important contribution to the ongoing debate and discussion about the future of the community development field.  But we need more voices and more skeptical voices to join the fray.  At a minimum, I hope the next edition includes a few articles from those working on the front lines in America’s neighborhoods. I suspect they will have something interesting to contribute.

 

 

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