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Five (six) websites to bookmark in 2012

December 26th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

With so much information available to us all the time, most of us could use some help sorting through the noise to find interesting and helpful information on the internet. While there are countless websites related to community development and affordable housing, here are five (well, O.K., six) that should be on your list:

1. The Institute for Comprehensive Community Development provides information, stories, and tools for practitioners looking at comprehensive community development strategies, a movement that is gaining momentum across the country.

2. Shelterforce magazine remains the pre-eminent publication in our field and its website offers a host of interesting stories, links and blogs that thoughtful community developers should be reading on a regular basis.

3. Non profit quarterly  is not geared to community developers per se, but it is essential reading for anyone in the nonprofit sector who is trying to adapt to changes in foundation fundraising, government programming, non-profit competition, regulation, human resources or any of the other challenges facing the “third sector.”

4. Community-wealth.org seeks to provide the web's most comprehensive and up-to-date information resource on state-of-the-art strategies for democratic, community-based economic development. The resources offered here include directories, breaking news, publications, and conference information, as well as cutting-edge initiatives from cities, states, community development corporations, employee-owned firms, land trusts, non-profit organizations, co-ops, universities, and more.

5 (and 6.) Finally, I could not write a blog like this without promoting our own websites at MACDC and the Mel King Institute.  Both websites offer important information for community developers in Massachusetts, including updates on important policy issues, professional development opportunities and the dates of important events in our field.

You can find more helpful websites here.

What websites do you find helpful? Please post your ideas in our comment section so others can see your suggestions!

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Four key ideas that I heard at the New England Housing Network Conference

December 3rd, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

The New England Housing Network held its annual conference in Needham, MA yesterday and the speakers and workshops provided a tremendous amount of information and insight into the current state of affairs in Washington, DC.  

Four ideas that stood out for me:

1. It's bad - but it could get worse:  The budget situation in Washington is terrible with significut cuts on the way in FY 2012 and further cuts likely in the coming years. The Super Committee's failure to reach a deal means automatic cuts of about nine percent in FY 2013, but those cuts might actually have been worse had the Committee reached a deal.  Under the default plan, the military will aborb a much greater share of the cuts than under any other likely budget scenario.  And long term budget pressure will likely force deeper cuts in housing and community development funding, absent a broad budget deal that includes both new revenue and reductions in spending on health care.

2. Revenue, revenue, revenue :  All of the national housing advocates made it clear that housing programs, and more importantly the people those programs serve, will be hurt badly without an increase in revenue.  Housing advocates will need to speak out on the need for more tax revenue issue and not simply lobby for our own programs.

3. Housing is a platform for "care" as well as "opportunity:"  MIT Professor, Xavier Briggs, spoke at lunch about the emerging data that documents how the Moving to Opportunity program achieved dramatic outcomes for low income families in the areas of public safety, health, and mental health.  These outcomes dramatically improve the quality of life for these families and reduce the need for public expenditure in other areas, in particular health care. Briggs emphasized that these results are important, even if families did not always see a dramatic increase in their income or economic security. Briggs encouraged housing advocates to more strongly and effectively articulate the value of housing as a platform for "care" as well as "opportunity."  If we can better document how housing investments reduce the cost of health care, we may be able to win more support - and more dollars - for our agenda.  Look to hear much more about this topic in the coming months.

4. Mortgage Finance Reform is happening:  While advocates are forced to largely play defense on budget issues, and most legislation is stuck in gridlock, our national advcocates do believe that Mortgage Finance Reform will happen - probably in 2013 after the election.  This could be the biggest and best opportunity in the near future to advance progressive housing policy (and block regressive policies) so advocates should be fully engaged in this debate now as the proposals advanced in 2012 will form the basis for legislation in 2013.

To learn more about these and other issues discussed at the conference, click here.

 

 

 

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Must See T.V.

December 3rd, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

60 Minutes did a very powerful piece on family homelessness recently.  I can't say anything that would add to what the kids in this segment have to say about their lives, their parents and their dreams.  I simply ask that you watch it:

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7389750n&tag=contentBody;storyMediaBox

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What is on the other side of the CDFI coin?

November 20th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

Increasing the supply of capital to low and moderate income communities has been a central goal of the community development movement since its inception. From the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977, to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit in 1986, to the establishment of the CDFI fund in 1995, to the New Market Tax Credit in 2000, advocates have won significant changes in public policy that have dramatically expanded the capital available to our communities. While there can be no doubt that this has been of huge benefit to our communities, I have often wondered whether we are so focused on the "supply side" that we have neglected to support the "demand side."  You see, for every community development loan or investment, there must be a qualified borrower in which to invest. CDFIs can't succeed without good borrowers.

The reality that lenders and borrowers are the two sides of the same coin became readily apparent in 2008 and 2009 when the tax credit market froze and both CDCs and CDFIs alike found themselves in a bind together, as the financial challenges of each sector negatively impacted the other. (Of course, many groups function as both a CDC and a CDFI - truly the same coin!)

So I was very pleased to read a recent article on the Living Cities Blog by  John Moon called In The Works: Understanding How Investments Get Made in Low-Income Communities... Or Don't.  According to Moon, Living Cities is finding "that communities need not merely dollars, but also an effective capital absorption ecosystem."

Moon continues: "What do we mean by capital absorption? Capital absorption describes the process by which capital flows to support the needs of low-income communities, either through direct investment or through financial intermediaries. Effective capital absorption requires a sufficient supply of capital moving from market, government or philanthropic sources to a set of capable borrowers. The borrowers then use the capital to strengthen a community’s vitality through the development, preservation or expansion of assets such as affordable housing, small businesses, health clinics and grocery stores. When looking at how to improve the level and quality of investments in low-income communities, the unit of analysis needs to be the capital absorption ecosystem. Traditionally, the field has focused on simply increasing capital sources, improving the capacity of particular financial intermediaries, or concentrating efforts at the project level."

Among the borrowers that are needed, of course, are high-functioning, resident led community development corporations.  Yet, while CDFIs have grown tremendously since the launch of the CDFI fund, the federal government does not have any comparable system of support for CDCs - nor do most states.  Many, although not all, CDCs are undercapitalized, which limits their ability to pursue a community led agenda and their ability to leverage capital investments. The result, I fear, is a  capital absorption ecosystem (a.k.a. a community development ecosystem) that is growing out of balance. This imbalance - if it continues to grow - threatens to undermine both the CDFI and the CDC sectors and more importantly the communities we all seek to serve.

I believe that the Community Development Partnership Act, now under consideration by the Massachusetts Legislature, would provide CDCs with a system of support similar to the CDFI fund, thereby creating a better supply/demand balance in our "capital absortion ecosystem."  MACDC is working hard to win passage of this legislation as soon as possible. We are also advocating for other changes in policy and practice that will help CDCs become stronger financially and thereby better able to leverage private and public investment. As policy makers, investors, foundations and practitioners look to increase the flow of capital to our communities, they need to strengthen both the lenders and the borrowers in order to create a healthy ecosystem that can significantly move the needle on economic opportunity and equity.

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What do Roxbury and Arlington have in common?

November 20th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

In many ways, the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston and the suburban town of Arlington, Massachusetts are very different. Roxbury is a low income urban neighborhood with per capita income of about $16,000 and 86 percent of the population comprised of people of color. By contrast, Arlington has a per capita income of $44,000 and 86 percent of the population is white. And, of course, they sit on opposite sides of the Charles River.

Yet, earlier this month, I was able to attend celebrations in both communities where the similarities resonated as much, if not more, than the differences. In Arlington, more than 300 people crowded into the Town Hall to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Housing Corporation of Arlington.  HCA has helped over 400 families avoid homelessness, built 58 affordable apartments, and now has 32 more apartments under construction at Capitol Square Apartments. Most importantly, HCA has engaged local residents who are determined to make Arlington a welcoming home for everyone – long time residents and newcomers, rich and poor, white and people of color. It is a challenging task given the realities of our housing markets, but the people in Town Hall that night seemed undeterred. Governor Patrick sent a wonderful video message to the mark the occasion, calling HCA a “model CDC” and noting that “Community Development Corporations play a vital role in our communities. By being the bridge between state and local government and between public and private entities, CDCs take ownership of their community and work to lift up everyone.”

In Roxbury, I attended the 45th anniversary of Madison Park Development Corporation,  the oldest CDC in Massachusetts. A full house crowded into the newly redeveloped Hibernian Hall to recall the many achievements of the CDC since 1966 and to highlight the group’s current work to build housing, spur economic development, and promote culture and the arts. Madison Park’s history, recounted in a wonderful video,  inspired the growth of the community development movement across the Commonwealth and the Country. Over the years, Madison Park became a vehicle for enabling local residents to define the future of their own community, building over 1,000 affordable homes, renovating important commercial buildings in Dudley Square and supporting programs that celebrated the history and the vibrant cultural community in Roxbury.

Roxbury and Arlington are certainly different communities with different challenges and different assets. But they also have much in common. Both communities have long and proud histories dating back to before the American Revolution; both communities are blessed with residents and leaders who are dedicated to making their neighborhoods better for everyone; and both communities have organized, and sustained, resident-led CDCs that, in the words of Governor Patrick “understand that economic and social diversity requires the support of everybody in the community. And that in a community each of us has a stake in our neighbor’s dreams and struggles as well as our own.”

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Are we getting too smart for our own good?

November 10th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

I greatly enjoyed Russ Douthat’s column in last week’s Sunday New York Times called “Our Reckless Meritocracy."  Reflecting on former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine’s fall from grace, Douthat notes that many super smart and super successful leaders in business and politics have “led us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for [their] own good.” Douthat continues,
“In hereditary aristocracies, debacles tend to flow from stupidity and pigheadedness: think of the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Battle of the Somme. In one-party states, they tend to flow from ideological mania: think of China’s Great Leap Forward, or Stalin’s experiment with “Lysenkoist” agriculture. In meritocracies, though, it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks that lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world.”
While Douthat’s article focuses on the impact of this pattern in business and politics, I wonder if the nonprofit sector might face similar risks. I'm skeptical that simply being smarter by using "evidence based models," and "data driven programs" and "business metrics" and "triple bottom line investments" will suddenly transform persistent social challenges that have plaqued human society for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  Proposals like Social Impact Bonds, which presume an ability to measure social impact with such precision that we can create meaningful investment vehicles based on that data, strike me as an example of becoming “infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world.” In the community development world, financial innovation has generated more and more complicated financial tools that may add more complexity than value, and also make it harder for local residents and non-professionals to fully enage in the community development process. 

I am certainly not saying that innovation, evaluation, evidence and data are not important. I am not a climate change denier or someone who rejects science, expertise and knowledge.  The nonprofit sector absolutely needs to make better use of emerging tools. We should absolutely strive to learn more about the cause and cure of social ills and apply that knowledge diligently.  I have no doubt that we can do a better job than we have in the past at fighting social challenges and problems. But I also agree with Douthat’s conclusion:
“In place of reckless meritocrats, we don’t need feckless know-nothings. We need intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution. We still need the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way.”

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21 Members in 14 Hours - A Community Development Tour

October 14th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

On Thursday, I had an opportunity to see 21 MACDC members in the course of 14 hours. It was a long day, but extraordinarily exciting and reinvigorating as my travels and meetings reminded me why I love this job.

I left my house at 6:40 AM in the pouring rain to attend the Greater Gardner CDC Annual Breakfast Meeting. I joined the 60+ guests a bit late, but was able to hear about the many terrific programs they offer from after-school tutoring, to small business development to affordable housing.  I learned that the CDC is able to build its housing with students from Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical High School who provide the CDC with high quality and free labor while the CDC provides the students with valuable learning opportunities.

I left Gardner at 9:00 to drive to Ware for the Western Massachusetts Community Development Collaborative meeting. Thankfully, it had stopped raining as I drove along beautiful country roads and through small towns like Barre and Hardwick. Seven of our members were at the meeting and they provided each other with updates on their many activities. I learned how our members are helping small businesses recover from Huricane Irene's floods, providing supportive housing to low income residents, struggling with scattered site property management, repairing roofs destroyed by the tornado, and supplying fresh frozen vegtables to the Holyoke Public Schools.

At 12:00, I got back in my car and drove to Boston where twelve of our members were scheduled to meet with the new director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Peter Meade. Each CDC provided Peter with a brief summary of their current priorities and again I heard about a vast array of community improvement efforts. I heard about foreclosure counseling efforts, housing developments, commercial real estate projects, small business development, housing for the homeless, public transit, partnerships with schools, and public safety efforts. Peter expressed his admiration for their work and we discussed how the BRA and the CDCs can strengthen our existing partnerships.

After a brief visit to my office, I returned to my car at 5:30 to drive to Quincy for the 30th anniversary celebration of the NHS of the South Shore.  This 10 mile drive took almost as long as the 60 mile drive to Gardner in the morning as the Southeast Expressway was jammed. So by the time I arrived the hotel ballroom was packed with over 125 guests who had come to celebrate with the NHS. Rob Corley presented a wonderful new video that highlighted how the NHS helps families with foreclosure prevention, housing, and home repairs. I also learned about their close partnership with many local organiations in Quincy, Brockton and 23 other cities and towns.

As I drove home I recounted the many things that I had heard that day. It reaffirmed my admiration for the people who work on the front lines of this movement and reminded me how lucky I am to have an opportunity to play a small role in helping them to succeed. I arrived at my house at 8:40.

Later, as I set my alarm for 5:30 AM and turned out the lights, I began thinking about all the things that I wanted to do in the office the next day. I was happy to know that I could take the Orange Line to work and skip all the traffic - and even happier that I did not have any meetings scheduled for Friday.

 

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Will Opportunity Mapping take us in the wrong direction?

October 14th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

In an effort to bring greater attention to the persistent racial and economic segregation in Massachusetts, the Kirwin Institute  published a report in 2009 called the Geography of Opportunity: Building Opportunity in Massachusetts. The report documents the high level of racial and economic segregation that persists in our state and that people of color are much more likely than white people to live in areas of concentrated poverty, which the Kirwin Institute calls “low opportunity” communities. The report provides important insight into residential housing patterns in our Commonwealth, and provides a tool for documenting how certain investments are either improving the situation or making it worse.

While concentrated poverty and racial segregation are serious problems, I believe the report is flawed and potentially counter-productive.  So I was troubled to learn, at a recent meeting in New York hosted by the Ford Foundation, that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is considering the development of its own “opportunity score” for each community in America. HUD hopes to use these scores as part of a comprehensive revamping of their fair housing agenda and strategy to ensure that housing and other policies do not contribute to further concentration of poverty and racial segregation.

This is a worthy goal, so why do I fear that such maps may take us in the wrong direction?

First, the notion that a single measuring device, no matter how many data points are used, could fairly evaluate the opportunities available in every community in America is absurd on its face. The United States is home to thousands of communities – each one unique and valuable in its own ways. A single homogenized score that averages dozens of statistics into a single number obscures that truth.

Second, our country is home to millions of different households with unique individuals seeking different opportunities. Young adults want something different than senior citizens; families with children have different priorities than those without; artists may seek different communities than scientists or farmers. People want and need different things so creating a single measurement for “opportunity” is impossible and inappropriate.  (By contrast, Wider Opportunities for Women developed tailored their "self sufficiency standard" for different types and sized families.)

Third, let’s look at the Kirwin Institute methodology. They use 16 data points to create an overall assessment of a particular community’s “opportunity.” Six of those are various measures of poverty; several others relate to school achievement (which we know is highly correlated with poverty) and others relate to economic opportunity and crime. This provides a clear guide for how a community can improve its score - push out (or keep out) low income families with children. This is by far the single best way for a community to improve its opportunity score. Perhaps more troubling is what the Kirwin Institute left out of its methodology – museums, public transit, affordable housing, after school programs, youth programs, grocery stores, local businesses, higher education, day care, senior citizen centers, parks. Don’t these things offer opportunities too?

Fourth, If HUD adopts a similar approach, the scores will take on even more importance. Local governments could devise policies to lift their scores, real estate brokers could use them to steer homebuyers; bankers could use them to guide loan decisions; insurance companies could use them to set premiums; developers could review them when making investment decisions. Opportunity mapping would make redlining – formal and informal - much easier!

I do not mean to suggest that there is nothing wrong in neighborhoods with high rates of concentrated poverty, high levels of crime and “bad” schools (how we define bad schools could be the topic of a yet another article!)  We should draw attention to those issues. But if we want to highlight communities with high rates of crime then let’s call them “communities with high rates of crime.” If we want to identify low income neighborhoods, let’s call them “low income communities.”  Those are specific and factual statements. But “opportunity” is far too complex and subjective for the Kirwin Institute, HUD or anyone to fairly and accurately label every community in America.

A few years ago, community developers began rethinking their neighborhoods by looking at their assets not just their needs. The idea of “asset based community development” was built on the idea that our communities have assets that should be developed rather than simply needs that need to be served. Opportunity mapping undermines that effort by ignoring those assets.

And perhaps the most dangerous impact that these maps could have – especially one created by the Federal Government – is that they will devastate efforts to entice middle class people back to our cities, something that is vital to addressing racial and economic segregation. In fact, these maps will encourage even more white flight from our Nation’s cities. Having the Federal Government declare a community as "low opportunity" is a sure fire way to encourage middle class families – whites and non-whites – to get out of town.

The notion that the path to opportunity lies in the suburbs is a big part of the reason we have seen racial segregation persist over so many decades. Why would we want to join that chorus?

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How to hire great employees

September 2nd, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

Last Sunday, while Hurricane Irene roared through Boston, I had extra time to read the Sunday New York Times and found my way deep into the Business Section where I found a very interesting interview with Andy Lansing, the chief executive of Levy Restaurants in Chicago.  Mr Lansing is asked about how he hires good employees and he gave an answer that I thought was fascinating. He says, "I have a pretty nontraditional approach to hiring. I hire for two traits — I hire for nice and I hire for passion."

Mr. Levy elaborates: "If you sit down with me, no matter how senior you are in the company or the position you’re applying for, my first question to you is going to be, are you nice? And the reactions are priceless.   Then I say, “What are you passionate about in your life? What does passion mean to you?” And I’m looking not necessarily for the magic answer, but I love it when I hear that someone has fire in the belly."

Mr. Levy's insights immediately resonated with me. When I think about the MACDC employees who have been the most successful over the years, they had both of these qualities. And certainly the current group here at 15 Court Square are both nice and passionate. That is why we are able to work together effectively, overcome challenges, and enjoy coming to work every day (well, most days!)

Now, of course, employees need to have a variety of technical skills and knowledge. But, as Mr. Levy says, "If you give me someone who’s nice and who’s passionate, I can teach them everything else. I don’t care what school you went to, I don’t care where you worked before. If you give me someone with those two traits, they will nine out of 10 times be a great success in the company."

While I think I have always looked for these qualities in the employees that I hire, I have never asked either of these questions before. But to any readers who might someday apply for a job here at MACDC - you have been warned!

Happy Labor Day!

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The right to smoke versus the right to breathe

August 15th, 2011 by Joe Kriesberg

The first advocacy campaign of my life did not involve housing, community development, civil rights, the environment or even Vietnam. Instead, it was a years-long effort to get my mother to quit smoking! Every day, for years, I would interrogate her after school about how many cigarettes she had smoked that day. I was relentless, using every tool I had – facts, nagging, shame, and most of all guilt (“you are going to die!”)  Eventually, my mom finally acquiesced and quit smoking when I was about 11 years old. I’d like to think I had a role in helping her live a full and active life until she passed away last year at the age of 82.

At the time, the early 1970s, smoking was still widespread and accepted just about everywhere. Over the past 35 years, however, smoking has been banned from virtually every indoor and even many outdoor venues. Despite my roots as an anti-smoking crusader, I sometimes wonder if perhaps we have gone too far – smokers should have rights too. 

All of this came to mind recently when I met with leaders from Health Resources in Action and the Boston Alliance for Community Health who are working to encourage CDCs and others to implement no smoking policies in their rental housing.  Shouldn’t people be allowed to smoke in their own homes, for goodness sake, even if they happen to need subsidized housing? Should low income people have to give up their rights?

Upon reflection, however, I think the reasons to go smoke free outweigh any hesitations that I or others may have. Smoke free housing is healthier, safer, cheaper and preferred by the majority of tenants. In the words of Ava Chan at the Allston Brighton CDC, “it's about the right to breathe rather than the right to smoke.”  And smoke free housing appears to be the wave of the future as it quickly emerges as a “best practice” for providing safe and healthy housing to our communities. A wide range of housing groups are adopting such policies, including the Boston Housing Authority, the national nonprofit group, Preservation of Affordable Housing, and several of our members.

Implementing smoke free housing is not easy. It requires education, organizing, and ultimately some tough love. Elderly tenants who have smoked in their homes for years may be a particular challenge. Thankfully, affordable housing owners who want to go smoke free don’t have to do it alone. Health Resources in Action is providing funding and technical assistance to five CDCs (Allston Brighton CDC, Asian CDC, Dorchester Bay EDC, Grove Hall NDC, and Jamaica Plain NDC) to help them adopt such policies and they can help others. The Mass. Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control (the other CDC) both have resources to help CDCs and others implement smoke free housing policies.

CDCs have always been committed to creating healthy communities. I hope more of our members move in this direction because smoke free housing is a tangible and significant way to improve the lives of our tenants. And I’m sure there are many boys and girls living in these apartments who will very much appreciate an ally in their own campaigns to get their parents to stop smoking! And those parents, like my mother, will be glad they did.

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