Thoughts As I Clean My Office
As I start to pack up my office after nearly 30 years at MACDC, I have been thinking a lot about the past, present, and future of the CDC sector in Massachusetts. Yes, the old photos and documents bring back memories, but they also inspire excitement about what is possible in the future. I’m not sure these thoughts have coalesced into a coherent and comprehensive vision, but I figured I would share them before I leave MACDC as a contribution to the never-ending and always-needed conversation about how to build a stronger and more impactful community development field.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the field throughout my 30 years has been how to think about community voice and community power. There was literally a raging debate about this at my first MACDC board meeting in July 1993 and the conversation continues to this day. As neighborhood demographics change, what does it mean to listen to the voice of the “community”? Which community? Whose community? Is a community a geographic place or a group of people with shared history and culture? The occasional tension residents in gentrifying neighborhoods who are concerned about new development and others who are pushing for new (and more dense) development is a great example of the emerging complexities. So too are the frequent tensions between homeowners and renters or between those already living in subsidized housing and those who cannot get in or between long-term residents and newcomers. Some community residents want long-term affordability restrictions and others want to create more opportunities for family wealth building through homeownership.
I don’t profess to have any answers here, but I think we should always challenge and question statements that begin with some version of “The Community wants (or does not want) this”. Such statements should be followed by questions – which community? Which voices are speaking? Have future residents of this neighborhood been consulted? Do younger and older residents agree? Are you talking about people in the immediate neighborhood or the entire city or the region? Who has a stake in these decisions? And what do we do when reasonable people simply disagree? These questions will force all of us to deal honestly and directly with the tensions, trade-offs and choices that are inevitable in a diverse society.
Like many housing advocates, I have learned to love the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit despite its many inherent problems such as high transaction costs and complicated deal structures. The program has proven itself as a resilient and effective way to build high-quality affordable housing. Unfortunately, I do think that we too often treat the LIHTC program as the sun around which every other housing program must revolve. LIHTC never acts alone. LIHTC deals nearly always require significant funding from Section 8 – both project-based vouchers and mobile voucher holders – as well as significant soft debt from state and local funding sources. Indeed, by some estimates, LIHTC deals soak up 90% or more of the other subsidy dollars available in the system. This has meant that too often the affordable housing industry is a one-note band building and preserving LIHTC deals and not much else. Thankfully, the Commonwealth Builder program has put homeownership back into the equation. Still, we need an affordable housing industry that can be more responsive to the different needs and opportunities that exist. Four areas stand out for more investment:
We need the state to invest substantially in Community Scale Housing. The state tried a Community Scale Housing program a few years ago, but imposed funding caps that made it nearly impossible to use – subsidy caps that were dramatically lower than those for LIHTC deals. At minimum, let’s level the subsidy playing field between big and small projects.
We need to greatly expand efforts to acquire so-called naturally occurring affordable housing to ensure its long-term affordability. Boston and Somerville have such programs and other jurisdictions are trying but the state needs to come to the table in a much bigger way. Yes, these deals are hard, but if we create the subsidy and financing infrastructure we can make them a bit easier.
We also need a much bigger investment in housing rehab to make housing safe, healthy and ultimately decarbonized. I’m excited that MACDC has a five year grant to advance this work.
We need to find a way to produce reasonably affordable housing without investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidy for each unit. Is there a way to combine up-zoning reform, public land and shallow subsidies to create starter homes and mid-market apartments? I don’t know the answer, but we can’t solve the scale of our housing problem without significantly reducing the per unit subsidy levels that are now commonplace in our sector.
Speaking of housing, we need to accept the reality that housing is far too complex to be solved by just one or two policy interventions. I recently read an article that outlined 13 distinct housing challenges! Let’s always remember that the most important word in housing policy is the word “and”. We need more market rate housing AND more affordable housing AND more tenant protections AND more rental vouchers AND more homeownership funding AND the list goes on and on. Housing advocates must find a way to unite across these various issues to build momentum for a more comprehensive and balanced housing agenda. At a minimum, we should try to avoid pitting one intervention against another in attempt to gain momentum for our priority.
Innovation and experimentation have been a hallmark of the field throughout the decades. Community developers at both the local and state level are continually creating new programs, new policies, and new strategies to address the ever-evolving dynamics in our neighborhoods. This trend continues to this day, and it will be vital to our future. Nearly everything about the context of our work has changed and is changing – housing markets, neighborhood demographics, the political context, the media context, communications technology, capital markets, work culture and more. The pandemic has accelerated and amplified many of these trends. Community development leaders – and funders – need to continue challenging old ways of doing business and supporting experimentation. Inevitably, some experiments will fail or partially fail, and we need to have the courage and integrity to recognize when things are not working. Indeed, failures should often be celebrated and honored as opportunities to learn and improve. I think the field is ripe for a sector-wide conversation about the future of the field, like what we did in 2007-2009 with our Community Development Innovation Forum.
Years ago, I was interviewing a job applicant who had spent the early part of his career in the environmental field. I had done the same thing, spending several years working on clean energy issues before making a conscious choice to switch to community development. This applicant, however, looked at me blankly when I asked why he was switching fields. He said something to the effect of “I’m not switching fields – environmental justice and community development are the same field”. How right he was! The Climate Justice and Environmental Justice movements are now deeply intertwined with community development, and I think environmental policy will have as much of an impact on the future of our field as housing policy. In fact, they can never again be separated. I’m proud that MACDC has been actively leading this convergence with our role in the Housing & Environment Revenue Options (HERO) Campaign to create dedicated revenue for housing and climate investments. We are also part of the campaign to put $300 million into a Zero Carbon Renovation Fund and we are co-sponsors of a growing program called DASH – Decarbonizing Affordable Subsidized Housing with LISC-Boston and New Ecology. I urge community developers to avoid the temptation to resist change due to legitimate concerns about costs or complexities. Rather, let’s be the climate leaders who focus on “how” to get it done.
What is a CDC? This is a question that has challenged me and many of us for decades. Here in Massachusetts, we have had a state law that defines the term since the mid-1970s thanks to legislation sponsored by Mel King. During the Community Development Innovation Forum of 2007-09, we developed a new, updated definition that was eventually enacted into law in 2010. That said, the law did not settle the question. While DHCD is now responsible for certifying non-profits who apply to be a CDC, there are often close calls that make it challenging.
What does it mean in practice to require that the community have “meaningful representation” ? How much representation is “meaningful”?
We require that they have a mission of community development, but what does that term mean today? Does it require real estate development or not? What activities should qualify?
What does it mean to say that community development must be the organization’s priority? What do we say about multi-service organizations for whom community development is one focus area? Is this the classic case of “you know it when you see it”?
One of the major challenges associated with CDC certification is deciding what qualifies as a community. Historically, many of us have thought of community development as “placed-based” work, but what is a place? Is it a neighborhood? A City? A Region? A State? Does community development even have to be placed-based or can it be grounded in a racial, ethnic, or religious community?
Over the years, I have had to negotiate these lines on many occasions. They can be further complicated by turf battles and even personality conflicts among non-profit leaders. How many CDCs can co-exist in the same place? Does this even matter when determining whether to certify a group? In general, I have leaned toward a more inclusive definition but there is a risk that we water down the concept by being too inclusive. Overall, I think DHCD has done an excellent job, but this question is going to remain a challenging one for MACDC and the entire sector.
CDCs proved to be incredibly nimble at navigating the pandemic by shifting to virtual programming in 2020 and then again to various levels of hybrid operations in the two years since. Most CDCs continue to provide vital in-person services and programs while also expanding what they offer on-line. As we move into the post COVID-era, however, I worry how remote and virtual service delivery could impact the CDC field. Can placed based groups compete with functionally specialized organizations when people can access services from anywhere in the world? Will remote programming accelerate the shift away from local groups and local service delivery? What will be gained or lost from such a shift. The answers to these questions could have profound impact on the future of the field.
For years, CDC leaders have anticipated the coming generational shift in leadership from the baby boom generation to everyone else! Indeed, one of the reasons we created the Mel King Institute was to help prepare the next generation of leaders. Well, the future is now. I’m hardly the only CDC leader moving on. Over the past three years, fully one-third of the CDC executive Directors in Massachusetts have left their jobs. ONE THIRD! The new leaders are younger and more diverse and bring a host of new ideas and skills to the job. I’ve been honored to support many of them as they take on these new roles and I can attest that these leaders are up to the challenges laid out above. They are going to bring new thinking and new ideas to these long-standing questions: There is no doubt that when it comes to community development, the future is now and the future is bright!
I could probably go on and on. Supplier diversity. Small business development. Health Equity. Racial justice. Where does the field go from here? What is our role in these broader social movements. But I’m now officially running out of time so I will have to leave those questions and topics for another day. I have just a few days left to pack the office and write my exit memos. Starting in January, my place in the community development field will change but I plan maintain a role and a voice in the field. MassINC’s mission is to promote economic inclusion and civic vitality. In many ways, this is precisely what the community development field is all about. I am excited about the many potential opportunities for MassINC to collaborate with MACDC and others in this sector as we advance our shared goals and values. Please reach out when you see such opportunities and rest assured, for better or worse, I’ll still be around!
In the meantime, I wish everyone a safe and healthy new year! May we all find peace and joy in our lives and in the world.