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It is too soon to tell how the recent election, the pending fiscal cliff and the policy changes that will inevitably result from any budget compromise will impact community development.

Will we be fighting an uphill battle as government agencies are forced to cut back resources available for neighborhood revitalization—even as these neighborhoods continue to struggle with the impacts of the foreclosure crisis and unemployment?

Or will we forge new partnerships that make our work more effective and efficient and tap new resources (such as an estimated $12 billion per year in community benefit dollars from nonprofit hospitals) to sustain this work?

I suspect that community developers, as they always have, will continue to adapt and respond to these new challenges and opportunities. We haven’t yet completed all the pieces of the puzzle, but we have learned a lot about how to improve the quality of life in low-income communities.

In fact, the more I learn about the evolution of community development over the past 50 years, the more optimistic I am that the field is better positioned than ever before to take on the challenges of the future.

Consider Washington, D.C.

Many of the city’s neighborhoods struggled for decades to recover from the physical destruction and capital flight which followed the riots of 1968.

Eventually, though, the abandoned lots that for years had been covered with mounds of rubble were redeveloped with new homes and busy shops. Strong community organizations and institutions were established to provide needed services and ensure that residents have a voice in the future of their communities.

And across the city, a network was built of community developers, bankers, resident leaders, foundations and elected officials who understand the importance of these gains, what it took to achieve them, and their impact to the city’s overall well-being.

Rob Shenk

Becoming What We Can Be, a new book written by Tony Proscio and published by LISC, tells the story of how this happened.

It did not occur overnight. It did not occur by chance. And progress did not march forward in a smooth and orderly process.

The resurgence of these neighborhoods did not happen by accident or solely as an “outcome of private investor enlightenment.” It took decades to develop successful strategies, business practices, expertise and systems of support needed to drive these changes. They are, as Proscio explains, the “product of deliberate public policies, plans, and fiscal investments made over many years.”

The book describes a series of major accomplishments and setbacks that played out in communities across the city during the past five decades. Some of the setbacks were devastating, such as a Washington Post series proclaiming that the city and its community developers had sent “$100 million Down the Drain.”

The series had huge repercussions. The city’s Neighborhood Development Assistance Program, which provided funding to community developers and which was already under scrutiny by HUD, ended up being closed down. The city’s housing agency was put into receivership.

Although it took several years for the community development field in Washington, D.C. to recover from its tarnished image, some argue that a more disciplined and performance-driven field emerged.

More unambiguously positive are the economic development accomplishments, which are both impressive and inspiring.

Some were the results of efforts of a single individual. Lloyd Smith, for instance, wanted a supermarket chain to open a second store in his under-served community. But the owners were afraid that a new store would simply cannibalize sales from their existing supermarket in a nearby community.

But Smith knew his neighbors weren’t shopping at the existing store, and so he hired a survey company to prove it. After seeing the data, the supermarket chain negotiated a lease and opened that new store.

Whitewall Buick

However, the most powerful achievements required years of effort by hundreds of individuals and organizations working together to create “a cohesive, committed support structure for neighborhood development.”

The result has been hundreds of millions of dollars invested in affordable housing, new commercial development, day care centers and other physical development, which is rebuilding and revitalizing low-income communities across the city.

Across the country, community developers are still mulling over how to solve some parts of the puzzle.

For example, we know that adding jobs within a region does not necessarily benefit its low-income communities, and so we must figure out how to better connect these neighborhoods, residents and businesses to regional growth.

On the other hand, we do know a lot about how to engage and organize residents so they can develop and implement strategies to create better housing, safer streets, healthier residents, stronger schools and thriving business districts.

We understand that all these elements are inter-related and, as a result, we are beginning to work across sectors to build effective strategies.

As Proscio warns, it is easy to take for granted all that has been learned and the successes that were achieved “only through years of struggle and disappointment.”

As community developers face the challenges of today and tomorrow, it is good to step back and reflect on this hard work and the lessons learned in communities across the country. Becoming What We Can Be skillfully chronicles that story in Washington, D.C.


Becoming What We Can Be is available for purchase at SmashWords and Amazon.

Posted in Implementing, Thinking Out Loud, Washington, DC

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