Issue #144, November/December 2005


Time to Build on Our Accomplishments

Community developers have achieved a great deal in building affordable housing. Now it’s time for us to extend our reach into broader areas to improve the lives of people, not just places.

By Michael Rubinger


In addition to Shelterforce’s 30th year of publishing, 2005 also marks LISC’s 25th anniversary. From Shelterforce’s first issue to the day LISC opened its doors in 1980, community development was in a very different place from where it is today. Low-income urban and rural communities were deteriorating and isolated from the mainstream of American life; little or no capital was available from either the public or private sectors; and, for the most part, residents had little capacity with which to take control of their destinies by improving their own communities.

Yet today, all that has changed dramatically. Community development has matured into a genuine industry, touching virtually every major metropolitan area and hundreds of rural communities throughout the United States.

It is a revitalization process that, more often than not, begins with housing. In those pioneering days a quarter century ago affordable housing development and the financing that supported it could best have been described as idiosyncratic, under-capitalized and inefficient. Each project had to be painstakingly cobbled together. Even when the process was successful, the result was usually a stand-alone project that may have improved the lives of a few families, but was likely too small to have any appreciable impact on the surrounding neighborhood and too customized to be replicated at a feasible cost or significant scale.

Despite these formidable challenges, affordable housing has evolved into a well-capitalized industry of sufficient scale to drive the rebirth of urban residential markets and the rejuvenation of inner city communities since the mid-1990s. Thousands of capable community-based development organizations with impressive track records are active in low-income communities; billions of dollars of capital from private institutions and government have been productively invested; and market forces are again at work in many of these communities.

In what were once some of the most distressed communities in America, entire neighborhoods are being transformed. In city after city, the results are visible: large scale physical renewal, often marking an end to abandonment; safer streets, homes and public places; increases in property values and homeownership, especially among African Americans and Latinos; a more stable living environment; and a rebirth of civic engagement.

In short, community development is no longer trying to bring order out of chaos. We’re not struggling to create a sense of opportunity where the main mood is one of despair. That period is over, at least for now.

Beyond Housing
The challenge at hand – the next stage in the revitalization process – is to expand upon the physical improvements now evident in so many localities across the country by bringing more players and resources to the table, insisting that the benefits of revitalization reach all community residents, and ensuring that those communities where recovery is underway are adequately prepared to adapt to and thrive in a dynamic, fast-changing global economy.

This is not a new message, cooked up this year or last. LISC and others have been saying this for at least the last decade. But it is a message that we have not yet been able to make stick. We have helped put affordable housing development on a secure and well-lit stage; but the rest of the challenges – retail and business development, employment, child care, education, youth development, safety – still, amazingly enough, carry on partly in the shadows.

The way we think and talk about this industry, the ideas and images that we project, the public policies we pursue and the capital we try to raise – all these things need to be cast in the light of developing healthy communities in the broadest sense. That will mean working deeper and smarter, on more kinds of initiatives, and with more concentration of resources for communities to continue to develop physically while they embrace the goal of overall health and vitality.

At LISC we are moving forward with a new strategic plan that will take our revitalization efforts to this next level – with a heightened emphasis on building viable and competitive communities that are connected with and contributing to the economic mainstream. LISC will pursue this ambitious revitalization goal by continuing and building upon our highly successful investments in physical development. But we will also work with CDCs, other community-based organizations and an array of new partners to tackle more strategically, intensively and proactively the other problems that confront so many urban and rural areas, such as under-performing schools, limited access to jobs and educational opportunity and inadequate services of all kinds.

The move in this direction is clearly the right one. Maintaining and nurturing the balance between developing places and supporting people is the right goal.

The challenge ahead is to marshal the national will to provide resources equal to the need and capacities that now exist in inner cities and rural areas across America. Achieving this goal is key for community-based development to continue as an effective instrument for social and economic change.

Michael Rubinger is president and chief executive officer of Local Initiatives Support Corporation.