The field of community development is centered around the idea that investing in neighborhoods and communities left out of the economic mainstream can boost local economies. Stronger economies can, in turn, bring new jobs, raise wages, and improve residents’ well-being.
But recent unrest in America’s cities, including Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte, has challenged the community development field to ask how their work can better level the playing field. How can targeted federal investments tackle inequality by race, gender, and beyond?
In the following conversation, nonresident fellow Nancy O. Andrews discusses the need for a renewed focus on equity and social justice in community development.
How can your field adapt to modern challenges?
First, these challenges aren’t modern, they’re historic. Fifty years ago, when the field of community development emerged from the civil rights movement, we thought of investing in low-income places as an important key to unlocking a root cause of inequality. And it remains vitally important today.
But a place-centric focus has had unintended consequences. I argue that community development work must also focus on inclusion and justice. Today, a primary challenge for our field is acknowledging how some of our work and the public programs we’ve built have unintentionally exacerbated concentrated poverty and segregation. I argue that we need to look at our work with stereoscopic vision—that is, focusing on improving places but also incorporating equity and inclusion.
For example, what would it take to add a segregation-busting feature to the low income housing tax credit or the new markets tax credit? What would it take to amend the Capital Magnet Fund program to encourage mixed-income housing? How can we increase the flexibility of the Community Reinvestment Act to incorporate affordable housing in opportunity neighborhoods? These ideas aren’t perfect, but they could be the start of a national conversation to give community developers better tools for addressing equity and inclusion.
Our field should draw from the flexibility and persistence from years past to build consensus and invest in evidence-proven programs. For instance, when the Reagan administration proposed eliminating all housing production programs, the field pointed to the evidence and collaborated under pressure to help create the low income housing tax credit. Our field knows how to face a challenge and transform it into an asset.
Do you have a prescription for change?
Yes! And I’ve written it down in Race, Gender and Equity in Community Development: Top 10 Findings, 6 Ways Forward, which is jointly published by the Urban Institute, the Opportunity Finance Network, and the Low Income Investment Fund.
First, I urge that our field come together in conversation to imagine the way forward. I put a number of concrete ideas on the table to get the conversation going, but I have no pride of authorship. Rather, I have enormous confidence in the creativity, imagination, and commitment of my colleagues.
With each other’s support, I know we can innovate toward better answers on these issues. But here are a couple of concrete ideas:
Support mobility between neighborhoods.
Tweaking the low income housing tax credit and the new markets tax credit to counteract segregation could help low-income Americans move to places with greater economic opportunities. We could also include a mobility-enhancing feature to the Community Development Block Grant program and allow those funds to encourage greater mobility.
We can expand on models like the Moving to Opportunity Fund (PDF), which seeks to involve main-stream institutional investors in affordable housing or mixed-income developments. We can also amend the Capital Magnet Fund to support mixed-income housing models.
Prioritize diversity and equity in all investments and programs.
We can include within the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, for instance, an explicit focus on strategies that prioritize race, gender, and economic diversity, including mixed-income housing, diverse-by-design schools, or neighborhood redevelopment plans that encourage mobility of low-income populations into places with greater economic opportunities.
We can also increase the flexibility of Community Reinvestment Act guidance to permit investment in affordable housing in opportunity neighborhoods, particularly those with high-performing schools, rather than only in neighborhoods that are considered distressed or high poverty.
What do you need to get this done?
We need to collaborate and work together to build on these ideas and figure out strategies that work. It’s also urgent that we gather new evidence about what works and incorporate that evidence into our theory of change and day-to-day work.
Inequality and segregation are urgent challenges, and our field has powerful tools. We need to ensure those tools are pointed in the right direction and that we work together to ensure all Americans can access stability and the path to economic prosperity.