Inner Cities Being Redone American Way - Self-Help

Community-development corporations avoid anti-poverty pitfalls, slowly build hope, homes, communities that work

THE best-kept secret outside the troubled inner cities of the United States is the quiet success of many community-development corporations (CDCs) deep inside these cities.

Many of these 2,000 or so grass-roots, nonprofit organizations across the nation are revitalizing neighborhoods by building homes, launching businesses, and carrying out many other tasks.

According to Peter Goldmark, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, the CDCs are ``reintroducing social standards in the most difficult terrain in our society.''

While inner-city crime and violence grab media headlines, say community activists, many CDCs have grown steadily over the years, providing a measure of genuine hope and opportunities for city residents.

Otis Pitts Jr., deputy assistant secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the former president of a CDC in Liberty City, in the Miami area, said some of these communities are making a comeback.

Estimates are that CDCs have built 320,000 affordable homes in the last 20 years. ``To say that CDCs are just about housing units,'' says Mr. Goldmark, whose foundation has funded CDCs for years, ``is to say that birds just build nests. CDCs are about families.''

One doubter

But at a recent debate on community development here at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, author Nicholas Lemann, a critic of the long history of mostly failed federal efforts to eliminate inner-city poverty, said, ``CDCs build low- income housing successfully, but it is hard to point to a neighborhood that has been fundamentally changed because of this.''

CDCs are generally defined as neighborhood or community non-profit groups organized locally to address specific problems, most often housing, but also including such things as businesses and health services. Each CDC has a board of directors drawn from the community. Funds can be a mixture of federal, foundation, and other private money, but control and decisionmaking remain local.

``CDCs are growing in number and strength,'' said Mercer Sullivan, senior research associate at the Community Development Research Center at the New School of Social Research in New York. ``In general, research has shown that a CDC usually serves an inner-city community that is about one square mile in size,'' he said. ``Also, they can be defined ethnically, such as the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation in Chicago.''

At the debate Mr. Lemann said that CDCs, despite their successes, are not well defined, and ``the federal government should not be encouraged to go the CDC route. This will be a set-up for failure again,'' he said, meaning that a national federal CDC initiative would bring results like those of the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s and 1970s that failed.

Lemann is not opposed to the ``federal government creating mechanisms for CDCs,'' but he said ``CDCs can't create many jobs or influence public education and the police.''

In Miami, according to Mr. Pitts, the Tacolcy Economic Development Corporation of Liberty City started with a much-needed shopping center in the inner city. Then it developed several hundred housing units (the first in 25 years), a restaurant, a fish market, a car wash, and other enterprises.

To date, they have attracted some $20 million worth of investment into the community.

``When it comes to day care,'' said Pitts, ``we didn't start our own, but in a collaboration with centers already there, we established a center, and avoided competing against each other. A CDC is economic development, and housing clearly drives development in a community. A good house means hope.''

Across the nation, CDCs continue to produce housing at a rate of 25,000 to 30,000 new homes a year, and added 17.4 million square feet of commercial space in neighborhoods.

In most inner-city communities the lack of economic development, the presence of crime, limited employment opportunities, and poor public education have been part of the ravaging social problems.

Goal is stability

Basic goods and services are scarce under these conditions, and Pitts says, and ``a lot of out-migration happens. Our business is to bring hope by stabilizing the neighborhoods.''

``CDCs are not the large scale answer to jobs,'' said Goldmark, ``and they are deeply threatened by crack and crime. But they are durable. The leaders are entreprenuers.

``Many CDCs have been around for over 10 years with budgets now above $10 million. And no one in the federal government ever thought there would be a large CDC movement. You have to give CDCs credit for reclaiming some neighborhoods block by block.''

Why are they succeeding?

``I think it has something to do with American culture,'' said Mr. Sullivan. ``When we are faced with a problem, we want to do something about it.

``Most CDCs say that it is not just bricks and mortar of new and renovated buildings that is the difference, but the effort is tied to a larger vision of neighborhood revitalization. It's what makes them want to get up in the morning. And banks, foundations, and government want to invest in that.''

In fact, last month, in an unprecedented affirmation of CDCs, 10 of the nation's leading corporations and foundations, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development offered $87.65 million in funds for neighborhood renewal in 23 cities that are already involved with CDCs.

Over the years, and as CDCs have established their credibility with completed projects, the funds from foundations and corporations have provided leverage for even more funds and resources.

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