This story is part of LIIF’s 2020 Annual Impact Report. View the full publication here.
“When you’re checking a box called ‘community engagement’ you will fail….When you see that without engagement with the community, you cannot achieve the transformative change in your community, that’s when you realize it’s something that you have to do.” – Paul Schmitz, former CEO of Public Allies, Senior Advisor to the Collective Impact Forum and co-chair of the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign’s Civic Engagement Policy Group
John James was born and raised in Kansas City, MO, and has served for the last decade as the president of the Wendell Phillips Neighborhood Association. Like all places, Kansas City grapples with the tension between its history and who is shaping the vision for its future. James says his first lesson in community power dynamics came on his first day on the job.
“My first meeting was a crisis,” said James. “They were building a police station in the middle of the community, and it was going to cause a lot of housing to be torn down.” Residents of the neighborhood gathered to weigh in on the project which they largely found destructive, and at first the City listened to neighbors’ concerns. But over time, James said, police and city planners stopped attending meetings and instead gave money to a church to fund its relocation, hosting press conferences that celebrated the development as a success. “It was notification without power,” said James. “We deal with that a lot.”
Wendell Phillips is a neighborhood known for its outstanding barbecue, baseball players and a thriving jazz district in the 1930s and ‘40s when it was frequented by the likes of Charlie Parker and Count Basie.
It’s also a community where words like “urban renewal” (or its contemporary, “neighborhood revitalization”) come with baggage. In the 1950s, plans for a highway were hatched that would eventually sever the social and financial center of the Black neighborhood. In the 50 years it took to build the highway, new segregated public housing was established but more than 10,000 people relocated. Decades of blight followed.
The story of Wendell Phillips’ planned destruction is emblematic of innumerable examples of racist, top-down developments that tore apart Black communities and devastated growing social and material wealth during the 20th Century. Communities are still healing and building back today. So, how can we learn from our sector’s past sins and begin to amend and repair through equitable reinvestment? Listening to residents is a good start.
The concepts of community (or resident) engagement, voice and power are increasingly discussed, though difficult to define. Communities are dynamic and shape shifting and the “voice” of a community ― brought together by common interest, identity or geography―is not singular, but many, varied and sometimes at odds. Power was defined by Martin Luther King Jr, as “the ability to achieve a purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change,” and it is at the center of conversations about resident-led development.
In this article, we look to resident advocates and longtime community development practitioners for lessons on community-led development. This ground-up approach is central to LIIF’s latest strategic plan which builds off ongoing and deepening community partnership modeled by collaboratives like Purpose Built Communities and SPARCC. We can expect that this work will be complex and time-intensive, but partnering for resident-driven development is also the most equitable and effective way to advance long-term, sustainable positive outcomes.
The Resident-Centered Approach (Kansas City, MO)
Back in Kansas City, John James has seen up-close the promise of redevelopment done poorly but also the payoff of community engagement done well. He says his job is to “listen to everyone. Neighbors want to feel empowered to make a decision, to collaborate or make change.”
Lately, a better model for resident-led development has been underway in the neighborhood. The Urban Neighborhood Initiative (UNI) formed in 2012 to “break the intergenerational cycle of poverty and historical racial inequities caused by decades of neglect and systemic racism by helping to build healthy neighborhoods.” UNI was borne out of the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s “Big 5” initiatives, co-created by public officials, business and resident leaders to improve the lives of locals through education, the arts and job growth.
UNI is led almost entirely by a team that was born and raised in Kansas City, including the executive leadership, and the group’s values and priorities were defined by neighborhood partners, as is their work. In 2016, UNI joined Purpose Built Communities as a network member because their model of mixed-income housing, cradle-to-college education and community wellness aligned with the vision expressed by residents. “The neighborhoods identified Purpose Built,” said UNI Board member Steve Roling. “They knew about it before we did because they heard about the wonderful successes happening in Atlanta and said, that’s what we want in Kansas City.”
“Purpose Built Communities provides free consultation, expertise and support to us,” said UNI President & CEO Dianne Cleaver, “so they’re an extremely valuable partner to have.”
Nearly 30 member communities have joined the Purpose Built Communities network in the past decade, proving that putting resources behind the leadership of a community-led group, known to members as a “community quarterback,” is effective in achieving improved health, education and housing outcomes.
“In our model, the community quarterback functions as an organizer and navigator toward the shared goal of community revitalization,” said Purpose Built Communities President Carol Naughton. “The quarterback works with partners and neighbors to establish shared metrics, brings together knowledgeable allies and financial resources, and ensures the work of community partners will benefit the entire neighborhood. The quarterback knits together the diverse sectors of a community, creating a powerful integrated initiative.”
In Wendell Phillips, resident-identified needs take precedence. For example, a drive through the neighborhood reveals many empty and abandoned lots and older homes in need of repair, but there is also growing concern over gentrification and displacement as new luxury homes have been built. UNI and Purpose Built Communities are working together to rehab older homes and to build 100 units of mixed-income housing. A community resource, cultural and education center is also planned, and leaders are looking for ways to expand educational opportunities, such as the Major League Baseball/Kansas City Royals Urban Youth Baseball Academy. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, health and wellbeing became a central focus of UNI’s work. The district where Wendell Phillips sits suffered the highest infection rates in the city, and UNI raised grant funding to keep immunocompromised and elderly residents safely housed and fed, while also beginning to break ground on 30 Habitat for Humanity homes.
Before the pandemic, LIIF provided UNI with a $300,000 EQT loan to support continued efforts to help stabilize the neighborhood. This is the second investment for the Accelerator Initiative, a larger multi-million dollar commitment by LIIF with support from JPMorgan Chase to provide flexible capital to accelerate the completion of Purpose Built Communities network sites across the U.S.
The Community Land Trust Model (Oakland)
Like UNI and Purpose Built Communities, the Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) is led by the principle that supporting and harnessing community leadership and power is core to driving long-lasting, equitable development. SPARCC was launched in 2017 as a partnership among LIIF, Enterprise Community Partners and the Natural Resources Defense Council to invest in and amplify local, grassroots-led efforts in six regions to ensure that public investments in the built environment address racial disparities, build a culture of health and respond to the climate crisis.
SPARCC has helped fund two community land trust (CLT) projects in Oakland, CA — a powerful development model in which a community-controlled nonprofit acquires a parcel of land and pledges to use it for purposes that benefit the neighborhood. Often CLTs are formed to build housing on the land to sell at a below-market price to a low-wealth individual or family. The nonprofit maintains ownership of the land under the home, leasing it to the homeowner.
“Nothing provides a guarantee against displacement,” said Sondra Ford, LIIF’s Director for the SPARCC Initiative. “But the community land trust model ensures that the underlying land won’t be sold off to developers and may help individuals and families buy a home and establish a means of wealth building.” In other words, the community land trust model — when pursued with a patient, mission-aligned organization — is an impactful way to build community power through property savings and housing stability. For these reasons, said Ford, each of the six SPARCC regions has an interest in working with the community land trust model.
Most recently, SPARCC provided $933,000 to the Northern California Land Trust (NCLT) through LIIF and Enterprise Community Loan fund for the acquisition and rehab of 16 units in East Oakland to secure it as permanently affordable housing for the mostly low-income residents of color living in the building. The Metropolitan Transit Commission provided $667,000 through the Bay Area Preservation Pilot (BAPP) in addition to a $200,000 SPARCC capital grant, and $2.6 million of soft debt was provided by the City of Oakland.
The deal was a financial feat, prompted by resident and community organizing.
It began when residents were notified of a sudden, substantial rent increase that would undoubtedly lead to evictions. The landlord was known in the tenant organizing community as a bad actor, and neighbors banded together to seek legal support from the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC). The project caught the eye of NCLT.
Ian Winters, the longtime executive director of NCLT, said that meeting with each household to hear their concerns and acquiring the property to secure its affordability was simply step one of engaging residents. “We are early in a multi-year process of building credibility,” says Winters. That means focusing on resident-identified issues. Whether the building will evolve into a cooperative or home-ownership model is entirely up to the residents and likely years down the line.
“You don’t get a group of 15 people to trust and understand how to collaborate overnight,” he said. NCLT plans to host workshops through their community co-ownership initiative to teach residents the basics of affordable housing finance and opportunities to grow into a cooperative or land trust. But right now, Winters says the reaction from residents is “That sounds nice. Are you gonna kill the roaches?”
Barriers & Solutions
Common roadblocks in community-led, equitable development are investing time, securing capital and negotiating power dynamics. Below, we explore these three barriers and share a few best practices from experts and practitioners.
1. Find mission-aligned partners (to make speed & innovation possible)
“Access to capital is the biggest challenge,” says Ian Winters of NCLT, “especially initial subsidy capital to buy the cost of projects down.” When COVID-19 hit, a deal with a market rate lender fell through on the 16-unit project in Oakland. “They got cold feet and wanted to change the terms. But BAPP and SPARCC came in and absolutely saved the day. Without them, everyone almost assuredly would have lost their housing within a year.”
The deal was a challenge to make possible. Not only was NCLT competing in Oakland’s aggressive real estate market, but the project was smaller in scale and a different kind of financing for LIIF, so capital structuring took time. In the end, the project required partners with different resources to bring together public funding (City of Oakland), grant and loan funding (SPARCC) and a long-term acquisition loan (BAPP) to make the final investment possible.
2. Develop flexible financing tools and funds to support long-term, sustainable development
LIIF launched the Accelerator Initiative in 2020 to provide a range of flexible capital solutions to support the growing Purpose Built Communities member sites. The initiative is supported by JPMorgan Chase and includes LIIF’s EQT loan product which provides a 10-year term, a below-market interest rate, and a flexible, enterprise-level approach uniquely suited to support long-term revitalization efforts like those taking place in Kansas City. The flexible structure of EQT, which was built to work around shifting construction timelines or changing organizational priorities, has now proved to be a powerful tool in helping nonprofits like UNI during this uncertain time.
3. Be transparent about funding and expectations upfront
In cross-sector meetings with residents, John James of the Wendell Phillips Neighborhood Association recommends that conveners talking about finances upfront and being clear about any gaps. “We’re still working on explaining the journey upfront,” says James. “We suffer in Kansas City because we don’t have a lot of philanthropy. You have to have the compassion and fortitude to continue to sell your vision.” Maintaining an open conversation about the budget and changes helps to manage expectations, build trust and share in the big picture systems thinking.
4. Share the wealth & decision-making authority
Akila Watkins-Butler, CEO and President of the Center for Community Progress, has worked on numerous local and national place-based initiatives over 30 years. She says that when bringing funders, public leaders and community leaders together, a necessary starting place is openly acknowledging that there’s often a history of mistrust and abuses of power ― and working to change that practice through actions. In one community she partnered with, the funders let residents set up boards and become the grantmakers themselves. It was an investment of about $100,000 that paid off in building trust, engagement and results, Watkins-Butler said.
“The inclination to move fast in creating and implementing data-driven programs and practices is understandable. After all, the problems that communities face today are serious and immediate. People’s lives are at stake…. But acting too quickly in this arena entails a significant risk. All too easily, the urge to initiate programs expeditiously translates into a preference for top-down forms of management.” – Melody Barnes, Chair of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions & Paul Schmitz, Senior Advisor to the Collective Impact Forum in the Stanford Social Innovation Review
1. It takes years to build trust, which is foundational to being effective
After the first three years of SPARCC, the collaborative worked with the Center for Community Health and Evaluation to compile lessons learned based on data analysis of SPARCC’s regional work and extensive site interviews. In the report, they wrote that multi-sector collaboration “takes significant skill, time, and resources. Sites that invested more time and effort in building their collaborative infrastructure saw more payoff in outcomes (i.e., community power and leadership, capital resource investment, and policy and practice change).”
SPARCC learned that the work “moves at the speed of trust.” It often takes years to build relationships with community leaders, who may not be the ones with titles, but are the people with the trusted, deep relationships throughout the community.
2. Compensation & education are essential
To move beyond mandates passed down from philanthropy’s ivory towers, it’s crucial to invest time in an authentic community process of engagement, rather than selling an idea. Watkins-Butler says that residents must be paid a fair wage for their time out of respect for their expertise and out of considerations of often-invisible costs of participation like transportation and child care.
Also, education is essential for everyone at the table. Funders and developers must learn and understand the history of a neighborhood and residents often need basic knowledge of community development systems. Watkins-Butler also recommends training individual segments of participants to mitigate common pitfalls group by group. For example, she notes that funders often bring a savior complex, residents may feel they lack proof of efficacy and youth participants can feel hesitant to speak up. Working in small groups with a facilitator can help groups come together as more empathic and empowered participants.
3. Find ways to show indicators and trends
In an article for Chronicle of Philanthropy, LIIF CEO Daniel A. Nissenbaum and Andrea Levere write that grantmakers should “focus on giving what will help nonprofits enhance their missions and financial resiliency, rather than on what will fulfill the donor’s own priorities.” They call for “trust-based giving,” standardized reporting and collective funding so nonprofits can focus their efforts on impact.
As grantmaking exists today, funders often want to see results within a 12-month cycle, but significant community changes often take years. SPARCC has worked with funders to manage expectations and also provide early indicators of success (like growing collaborative participation, hosting robust planning convenings and distributing grant capital).
Residents and leaders of the Wendell Phillips neighborhood gather for a visioning workshop, September 2020.
1. Empower resident leaders to collaborate and partner in decision making
LaShawndra Vernon has worked in Milwaukee communities for 20 years, often working at the intersection of health, education, youth outreach and the arts. She echoed this sentiment in a recent panel discussion. “Do the neighborhood relationship building,” said Vernon, noting that the most power in a community often comes from the grandmothers who know everybody and see everything. “Hire the talent that is from the community…. That is your first step before you go in on an issue you heard through the data, through the statistics, through the ZIP codes. If no one from your team is of the community, hire someone who is.”
2. Support the neighborhood in their goals and serve their needs
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Kansas City, the Urban Neighborhood Initiative modeled adaptive community support, putting a pause on some construction projects to serve residents’ immediate needs. They set up COVID-19 testing sites, distributed funds to help immunocompromised and elderly residents pay their rent and distributed food. True community partnership means being responsive to the priorities of a community, not only during the development phase, but continually.
A recent report from Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future highlights recommendations for the operators of housing developments on engaging residents in more meaningful collaboration and leadership in decision making. The authors write that “to realize the full benefits of housing as a platform to create healthier and more equitable communities, housing and services must be connected in a way that recognizes and supports the agency of residents and gives them a real voice in how day-to-day life is carried out in their community.”
3. Clarify jargon and motivations
Make space to “make plain the motivations” of everyone at the planning table, writes Becca Lais in the Tulsa Star. The urban planning space is rife with acronyms and jargon like “TOD,” “eminent domain” and “adaptive reuse,” and using them undefined can create a barrier to communication, trust and transparency. Beyond the words, it’s essential to be plain about the bigger vision. Tracie Chandler, a resident of Tulsa said that community developers should be able to answer questions like: What is the motive for redevelopment? Who is it serving? What power does the development authority have? What power does the community have?
4. Amplify community voice for policy wins
Beyond the community-level, development practitioners must consider the broader systems that inhibit or make possible the goals of a community. SPARCC has worked to advance community planning and regional development policies that are co-designed by local collaborative tables, incorporating the voices and visions of low-income people and communities of color that have historically been denied influence.
Among SPARCC’s latest policy wins are:
- Passing an amendment to Chicago’s transit-oriented development (TOD) Ordinance requiring an equitable policy plan for future development
- Building a stronger renter advocate network leading to rent control in the Inglewood neighborhood of Los Angeles
- Passing L.A. Metro’s Transit-Oriented Communities policy and leading implementation
“Everybody wants to feel empowered,” said John James. “You have to find a champion whether it be a council member, a quarterback or an organization that’s committed to giving a community a place to share their concerns. At the end of the day, even if you don’t win, you’ve built up enough spirit for the next battle.”
- Kansas City project: JP Morgan Chase, Purpose Built Communities, Urban Neighborhood Initiative
- Oakland Project: City of Oakland, Metropolitan Transportation Commission (through BAPP), Northern California Land Trust, SPARCC
- Bay Area Preservation Pilot (BAPP): Enterprise Community Loan Fund, Low Income Investment Fund, Metropolitan Transportation Commission
- Accelerator Initiative: JP Morgan Chase, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Recommended Posts on Community Voice
- Community Engagement Matters (Now More Than Ever) (Stanford Social Innovation Review)
- The Importance of Community Voice in Community Development (Tulsa Star)
- Changing Mindsets: Lessons from the first three years of SPARCC (SPARCC)
- Resident Voice and Agency in Affordable Rental Housing: A Qualitative Analysis (Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future)
- Confronting Power Dynamics and Engaging the Community’s Voice in Collective Impact (Collective Impact Forum)