Last month the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF) released a new paper, “Towards Equity, Opportunity and Well-Being: How the Community Development Industry Can Approach Safety and Policing,” that calls on the community development industry to more intentionally center community and resident safety in the investments, processes, and policies that define our work. To promote dialogue and encourage as wide a set of perspectives as possible on this important topic, we are engaging in additional conversations with community development practitioners and leaders.
To start, we sat down for a conversation with Carol Redmond Naughton, President and Interim CEO of Purpose Built Communities and LIIF Board Chair, and Daniel A. Nissenbaum, LIIF CEO. Purpose Built Communities is featured prominently in “Towards Equity, Opportunity and Well-Being” as an example of place-centric revitalization.
LIIF’s recent paper suggests that “community development stakeholders have an implicit interest in promoting and ensuring resident safety.” Why do you think the issues of safety and policing haven’t been as explicit within our sector?
Naughton: Safety cuts across housing, education, health and wellness and all the issues we work on, but the community development industry has been just as siloed as almost every other facet of our economy or way of life. So while community developers may have always believed that you do not police your way to safety and prosperity, I don’t think we have looked directly at the question of safety until the connections have been brought before us so starkly.
Just as health is not simply the absence of disease, safety is more than simply the absence of threat. We need to design a system that moves to safety, and it is our investments that should get us there – not the police.”
Nissenbaum: And the tools we rely on to do our work only deepen these existing siloes. Community development financial institutions (CDFIs) have become experts at raising capital and financing a broad range of community amenities. We have operated under the assumption that these investments would lead to virtuous outcomes, but we now recognize that the system is producing exactly what it is intended to produce: units. Safety and equity will not emanate from our investments until the system explicitly asks for these broader outcomes.
Part of the challenge may be that it is difficult to define what we are asking for when we say safety. What does it mean for a community to feel safe?
Naughton: I agree that this is a tremendous challenge because what it takes to feel safe is incredibly personal and incredibly broad. It depends on who you are, where you are, and the circumstances that have given you a unique perspective in life. Just as health is not simply the absence of disease, safety is more than simply the absence of threat. We need to design a system that moves to safety, and it is our investments that should get us there – not the police.
Nissenbaum: In designing a system that prioritizes safety over policing we have to rationalize the way we allocate resources. CDFIs like LIIF are in the business of helping finance government services, yet funding for this work has steadily decreased over the last few decades while spending on police has increased dramatically – even as crime is at its lowest level. So much of what our current system values can be seen through the way resources are allocated, and right now that is on policing rather than the amenities that are specifically targeted at advancing health and well-being in the community.
Nissenbaum: Community voice has become a guiding principle as our industry works to re-center equity and justice, but there is an unresolved question about what community voice actually is. For too long our industry has conflated community voice with certain proxies, such as community board approval. We are now realizing that these normal proxies we use in our work – like zoning boards, development approvals, appraisals and more – do not always reflect all aspects of the community, and in fact, are where institutional racism can live and thrive.
Naughton: That’s exactly right and I think underscores an inherent and incredibly challenging tension within our field – the system is not currently designed to incent authentic community voice; the system is designed to produce units. To work in this industry, we end up frantically running on a treadmill to produce more units since the demand so drastically outweighs the supply. This makes it incredibly difficult to have the time to create authentic relationships, which is why we have seen so many developers take a “check the box” approach to community voice.
But that’s also why I think the Community Quarterback model is so valuable. Whereas a developer may be engaged with the community for the duration of building a development, the Community Quarterback is continually in the business of building relationships, strengthening community, and amplifying community voice.
We are now realizing that these normal proxies we use in our work – like zoning boards, development approvals, appraisals and more – do not always reflect all aspects of the community, and in fact, are where institutional racism can live and thrive.”
If systems change is the way to address these issues, then we need to be thinking about the policies that influence these systems. What policy changes would most effectively advance the field on issues around safety and community voice?
Nissenbaum: Place-based initiatives that invest in integrated community development should be an urgent policy focus. It is clearer than ever that there are serious consequences when we take a piecemeal investment approach rather than focusing on holistic development that builds a healthy community ecosystem. Developing new affordable housing far from high performing schools, job opportunities, transit, groceries, or any other basic necessity is counter-productive to building opportunity. The Community Quarterback model is the exact type of initiative that we should be looking to as a scalable model.
Naughton: That raises the related and equally important role of community ownership models. As I’ve often said, if you control the land you control your destiny. But unfortunately, it is extremely difficult for nonprofits and community-based organizations to access the capital necessary to quickly buy land, particularly when there are no immediate development plans. One of the most pressing challenges for policymakers to determine is how to quickly get capital to mission-based community organizations so that they can buy and preserve land before costs rise.
One of the most pressing challenges for policymakers to determine is how to quickly get capital to mission-based community organizations so that they can buy and preserve land before costs rise.”
Nissenbaum: This is an incredibly acute issue. I have seen community ownership models increasingly come to the fore, and I think the conversation is driven largely by concerns about displacement, which have only heightened in the current economic environment. Policymakers have an important role to play in promoting ownership that is mission-driven and focused on long-term affordability.
I also think we need to demand that our elected officials be more intentional about policies that target systems change. For instance, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) generates billions of dollars invested into communities every year, yet this policy tool is structured around dollars deployed and units built rather than impactful and integrated community development. Even the outcome designed in this system is a bank’s CRA rating, rather than a broader set of outcomes for the community, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s (OCC) recently finalized CRA rule only threatens to further reduce the overall focus on communities. Shifting the incentive structure within CRA to more explicitly focus on community-led planning could have the type of systemic benefits we need to truly advance equity and justice in community development.
Naughton: It’s all about the incentives. I am in the business of investing in neighborhoods, not just projects. I want to create a place that has the amenities that everybody says they want in their community. But the beauty is in the nuance. What a beautiful grocery store looks like in one neighborhood may be a little different than what a beautiful grocery store looks like in another neighborhood. We have to build these nuances into our policies and systems and investments, because although everyone wants a grocery store, not everyone wants the same grocery store.
The Community Quarterback model is central to Purpose Built’s theory of successful place-based community development. Local leaders in a defined neighborhood work with Purpose Built to create a nonprofit Community Quarterback to lead revitalization efforts in partnership with community members and partners across the public, private, and philanthropic sectors. The model emphasizes the importance of mixed-income housing, cradle to college education, and community wellness as vital components of creating a strong community ecosystem.