Why Investing in Community Developers Is Even More Important Now

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May 10, 2015; Philadelphia Inquirer

According to economist Lee Huang of Econsult Solutions, New Jersey’s nonprofit community developers have a lot to be proud of. In the last quarter-century, according to Huang, nonprofit community developers have completed 1,506 residential, commercial, and mixed-use projects, generating 21,000 housing units, 2.5 million square feet of commercial space, and generating $12 billion for the New Jersey economy.

The article by Inquirer real estate reporter Alan J. Heavens quotes Staci Berger, the president and chief executive of the Housing and Community Development Corp. of New Jersey, who said that during the economic recession, when private developers stopped building, nonprofit community developers “completed roughly the same number of developments they did every year since 2000.”

Heavens cites successful CDCs around the state including Garden State Episcopal in Jersey City and MEND in Moorestown as examples of the kind of work CDCs are doing, including MEND’s conversion of schools to senior citizen housing and Episcopal’s “repurposing” of foreclosures as mixed income housing.

Showing the positive economic impacts of nonprofit CDCs is important, but readers shouldn’t think of CDCs as simply brick and mortar producers. Remember, CDCs also have an important organizing and advocacy function. In Pittsburgh, for example, the Community Training and Assistance Center (CTAC) is holding training classes for community advocates on the neighborhood advocacy and planning side of CDC work, training young people in the techniques of neighborhood planning, issue advocacy, social media communications, and building effective boards of directors, all necessary for creating and running effective and powerful CDCs like MEND and Episcopal.

The combination of organizing and activism with the hard skills of housing finance and construction is essential, particularly where market conditions may be a challenge. For example, in Baltimore, a nonprofit called Live Baltimore just held its twice-yearly “Buying Into Baltimore” event. Live Baltimore’s Steve Gondol reported that half of the people who signed up for the homebuyers’ festival did so after the civil disturbances that followed the death of Freddie Gray.

Gondol might want to remind “Buying” participants that some of the best deals they will encounter in Charm City are the homes being developed or “repurposed” by the city’s nonprofit CDCs. Based on the New Jersey results, Baltimore might want to turn to its nonprofit community development sector not just for housing, but for the economic boost that CDCs generate year in and year out, regardless of upturns and downturns in the economy, or even due to violence in the streets.—Rick Cohen