Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels.

The publication I co-direct, Shelterforce, has covered community development for 46 years, and I’ve been around it in some way for over 20 of those years. We’ve covered a lot of housing and community development policies and programs in that time, and because one of our roles is to spur connectivity among people in the field, often we’ve covered promising or exciting new ideas early in their development. And let’s be honest; for some of this work, five or 10 years in is still early in their development.

But earlier this year, we decided to do something different. Specifically, we opted to return to some of our past coverage and see what had happened to the promising practices we uplifted since we first wrote about them. Our Whatever Happened To… series turned out to be so popular that we’re now making it into an ongoing feature.

For the first series of articles, we reached back as far as the late 1990s. Looking over the stories we covered, here are four key lessons that stood out.


1. We tend to underestimate just how much things can change over the course of decades—and how many things can take decades of concerted effort to change.

Even those of us who understand that neighborhood conditions aren’t intrinsic and “natural” still tend to approach this work under the assumptions that housing markets, job markets, political climates, and technology are going to change slowly, if at all, when in many cases changes can really be quite sudden. This doesn’t mean that slow, steady, consistent work isn’t needed; far from it. It often lays the groundwork for desired change—and builds the relationships, institutions, and systems that allow for adaptive responses to unexpected change.

We found changes in Newark, New Jersey, for example, that many people 20 years ago would have had trouble believing would ever come—but the activists who did expect them put the city in a better position to handle the changes than many other places have been. Meanwhile, the financial and foreclosure crisis threw a wrench into the expected trajectory of change—and the planned responses to it—around Atlanta’s BeltLine, causing a need for significant regrouping.

Similarly, we found that the political climate has changed notably in recent times on topics like rent control and universal vouchers in ways that few would have expected. Nonetheless, even though these measures are much more popular than they were, say, back in 2010, getting reforms passed into law still requires a long-haul, multiyear effort by tenant organizers who started resuscitating the tenant movement over a decade ago.

2. Success doesn’t necessarily lead to replication, especially when it requires someone to give up some power.

Some of the field’s most exciting examples—the democratic philanthropy of the Southern Partners Fund, the cooperative ownership models of the Evergreen Cooperatives, and the robust and ongoing neighborhood-level democracy of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (we didn’t actually cover them in this series, but I felt they belonged on this list)—all took courage and risk on the part of not only the organizations themselves, but their funders and elected officials, to let go of normal ideas about their roles and types of support they would provide. Yet despite positive results, few have replicated them thoroughly. 

3. Don’t underestimate the work of implementation and enforcement—and of designing programs with the long haul in mind.

As an article that reviews community benefits agreements illustrates, promises made on paper have little meaning without teeth. Sometimes what happens after the first win makes more practical difference than that first win does. Advancing equity requires both big, strong vision and close attention to detail in implementation over a sustained amount of time.

“The problem was [comprehensive community initiatives or CCIs] were structured in the form of an ‘initiative’ because of the way foundations thought about things,” says Anne Kubisch. “If you have a theory of philanthropy that says, ‘We want to pilot something, show how it works, and then move on,’ you automatically by definition have this time-limited sense.”

While she was speaking about funder-led CCIs in the 1990s and 2000s, she could have been referring to so many different types of community development initiatives, themes, or programs.

Speaking of the importance of attention to detail, in one of our stories we found that activists in San Francisco who won commitments from the city to donate surplus land to affordable housing were stymied by the fact that it wasn’t actually the city that owned most of the surplus vacant land that they were seeking.

4. You need to ask people who are directly affected to find out how to design functional programs (and determine program goals).

The need to involve those who are most affected is not a new observation, of course. I think it shows up in some form on 90 percent of lists of lessons learned in planning and community development. However, until we all get better at it—and call out the instances where it isn’t happening—it’s worth reiterating. I would also add that frontline staff and organizers who directly work with affected folks are both good resources, and in some ways also directly affected by program design, if they are doing their jobs right. Tap those resources.

The Road Home program, formed after Hurricane Katrina for helping New Orleans homeowners, was admittedly initially created and rolled out quickly. But after widespread feedback about the ways that it wasn’t helping low-income homeowners, it was disappointing to revisit the initiative and find out that little had changed. The people with the most knowledge of the needs were still being treated more like potential fraudsters than experts in their situation. Ignoring that information is not only patronizing, but foolish.

As we continue to periodically revisit new ideas and promising approaches of the past, I expect to find more failures, or sort-of successes, than successes. That’s not because I don’t have the utmost respect for people doing this work, but because the work is hard and the support often not forthcoming. It is also the case because that’s how it should be if you are trying new things and truly being ambitious. It’s a shame that our culture (and funding structures) often makes it hard to learn from what didn’t work. We still do not learn very well from failure in our field. The result is often to encourage risk aversion when risk taking is far more often indicated.

I also expect to discover some incremental but important changes—like Seattle’s transit agency figuring out the details of affordable housing development—and some more truly delightful wins that have stuck around, as with the Southern Partners Fund and the evicted tenants in Minneapolis who ended up as homeowners.

As we look back at additional past initiatives, I’m looking forward to learning more.