Nicolas Nova / Soft Infrastructure interruption

This article is the third in our series—Community Development: National Leaders’ Visions—that NPQ, in partnership with the CEO Circle, an informal network of BIPOC community economic development leaders, is publishing in the coming weeks. The series focuses on identifying what is required to address key transformational challenges and to help the field of community economic development better accomplish its twin missions of racial and economic justice.

NeighborWorks America‘s roots reside in a Central North Side neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Our organization was modeled after one woman’s attempt to fight back against redlining and the attacks she faced from various entities to marginalize and erase the community she called home. That woman was Dorothy Richardson, and the year was 1968. The same year, the Fair Housing Act was written into law, and homeownership in communities of color hovered around 40 percent. As we know, in an outcome that is, in turn, both shocking and yet not surprising, the percentage of Black homeowners has not changed significantly in more than 50 years. According to the NeighborWorks 2021 Housing and Financial Capability Survey, nationally, the homeownership rate is at 62 percent overall but remains at 42 percent for Blacks, far less than the 53 percent for Latinxs, 63 percent for Asians, and 69 percent for whites.

Over those 50 years, we have not invested enough in desperately needed affordable housing and community infrastructure. But money is only a starting point. If we expect to foster true economic equity and build community wealth for current and future generations that have been historically left out, we must do more than preserve and update homes. We must address the many root causes that have led to the economic stagnation that has harmed communities of color and many low-income white families, too, across the country, both in urban and rural areas.

Admittedly, the inequities may be too numerous to count. Still, as an organization with more than 40 years of housing and community development experience, we have learned that any community revitalization and stability program should include the community’s residents. Borrowing from the refrain of marginalized people from various walks of life throughout history, “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis”—translation: “nothing about us, without us”. We’ve come to understand that any change or investment within communities must include the residents of that community. History has given us far too many lessons on the damaging impact that uninformed planning and development have when a well-intentioned group of planners, investors, and policymakers decide what is best for a place they know nothing about. Not to mention the devastating consequences when well-meant plans are thrown out the window in the name of “capital improvement” and “eminent domain,” especially when neither is ever completed or never reaches past the leveled buildings and displacement of residents.

With history as our teacher, we also know that community/resident engagement can be the life force that sustains and stabilizes the spaces and places we all call home. It can foster economic improvement through housing affordability, provide social equity services, kick-start small business growth, and seed next-generation wealth. When it happens, the solutions not only benefit the immediate community, but they also bolster the larger community/city/town.

For example, Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles is one of three remaining Japantowns in the United States. At one point, it boasted a population of 30,000 Japanese Americans. In the fifties and sixties, large parcels of the land were claimed by eminent domain in the name of City Hall and infrastructure expansion. Over the years, as expansion continued, more and more residents, many of whom were seniors and lifelong residents, were displaced. Today, Little Tokyo is much smaller (a five-block area), but the voice of its residents, small businesses, cultural institutions, and stakeholders—and their power to inform the needs of their community—has never been stronger.

When city plans called for the construction of a regional light-rail hub, disrupting a major intersection in the community, Little Tokyo residents through the Little Tokyo Service Center, a NeighborWorks network organization, and their leaders helped the city see a different vision for the hub. The Little Tokyo Community Council—a cross-sector group of residents, community leaders, and business owners—began work in 2013 on a community-based visioning process that included equitable and sustainable development of three pieces of public, city-owned land. Their plan called for the Metro Regional Connector station to be constructed underground to minimize disruption while leaving the city-owned land available for development, guided and controlled by the community planning process. The new Sustainable Little Tokyo (SLT) plan was born, and it included affordable housing, commercial small business space, arts, and flexible-use space on the available land.

Erich Nakano, the group’s executive director said it best: “You cannot have comprehensive community development without considering who it benefits, and how it’s going to impact everyone.” There is more to the bottom line than the fiscal line regarding communities of color and legacy businesses. Little Tokyo’s SLT plan is designed to support residents who seek a community of culture—where their principles, ideas, and language are preserved, and their seniors protected. It is also accommodating and recruiting future generations through its services and amenities like community centers, retail stores, and restaurants—all while supporting legacy businesses that have long been the backbone of the neighborhood. In 2022, with the completion of a light rail project, Little Tokyo will also be the host to one of the largest regional transportation hubs in the city—supporting a robust community well into the future.

The community’s goal is to surround this hub with community-driven and -controlled development—serving low-income families and seniors, longtime businesses, and local artists and cultural institutions. Little Tokyo took a big step towards this goal when the new city councilmember created a lease on city-owned land across the street from the light rail station for Little Tokyo Service Center to build a project with 240-plus units of affordable housing and commercial and arts components, implementing the SLT vision. The community’s next target is to shape an upcoming RFP (request-for-proposals) process for the remaining large parcels of city land adjacent to the transit hub.

Accountability is not all about reinvestment—it is also about capacity building. NeighborWorks America has always been proud of our commitment to our network organizations; we are often “first-in” when it comes to investiture and grant-making for projects that we know are sound investments but may take years to develop. We recognize that the support and resources we provide are often the seed funds or

sometimes the sustaining funds for organizations that are genuinely struggling to compete and justify their visions for the work that will bolster the communities they serve. The challenges they face are often rooted in historical challenges to the very existence of their communities and the importance they hold to the families and businesses that trace their roots back several generations to these sacred spaces.

Madison Park Development Corporation (MPDC) is one such organization in one such place. The Roxbury community of Boston was once considered the heart of Black culture in Boston. Urban renewal, economic disparity, and suburban flight made their inevitable impact on the community as Lower Roxbury became an easy target for blockbusting and bulldozers. The founders of MPDC and the community residents fought hard to keep their homes, businesses, and community. While the city had plans to develop a giant campus space that included a central city high school and a park, the residents of Lower Roxbury through the Lower Roxbury Community Corporation (now MPDC) came up with their vision for Madison Park Village.

The Madison Park Village plan, one of the first community resident-designed development plans in the country—included townhomes, senior living, and mixed-use space. Fifty-five years later, they are still building on that plan. The residents of Lower Roxbury understand that the burden for ensuring the viability of their community is a shared one. Beyond developing a plan, they have worked at the state and federal levels to demonstrate they are the appropriate conduit for community investment funds in their community and require their fair share. In addition to affordable rental units and subsidized properties, they have worked to make their properties more than just tax-credit eligible. They have leveraged their impact to ensure that their community is not dwarfed by new development and leveraged an anti-displacement policy that works to bridge inequity through homeownership.

Madison Park in Boston and Little Tokyo in Los Angeles are very different communities that exemplify workable solutions while highlighting the challenges exacerbated when accountability is missing from the equation. Without accountability, decline and disinvestment can take root. We find ourselves trying to restore and maintain entire blocks of disrepair to keep things up and running, unable to invest in projects or community priorities that would propel them forward. It also ensures that the community’s needs are addressed and facilitates growth and sustainability.

Accountability also ensures we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past and learn from the lessons that decimated far too many communities, especially those of color, in the name of progress. A point driven home by Madison Park executive director Leslie Reid, who talks about the Sankofa (a mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward with its head turned backward) and its meaning: go back to the past and bring forward that which is useful. “Our People, families, and businesses are the fabric of our communities, and they deserve respect and a seat at the table. We’ve seen what happens when they are not there, and we can’t let that happen again!”

It is not enough to invest in education, housing, and jobs unless these investments are made with the people and equity in mind. Yes, of course, it is important to fix the roads, expand the access to and affordability of broadband in rural areas, invest and improve faltering homes, and protect affordable units. Still, in doing so, governments must work with communities and their residents so that the residents can be a part of the solution. It will take a cross-sector approach of government, business, and nonprofits working together to stabilize the economy; bridge the health, wealth, and education gaps; and foster future generations of wealth through homeownership, affordable housing, and community development.

Playing communities short does not work. Today, we have an opportunity to invest in strategies that address immediate issues but also could provide long-term stability. The time is upon us to act with both present-day needs and a bold vision for the future in mind.