Community Progress Blog

Building equitable communities: It takes systems reform, collaboration, and community wealth-building

Written by on August 7, 2018

Credit: Center for Community Progress, 2018

The day-to-day work of community revitalization is intense and consuming. For all the talk of “breaking down silos,” it is a challenge to carve out the time and space for interdisciplinary learning.

JPMorgan Chase and the Center for Community Progress (Community Progress) worked together recently to help make that cross-sector learning possible. In May 2018, the two convened a first-of-its-kind learning exchange between community development financial institutions (CDFIs), local governments, land banks, and nonprofits. A dozen leaders from across the country came together to share challenges, successes, and lessons learned in implementing equitable strategies to tackle vacancy and abandonment.

Attendees were invited based on their participation in one of two JPMorgan Chase-funded grant programs: Partnerships for Raising Opportunity in Neighborhoods (community development financial institutions) and the Technical Assistance Scholarship Program (local governments, land banks, and nonprofit organizations).

Credit: Christine Henske, flickr, 2011

Partnerships for Raising Opportunity in Neighborhoods (PRO Neighborhoods), a five-year, $125 million initiative launched in 2016, is a JPMorgan Chase program that seeks to support and catalyze locally driven solutions in disadvantaged neighborhoods across the country. As part of the program, PRO Neighborhoods hosts an annual competition aimed at sparking collaboration among CDFIs to support and incentivize local organizations to pool their resources and expand lending for comprehensive, holistic strategies to close the opportunity gap in neighborhoods across the country. PRO Neighborhoods also includes initiatives that provide seed capital to support new financing mechanisms that expand affordable housing developments connected to economic opportunity drivers, and developing forward-looking data tools to help cities plan their neighborhood investments equitably and efficiently.

Community Progress launched the Technical Assistance Scholarship Program (TASP) in 2014. Now in its fourth year, TASP is merit-based, competitive, and national in scope. It provides heavily subsidized technical assistance to communities willing to engage in forward-thinking reforms to address large-scale vacancy and abandonment. Lessons learned, in turn, help to drive innovation in the national field of practice. Sixteen rural, suburban, and urban communities have participated in TASP. The final TASP reports are available on the Community Progress website.

Bringing these two programs together in May proved potent. One of the primary conclusions of the exchange? “We need more time together!”

Attendees from Albany, New York; Atlanta, Georgia; Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Detroit, Michigan; and the state of Wisconsin shared experiences from their day-to-day work and their participation in PRO Neighborhoods and TASP. The conversation focused on fostering collaboration among public, private, and community partners and prioritizing equitable development strategies.

Over the course of the conversation, several lessons emerged:

  • Delinquent property tax enforcement systems can frustrate community revitalization efforts. Local and state reforms to tax enforcement that produce predictable outcomes consistent with local needs are possible, effective, and an important element of equitable development. TASP recipients from Baltimore highlighted how Community Progress’ assessment of the City’s tax sale system and its impact on city finances, vacant properties, and vulnerable homeowners led to a statewide taskforce and legislative changes designed to increase consumer protections. Taking the time to collect quantitative data and qualitative stories created a compelling case to a wide variety of stakeholders.

 

  • Breaking down silos requires more than attending monthly meetings and working together on an ad hoc basis. To maximize impact around common goals, organizations must commit to authentic and sustained collaboration: learning about each other’s needs, building mutual trust, and reforming internal practices, investment strategies, and work cultures. The City of Atlanta touted the success of the Vacant Property Working Group, a model interdepartmental collaboration that the Office of Housing and Community Development leads. The working group includes representatives from multiple City departments and authorities who came together to implement recommendations made during the 2014 TASP engagement. With the Mayor’s support, this group has continued to meet over the past four years to evaluate and reform the City’s efforts to compel vacant and abandoned property owners to “Fix It Up, Pay It Up, or Give It Up.” In addition to the Mayor’s support, the other key ingredient that has inspired the working group to continue its collaboration is a calculation of the costs residents and taxpayers bear as a result of vacancy and abandonment.

 

  • The value of flexible, unrestricted dollars from lending institutions and philanthropy cannot be overstated. These dollars are essential to the development of financial products and other resources for those historically unable to access traditional capital. The Chicago Community Loan Fund highlighted how the unrestricted portion of their PRO Neighborhoods grant enabled them to create the Neighborhood Investor Lending Program, which provides acquisition/construction loans to redevelop small residential properties with less-than-standard developer equity and substandard real estate appraisal values – two conditions that prohibit development in many weak neighborhood markets. Continuing to make the case for the positive outcomes and leveraging potential of unrestricted capital will be important to both PRO and TASP grantees—and others in the field—moving forward.

 

Credit: Center for Community Progress, 2016

  • Residents are at the heart of this work. Programs that give residents from historically disinvested communities an opportunity to build wealth as a means to build power, like financing for first time community developers, must be prioritized. One such program highlighted by Forward Community Investments in Wisconsin, a PRO Neighborhoods recipient, the Emerging Developer Loan Program provides loans to emerging real estate developers that are people of color and/or women and wish to start a career investing in real estate. Forward Community Investments works with partners to support those borrowers through technical assistance, training, and networking to ensure loan recipients can build the skills to successfully develop, rehab, market and sell property in their communities. Acknowledging the systemic challenges that residents experience on a daily basis in economically distressed communities is vital to creating a successful and practical loan product.

 

  • Ensuring community development is equitable means prioritizing equity at every stage. It requires all attendees and other organizations to prioritize equity internally, to engage in authentic and sustained community outreach, and to make room for emerging and diverse community leaders. The Albany County Land Bank, a 2017 TASP recipient, shared with participants that its new Equity Ownership Opportunity Program (EOPP) was developed by its own staff, many of whom are from the communities in which the Land Bank works. The goal of EOPP is to utilize the Land Bank’s inventory of properties to provide first-time affordable home ownership opportunities for individuals and families residing in or relocating to Albany County’s economically distressed neighborhoods. Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore, a 2016 TASP recipient, highlighted the importance of identifying and promoting diverse talent from within, noting one-third of all staff started out as receptionists within the organization. Cultivating opportunities to embrace and support a diverse and racially representative group of staff and community stakeholders requires time, resources, and intention.

 

There is immense value for organizations and individuals working to build more equitable and just communities to make the time to come together, share experiences, and find ways to support each other’s work moving forward. National partners can help make these gatherings feasible for on-the-ground grantees and program participants. Both JPMorgan Chase and Community Progress look forward to continuing to support such conversations in the future.

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