The More Things Change...

<p> Community Development Work Avoidance </p> <p> Local government across the nation is knee deep in the work of figuring how to do with less.  No community is immune from the challenges posed by reduced sales and property tax revenue and the constant if not increasing demand for services.  Invariably, and appropriately, locating the proper balance between the two becomes a matter of setting priorities.  And to do that, criteria are needed to rationalize why one municipal activity should be funded, but not another.  It was ever thus, of course.

February 26, 2009, 11:01 AM PST

By Charles Buki


Community Development Work Avoidance

Local government across the nation is knee deep in the work of figuring how to do with less.  No community is immune from the challenges posed by reduced sales and property tax revenue and the constant if not increasing demand for services.  Invariably, and appropriately, locating the proper balance between the two becomes a matter of setting priorities.  And to do that, criteria are needed to rationalize why one municipal activity should be funded, but not another.  It was ever thus, of course.

But the challenge today - for many reasons - is more than making expenses and income line up.  As often as not, it's about this and thinking carefully about what the deficits suggest. 

This is the hard work that up until now has been easy to avoid so long as credit financed the uncreditworthy.  Alas old habits are hard to break, and among the most difficult is the seemingly permanent incoherence of our community development systems.

According to the old funding sources and the old lobbying tactics and the old language of the old statutes, all housing markets in the nation are short on supply of affordable product, all distressed neighborhoods - being full of poor households - need housing poor families can afford, housing need is a knowingly fraudulent proxy for demand, and all housing efforts are de facto anti-poverty efforts which are themselves de facto revitalization activities.

But here we are, supposedly in a post consumerism era, where addressing deficits is needed but where the real work is restructuring systems, and the conversation about housing dollars remains tone deaf:  there are communities out there on the verge of spending NSP dollars to address homelessness, for example, once more confusing neighborhood work with housing work in counterproductive ways.

Here we are late into the post manufacturing era and the ambiguities in the stimulus bill and before that in the HERA Act as regard housing and community development are really the result of old thinking permeating new legislation.  Here we are in the greatest deflationary cycle in 50 years and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit remains the tool of choice by the old guard. 

One has to wonder where the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs gets their information when it comes to neighborhoods and poverty and community development.  Where the House Financial Services Committee gets theirs.  I suspect the same infrastructure of advice that gave us the LIHTC and the New Markets Tax Credit and the Home program are still calling the shots.  Still arguing that we have an "affordable housing crisis", that with a few more continuum of care units the homeless problem will be "solved".

How might we know that the "day of reckoning" has come not just to Wall Street but to the community development field? 

When dollars for housing for low income families are tied to market conditions on day one, and all such projects must be structured to return to market conditions on any given day in the course of a project's life.

When the neighborhood matters more than the project.

When we have dispensed with discussion of "need".

Don't hold your breath.


Charles Buki

Charles Buki is principal of czb, a Virginia-based neighborhood planning firm specializing in deep dive analysis, strategy development, and implementation of revitalization plans.

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