From the Field

Open letter on Wellston housing crisis: St. Louis must break the cycle of systemic neglect and disinvestment

David Dwight IV, Lead Strategy Catalyst at Forward Through Ferguson

Karishma Furtado, Research & Data Catalyst at Forward Through Ferguson

This column was originally published on Medium.

David Dwight

David Dwight

The proposed demolition of the Wellston Housing Authority, a public housing development that serves almost entirely Black St. Louisans, paired with an insufficient plan for maintaining the Wellston community repeats a troubling pattern of disinvestment in historic Black neighborhoods. We call on HUD to Radically Listen to the communities and individuals that will be devastated by those actions, apply a Racial Equity Lens to its plans, and lean into its position as a key Policy and Systems actor with the potential to help heal and restore a community as opposed to throwing it away.

Karishma Furtado

Karishma Furtado

Across the last century, St. Louis has regrettably seen the destruction and redevelopment of many historic Black neighborhoods including Mill Creek Valley, Evans-Howard Place, Pershing-Waterman, Clayton, and Kinloch. Often, the rationales given to the communities pointed to the substandard condition of the existing housing, the potential for urban renewal, and the need for new infrastructure. These rationales ignore the history of neglect and disinvestment by governmental, financial, and private institutions that have created the substandard conditions. The proposed actions by HUD place Wellston dangerously on the edge of joining this list of decimated Black neighborhoods.

A principle of the Ferguson Commission that we feel is critical to all of our work is Radical Listening. This consists of taking the time to hear what the communities we intend to serve have to say, trusting them to be the experts on their experiences, and then formulating plans and taking action accordingly. It is clear: the community of Wellston was not properly consulted and does not want this course of action. They do not want to fall prey to the toxic pattern of discarding Black communities in the name of urban renewal intended to benefit others. They want to enjoy the baseline of investment and optimism that so many other neighborhoods in our region experience and expect.

The Ferguson Commission—after their comprehensive, regional study, which included over 3,000 St. Louis community members—next encourages us to judiciously apply a Racial Equity Lens. This means asking ourselves for any given action, program, or policy being considered:

  • Whom does this benefit?

  • Will this differentially impact racial and ethnic groups?

  • And, what is missing that will intentionally decrease or eliminate racial disparities?

The answers to these questions undoubtedly show that the destruction of the Wellston Housing Authority would be a shock felt almost entirely by a low-income Black community. 99% of Wellston is Black compared with 24% of St. Louis County. The disparate impact is clear and egregious.

The third principle of the Commission calls on us to recognize the historical treatment of Black neighborhoods in our solutions by prioritizing a Policy and Systems Approach. This technique enables us to understand how disparate outcomes are the product of the way our institutions, practices, policies, and laws were built and how they continue to impact community health today. It calls us to reach beyond reaction to symptoms—a neglected public housing complex—and to instead implement solutions that address the root causes of inequities.

This means situating the lack of opportunities to thrive for so many of our Black neighbors and communities—reflected in many indicators of access and wellbeing—within the broader context of local, state, and national systems and policies that not only passively fail to serve them but actively damage them. It also means acknowledging that weakening neighborhoods and destroying low-income housing when affordable housing is already exceedingly scarce goes on to have profound impacts across the lives of those whose homes and communities are lost. Dr. Jason Purnell of Health Equity Works at Washington University in St. Louis reminds us of this saying, a child who can’t hear, can’t see, hasn’t slept, can’t breathe, has been traumatized, hasn’t eaten, and doesn’t know where they’re going to sleep, doesn’t have the opportunity to learn. The planned actions of HUD will have profound and adverse ripple effects across the lives of those displaced.

Similarly, when tasked with examining the underlying causes of the civil unrest after the death of Michael Brown, the Ferguson Commission identified a long-standing history of disinvestment in Black communities as one of many interrelated factors that feed our persistent racial disparities across most life outcomes. It called for investment in more and better affordable housing and policy-based commitments to help predominantly Black neighborhoods thrive.

Forward Through Ferguson lends its voice to those calling for the proposed demolition of the Wellston Housing Authority to halt until HUD and local partners have taken the vital first steps to apply a Racial Equity Lens, Radically Listen to affected community members, and commit to a Systems and Policy approach. We must ensure that Wellston does not join the list of Black St. Louis neighborhoods lost to history due to systemic neglect and redevelopment.

*Note: This letter was sent to HUD and the Housing Authority of St. Louis County. It was submitted during the public comment period; a decision was later made Thursday, May 23rd to move forward with the “demolition and disposition” plan.

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David Dwight IV serves as Lead Strategy Catalyst and Karishma Furtado serves as Research & Data Catalyst with Forward Through Ferguson.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at swanstromt@umsl.edu.

Don’t relocate Wellston’s public housing tenants—develop an alternative plan using selective rehab and nonprofit ownership

Jim Roos, former Executive Director of Sanctuary in the Ordinary

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For six months, HUD and St. Louis County Housing Authority need to reconsider their plan to issue Section 8 vouchers and relocate 500 people from 201 public housing units in Wellston.

Relocating all Wellston tenants will ultimately be no improvement for most tenants. We have seen this approach fail in other neighborhoods before.

For example, in 2003 St. Louis City allowed a developer to use eminent domain to take and demolish six entire blocks just north of Interstate 44, west of 39th Street. The area was then called McRee Town and is now called Botanical Heights. Neighborhood Enterprises managed 40 buildings with 120 rental units in the general area. Half of them were taken and demolished. The area was distressed, but we knew it was recovering: between 1995 and 2000 our vacancy list had dropped from over 15 to almost zero, and the average rent for 3 and 4 room apartments had increased from $175 to $225.

Some relocated tenants were moved to Ferguson, Wellston, and other distressed areas, which made their situations worse. By contrast, one tenant who lived in a section of McRee that was not taken called me last month to say her husband was dying. She said they had rented from us for 31 years. They had raised all their children in our apartments, and she was grateful for the housing and for the relationship. I visited her husband in the hospital and attended his funeral.

When units are vacated with no immediate plan to repair and re-rent, they will be vandalized, demolished, and forever lost as existing or potentially decent lower-cost housing. In Wellston, there are currently 155 occupied and 46 vacant public housing units. I have driven or biked by most of them. I haven’t seen the interiors, but I suspect that many of the units could be adequately rehabilitated with the selective rehab strategy I used for 45 years.

Wellston Mayor Nate Griffin, City Administrator Janice Trigg, and Chris Krehmeyer of Beyond Housing are working on an alternative to the HUD proposed relocation, which would likely end in demolition. I believe they have support from county, state, and federal elected officials, St. Augustine Church and Archdiocese, bankers, and Audubon Associates LLC. Give them some time to develop an alternative plan!

Grand Scale Development is often shortsighted or unrealistic. The Wellston “Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan” in November 2015 produced no results. The 1947 “large scale” development plan proposed by the St. Louis Plan Commission declared that all areas around the central business district were “obsolete” and “must be cleared and reconstructed.”  If the city had completed the plan, Soulard and Lafayette Square would have also been demolished.

Let’s remember St. Louis City’s Neighborhood Stabilization Team’s motto: “You don’t have to move to live in a better neighborhood.” Use selective rehab principles and work around existing tenants.

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Jim Roos is currently retired after 47 years with Neighborhood Enterprises (NE) and Sanctuary in the Ordinary (SITO). NE repaired and managed—and SITO owned—lower cost rental housing.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at swanstromt@umsl.edu.

Missouri Towns: Places for Building Health

Bob Hughes, Ph.D., President & CEO of Missouri Foundation for Health

This column was originally published in Bob Hughes’ blog on the Missouri Foundation for Health website, where he regularly writes about improving the health and well-being of individuals and communities most in need.

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Our default view of health is to think in terms of individuals—a specific disease or disability or how long a person will live. But a perspective that focuses only on one person omits a crucial, indispensable component of health: the well-being of people collectively.

When we talk about the health of a family, a neighborhood, or a city, we understand that health occurs at multiple levels, and these are mutually reinforcing. A healthy town produces healthy people, healthy people produce healthy towns. That is why Missouri Foundation for Health’s mission is to improve the health of people and communities.

This has important implications for all of us. It means that we are interdependent; the health of your neighborhood influences your health and vice-versa. The obvious example is how communicable diseases spread, but many other factors that influence health—from toxic stress to adequate shelter to access to education and healthy food—are our collective responsibility.

A principle site for this collective responsibility to take place is in our towns. Their importance to health is captured in the phrase, “Your ZIP code is more important to your health than your genetic code.” Towns are where we can take direct action to improve our lives—to create healthy environments, start businesses, find meaningful work, raise families, and help each other so that together we build community well-being.

Towns are the principle locations of—to use De Toqueville’s phrase that captured our nation’s unique character—”associations.” These are the organizations formed when citizens came together and took action to respond to community needs. The result is a diverse nonprofit sector that includes health clinics, day cares, places of worship, food pantries, senior centers—the institutions that support us and our fellow residents when we need help. And the people who work in these institutions know that their work is meaningful for the people they work with, for themselves, and ultimately for the entire community.

De Toqueville’s famous 1837 tour of the United States now has a contemporary companion – “Our Towns” by James and Deborah Fallows. The Fallows travelled more than 100,000 miles over five years to visit dozens of towns across America to examine the civic, economic, and social renewal of areas outside major metropolises and under the radar of national media. They found stories of growth, challenge, and creativity in the ongoing renewal and rebuilding of these towns.

I could not help thinking of Missouri’s smaller communities as I read this book, and the progress underway across our state. The Fallows note the value of “big plans” in successful towns, which they define as a plan that sets a reasonable time horizon of around 20 years to deliver results. #STL2039 is the year Forward Through Ferguson chose as an indicator of when generational change in STL racial equity should be achieved; these are the kind of big plans we need.

During their travels, the Fallows came to understand that “public-private partnerships” are an important ingredient in successful towns. I immediately thought of Springfield, Missouri, and the myriad community-wide public-private partnerships, such as the Healthy Living Alliance, a network of people and organizations working together to advocate for healthy policies and encourage healthy, active living. It also brought to mind the work of Bootheel Babies and Families, a key partner in our Infant Mortality Reduction Initiative, and how it is joining together with public and private entities to address a tragic issue that puts an emotional and economic burden on everyone in their region.

In successful towns, the Fallows also found that “people work together on practical local possibilities, rather than allowing bitter disagreements about national politics to keep them apart.” This is an important reminder for us all. In these politically divisive times, there remains so much more that ties us together than what separates us. The health of our very communities relies on our ability to work together and use our differences as an advantage, not an obstacle that prevents us from moving forward.

In many ways the Fallows’ findings shouldn’t be too surprising, but it’s an excellent reminder that the towns that are successfully reinventing themselves are doing so by thinking big, creating new partnerships, and by taking care of their residents. At their heart, these are lessons that communities of any size can benefit from.

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Bob Hughes is president and CEO of Missouri Foundation for HealthIn his blog, he regularly writes about improving the health and well-being of individuals and communities most in need.

Before joining the Foundation as chief executive officer in 2012, Bob was a visiting research professor in the Center for State Health Policy at Rutgers University and served in various leadership positions for more than 20 years at The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in New Jersey. Since joining MFH, he has enhanced the strategic direction of the organization and positioned it to be a catalyst for change throughout the region. Under his leadership MFH focuses on fostering a culture of learning, exploration, and collaboration that promotes improvements in the health of underserved Missourians. A native of Illinois, Hughes received his doctorate in behavioral sciences from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health. Hughes serves on the boards of Grantmakers in Health and the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce, as well as on the Advisory Board of Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at swanstromt@umsl.edu.

An Open Approach to Community Development

Kimberly McKinney, CBN Board President & CEO of Habitat for Humanity Saint Louis

Sal Martinez, Previous CBN Board President, Treasurer of North Newstead Association’s Board of Directors, & Chairman of the St. Louis Housing Authority Board of Commissioners

Kimberly McKinney

Kimberly McKinney

When the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis (CBN) was formed over seven years ago, it took trust—among other things—to get a group of already too-busy nonprofit and business professionals to come together for the greater good of the community development sector, under an umbrella that we knew would likely evolve into an organization partly sustained by membership dues. Reflecting on where CBN began and where it is now with our first full-time Executive Director and talented staff, we can celebrate much evolution that has proudly led to recognition of CBN as a “go-to” entity on issues that affect our community. 

Sal Martinez

Sal Martinez

As a growing organization that represents a diverse group of members—including community development corporations from all areas of St. Louis, for-profit businesses who support and benefit from the work, public agencies, and a variety of other nonprofit service providers—we are routinely called upon to take a stance on, lend our name to, or provide support around various causes. These causes can range from advocating for the distribution of Federal and State Low Income Housing and Historic Tax Credits, to working to reduce vacancy in the City of St. Louis, to pushing for the establishment of an Affordable Housing Trust Fund in St. Louis County. Through its evolution, CBN has come to be recognized as a voice for the broader community development sector, as well as a facilitator and convener for a number of coalitions addressing a variety of critical community issues.

This is certainly a wonderful outcome of growth—that is, until issues and agendas divide membership, or even our Board, as we may find ourselves on opposite sides of or benefiting differently from an outcome. We also must be constantly mindful that the loudest voice isn’t necessarily the collective voice of our membership or Board.

Past and present leadership of CBN recognize that the best outcome is in finding common ground. This led us to a recent conversation on what that common ground may be. Knowing that there is more than one answer to this question, we both came back to one in particular time and time again: transparency. 

When an organization or individual finds themselves for or against something, their feeling and conclusion can often be traced back to an important question: how transparent was the process, decision, or action? Major planning or implementation decisions that are made openly and with the community at the table look and feel different from major decisions that appear to have been brokered through back-office deals. And when an issue starts as one that is community-driven, keeping community stakeholders at the table—and valuing their work—as things evolve helps to build irreplaceable trust.

Transparency rarely means that everyone will be completely happy once decisions are made, of course. But when those decisions are made in ways that make people feel heard and respected, all are more likely to be satisfied and to trust the process again in the future.

The intersection of trust and transparency is complex. It is also critical as we enter an age when residents and stakeholders are increasingly demanding to be included as a valued part of the present and future of their communities.

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As Chief Executive Officer of Habitat for Humanity Saint Louis, Kimberly McKinney is responsible for the overall operation of the St. Louis affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. Locally, Habitat for Humanity Saint Louis has built over 400 houses. Kimberly’s primary duties include board recruitment and development, strategic planning, community relations, and advocacy.

Kimberly initially began as Development Director with Habitat for Humanity in 1997 after relocating to St. Louis from Tennessee where she held management positions in both the public and private sector.

Kimberly serves on the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee of Rise (formerly, RHCDA), the Board and Executive Committee as Board President of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis, the Board of Innovative Technology Education Fund, and the Board of Nonprofit MO. She is a past member of the US Council for Habitat for Humanity International and a current member of St. Louis Women’s Forum and CREW.

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Sal Martinez has established himself as a force in the comprehensive revitalization of the St. Louis region. Martinez, who received his Bachelor of Science degree in Urban Education in 1994 from Harris-Stowe State College, was employed by the college as Neighborhood Services Coordinator from 1996-1998. During his tenure at College, Martinez served as a liaison to many local social service and non-profit agencies. These experiences had a profound effect on Martinez, as he developed a keen interest in assisting in the rebuilding of St. Louis’s many disinvested neighborhoods.

Since then, Martinez has spent years working with St. Louis-area efforts to develop and promote mixed income and affordable housing, innovative economic development, historic revitalization, and safety, security, and health programming for residents. He has served as Executive Director of the Grand Rock Community Economic Development Corporation, the Vashon/Jeff-Vander-Lou Initiative, and Community Renewal and Redevelopment, Inc. In January of 2017, Martinez was appointed as the Executive Director of North Newstead Association (NNA). NNA (which merged with CRD in 2017) is recognized as a community development corporation and has developed over 135 units of affordable housing in addition to promoting a number of human development initiatives for families residing in North St. Louis City. Martinez currently serves as CEO of Employment Connection, a nonprofit St. Louis community asset that breaks down barriers to self-sufficiency for individuals with limited opportunities including the homeless, ex-offenders, U.S. veterans, high school dropouts, women on welfare, and at-risk youth.

Martinez currently serves as chairman for the St. Louis Housing Authority Board of Commissioners and is in his fourth term; during his first, he was elected as the Board’s youngest-ever chairman. He serves on several advisory boards and committees designed to increase minority (MBE), women-owned (WBE), and Section 3 business and workforce participation on both publicly and privately funded construction projects, and is the co-founder of the Minority Contractor Initiative (MCI), which provides training, capacity building and technical assistance to St. Louis-region MBE/WBE/Section 3 construction firms. Martinez is also a long-time member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Martinez has received numerous community service awards from regional and national organizations, including the Human Development Corporation; Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.; Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.; Better Family Life; Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.; Metro Sentinel Journal; Senior and Disabled Services Committee; St. Louis Argus Newspaper; Employment Connection; St. Louis Housing Authority; Community Asset Management Company; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Committee; and the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council. He also has received the Harris-Stowe State University Distinguished Alumni Award. Martinez serves on the boards of several civic organizations, including the Community Builders Network, Central Patrol Business/Police Association, Civil Rights Enforcement Agency, and North Grand Neighborhood Services, Inc.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at swanstromt@umsl.edu.

Mental Health and Community Development

Laura Choi, Community Development Research Manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

This column originally appeared in Shelterforce.

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The first time I became acutely aware of the importance of mental health was in high school, when I lost a friend to suicide. It remains one of the most defining experiences of my youth, both in terms of the immediate shock and grief, as well as what I learned by observing the reactions of others.

In our tight-knit immigrant community, the prevailing response was to actively avoid the issue. I assumed everyone stayed silent to minimize the family’s shame, but looking back, I now realize that we were woefully unequipped to respond. We lacked a fundamental understanding of mental health and how to talk about mental health challenges in productive ways, largely driven by cultural stigma. Adults also missed a critical opportunity to change the narrative and shine a light on the importance of proactive mental health promotion. That experience taught me an important lesson: mental health is foundational to every aspect of a healthy, productive life and it must be actively and openly cultivated.

Expanding the Healthy Communities Conversation to Include Mental Health

Over the past decade, the community development field has made great progress in bringing a health lens to its work, and exciting new partnerships between the health and community development sectors are taking shape across the country. These efforts have tended to focus on the connections between place and physical health, with a focus on neighborhood revitalization as a strategy for reducing rates of preventable chronic disease like asthma, diabetes, and obesity. However, the healthy communities movement has been less explicit about mental, emotional, and behavioral health, and it’s time for that to change. The stunning increase in suicide, alcohol- and drug-induced death, coupled with rising rates of anxiety and depression, particularly among youth, demands our collective attention and action.

Promoting mental health and well-being throughout a lifetime is critical for supporting the economic resilience and mobility of low-income people, a key aim of community development efforts. For example, there is clear evidence that poor mental health is associated with reductions in labor force participation and employment. Mental health problems among children have a severe negative impact on educational outcomes, which can limit future economic well-being. Approximately 50 percent of students age 14 and older who are living with a mental illness drop out of high school, the highest dropout rate of any disability group. Perhaps most critically, adverse childhood experiences, which include abuse, neglect, having an incarcerated household member, or substance misuse within the household, are risk factors for poor mental health and have been linked to a number of negative health and well-being outcomes, including risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, and early death.

The community development field has the opportunity to explicitly recognize the relationship between mental health and physical health, and the role that social factors play in both aspects of overall well-being. “Upstream” conditions, such as neighborhood quality or household financial well-being, are important determinants of mental health and can influence factors such as emotional resilience, social connectedness, and self-efficacy. Poverty is a major risk factor for poor mental health. Research shows that community-development-related issues such as unstable housing and unemployment are connected in a complex negative cycle with poor mental health (see figure below). The pursuit of improved population health and expanded economic opportunity for all should include upstream strategies that address community conditions and their underlying structural drivers as a means of promoting good mental health.

Positive and Negative Factors that Influence Mental Health

Partnerships as the Way Forward

In his recent book Lost Connections, journalist Johan Hari synthesizes decades of social science and medical research and finds that poor mental health is driven by a range of factors outside of individual genetic and biochemical factors, which in addition to unresolved childhood trauma, include disconnection from:

  • Meaningful work

  • Other people

  • Status and respect

  • The natural world

  • A hopeful or secure future

Reflecting on these drivers of poor mental health, it becomes clear that the community development field has a meaningful role to play in addressing these root causes. The community development and mental health fields have a critical opportunity to work together, leveraging each other’s strengths, in supporting the mental health of low income communities. Some examples include:

  • Expanding trauma-informed practices, including critical interventions for young children

  • Considering mental health promotion in community design, which includes community gathering spaces and natural elements

  • Designing interventions that increase social connections and foster a sense of belonging

  • Facilitating opportunities for communities to work on violence prevention

  • Partnering to offer community-based mental health and behavioral health services

  • Developing community-driven mental health campaigns and arts and cultural strategies to reduce stigma and shame

  • Raising awareness of mental health issues among frontline staff and providing resources such as training on mental health first aid

As with all complex challenges, no single organization or even sector can do it alone; improving mental health at the population level requires strategic partnerships across disciplines and sectors. To help advance the conversation, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco recently released a publication dedicated to the topic of mental health and community development, recognizing that good mental health helps to contribute to a healthy and inclusive economy. This collection of essays brings a mental health lens to important community development issues like climate change and resilience, racial equity, and affordable housing. It also explores emerging strategies to promote mental health including arts and culture, resident community action, and community-driven solutions in rural areas. Read the full issue here.

As designer and urbanist Liz Ogbu says, “When we work in low-income communities, we tend to focus on need because the lack of resources is so readily apparent and visible. We don’t focus enough on aspiration. In fact, having an aspiration is a luxury we rarely ascribe to poor people, but they’re human; they have hopes and dreams.” Ultimately, this work is about ensuring that every community can be a place of healing and connectedness, where aspiration is a given, and building hope for the future is as central to our field as building housing.

Let’s bring mental health into the open and keep the conversation going. How are mental health issues impacting your community, and what is working to address them?

The views are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or the Federal Reserve System.

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Laura Choi is community development research manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, where she works with a team to expand economic opportunity for low-income communities and communities of color. She is co-editor of the Community Development Innovation Review and was an editor of What It’s Worth: Strengthening the Financial Future of Families, Communities, and the Nation, a book jointly published by the SF Fed and Prosperity Now.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at swanstromt@umsl.edu.

No One Single Source Can Fund Transit; However, Missouri Needs to Be a Partner

Dorothy Yeager, Executive Director of OATS, Inc.

Kim Cella, Executive Director of Missouri Public Transit Association & Citizens for Modern Transit

This column was originally published on Citizens for Modern Transit’s website.

Dorothy Yeager

Dorothy Yeager

The State of Transit Funding Commentary

OATS is one of the largest and oldest transit systems of its kind in the nation. It has been serving Missouri since 1971 and currently provides reliable transportation service in 87 counties, with the help of 636 drivers and a fleet of over 800 vehicles. Last year, OATS buses travelled 15 million miles in the state providing over 1.5 million one-way trips. People rely on OATS bus service to get to work, doctors, grocery stores, pharmacies, senior centers, sheltered workshops and anywhere else they need to go. However. the lack of financial support from that state of Missouri has a significant impact on OATS ability to serve them – and, weather federal government shutdowns.

Kim Cella

Kim Cella

Transit investment must become a priority in Missouri. Transit systems across the nation receive approximately 40 percent of their annual operating budgets from their respective states. This is not the case in Missouri. For more than a decade, the state legislature has continued to slash funding to an all-time low, with $1.7 million split among 34 transit providers last year. Many local transit providers now get less than one percent of their annual operating budgets from the state.

This void means OATS, and other Missouri transit providers, must rely more heavily on federal dollars, while seeking creative means to secure funding resources. The federal government shutdown has forced OATS to cut service by 15 percent, and further cuts will have to be made if the shutdown continues.

Despite the here and now with the federal government, persistent lack of state funding is taking its toll on transit providers. This issue must be addressed. According to the Missouri Public Transit Association, service cuts and fare hikes are being made in various communities statewide. This means service in some counties in no longer available at the same level of frequency. Those living in more rural communities are only able to gain access to one or two rips a month. This is not enough for the people who are dependent on transit to gain access to doctors and groceries. And, it certainly doesn’t help someone who might need daily service to get to work.

I’ve worked to further the delivery of transportation services for more than three decades, and if there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it is that there is no single funding source with enough money to ensure OATS can serve all the people in need of its services. It is not being suggested that the state figure out a way to fully fund transit. What’s needed is a bigger, more reliable partnership.

It takes multiple sources to keep buses running – local, state and federal funding, fare revenue and support from riders and other individuals, businesses and organizations. It is essential to the ridership and to the vitality of the state, as public transit helps to stimulate economic development, attracts and retains business, establishes healthier communities, connects individuals to job opportunities, furthers equality and builds sustainable communities.

The need for public transit in rural areas was identified way back in 1971 and Missouri led the way in developing the solution. I ask state legislatures to rally behind this cause and keep transit moving forward.

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Dorothy Yeager is the executive Director of OATS, Inc. and executive committee member of the Missouri Public Transit Association.

Kim Cella is Executive Director of Missouri Public Transit Association and Citizens for Modern Transit.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at swanstromt@umsl.edu.

The Case for a Guaranteed Annual Income

By Paul Dribin

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I predict that most readers of this article are people who care about poverty. Many build and manage affordable housing. Many of us entered this field because we wanted to help improve the lives of people with low incomes and the communities around them. I have worked in the field my whole adult life and have loved the work and the colleagues I’ve worked with.

I have concluded my career by surmising something I’ve been aware of for a long time: that housing alone is not sufficient to conquer poverty. Many projects have provided supportive services with some degree of success. But I believe we need to take things to the next level.

The next step is providing a guaranteed minimum income for everyone at or below 100% of the area median income. This income source would have no strings attached and would be used as a wage supplement.

This policy would have some obvious and not-so-obvious advantages for community and urban development.

First, poverty can be greatly eliminated with cash transfers to lower income households. These families would end up spending most of their money on goods and services, thereby stimulating local and national economies.

Second, housing segregation would be diminished. These funds would enable individuals to live where they wanted, thereby better dispersing poor people to neighborhoods of opportunity. Our present system of affordable housing accomplishes little in dispersing low income individuals across the metropolitan area.

Third, cash transfers would greatly increase the demand for housing, thereby spurring new construction and rehabilitation of existing neighborhoods.

Fourth, I believe it will diminish crime, because low-income people will have an opportunity to be better dispersed around the metro area, not forced to live in high-crime areas. Additionally, higher incomes can contribute to a lessening of crime.

Finally, a guaranteed annual income would be good for communities primarily because it’s the most efficient and effective way to help community members out of poverty. Here are a few reasons why.

  • Our experience with income transfer programs verify this case for a guaranteed annual income. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has reported that the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit took 8.9 million people out of poverty and made 19.3 million individuals less poor. Social Security took 22,068,000 people out of poverty. This data was for the year 2016. Income transfer programs are efficient: virtually 100% of the funds spent go directly to the recipient.

  • The largest housing production program, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, is neither efficient nor effective. It is not efficient because large amounts of the funds allocated go to third parties rather than to the client. It is ineffective because it does not house those who need it the most, people with very low incomes.

  • Large-scale income transfers would generate demand for the construction and rehabilitation of apartment housing. I would recommend a beefed-up HUD financing program that is simpler and quicker to process.

  • Income transfers avoid the problem of community resistance to affordable housing. People are supported instead of projects, and unlike the case with the Housing Choice Voucher Program, landlords would deal totally with the tenant for the rent. Racial and economic integration would be easier.

  • Transfer programs have almost no administrative burdens and give clients the most choices.

Critics will say a program such as this has little chance of passing and is too expensive. I believe it will appeal to political conservatives more than programs with extensive federal rules. It would reinforce conservative efforts to stimulate employment, because people could work in lower wage jobs and be subsidized.

There should be a vigorous discussion of a proposal like this one. It is safe to say that the housing programs we have utilized in the past have not accomplished the end of poverty. Many housing providers I’ve worked with have admitted to me in private that an income distribution program would work far better than a housing program. If we want to increase the health and prosperity of our communities and the residents who live in them, we should adopt a guaranteed annual income.

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Paul Dribin has worked most recently as a housing and community development consultant. He previously served with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for 30 years in a variety of positions. Paul has frequently been called to Washington, D.C. to advise senior staff on policy development and evaluation. He has a B.A. in political science from Roosevelt University and an M.A. in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at swanstromt@umsl.edu.

Simple Home Modifications Can Improve People’s Lives & Save Taxpayers Money

By Anna Meyer, Graduate Student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis

Everyone should be able to move safely and easily through their homes. But that’s not always easy for Missourians living with disabilities—especially those living in private homes.

Public buildings have accessible entrances and other features that make it safe for residents with disabilities to navigate, but private homes rarely have any of these features. In fact, roughly 90% of homes are not accessible to someone in a wheelchair. As a result, people with disabilities and the elderly are often unable to stay in their homes and are forced to move into expensive skilled care facilities.

We can address this problem by using Medicaid funds to pay for personalized home modifications that make it as easy as possible for Missourians with disabilities to live in a safe, comfortable home.

Wider doorways, ramps, stairlifts, and handrails are simple solutions that can have a huge impact on the safety and comfort of a home. Implementing each of these solutions is easier than moving into a new house, and—for most people—preferable to moving into a nursing home. Individuals who remain in their homes as they age show improved cognition, reduced depression, and higher success with activities of daily living.

Missouri’s current approach to increasing home accessibility is tax incentives. Tax credits are available for individuals who make accessibility modifications to their homes. Unfortunately, these often can’t help those who need modifications most. Many individuals don’t have the money to pay for modifications out of pocket, and they may not pay income tax—so a tax credit won’t help them. Moreover, each step of the home modification process takes resources that many Missourians living with a disability lack. Residents must invest time, knowledge, energy, and money up front as they determine what modifications are needed, find a contractor, and negotiate prices.

This is why I recommend Missouri try a new approach to home modifications: funding and helping residents in need arrange modifications to their homes. Specifically, Medicaid recipients would be able to sign up to receive visits from occupational therapists (OTs) who would assess their individual goals and needs. OTs would then create a work order for a contractor to make necessary changes to the patient’s home, working with a budget of up to $1,500 per patient. After the changes are made, the OT would return to discuss with the individual how to use their new tools and help them develop plans for safely navigating their home.

This strategy would reach Medicaid recipients all over the state and remove several barriers that currently make it difficult for Missourians with disabilities to access home modifications. It would allow occupational therapists to expertly direct and personalize a patient’s modifications. It would remove the burden of choosing a contractor, negotiating prices, and directing construction from the individual with the disability. The government can work with contractors to ensure fair pricing across the state, adding a layer of protection against senior scams.

A program like this would also save taxpayer dollars. Studies have shown that an individual aging in place can save almost $1,600 in Medicare and Medicaid costs each month compared to those in nursing homes. That means for each person who is able to remain in their home, Medicare and Medicaid save over $19,000 each year! A one-time $1,500 expense for minor home improvement could pay for itself in less than a month.

A similar program called Community Aging in Place, Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE), implemented in Baltimore from 2012-2015, proved to be a success. On average, participants significantly improved in their ability to complete daily activities, which enabled them to continue safely living at home instead of moving into a nursing home. Research showed that the program even decreased depressive symptoms as independence and safety improved.

We have the strategies and resources we need to ensure all Missourians have an opportunity to live in homes that are safe and comfortable. If you want to both improve quality of life for the elderly and people with disabilities and save taxpayers money, tell your elected representatives that you support bringing CAPABLE to Missouri.

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Anna Meyer is a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who is studying public policy administration and nonprofit management. She is especially interested in policies relating to individuals living with disabilities.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at swanstromt@umsl.edu.

A Community is Not a Project

By Jenny Connelly-Bowen, Executive Director at the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis

This column was originally published on Justine PETERSEN's "Just Saying..." blog.

Jenny Connelly-Bowen

My first job after I got my undergraduate degree was as a warehouse supervisor in Save-A-Lot Food Stores’ career development program. Picture this: a 22-year-old white woman who studied English at a Midwestern liberal arts college throws on some steel-toed shoes and reports for training at a grocery distribution center in Central Michigan among a diverse team of seasoned experts—all of whom understood the work of the warehouse far more intimately than I ever would, even after I’d completed rotational training. A few yelled at me on a regular basis. More of them were painstakingly patient. And everyone taught me a lot. They’d been through it before: the warehouse I’d been sent to was a designated program training center. They were used to outsiders coming in blind, fumbling around and stirring up small disasters while they learned the ropes. (Exhibit A: once, after I bungled a store’s order of Easter lilies, one of my colleagues had to personally haul 60 cases of them in his pickup truck two hours down the interstate the next day.)

During my two years at the warehouse, I felt, often, like I still do when I find myself unexpectedly unprepared for a situation I’ve been anticipating from all the wrong angles and frames of reference. I found myself thinking, often, about a scene in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, a novel about an American missionary family’s unraveling in the Belgian Congo during the mid-twentieth century. When the Betty Crocker cake mix they’ve packed for a birthday turns to concrete in the humid African air, it’s an existential wake-up call. “If I’d of had the foggiest idea,” the mother laments; “just the foggiest idea. We brought all the wrong things.”

So had I. I was woefully unprepared for my role at the warehouse. My four years of liberal arts studies taught me to think critically about race, gender, class, history, and language and to advocate for social justice. That training was of little practical use on the warehouse floor. My time there was a perpetual scramble and a blur of humbling experiences. But the community of workers I’d stumbled into helped me assimilate anyway, and they called me out when I needed to hear it. In exchange I tried my best to be a sponge, which wasn’t usually a fair trade.

Many years and a career pivot later, as I continue learning the shape and substance of community development work in St. Louis under the guidance of many equally generous mentors, I’ve seen shades of this pattern play out in other contexts. Sometimes, as professionals or volunteers working in communities that aren’t our own, we arrive unprepared to do the work we think we want to do.

Economist F.A. Hayek argues that human society is wholly dependent on an “extended order” that most of us rarely stop to think about. From infancy, we learn how to navigate the world by watching and imitating the people around us, and thanks to our accumulated customs, we’re able to collaborate in broad, powerful ways even though none of us can see the entire system all at once. At the heart of the extended order is the tenet that every human being has access to local knowledge and circumstantial expertise that others do not—and that these unique insights, which can frequently benefit society as a whole, can only be used if the decisions that depend on them are left to that person or are made with their active participation.

We don’t always honor this reality when we set out to do community-based work. Sometimes, we burst in with well-intentioned plans and ideas before asking whether the members of that community want to hear them, or use them. Sometimes, as we look for ways to apply our research-based, data-driven knowledge, we forget to listen for the knowledge and insights that community members bring to the table. We forget that a community is not a project. A community is a living, breathing ecosystem that cradles a whole host of sacred things: history and memories, friendships and love, suffering and trauma, layers and layers of stories. When we commit ourselves to community-based work, our ultimate job—should we be lucky enough to be invited to sit at a community’s table—is to begin learning those grooves and to help draw out, build up, and connect what’s already there. That’s the heart of asset-based community development, and as a new(ish) practitioner, I’m grateful to be learning from the many, many people and organizations across St. Louis who have taken up this mantle and are leading by example.

And to learn, we have to listen. Really listen. That means arriving fully prepared to change our minds and adapt our approach after taking in what’s been said. When a community shares an experience or insight with a visitor, it’s a gift. It should be honored. If we want to serve, our community-based work has to be a conversation and an exchange before it can grow into anything else.

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Jenny Connelly-Bowen is passionate about work that builds strong, inclusive communities. She currently serves as Executive Director for the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis. Jenny has a B.A. in English from Beloit College and a master’s degree from UMSL in Public Policy Administration with certificates in Nonprofit Management & Leadership and Policy & Program Evaluation. Prior to entering the community development field, Jenny spent over five years working in distribution, buying, and pricing at Save-A-Lot Food Stores. She believes in the power and potential of stories to build bridges and break through walls and is committed to cultivating a sense of place and purpose in her work.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at swanstromt@umsl.edu.

Tax Law's 'Opportunity Zones' Won’t Create Opportunities for the People Who Need it Most

By Timothy Weaver, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Albany, SUNY

This column was originally published by The Conversation in May 2018.

Timothy Weaver.jpeg

The latest federal effort to revitalize impoverished parts of the country using tax incentives is beginning to take shape. Unfortunately, if history is a guide, it won’t work.

New York, New Hampshire and Florida are among the latest states to nominate low-income neighborhoods for the new Opportunity Zone program, created as part of the tax law passed late last year. They hope to join the 18 states already in the program, which offers investors a big tax break in exchange for plowing money into areas designated as opportunity zones.

The program’s backers claim this will reduce poverty, increase employment and spur growth. However, research conducted by myself and others shows that this approach tends to fail.

An old approach

At the heart of the Opportunity Zone program is the simple idea that tax incentives for investors will transform declining areas into thriving economic hubs. This is based on the faulty notion that urban or rural deterioration results from excessive taxation undermining capital investment.

Specifically, the program lets investors avoid the usual tax on capital gains by putting their profits into so-called opportunity funds, an incentive that lasts until 2026. At least 90 percent of the assets in such funds must be invested in designated low-income zones, which are based on statistical geographic subdivisions known as “census tracts.” Other incentives kick in if the investment is held for at least 10 years.

This approach is nothing new. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s government first tested the idea by creating 11 “enterprise zones” in the U.K. that offered a range of tax breaks and regulatory relief. The most famous of these was in London’s dilapidated docks—including Canary Wharf—which soon after underwent a dramatic transformation and is now home to many of the country’s major financial institutions.

Because it showcased the apparent virtues of the free market, the enterprise zone idea quickly crossed the Atlantic and attracted the interest of conservative politicians and thinkers in the United States, such as Brookings Institution policy analyst Stuart Butler—formerly of the Heritage Foundation—and then President Ronald Reagan.

More than 40 U.S. states eventually created these zones, which offer a range of incentives, such as tax relief and job training.

Although Democrats were generally skeptical at first, over time more became sympathetic to pro-market solutions to the problem of urban decay. The Clinton administration, for example, created a related program in 1994 that set up “empowerment zones.”

Both programs have since expired.

Do they work?

Numerous efforts have been made to assess the effectiveness of such zones, both in the U.S. and the U.K. On the whole, scholars have reached the strikingly similar conclusion that the programs did not work, at least not as hoped.

In their exhaustive study of 75 enterprise zones in 13 states, Alan Peters and Peter Fisher, professors of urban and regional planning, found that the tax incentives had “little or no positive impact” on economic growth.

In my own research on Philadelphia, I found that the effect of empowerment zones was negligible. The places inside the empowerment zone boundaries actually fared worse in terms of income and employment growth when compared with similar census tracts. They were only marginally better in terms of reducing poverty, which was still more than a third of the city’s households in 2007, over a decade into the program.

Opportunity zone advocates, meanwhile, have pointed to states like New Jersey and Indiana as examples of success. However, one study suggested that increased economic activity in zones in New Jersey came at the expense of non-zone areas nearby, while an analysis of the Indiana program suggested that the incentives encouraged a switch to less productive forms of economic activity.

In the U.K., supporters of the enterprise zone program highlight the London Docklands, which went from a derelict port to a thriving financial services hub. Yet government studies showed that relatively few jobs were created and that each one cost US$35,000 to $45,000 in spending and lost revenue. And my own research shows that despite these gains the area is still home to some of the most “income deprived households” in the U.K.

The goverment’s recent effort to revive the program created 29,000 jobs as of 2017, just half the number it promised, at a cost of about $3 billion.

Helping the poor

Despite the lackluster performance of the tax incentive approach in terms of job creation and poverty reduction, the idea continues to attract support on both sides of the Atlantic and across the political divide.

Sadly, these policies almost inevitably result in tax giveaways for investment that would have occurred anyway, as we’re beginning to see with opportunity zones. Under such circumstances, displacement from gentrification is the likely result.

For example, in Louisville, Kentucky, the central business district and the fast-gentrifying tracts of Nulu, Butchertown and Portland were deemed opportunity zones despite having already seen major capital investment in recent years, yet seven of the 18 poorest tracts were not.

We see the same pattern in New York where places like Sunset Park, Brooklyn, have been targeted despite having already attracted substantial private investment. The New York Times even identified Sunset Park as one of the city’s “hot new neighborhoods.”

So what might work to revitalize poor neighborhoods and help the 40.6 million Americans in poverty? While there’s no panacea, I argue policies that enhance what I call urban social citizenship and empower people to invest in their communities would be far more successful than tax breaks for investors.

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Timothy Weaver is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University at Albany, SUNY. He is author of Blazing the Neoliberal Trail: Urban Political Development in the United States and the United Kingdom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) and has published articles in Urban Studies, the Urban Affairs Review, and New Political Science.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at swanstromt@umsl.edu.

The Conversation