City Needs to Invest in Neighborhood Capacity, Not Just Bricks and Mortar

By Glenn Burleigh, Community Activist in the City of St. Louis

04.12.17 Glenn Burleigh.jpg

Last week, City of St. Louis voters passed Proposition 1, which establishes a 1/2 cent Economic Development Sales Tax that is expected to raise $20 million annually. The tax’s final proposal allocates 60 percent of funding (about $12 million) to MetroLink expansion. The rest will be divided evenly (about $2 million each) among four areas: neighborhood revitalization, workforce development, public safety, and infrastructure.

Now that voters have approved this tax, we need to turn our attention to implementation. As written, the proposal has faults that need to be addressed. In light of recent conversations about the tax, I’m concerned that priorities for allocation are out of balance. It favors brick-and-mortar projects without giving equal attention to long-term staffing and community organizing. As we consider how to manage this new funding source, we need to make sure that sustainable investments in human capital are part of the community development equation, too.

After attending a public hearing for the sales tax in January, I was stunned to find out how little detail was given to the community development/reinvestment portion of the plan when compared to the proposal’s other categories. I decided to find out what volunteers and staff in the community development/reinvestment arena thought about the plan.

My conversations have led me to believe that there wasn’t significant input sought on this plan and that many supported it because “something is better than nothing.” Few have seemed to understand how little community development funding the proposal actually commits. Few recalled much internal conversation. Some even believed that the proposal reserved $500,000 (instead of $50,000) for an annual planning grant. This is the proposal’s only “hard number.”

Most of the folks that I spoke with agreed that the sales tax proposal isn’t built to balance this new community development spending. Many also agreed that the proposal doesn’t seem to hold much promise for CDCs and other advocates that need funding and programming to sustain community organizing efforts.

Place-based development strategies are extremely important. But without community organizing infrastructure to deal with the issues that neighborhoods face, new LIHTC spending and other developments cannot be a panacea. Bricks and mortar are critical, and some CDCs might be able to combine sales tax funds with loans and LIHTC funding to create more affordable housing—but bricks and mortar constitute only part of a neighborhood.

A conversation I had with Community Development Administration (CDA) Director Alana Green several months ago indicated that proponents of the sales tax envision using it to fund planning-type projects for many CDCs—projects akin to the community engagement work that the CDC where I serve as Housing Committee Chair (Dutchtown South Community Corporation) is currently doing with the Jefferson Corridor and Historic Gravois Neighborhoods.

This is an important part of community development work. But when a CDC focused on neighborhood organizing receives a grant to do community planning and engagement, they are left accountable to the public after the grant cycle ends. After their two years of funding are up, the CDC will likely need to scale back programming. Residents will associate this scale-down with the local CDC that coordinated outreach, not the organization that’s collecting revenue from the LIHTC units added to their property portfolios.

The proposal does call for some evidence of sustainability and matching funds. But if private entities do not also commit significant dollars up front, much of the non-bricks-and-mortar programming tied to this proposal will ultimately suffer. Unless we can craft a realistic plan to replace short-lived City funds with significant private donations, most new programming won’t continue after the two-year funding period is over—or at least not at the scale to which neighbors will have grown accustomed.

We have seen many promises to dedicate significant cash to this type of programming in the wake of #Ferguson. But that cash has not materialized. Given that shortfall, I find it hard to believe that philanthropic dollars for long-term community organizing funding will now suddenly become available. To be clear, the key phrase in that sentence is “long-term.” Redlining has devastated huge swaths of our city for decades. It will take many years of affirmative, intentional work to reverse generations of economic discrimination and inequity. We should neither shrink from the tasks at hand nor pretend that modest, short-lived capital infusions will suffice to solve these problems.

This is not to say that bricks and mortar and tax credits aren’t important—only that the implementation plan for this new sales tax seems unbalanced. It favors a sustainable funding stream for construction, but guarantees little for community organizing. Week after week, I attend meetings where folks are asking for investments in human capital just as much as investments in the built environment. Both are vital for our community.

Here’s the good news, though: this vague plan leaves us with an opportunity to reformulate how to approach the new funding. The community development/reinvestment sector has a chance to hold its own discussions, select and prioritize best practices, and lobby the incoming administration to codify those practices in department procedure. I hope we can make these critical conversations a reality, even on the back end of this process. Our policy should be as intentional as our rhetoric.

Glenn Burleigh is a community activist in the City of St. Louis. This commentary should not be construed as the official position of any of the nonprofits or coalitions that he works for or with which he serves in a leadership capacity.


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.