The Public Sector’s Role in Community Development

By Stephen Acree

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Stephen Acree has been with Rise Community Development (Rise) since 1999 and has been its President and Executive Director since late 2002. He brings over 25 years of experience in community development and considerable knowledge and experience in development finance, particularly with the structured financing of development in more difficult to develop areas. Mr. Acree received his undergraduate degree from The George Washington University and his Juris Doctorate from Washington University. In 1997 Mr. Acree was a Fannie Mae Foundation Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Mr. Acree is a former Director of the City of St. Louis Community Development Agency, responsible for the administration of the Federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and HOME programs for the City, and is a former Chairman of the Greater St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone. He has extensive knowledge of the Consolidated Plan, HOME and CDBG regulations, as well as the citizen participation, environmental review and other related requirements.

In May, the City of St. Louis Community Development Administration (CDA) solicited comments on its draft funding priorities for the 2017 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Home Investment Partnerships (HOME) programs. The funding priorities will shape Request for Proposals that CDA issues for funding CDBG-eligible activities throughout the City of St. Louis in 2017.

This is a continuation of the revised citizen review and funding application processes initiated by the City with the development of its Five Year (2015-2019) Consolidated Plan. Rise is proud of the role it played as a member of the consulting team that worked with the City on the Consolidated Plan. Through public meetings, focus groups, and surveys, we involved thousands of City residents in the process, far more than the small handful that participated in recent years. As a part of this process, with assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a group of consultants completed a Market Value Analysis (MVA), or Residential Market Analysis, that established a baseline of information and a way to organize thinking about different residential market types throughout the City.

After years of administering an opaque funding system that allowed little room for competition and made it difficult to fund new or improved programs, CDA and its staff are to be congratulated for negotiating this difficult but important transition period.  I am now concerned, however, that the MVA may be becoming a “catch all” way to designate geographic target areas for various non-housing community development activities in ways that do not make sense.

The MVA compares the residential market strength of different areas throughout the City and classifies them by type.  It is a useful tool for analyzing what residential development strategies or—in some cases—commercial development strategies might be best suited to different market types. It is not designed to determine where different types of social services or public facilities are most needed.

It is difficult to understand why CDA proposes to prioritize funding for early childhood centers, street and sidewalk improvements, child care, crime prevention, financial literacy and counseling, health services, neighborhood clean-ups and beautification, resident leadership training and development, and youth services in MVA clusters D, E, F and G (Target Area 2) and clusters H and I (Target Area 3). There is no rational relationship that suggests a higher need for these services in the selected MVA clusters. Furthermore, this method does not necessarily target services at all: Target Area 2 contains 45 percent and Area 3 contains 22 percent of all block groups in the City, leaving just 34 percent of the City outside one of these general “target areas.” This can hardly be considered “geographic targeting.”

Another curious aspect of the City’s proposed 2017 CDBG and HOME funding priorities is that they fail to prioritize programs and projects in the Promise Zone. The Promise Zone is a City-County collaboration through which an area that includes most of North St. Louis City and a large section of North St. Louis County has been designated by the federal government for funding preferences under a variety of federal programs. It has a total population of 200,000, distributed roughly evenly between the City and County. The area has high unemployment, crime, mortality, and homelessness rates, as well as many vacant lots and abandoned buildings. We encourage the City to take full advantage of the Promise Zone designation by supporting local CDBG and HOME funding proposals that seek additional funding under direct competitive grant programs for projects within the Promise Zone area.

By developing the current Consolidated Plan and implementing administrative changes to processes for assigning CDBG and HOME funds the City has taken the first important steps in a longer term evolution toward a better place-based community development planning and funding system. Objective evaluation that uses data collection and citizen input to explore gaps in services and facilities should drive the solicitation of proposals for CDBG funding. We will not see the real leveraging and benefits that consolidated planning can achieve until we start to develop more targeted, coordinated strategies behind residential and commercial development, public facilities, the delivery of employment training, child care, youth development, and other services.

We need this targeting and coordination to more effectively attract foundation and other funding that can leverage the City’s community development efforts. We should all encourage and help the City to continue to build on its progress and shape a more sustainable community development planning and funding system. Rise encourages others to participate in the process by providing feedback on CDA’s proposed 2017 funding priorities and 2017 Annual Action Plan and by taking part in other ongoing opportunities for input into the local community development planning and funding system.

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.