From the Field

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.


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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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

The Case for a Guaranteed Annual Income

By Paul Dribin

Paul Dribin_cropped_resized.jpg

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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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

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 his or her 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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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

The Conversation

(The Urgent Case for) Middle Neighborhoods, One of the Most Overlooked Assets in America

Paul Brophy, Principal with Brophy & Reilly LLC

Frank Woodruff, Executive Director of the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations

This column was originally published by Next City.

Paul Brophy

Paul Brophy

Frank Woodruff

Frank Woodruff

The recently-released Opportunity Atlas provides fresh evidence that neighborhoods—even blocks within neighborhoods—are determinants of children’s life chances, even when families have similar incomes. Similarly, the Neighborhood Life Expectancy Project shows how disparities in health, block by block, are based on neighborhood conditions.

These new reports are a reminder that the streets we call home—even more than the cities, counties, towns and suburbs we live in—are major predictors of quality of life and life opportunity. Given this growing understanding of how neighborhoods affect life outcomes, why aren’t more policymakers, civic and private leaders turning their attention to them?

One important issue gaining traction in urban policy discussions is the critical role of middle neighborhoods, which may be the most overlooked asset in today’s cities and suburbs.

Like Goldilocks tasting porridge, middle neighborhoods are not the strong, pricey places with fast appreciating housing markets (too hot); nor are they full of vacancies, distressed buildings and very low housing prices (too cold). Instead, middle neighborhoods are those just-right places where home prices are generally affordable to the average household. But, these neighborhoods are often on the edge between growth and decline. Despite the fact that they are a source of naturally occurring affordable housing [NOAH], and that they have played an important role building opportunity and prosperity for their residents, this category of neighborhoods gets barely any attention.

Middle neighborhoods house a third to half of urban America in the cities we’ve examined. Many are home to predominantly African-American families, such as Greater Chatham in Chicago, Belair-Edison in Baltimore and Lee Harvard in Cleveland, while others such as Slavic Village in Cleveland trace their roots to Eastern European immigrants. Many others are among the most racially and socioeconomically diverse in the nation. These are neighborhoods that were once in proximity to jobs, which is why they have historically housed working-class and middle-class families.

Today, many of these neighborhoods fight to avoid decline because they are no longer near jobs, and, in many cases the existing housing is now less attractive to important market segments than it once was. Given the narrow market and the scarcity of capital for owners to upgrade these homes, as well as a housing market that favors new construction, many homes in middle neighborhoods struggle to compete for buyers.

In recent decades, these places have been largely ignored. Many of us have seen and read the economic and demographic trends for years: the loss of our middle class, the economic and racial segregation of our neighborhoods, the decline of decent jobs with growth ladders. Yet we have failed to take assertive action to protect these neighborhoods, which are more diverse than many others and which house modest-income Americans.

Two years ago, The American Assembly, a national policy institute at Columbia University, published On the Edge: America’s Middle Neighborhoods, in partnership with the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank. The book highlights the challenges facing middle neighborhoods and the many local efforts underway to keep these neighborhoods from falling into decline in weak marketplaces such as Baltimore and Cleveland, and from gentrifying in strong market cities such as the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C.

In the wake of the book’s rollout, a growing number of practitioners, advocates, lenders and community-based organizations are sharing their experiences and insights about how to take purposeful steps that safeguard their middle neighborhoods. Mayors, city councils and planning directors are taking notice, and in some instances even leading the way. The rationale is simple: because middle neighborhoods provide a substantial portion of property tax revenues, local governments must take action to stabilize them to protect the tax base. Their efforts are aimed at preventing decline — a danger in many cities — and the dramatic loss of home equity when property values decline or do not keep abreast of inflation.

The learning that has occurred in the past two years is very heartening. There are successful efforts in some cities to strengthen these neighborhoods by building more capacity within the neighborhoods, marketing these hidden gems to market segments that have been ignoring them and retrofitting homes to make them more attractive in today’s markets.

  • The Healthy Neighborhoods Program in Baltimore has been working for 15 years to stabilize 42 middle neighborhoods in that city through a loan pool of mostly private lenders.

  • Philadelphia City Council passed legislation allowing for a new home repair loan program that has income limits high enough that residents of middle neighborhoods can use the program to improve their homes.

  • In late September, the Des Moines City Council introduced a multimillion-dollar pilot for four neighborhoods, which if successful, will be rolled out citywide.

These independent efforts are now finding each other through a middle neighborhoods Community of Practice. This peer-driven self-help group of practitioners is helping to focus attention on two of the most important issues driving middle neighborhood stabilization efforts: boosting the capacity of practitioners and local community-based organizations and finding ways to increase access to financing.

We have been encouraged by the growing attention to this class of neighborhoods and the work underway in a growing number of cities to use “an ounce of prevention” to keep these neighborhoods from falling into decline or gentrifying uncontrollably. State and local governments play a key role, as does the private sector, including major local institutions, such as hospitals, colleges and universities.

But they cannot do it alone. The stakes are too high. These neighborhoods need attention if they are to remain capable of fulfilling the needs of tomorrow’s generation.


Paul C. Brophy is a principal with Brophy & Reilly LLC, a consulting firm specializing in inclusive economic development and neighborhood improvement in legacy cities; the management of complex urban redevelopment projects; and the development of mixed-income housing communities. Mr. Brophy has directed three projects for the American Assembly, where he is a senior advisor. In 1997 Mr. Brophy led a project that resulted in a widely-read report, “Community Capitalism: Rediscovering the Markets of America’s Urban Neighborhoods.” In 2007, he conducted a project that produced the report, “Retooling for Growth: Building a 21st Century Economy in America's Older Industrial Areas. And, in 2011, he co-directed a meeting that led to the report, “Reinventing America’s Legacy Cities: Strategies for Cities Losing Population.” Brophy is also a senior advisor to Enterprise Community Partners and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. He was previously a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Senior Advisor to the Center for Community Progress, and a Senior Scholar at the George Warren Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. Brophy edited “On the Edge: America’s Middle Neighborhoods” (2016), and is co-author of three books: “Neighborhood Revitalization: Theory and Practice” (1975); “Housing and Local Government” (1982), and “A Guide to Careers in Community Development” (2001).


Frank Woodruff is executive director of the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations. He joined NACEDA in September 2010, becoming executive director in January 2012. During a time of significant political and economic challenges for community development, Frank saw this as an opportunity to take NACEDA to a new level of success and sustainability. He believes community and economic development will be a critical tool for those communities and neighborhoods that are organized, demanding, and capable of instituting change. He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from The George Washington University. He also has a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His publications include: “The Mortgage Interest Deduction: an Example of Upside Down Federal Government Housing Subsidy,” and is co-author of two essays entitled “Redlining,” one in The American Middle Class: An Economic Encyclopedia of Progress and Poverty due to be published in 2015 and the other in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Studies, due out in 2016.


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

The Housing Market, Young Buyers, and the Growing Dissatisfaction with Democracy (and Capitalism)

By Dustin McKissen, Partner and Co-founder at Clustered Economic Development

Dustin McKissen.jpg

Like pizza and cheeseburgers, democracy is something everyone is supposed to love, right?

Turns out, not everyone loves democracy quite as much as they used to. Over the last two years, research has shown that a growing number of young people—those under forty—have lost faith in democracy. Harvard researcher Yascha Mounk released a study in late 2016 that found:

  • Only nineteen percent of millennials feel it is illegitimate for the military to assume control of a country if an elected government is failing to do its job.

  • Support for democracy has decreased every year since 2005.

  • Globally, there are fewer democracies today than there were in the 1990s.

It would be easy to dismiss this data as yet another example of how (allegedly) damaged and dangerous millennials are. However, dismissing the data doesn’t make the data go away. Dismissing the data also doesn’t deal with the fact that a decline in support for democracy is historically tied to the economy.

In his book Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, historian Ira Katznelson writes that calls for a dictator to assume control in the United States during the early days of the Depression were relatively common. Walter Lippman, at the time America’s most influential journalist, wrote just prior to Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration that “a mild species of dictatorship will help us over the roughest spots in the road ahead.” Alfred E. Smith, a popular former presidential candidate and governor of New York, said that in the face of the Depression the nation should wrap the Constitution in a “piece of paper and put it on a shelf” until the crisis had ended.

The 1920s and ’30s show that a rejection of established political values can be the byproduct of the economic system not working for a significant percentage of the population.

The decline in support for democracy over the last twenty or so years isn’t a coincidence, and it’s not a side effect of too many participation trophies, or whatever millennial stereotype one chooses to use. While the range of birth years for millennials has changed several times, the generation was originally defined as those who entered adulthood around the year 2000.

If you entered adulthood around the 2000 (like I did), you have lived your entire adulthood and roughly half your life in an abnormal housing market. Your young adulthood began just as the housing market started to boom. In your mid to late twenties, the market crashed and brought the global economy to its knees. In the aftermath of the crash, developers stopped building, and as a result, your thirties have seen another booming housing market driven by a lack of available homes.

Pre-recession, when the labor market was strong, wildly overpriced homes were purchased with exotic and ultimately toxic financial instruments. Today, housing is often unaffordable because there are just too few homes on the market. During the recession, when homes were cheap, unemployment was high and job security was low.

Housing is about much more than just plywood, shingles, and mortgage insurance.

Our perception about where we live, and why we live there plays a powerful role in our understanding of the world and whether we’ve gotten a fair shake in life. If an entire generation has lived its adulthood in a market where the only time housing was affordable was also the time when the labor market was the worst, a decline in support for existing economic and political systems is inevitable.

Teaching people that democracy and capitalism are the best—and only legitimate—ways to structure a society only goes so far if those values are doing nothing to provide Americans with the basic necessities of life.

That isn’t to say the alternatives to democracy and capitalism are preferable.

What it does say is that the impact of a perpetually distorted and faulty housing market has a bigger impact than just keeping young people living with their parents longer. A lack of affordable housing and NIMBYism is not by any means the only reason for a decline in support for democracy, but given the central role the Great Recession has played in this century’s politics, it’s hard to argue that housing has nothing to do with the data in Mounk’s study.

In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration realized that saving capitalism and democracy might require intervening in the free market. If people don’t have the necessities of life—a safe home, food on their table, a job—they also don’t have a reason to support the system that makes obtaining the necessities so difficult, if not impossible.

The data in Mounk’s research is troubling, but it shouldn’t be surprising. If we want people to believe in the political and economic values that form the foundation of our society, they need to have at least a fair shot at getting the basics we all need to survive the modern world.

Like affordable housing.


Dustin McKissen is a partner and co-founder at Clustered Economic Development. He is also a columnist for VentureBeat, Inc., Entrepreneur Quarterly, and CNBC, and a two-time LinkedIn Top Voice on management and culture. He holds a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Prescott College and a master’s degree in public management from Northern Arizona University.


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

It is Time for Tenant Organizing in St. Louis

By Sunni Hutton, Community Development Manager at Dutchtown South Community Corporation

This column was originally published in The St. Louis American.

Sunni Hutton cropped.jpg

Just a few miles from the shadows of cranes erecting luxury apartments and tax-financed commercialexpansion along St. Louis’ central corridor, the illusion of equitable development quickly evaporates.

It is painfully obvious to tenants throughout the metro area, struggling to find healthy, well-maintained, and affordable homes, that our interests are shared by few. Profit-driven markets provide no motivation to deliver housing for all who need it. Decades of disinvestment in housing justice prove that local, state and federal institutions lack the will to boldly address the housing crisis.

The report “Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide” states that the injustices we see are particularly along racial lines with decades of racist housing policies. But we also know that we possess the power to change them.

That power is called tenant organizing. Homes For All, a national alliance of affected people for housing justice, defines a tenant or renter, terms we use interchangeably, as someone paying rent or seeking to pay rent but without the resources to do so. This definition includes low-income homeowners, mobile home park residents, public housing residents, the homeless, and squatters.

Tenants are directly affected by poor living conditions, rent increases, and the pressures of gentrification that lead to displacement. Standing together, we can combat these issues: Uniting against landlords or developers around properties and neighborhoods builds our power. An organized tenant union allows for independent and democratic decision-making, planning, and implementation of policy, based on a community—not a boardroom or bank account.

In late July, tenants across the St. Louis region, from Ferguson to South City, gathered at the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being and declared, “Housing is a human right.” Five months before this mass meeting, 40 tenants (mostly renters) gathered in a South Side learning center to voice their grievances about housing conditions. Twenty three days before, tenants of the Clinton-Peabody public housing complex held a public demonstration for better living conditions.

From next door to next neighborhood to adjacent county, tenants are exercising their power and activating their neighbors to amplify their impact in their houses, the state houses and courthouses.

Tenant organizing has played an important role in St. Louis’ history and helped shape today’s federal housing laws. In 1969, public housing tenants staged the nation’s first public housing rent strike, lasting nine months. Fighting back against unsafe housing conditions and increasing rental rates, tenants withheld $600,000 in rent from the St. Louis Housing Authority, nearly causing it to go bankrupt. This strike in St. Louis resulted in the passage of the Brooke Amendment, which set public housing rents to be no more than 30 percent of individual income.

Today, organizations and activists in housing justice, constrained by the capacities of liberal reform, now proclaim their belief that the leadership of impacted people move movements. Guided by this ideal, Homes For All St. Louis was started by South City renters and low-income homeowners of Dutchtown South Community Corporation’s Community Empowerment Committee. They echoed concerns of neglected pest and maintenance issues, unresponsive landlords and a lack of enforcement from municipal departments.

Homes For All St. Louis’ alliance of tenant unions set goals to enforce current tenant protections, one slumlord at a time, whether they be St. Louis Redevelopment Co. or Rutherford Group, and to reinforce municipal departments’ obligations to their most vulnerable populations.

Homes For All St. Louis organizes with these values to transform the St. Louis region:

  • Housing is a human right. It should be built and maintained to meet the needs of communities, not to create profit for corporations or white suburbanites who have benefited from historically racist policies and who built their wealth off the backs of renters by extracting wealth from urban communities.

  • The people most impacted must lead. This includes low-income and working class communities, black, indigenous, Latinx and Asian communities, women and LGBTQ communities who experience the impacts of the crisis first hand.

  • Land and housing should be collectively-controlled by communities and sustained for future generations through democratic processes and stewardship.

United with renters, low-income homeowners, homeless individuals, activists, social service providers, and housing justice advocates, this movement shouts out, “Housing is a human right!” and upholds that tenants possess the power to make that proclamation so. Interested in hearing more? Email us at


Sunni Hutton is the community development manager at Dutchtown South Community Corporation, whose Community Empowerment Committee launched the Homes For All St. Louis campaign.


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