WE NEED TO EXPAND THE CONVERSATION
I took for granted as a young professional that affordable housing and homelessness were a part of the same conversation.
In the late 1990s, I worked for a community development corporation (CDC) in Richmond, Virginia that was a part of the Richmond Community Development Alliance (RCDA), a consortium of public and private community development, affordable housing, and homeless service groups – components that comprised the local community development ecosystem.
Our regular meetings, supported by staffing from the local chapter of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), covered a wide range of topics from collective planning around the use of CDBG and HOME funds to metrics to community organizing and supportive services.
Many of the CDCs were also Community Housing Development Organizations (CHDO), a HUD designation requiring one-third of board membership to be low-income community members. The group was diverse, multidisciplinary, and had meaningful community ties.
During the five years before I returned to graduate school, I sat beside and learned from developers, planners, organizers, executive directors, tax credit syndicators, program managers, public officials, fair housing attorneys, social workers, and local foundation staff.
A ZERO-SUM GAME
I dove headfirst into homeless services when I arrived in Charlotte almost 10 years ago. Energized by the competence, compassion, and capital around me, it took me a few years into that work to realize what I was missing: the collective conversation afforded by RCDA and LISC that continuously placed homelessness AND affordable housing in the larger community development context.
Our Charlotte efforts that merge the various parts of our community development ecosystem are often project-based and dependent upon the partnerships developed by individual organizations. As a result, we tend toward silo-thinking and often become competitors in a zero-sum game.
In this game, we become fierce advocates for our project-based subpopulations – the older, the younger, the homeless, the working poor, the families, the individuals – and either purposefully or by default, we pit the welfare and opportunities of one group of people against that of another group of people.
We think of the City of Charlotte as “sticks and bricks” and Mecklenburg County as supportive services only because that is the way their capital shows up in our projects. We limit meaningful ways for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness to participate in problem definition and solution crafting because project timelines typically have little wiggle room for relationship development and dialogue.
Affordable housing and community development on a project-by-project basis can get a job done but it misses the opportunity for a type of synergy that can only happen when there is a larger, more inclusive and ongoing conversation.
RCDA didn’t replace the sector or project-specific relationships necessary to develop affordable housing or provide homeless services. Instead, it provided an additional opportunity to link narratives, understand relevant sector-specific languages, and see the implications of projects in the ecosystem. It put names and faces to groups often disparaged in a context of scarce resources – the deserving or undeserving residents and service recipients, the bureaucrats, the funders, and the developers.
And it taught me, as a newly minted young professional, that homelessness is a part of a larger context where a better understanding of the problem and solutions are found.
I’m certain RCDA, now a part of Richmond’s Partnership for Housing Affordability, was and is far from perfect. An intentional and representative alliance isn’t a silver bullet.
And perhaps RCDA is not the specific model we need for Charlotte. But we do need some form of ongoing, collective commitment to a larger conversation around community development, affordable housing, and homelessness.
The development challenges we face as a city – homelessness, a shortage of more than 21,000 units for those making 50% or less of our area median income, the lack of social mobility in specific zip codes, the impact and persistence of racial segregation – cannot be solved project-by-project or campaign-by-campaign. They require a larger, inclusive, multidisciplinary conversation.
Dr. Lori Thomas is an Associate Professor of Social Work in the College of Health and Human Services at UNC Charlotte and is the Principal Investigator of the Housing First Charlotte-Mecklenburg Research & Evaluation Project.