Becoming What We Can Be: Stories of Community Development in Washington, DC

Date Published: 09/27/2012

Author(s): Tony Proscio

This book chronicles stories of community development in Washington, DC. It gives insight into a movement that dreamed big, weathered setbacks, and persevered, bringing unimagined rebirth to neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights and the H Street Corridor. A clear and compelling account, it is a must read for anyone interested in resident led movements and neighborhood revitalization.

Becoming What We Can Be: Stories of Community Development in Washington DC

By Oramenta F. Newsome, Washington, DC, LISC

This book is not only a work of history. It is also a celebration. In chronicling some of the most significant accomplishments in a quarter-century of community development, we have worked hard to get the facts right, to acknowledge the setbacks as well as the leaps forward, and to be fair in describing the considerable challenges that many DC neighborhoods still face. Even so, it would be hard to look back on the neighborhoods of Washington, DC, in the early 1980s without a sense of wonder at how much has changed — the overwhelming majority of it for the better, and some of it magnificently better.

Plenty of people and organizations share the credit for those accomplishments. Some of them — elected officials, government agencies, financiers, planners, philanthropists — are the powerful actors one normally reads about in newspapers and social-science texts whenever urban policy is up for discussion. And as one might expect, many of these same bold-face names appear prominently in the pages that follow. But the story of how Washington’s neighborhoods emerged from the shadows of the 1960s and ’70s is not solely — at some points, not even mainly — a tale of prominent names and powerful institutions. At many critical points, the real protagonists, and the prime focus of this book, have been small or mid-size nonprofits: community development corporations, nonprofit housing agencies, civic and cultural associations, and the supporting organizations, often called intermediaries, that help them succeed. This book is primarily their story: a careful account of how residents and neighbors — people without wealth or formal power, but with an unparalleled stake in the neighborhoods where they live — seized the momentum in their communities and brought some of the city’s most struggling areas back to life.

It is possible, of course, to tell this story solely with a dispassionate record of facts, events, and analysis. But it is also possible to take some pleasure in all that has been accomplished against impossibly long odds, and to pay tribute to some of the remarkable people who brought these accomplishments to life. We have chosen to do some of each.

In approaching the history, we have not sought to describe every event, year by year — an exercise that would have filled several volumes and been laborious to read. Instead, we’ve trained a spotlight on roughly a dozen places, events, or trends that stand out as significant. Each chapter represents an episode that influenced the course of community development in Washington, or a portrait of a neighborhood where community developers made their mark during the course of a remarkable quarter century.

To be sure, some of these stories do not bring back entirely fond memories. For example, the city government’s principled but floundering attempt to provide working capital for community development corporations, through something called the Neighborhood Development Assistance Program, was an important and instructive experience, despite a thoroughly unhappy ending. Some unflattering words from our local newspaper, which echoed across the country, were a dispiriting black eye from which community developers struggled for years to recover. Those episodes have a place in this book, too.

So although this account is selective, as all histories necessarily are, we have tried hard not to cherry-pick only its brightest moments. All the same, many of the moments are, in fact, genuinely invigorating and inspiring. We felt no obligation to disguise our appreciation for the best and hardest work of community developers over the years, and we hope that appreciation is infectious. There is much to be proud of in this story — and too much of it can be easy to overlook or forget.

As time passes and memories fade, we tend to take for granted things that were won only through years of struggle and disappointment. This book is, in part, an effort to remember a time when the panache of Columbia Heights, the sparkle of the Whitelaw, the vitality of Minnesota Avenue, and the sweeping transformation of the Parklands and its vicinity were still, to most observers, just improbable dreams. In each of these places, the work that brought about such impressive results first had to overcome a series of obstacles, whether financial, political, or technical. Some neighborhoods endured multiple setbacks or even outright failure before renewed effort won the day. Most important, many of the gains described in these chapters remain reversible, if the will and resources to preserve them should ever disappear.

Fortunately, the stories in this book are not a collection of individual heroics by a few gifted leaders or a handful of solitary-but-intrepid nonprofits. Much of the history of these 25 years consists of a gathering of forces — an emerging consensus among public, private, and philanthropic organizations that community development, done well, can achieve things that none of the big centers of wealth or influence could achieve on its own. The growth of a cohesive, committed support structure for neighborhood development is the most powerful achievement in this story. Although the frontline actors in these chapters are mostly neighborhood organizations or nonprofit developers, their contributions would all have been much smaller and more tenuous without the constellation of foundations, investors, lenders, technical advisers, and city agencies that rallied around this work and helped bring it to fruition.

Although LISC has played a role in the formation of this support structure (and has had the privilege of preparing and publishing this book), this is not a story about LISC. In chapter after chapter, the pivotal role of other supporters — the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the DC Department of Housing and Community Development, banks, corporate philanthropies, and many others — is rightly in the foreground. Nor is LISC the only intermediary that has helped to link these various supporters to neighborhood programs and projects. Though LISC was the earliest, starting in 1982, several other intermediaries have enriched the environment since then. The Washington Area Community Investment Fund, which started in 1987, supports not only affordable housing developers, but also childcare providers and small businesses region-wide. By the time this was written, WACIF had invested well over $15 million for housing, facilities, and small businesses. Two years after WACIF was founded, the Washington-area Unitarian Universalist churches formed an Affordable Housing Corporation making community development loans in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. In its first ten years of operation, the fund channeled more than $2 million in low-interest financing to more than 50 housing developments.

In 1999, the Enterprise Foundation — a national intermediary that drew much of its early inspiration from the experience of DC-based Church of the Saviour — created a dedicated field office for Washington, DC. Before the office’s first decade was over, it had invested some $400 million in grants, loans, and equity to create more than 5,000 affordable homes and apartments.

Next, in 2002, came the Washington Area Housing Trust Fund, a regional organization that offered substantially below-market rates on predevelopment and interim development loans for affordable housing developers. In 2007, this fund merged with the Unitarian Universalist Affordable Housing Corporation to form Open Door Housing Fund, with about $16 million in combined equity capital at the time this book goes to press. Among many other services, Open Door manages the DC Site Acquisition Fund Initiative, a $9 million pool to acquire properties for affordable housing (see Chapter 14).

Together with local government and philanthropy, these organizations have gradually brought about a working consensus — and a cohesive system of funding and policy support — for neighborhoods and nonprofit developers citywide. The result is a quarter-century of transformation, much of which is detailed in the pages that follow.

Finally, interspersed among the book’s narrative chapters are occasional brief tributes to nine women and men whose vision and leadership defined the horizons of community development and neighborhood life in Washington DC in the past 25 years. Too many of them are no longer with us. But all of them have left a legacy that transcends buildings and programs — a gift of expanded possibilities, renewed markets, resurgent political will, and a settled wisdom about all that can happen when neighbors and community institutions work together to build their own future.

The story we tell here is unfinished. In a few places, the ending is still a long way off and far from predictable. Even where the gains seem massive and durable, a harsh economy, a failure of imagination, or a lapse of will could quickly chip away at the progress that’s been made. If this book is meant partly as a celebration, it should not be mistaken for a victory celebration. It is instead a recognition that many wonderful and once-unlikely things have come to pass, and that many more such things may lie ahead — if we sustain the wisdom and the determination that have brought us this far.

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Topic: --Community Development

Type: Topical report