Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | References & Notes

2. Political Development by Community Development Corporations

The aspirations and objectives of CDCs, writes political scientist Margaret Weir (1999, 139), put them "squarely in the political arena, where they must work their way through a maze of public and private centers of power." Their leadership and staff know that their physical, economic, and human development activities embed them in the political affairs of their communities. Local politics enmeshes inescapably their organizations, and politics permeates their physical, economic, and human development activities. CDCs, as British sociologist Alan Twelvetrees (1989, 171) learned after studying urban American ones, are "inherently bound up with the political process." CDCs are institutions that operate in a world where political discourse and deeds often influence public and private decisions and actions regarding allocations of collective resources like money, land, and authority in the neighborhoods they service. Operating in a world of politics, one would think challenging political infrastructures would be a common activity of CDCs. Yet, while CDCs generally have the potential for political action (Gittell and Wilder 1999; Glickman and Servon 1998), they lack a penchant for it. For most CDCs, political development lags physical, economic, and human development. Consequently, much of the research on the CDC as political institution generally give it a poor evaluation, particularly as an instrument for changing political opportunity structures in American cities.(6) CDCs are unlikely to be among the vanguard of neighborhood groups pursuing political change through political action. Many, perhaps most, CDCs are inert in preventing politics, especially policy formulation, from failing low- and moderate-income black neighborhoods.

Whether servicing black or nonblack neighborhoods, consistent political participation, electoral or nonelectoral, directly or indirectly, is uncommon among CDCs. Peter Dreier (1999, 180) summarizes: "CDCs are often reluctant to engage directly in political action--whether it means mobilizing community residents around elections, protesting public policy, or advocating for different policies." Few CDCs undertake "all those activities by private citizens [and institutions] that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of government personnel and/or the decisions that they make" (Verba and Nie 1972, 2). The majority of the development activities of CDCs concern service delivery such as affordable housing production and social welfare programs, not political development. Organizing and electoral mobilization, policy formulation and advocacy, and protest and litigation are not priorities of CDCs. Edward Blakely and Armando Aparicio (1990) offer evidence. Responses to their survey of fifty-eight CDCs in California demonstrate that the delivery of services, especially housing, and job creation, is the highest priority of CDCs; establishing and maintaining active political bases and community organizing are among the lowest concerns.

A conclusion some researchers draw from the reported low levels of political action by CDCs is that the emphasis on service development and delivery deflects citizens' attention and energy away from challenging the influence of elites in urban policy-making. Twelvetrees' (1989, 169) critique is clear: "CDCs are an irrelevance which diverts the talents of local people away from political pressure on those institutions which do have the power to revitalize the ghetto." This is problematic. When physical development projects like building housing units displaces citizen activism from the electoral arena to the business arena, citizens lose a large degree of their ability to raise or debate questions of power (Clarke 1998; Stoecker 1994, 1997). Barbara Ferman (1996, 149), in studying community development organizations in Pittsburgh and Chicago, observed:

[A]s economic development initiatives come to occupy a larger portion of community-based activities, systems of interests designation will replace electoral incorporation. This system of representation will selectively broaden the channels of participation while protecting the underlying structure of power within the city. As in Pittsburgh, it will encourage a conservative form of progressivism.

This conservative progressivism, or "politics of moderation," as Robert Fisher (1996, 47) terms it, forces CDCs to "distance themselves from radicals and social movements," in exchange for (quasi-)insider status with other groups in the urban regime. The access of CDCs to governing regimes, however, inherently restricts their actions. To get along with other regime members, especially resource-rich elites, truly is to go along with them.

Regime membership by CDCs should -- theoretically and normatively -- advantage their neighborhoods. The communities they service should expect and receive more benefits from government and the market. Empirically, too often, Susan Clarke (1998) remarked at a previous Urban Affairs Association meeting, elites integrate CDCs and their "demands in a way that is less troublesome than disrupting the patronage and incumbency already invested in existing structures." CDCs must collaborate with members of urban regimes. They cannot confront them. "The politics of moderation gives up on more radical change, but it helps build the capacity for governance, gets advocates to the bargaining table, and wins modest victories." CDCs cooperate with "the power" and align themselves with "the system," rather than challenging it and fighting it. Ferman (1996, 124; see also Imbroscio 1997, 120-132) substantiates this point in her study of CDC-regime relations in Pittsburgh:

[T]he collaboration required by economic development activities of CDCs encourages consensual relations . . . However, consensual approaches prevent any serious questioning of the larger political economy within which these organizations operate . . . These organizations have not changed the larger relations of power within the city, and their consensus prevents that.

She (1996, 141) notes further, CDCs

cannot, for the most part, behave in a highly confrontational manner, nor can they push hard on issues that are seen as divisive; they are too tied into the institutional network that was built on, and continue to promote, cooperative, conflict-avoidant behavior.

This explains why many researchers (see, e.g., Drier 1999; Goetz 1995; Metzger 1988) find CDCs neglecting to organize residents to advocate on their own behalf, not trying to restructure relationships among powered interests in American cities, and not seeking to control local state. "Primarily concerned with development activities, these organizations," notes Margaret Weir (1999, 140), "have done little to build power in low-income communities." They also have done little to upset or displace pre-existing interests in the hierarchy of local power. Dennis Keating, Norman Krumholz, and John Metzger (1995) demonstrate this in their historical analysis of public-private partnerships in Cleveland during the late 1980s and early 1990s. They report that CDCs rarely contested the balance of power over the allocation of municipal resources under the mayoralties of George Voinovich and Michael White. They also note that the CDCs' political influence remained weak in relation to that of for-profit developers.

There are exceptions to the axioms that CDCs avoid political development and CDCs cannot gain redress for their communities. Some of the research suggests the existence of what I refer to as "political CDCs" (see Owens 1999). This type of CDC acts purposely to alter its local political opportunity structure and succeeds at biasing municipal policy responsiveness. Ross Gittell and Margaret Wilder (1999, 344) write, such "CDCs have organized community members to advocate their own interests and have represented community interests in the local context." These CDCs acknowledge the need for and rely on political development to complement, and even, extend their other activities. A common act of CDCs that acknowledge the centrality of political power CDC-state relations is community organizing, often by professional, led by well-trained, paid organizers.(7)

Survey research suggests that the use of community organizing by CDCs is more widespread than earlier reports suggested. The National Congress for Community Economic Development (1999), the national trade association for CDCs, reports that two-thirds of CDCs responding to its national survey are involved in activities that fall under the rubric of community organizing. Marilyn Gittell, Jill Gross, and Kathe Newman (1994) report that half of the 347 CDCs and other neighborhood development organizations they surveyed in eight states identify community organizing as one of their activities. Many, perhaps most of the CDCs that organize community residents grew from grassroots movements grounded in the traditions of community organizing and political advocacy (Zdenek 1987). Clinging to these traditions or adopting them new, CDCs may use community organizing to develop a neighborhood of activist residents that seeks to develop "social leverage" (Briggs 1998, 2; also Gittell and Vidal 1998), resulting in other people assisting the community to solve its problems. If successful, social leverage via community organizing may yield, for example, new information on employment opportunities, more public and private money for affordable housing development, or expedite the clean up of brown fields.

Sullivan (1993) studied twelve urban CDCs to assess their social effects on the residents of their service areas. His examination revealed that community organizing by CDCs is instrumental. CDCs work to forge relationships with community residents that they can mobilize for social action in the future. CDCs also use community organizing to build reputations for themselves as democratic and representative institutions. With mobilized residents and strong reputations, CDCs can advance their pursuit of public and private funding for their physical, economic, and social development projects. CDCs do need not follow a single pattern in organizing communities to be effective. In many ways, organizing is "quite different from the traditional images of community organizing as militant confrontation between community-based groups and powerful institutions based outside the neighborhood such as banks and city government" (Sullivan 1993, 115). Contemporary community organizing by CDCs includes such things as control of buildings and property, promoting ownership and self-governance, developing sustainable leadership, and recreational and social events. Xavier de Souza Briggs and Elizabeth Mueller (1997) made similar findings while studying the qualitative and quantitative social effects of three CDCs in Boston, Minneapolis, and Newark. Furthermore, they observe that, as community organizers, CDCs may act independently of or in concert with other local groups with similar interests and goals (see Briggs and Mueller 1997, 194).

CDCs are not limited to community organizing and other civic actions as political development. CDCs can select to participate in other political actions, including protest actions. Briggs and Mueller (1997, 84) detail the Newark-based New Community Corporation's (NCC) "explicit strategy for putting pressure on city government." It involves public demonstrations, telephone calls, and letter writing campaigns by the residents of its housing, particularly elderly blacks. NCC has, over time, maintained, rather than minimized, its "aggressive advocacy posture toward city government, continually pressuring local decision makers to consider the needs and interests of [its neighborhood] residents" (Gittell and Wilder 1999, 348). This is contrary to the truism of declining political action as CDCs age and become more service-oriented (see, e.g., Gittell 1980; Stoecker 1997). There are other political actions and strategies available to CDCs. The Coalition for a Better Acre (CBA), a CDC in Lowell, Massachusetts, employed, with success, negative publicity and media advocacy to prevent the city government from leveling its neighborhood (Gittell and Wilder 1999). It also devised and executed civic education and voter mobilization campaigns that increased resident turnout in and determined the outcomes of citywide elections and eventually governmental appointments. Most important, beyond influencing who would hold public office, the CBA effected the decisions public officials made while in office, especially on neighborhood-based issues like affordable housing production and public service delivery.

Another political action some CDCs use is legislative and regulatory advocacy. Studies conclude that housing advocacy, for example, is an important activity among urban CDCs. A national study of 130 CDCs reports that 60 percent engaged in housing advocacy activities in support of their work and their clients/constituents (Vidal 1992). While some CDCs go about influencing policymakers by themselves, most concerned with the policymaking process will collaborate with others. They will foster and join coalition-building efforts, notes Ed Goetz (1993, 127), because coalitions "among CDCs and across housing organizations . . . provide crucial political support and a means of political participation for nonprofit organizations." There is evidence that CDC collaborations with other community organizations are often successful at representing the interests of their communities to the larger institutions of urban power (Dreier 1996; Squires 1994, esp. 70 and 76-82). For instance, "a number of CDCs and advocacy organizations," observes Robert Zdenek (1987, 119), "have joined forces to negotiate major lending agreements with banks and other financial institutions, to have them reinvest dollars in their communities."

In building affordable housing, providing social services, and promoting neighborhood-based capitalism in majority-minority and low-income neighborhoods CDCs practice another form of political action - coproduction. Coproduction is a process of managing collective problems that relies on cooperative relationships between nongovernmental organizations and government agencies, where the former bears a responsibility for implementing public policies/programs and the latter bears a responsibility for funding and oversight. As implementers of public policy, CDCs have "in part taken on the service functions of the local state" (Clavel, Pitt, and Yin 1997, 452). Sometimes they do more than implement public officials' decisions, making and executing their own policies (Judd and Swanstrom 1984, 410). Many also provide policymakers and bureaucracies with "advice and input in policy formation" (Goetz 1993, 130). Consequently, there are CDCs that can influence, for instance, decisions over who will build new housing, where they will build it, how they will build it, and for whom they will build it.

Coproduction by CDCs may institutionalize them in the public policy process surrounding housing and neighborhood renewal (Swanstrom 1999). Local government efforts to devolve and decentralize the formulation and administration of programs aimed at redeveloping urban neighborhoods, and encourage public-private partnerships leading to the coproduction of public goods, facilitate CDC institutionalization (see, e.g., Orlebeke 1997). In some urban areas, the institutionalization of CDCs in public policy processes has allowed them to find and pick up "fragments of governmental power" (Judd and Swanstrom 1998, 410). These particles of public power grant CDCs less than absolute authority over the redevelopment agendas and programs of local government. They allow CDCs, however, to make political elites hear more than the political and policy voices of CDCs. Additionally, they permit CDCs to share in the responsibility for public program formulation, and implementation. Their inclusion in public-supported neighborhood redevelopment processes grants CDCs the chance to represent their communities in government and incorporate their interests in governance.

The critique of the CDC as an institution of conservative progressivism is strong and influential. Still, there are other ways to view the process of CDCs seeking urban regime membership and the outcomes stemming from their membership. The pursuit of regime membership by CDCs grants grassroots organizations low-income and minority people lead opportunities to develop the skills needed to influence economic and political issues (Zdenek 1987; Briggs and Mueller 1997; Medoff and Sklar 1994). David Imbroscio (1997, 99) contends citizen participation in CDC-led redevelopment provides a "fuller individual self-development of creative human capacities and, more specifically, as a basis for persons to acquire and exercise the skills of citizenship." Greater CDC involvement in the resource allocation politics of neighborhood redevelopment creates new possibilities for minority citizens to acquire the ability and authority to influence the outcomes of public policy. Such exposure may allow common citizens to understand complex issues, and the processes by which they settle them. Through their contacts and ongoing relationships with governmental officials and processes, CDCs may allow citizens, especially racial and language minorities, to use their new skills in directly participating in the planning of urban neighborhood redevelopment. Minority participation in the community development partnerships among government, private funders, and CDCs also "may have a mediating influence on the actions of traditional urban institutions that otherwise might not consider community-based concerns in neighborhood development activities" (Yin 1998, 138). Moreover, CDCs and their neighborhood initiatives may advance minority self-determination. In Boston, for example, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative has yielded a strategy for blacks and Latinos to influence public zoning regulations for the benefit of their community (Medoff and Sklar 1994). Generally, this strategy includes monitoring the policymaking process, pressing public officials to enact equitable legislation and regulations, and formulating and lobbying for policy alternatives that grant "residential representatives more power over development decisions in their neighborhoods" (Jennings (1992, 142).

Perhaps CDCs can be instruments for expanding minority incorporation. CDCs may advance minority representation in and responsiveness from urban political systems, as Gilliam (1975) expected they would. Consider this. Decentralization and devolution characterize the current policymaking context. Responsibility for managing collective problems flows downward through the federal hierarchy to cities and often into their neighborhoods. Decentralization and devolution encourage the creation of new policy subsystems in which organized interests wage political conflict and "enlarge[s] the number of groups participating in the policymaking process" (Fainstein and Fainstein 1976, 922). Arena shifting due to devolution may permit CDCs to alter the decisions of local policy-makers and win equitable public policies from city government (Clavel and Wiewel 1991; Drier 1996; Ferman 1996; Metzger 1988; Mier 1993; Weiss and Metzger 1989). As Ferman (1996, 99) found in Pittsburgh, CDCs and other neighborhood-based organizations can be "instrumental in promoting more balanced policy initiatives" if they are regime members, even if only in the affordable housing policy subregime (Swanstrom and Koschinsky 1999). In some cities, the activities of CDCs have led municipal "agencies to adapt public programs and agency operating procedures to CDC's distinctive capabilities and needs" (Vidal 1992, 20). Ferman (1996, 99) notes that "operating support for CDCs . . . was given line-item status in Pittsburgh's capital budget" (Ferman 1996, 99). Furthermore, in cities where CDCs are more than observers of governmental discussions concerning the implementation of public redevelopment policy, there is evidence that suggests they give voice to the concerns and aspirations of minority communities and get good results. As Briggs and Mueller (1997, 194) aver, "through their sometimes sizable real estate investments and tenant constituencies, and through informal ties to other groups and well-placed individuals, [CDCs] can be potent actors in local politics." According to Pierre Clavel, Jessica Pitt, and Jordan Yin (1997, 447),

there is evidence that the direct and indirect effects of CDCs on [city] politics is enormous . . . Direct effects, as in overt campaigning for community candidates, sometimes occurred. Indirect effects, in which neighborhood organizing and service delivery resulted in the creation of a community base that they could deliver electorally, were just as important. Most common were efforts short of a real political takeover. In many places, CDCs became a political force by becoming [real estate] developers and providing other services and by maintaining -- if indirectly in most cases -- the advocacy function in their neighborhoods.

Clavel and his colleagues, Pitt, and Yin (1997, 450) even assert that CDCs are "in the process of creating a new configuration of [urban] interests." If this is true, maybe the prospects of CDCs to be mediums for representing citizens' interests to city government and influencing city government responsiveness are better than most reports suggest. Perhaps CDCs, despite their deficiencies and limits as political actors, can be mediums for expanding the scope of conflict in urban politics. Maybe black church-associated CDCs, in particular, can play this role for urban blacks and their neighborhoods.

Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | References & Notes