This week we share a guest post by Amy Menzer, Executive Director of the Dundalk Renaissance Corporation:

I was fortunate to be invited by the Opportunity Collaborative to be part of an April trip to the Chicago area to learn about their efforts to address affordable housing opportunities and regional equity by race, ethnicity, and income.  I enjoyed thinking about these issues on a different scale than I do day to day in my work running a community development corporation, and differently than how we tend to think about them as a statewide association of local organizations in the Community Development Network of Maryland.

Our delegation ranged from local government housing officials to representatives of local foundations to nonprofit leaders like myself. On the trip we visited with officials at the Village of Oak Park, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, public housing agencies who are coordinating regionally, and two efforts to tackle foreclosure and community disinvestment across municipal lines.

I was impressed by the efforts of the Oak Park Housing Center to market neighborhoods and properties in this inner suburb of Chicago to prospective residents with explicit goals of achieving racial balance.  The town’s commitment to these goals over so many years and at so many levels, including how school district boundaries are set, was inspiring to learn about and struck at the core of what I would love to see for my own neighborhood and the Baltimore region.  I also noted how strong Oak Park’s housing market seemed to be and how relatively wealthy it is as a town.  The success they have been able to maintain in racial integration isn’t in a context charged with widespread fears about property value decline and disinvestment.  And it is worth noting, as our speakers did, that integration is not the same as understanding—but it’s still a start.

I was impressed yet again by how incredibly difficult this work is and how there are so many different factors and goals to try to balance, by both those we visited, and by those travelling from Baltimore.

 

  • For regional coordination, there is first the challenge of getting all the different jurisdictions (and in Chicago, there are so many!) to agree to work together on these issues, and then the challenge of funding the coordination effort
  • For public housing agencies, balancing the goals of facilitating wide housing choice while also satisfying other regulatory and legal mandates pressing on one’s time and limited resources
  • For those helping people with Housing Choice Vouchers find homes in stable communities with high-quality schools, there is so little money to do it and at such a small scale. While it was great to hear of successful demonstration projects, they are clearly not affecting overall patterns of settlement in the region.
  • Affordable housing developers can produce thousands of units per year, so obviously this seems like a pathway to greater regional impact—except for all the issues about where to locate such projects, and finding the funding to purchase land in more expensive areas of opportunity and the zoning and political support to build there….

During the 2014 legislative session, we solved one of these barriers to new development in Maryland by removing the requirement for local governments to “approve” State funding for affordable housing development.  I am hopeful this will help open up new opportunities, but also concerned that the easiest places to build new affordable housing may continue to be in already distressed areas.  Clearly some of these new and renovated units are needed everywhere, including where I live and work in Dundalk, and my organization produces some of them.

But sometimes, housing advocates and government seem to overlook cumulative community impacts for the sake of producing (or renovating) units.   This can exacerbate the challenges faced in places like Dundalk, where we have a concentration of poverty that is particularly evident in our schools, and a lack of adequate community development resources available to attract a more economically diverse population.  Because we are a suburb, there is even less consensus among the funding community or in local government that a community development need exists.  And of course, more resources are required to address all the needs.

I am encouraged by the efforts of the Opportunity Collaborative at dialogue and in seeking commitments by local jurisdictions to increase regional equity, and I continue to dream of a more integrated region.  I’m hopeful that my own community, my organization, and Baltimore County will be part of making that happen.

Amy Menzer, Ph.D, is Executive Director of the Dundalk Renaissance Corporation, a community development corporation seeking to revitalize the older industrial suburb of Dundalk in Baltimore County.  She is also President of the Community Development Network of Maryland.  She previously worked at Citizens Planning and Housing Association and 1,000 Friends of Maryland.

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