Home > Affordable Housing, Economic Development, Green Community Development > Twenty Years Later, Living Cities, A Historical Accomplishment

Twenty Years Later, Living Cities, A Historical Accomplishment

Rick Cohen
columnist
NonProfit Quarterly

Living Cities, one of the more impressive foundation collaboratives still in existence, celebrated its 20th anniversary late last month. I was lucky, having been involved tangentially at the birth of Living Cities, when it was emerging from the thinking of a handful of national foundations plus two national community development financial intermediaries, the Enterprise Foundation and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. The mix of foundations at the table has changed over the years. It has gone through a couple of staff leadership changes and the roles of the two intermediaries have changed, in part because Living Cities made a strategic decision to staff up and begin developing and implementing its own program initiatives. And the environment in which the collaborative operated went through a massive change as the housing markets collapsed due to the foreclosure crisis.

If you want the statistics on what Living Cities has accomplished, the money it has raised and leveraged, the affordable housing units Living Cites-assisted CDCs have generated, check out the Living Cities website. And if you want a variety of perspectives, including mine, posted as sort of live blogs from the Living Cities event, turn to the three pages of posts at the blog of Next American City magazine. But without claiming to do justice to the rich Living Cities conversation, here are some perspectives that other foundations, whether addressing community development or not, might find instructive:

  • Pablo Farias from the Ford Foundation talked about the community development sector as a “core response to the civil rights movement from protest and confrontation to responsible collaboration…to make the aspirations of civil rights a reality in our communities.” Farias observed that community development had changing needs, not just for aggregating and streamlining capital, but creating “a platform for shared learning and evaluation.”
  • Rip Rapson of the Kresge Foundation remarked that Doug Nelson, the former president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, talked about “real leverage” in the future of community development as “cross-disciplinary,” connecting education, health, transit, and environmental enhancement. Living Cities has gone beyond transactional approaches to housing and the intermediaries have gone significantly beyond the unit-count/dollars-loaned vision of community development-in both cases, because they had to if they really wanted to impact community development in distressed urban and rural neighborhoods.
  • Dennis White of the MetLife Foundation identified the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s 16-year investment in Living Cities as one of the most significant accomplishments of the collaboration. This was a partnership that lasted, in part, due to some excellent policy advocacy that will be needed to keep Living Cities as a public/private partnership.
  • Rapson noted that the Living Cities model of public/private partnership has been powerful. The key going forward, according to Rapson, is transcending the parochialism of funders themselves. He cited the fact that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, devoted to health issues, has stayed at the Living Cities table despite the relatively little that Living Cities has done explicitly on health. The cross-sectoral involvement of funders-and agencies like HUD-is needed. Funders can’t squeeze social problems into their predetermined program categories. To be truly affective, they have to rethink their program definitions and see how they can be adapted to the needs of the real world.
  • Patrick McCarthy, the newish president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, talked about the future of Living Cities in terms of people. He said, “Without investing in the folks who are being left behind, without investing in their physical and economic health, we’re not going to make it back.” To be more explicit, Walter Wright from the Cleveland Foundation made clear the importance of Living Cities reaching out to low-income people. One never hears about low-income people in today’s political discourse. Major leaders shy away from explicitly naming the issue of poor people as a specific target of their initiatives; it’s always conversation about the “middle class.” Will Living Cities be the venue where the conversation about how to address poverty becomes reinserted into the national policy conversation? If Living Cities helps public agencies and foundations re-engage the issue of poverty, that might be the community change that Living Cities brings to community development around the nation.

With the current and continuing federal impasse on budgetary issues, it would be hard not to see some aspect of the “public” side of the Living Cities public/private partnership at risk. Will that mean that foundations will look at a diminishing federal commitment to conclude that their resources are best put elsewhere? Or will the history of Living Cities remind foundations that their best efforts are needed now more than ever, in partnership with the infrastructure of local nonprofits and national intermediaries they have sustained, to keep the federal government engaged in community development writ large and not to leave it to the vagaries of the “free markets?”

Rick Cohen is a columnist with the NonProfit Quarterly.

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