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Revitalizing inner cities requires a regional mindset.

"How do you connect poor people and poor places to the mainstream economy?" This is the question that guides I the efforts of the Delaware Valley Community Reinvestment Fund (the Fund), said Jeremy Nowak, the Fund's executive director, at an April 8 conference on revitalizing inner cities.

The $50 million community development financial institution works in about a dozen counties spanning three states and boasts a track record that includes financing 2,000 units of affordable housing creating a venture capitalist fund to support local businesses, and spearheading workforce development efforts in three business sectors. The Fund recently received the Philadelphia Award, the city's highest civic honor, in recognition of its accomplishments.

Nowak joined other recognized researchers and practitioners in the community development field at the conference, sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., to discuss a range of issues--welfare reform, housing, job markets, and land use policies--affecting inner cities and their residents. Donna Cooper, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Policy in Philadelphia, was among the panelists. Nowak's regionally-based model of community development became the major focus of the morning session.

Nowak observed that metropolitan areas have been undergoing major population shifts--shifts that have led to the scattering of people and opportunities across regions, and at the same time, increasing concentrations of poverty These changes have created challenges for inner cities and their residents.

The Fund advocates five distinct strategies to accomplish this goal: workforce development, rebuilding real estate markets, creating an infrastructure Of affordable child care, increasing the supply of jobs, and rebuilding the market for land.

* Workforce development. In the area of workforce development, the Fund establishes job networks with employers in different sectors in an attempt to increase the supply of jobs available for inner city residents. The Fund works through urban churches to "mediate the market," according to Nowak, linking regional employers to job seekers in the inner city

* Rebuilding real estate markets. The Fund works to rebuild real estate markets in both central cities and suburbs. The major thrust for their efforts is "multi-income" housing, noted Nowak, a two-pronged strategy that involves both creating affordable housing options in the suburbs and bringing middle-income people back to the inner city.

* Creating affordable child care. As welfare reform places increasing pressure on many low income people to enter the work force, affordable child care becomes more critical. The Fund is helping to create the necessary infrastructure of affordable child care agencies, both nonprofit and for-profit, to respond to this heightened need.

* Increasing the supply of jobs. The Fund is helping to increase the overall supply of jobs for low-income, inner-city residents by investing in industries that provide entry-level jobs.

* Rebuilding the market for land. Land use policies have a significant effect on the location decisions of people and businesses. The Fund recognizes this reality through its commitment to promoting and rebuilding the market for land in inner cities.

Making any of these strategies work, according to Nowak, requires building political coalitions around shared interests. For example, the tight labor markets in the current growth economy demand a more efficient workforce development policy to help entry level workers prepare for the increasingly sophisticated skill requirements of high tech jobs--a strategy that holds benefits for both inner city workers and suburban employers.

Political alliances can also be forged around "smart growth" or sustainable development initiatives, noted Nowak, between those who advocate urban investment and the environmentalists who have "discovered the city."

The problem of the urban fiscal crisis--struggling under waning tax bases to raise the necessary revenues to meet increasing city service needs--is a politically tough nut to crack, noted Nowak. One solution is to build support for a policy of tax equity across a metropolitan region--a political challenge that may confound even the most capable regional- or state-level agency However embedded in this challenge is also a political opportunity, he noted, to link the conversation about tax equity to the broader conversation about the region's growth.

The panelists offered some key strategies for building successful city-suburban coalitions:

* Work through core community institutions. Local churches, as places where people with varied backgrounds come together around a shared set of values, provide an important vehicle for creating ties between different interests.

* Begin in the suburbs. Start by garnering the participation and support of suburban interests who are sympathetic to the city's struggle--older suburbs that are experiencing similar declines and suburban interests who understand their interdependence with the city.

* Rally around a linkage issue. For example, both city and suburban interests have a significant stake in the quality of their regional workforce to remain competitive in a global economy. A national economic development policy that created incentives for regional workforce development would be an important catalyst for bringing these interests together.

* Educate. One key to getting suburban interests to adopt a broader regional mindset is to get the word out--to educate policymakers and residents alike about some of the ways that public policy may set up basic inequities between cities and suburbs. For example, the average suburb receives substantially more federal transportation funding that the average city receives, noted Sheryll Cashin, visiting professor of law at Georgetown University and former Deputy Assistant Secretary at HUD.

The afternoon session of the conference examined one of these strategies in-depth--the role of faith-based community institutions in inner city revitalization. The panelists observed that a number of faith-based organizations are spearheading initiatives to transform distressed inner city neighborhoods. They underscored the importance of both the spiritual component and the community organizing potential of these organizations as key ingredients for successful community building.

For more info, refer to "Neighborhood Initiative and the Regional Economy," by Jeremy Nowak, Economic Development Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1, February 1997, 3-10.
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Author:Stern, Emily
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Apr 27, 1998
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