Video: 10 ways to invest in the forgotten America and rebuild rural communities post-election

I gave this speech at the Housing Assistance Council Rural Housing Conference in Washington, D.C. on November 30. Watch the full video here, or read the speech text below.

As always seems to be the case, the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) has its finger on the pulse of rural America. They have invited us to this conference to talk about an important issue – building rural communities.

Let’s start with the basics. What do Americans seek in life?

All Americans – urban and rural citizens, Anglos, African-Americans, Hispanics and others, Trump and Clinton supporters – we all fundamentally aspire to the same four things in our lives:

  • economic security;
  • physical and environmental safety;
  • strong families; and
  • a better future for our children.

Our homes and communities are the foundation for achieving our aspirations.

Yet many rural and small town communities can’t offer their residents what they need to achieve their aspirations and those communities need community development assistance. When we say “community development” we are talking about new and better homes, businesses, streets, sidewalks, water and sewer, parks, public safety, schools, libraries and other amenities. There is another important aspect of community development in rural America – attracting and retaining people to want to live in a place.

When we talk about community building, we need to consider both how we provide the physical infrastructure and what it takes to attract and retain people.

This election may radically reframe programs and the allocation of resources across many areas of government, including housing and community development. It could end the federal commitment. It could reduce resources, or it could provide unprecedented resources in the form of a massive federal investment in public infrastructure. There is also a possibility the new administration will reinvent the federal programmatic approach to community development – for better or worse.

The political trajectory of housing and community development has been pretty simple over the past 50 years. With the exception of a few new initiatives such as the HOME program and housing tax credits, most advocacy has been directed at defending funding for long established housing programs. Despite heroic work by advocates, HAC, the National Rural Housing Coalition and others, the federal commitment to rural housing programs has remained inadequate to meet the need.

Yet, housing developers in rural America do amazing things with the few resources available to them. While urban housing providers rightly complain of funding shortfalls, rural housers make due with a fraction of the financial resources available to urban communities. They maintain a highly dedicated if overstretched network of housing developers, and make due with advocacy resources through a much smaller base of political and community support.

Why is housing funding always so inadequate? Of course this could be addressed with reform of the mortgage interest deduction, which is finally being discussed. But let’s focus for the moment on capital outlay subsidies like USDA mortgages, rental housing programs, housing tax credits and down payment assistance programs. Housing subsidies for most Americans are often one-time encounters. They are not something most families remain continually aware of, and thus, the constituency of voters is not big enough or motivated enough to make housing subsidies a political priority. This is compounded by the scarcity of housing assistance. The scarcity means it is not a benefit that most families think about. Among the few who receive housing assistance, many don’t know about the role of the federal government in providing the subsidy.

Do not misunderstand me. Housing is the essential foundation that everyone requires and deserves. We must stay focused on it.

On the other hand, virtually everyone regularly sees and benefits from infrastructure projects, streets, sidewalks, flood control, public facilities, schools, etc. – the many things that fall under the heading of “community development.” That is why community development is a more powerful issue politically than subsidized housing.

For all of my working life there were basically only two competing mainstream political ideologies in this country. One, represented by the Democrats, advocates an activist government to make people’s lives better. For the most part, it was Democratic administrations that put in place the limited housing and community development programs that we rely on today. The other ideology, represented by Republicans, advocates a much more limited role for the federal government and stresses the role of state and local governments and individuals in meeting individual and community needs.

The political equation in America today is becoming more complicated. It is not just Democrats and Republicans anymore but Democrats, Mainstream Republicans and Trump. There is also a longtime political divide between people of color and Anglos reflected in greater or lower levels of voter participation from people of color depending on whether candidates speak to their interests.

Democratic and Republican camps are numerically balanced today. Elections are won and lost by the votes of the two other parts of the electorates, swing voters who are mostly Anglos and the growing constituency of people of color who sometimes under-participate in electoral politics. The two mainstream ideologies win or lose elections these days on incredibly small margins. This year thee margin in Wisconsin was 27,257 votes. The margin in Michigan was 11,612. Even in my state of Texas, a state considered by everyone to be solidly one-party Republican, the margin of victory in the presidential election was less than the population of one mid-sized county. These are numbers that those of us who work in rural communities can understand.

In this political environment, rural community development issues have the potential to be important.

Now, let’s engage in everyone’s favorite post-election past-time of trying to guess what the Trump administration is going to do.

Here is the political context as President-elect Trump takes office:

  • One party controls both branches of government, potentially ending political gridlock.
  • Elections can swing on a tiny number of votes.
  • The federal government is no longer divided two ways but three ways.
  • A plurality of American citizens say they want government to change,  but what exactly change means is unclear.
  • A plurality of the electorate feels angry and anxious about the four things we considered earlier that everyone wants: economic security, safety, strong families and a good future for their kids.
  • Many immigrants and people of color are understandably worried, given the vitriolic and racist rhetoric coming from white supremacists that has sometimes not been clearly or quickly repudiated by our president-elect.

Working within this political context, what will the Trump administration do for rural communities?

Keep in mind that the president-elect has called small town and rural voters “forgotten.” From everything we can tell at this stage, between two sometimes competing ideological frameworks among Republicans in Congress and the administration, there is not a consensus agenda. I think the folks in the incoming administration, and especially the president-elect, are going to need some ideas for initiatives to show forgotten small town and rural Americans that the federal government is paying attention to their communities. The only fully-formed agendas right now are the Democratic approach and the radical right’s approach to “drown government in the bathtub.” Neither of these are going to be very attractive to a Trump administration that wants to deliver something for rural America.

Successful national initiatives in housing and community development have generally emerged from pilot initiatives, developed and tested in the field by community development practitioners. The original community development corporation (CDC) movement was born of a 1960s initiative in Brooklyn funded by the Ford Foundation. The Community Reinvestment Act was born in the neighborhood-level organizing work of Gale Cincotta and National People’s Action. Other initiatives, such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program enacted during President Reagan’s administration, were hammered out by committees representing various interests sitting around a table.

Either way, we need to quickly get clear on the elements for a community development initiative we can support. The work many in this room are doing provides a basis for a sound rural community development initiative. We need to frame these ongoing efforts as a coherent and scalable program, and get to a consensus among ourselves. We need to begin that process here today.

Beginning with big picture values and moving down to specifics, here is how I propose we describe a new rural community development initiative…

We must focus on the broad goal of building and rebuilding healthy and fair rural communities that give residents a shot at security and prosperity. Not just community in the small-scale sense of an apartment development or a small subdivision or the poor side of the tracks, but focused on attracting and retaining residents and restoring equity and opportunity by integrating economically, racially and ethnically the entire rural community – this is the critical human aspect of community rebuilding I spoke of earlier.

Back when I was starting out in the 1970s we were much closer to this type of work when we called ourselves not housing development corporations but community development corporations. We built housing as one of several initiatives to achieve the goal of comprehensive community development. We also organized communities and neighborhoods to plan and advocate for the development and improvement of the community and to secure missing public infrastructure for under-served neighborhoods. We mobilized and empowered neighborhood residents. Our organizations were led by grassroots leaders, mostly people of color with low incomes. CDCs were the vital, missing, community-based and democratic (with a small D) problem-solving institutions.

But money to sustain our work was hard to come by. We were gadflies to local government who quickly figured out that life was simpler when they made us go away. To that end local governments refused to fund efforts that stirred people up to make demands for services and equal treatment. So the community development movement ebbed and, out of necessity, transformed itself into a financially sustainable business model of developing subsidized housing.

Yet the need for community development didn’t go away. Grassroots citizen action is essential work in a democracy and the only way to overcome inequality. Community development is the business of helping people in communities discover and act out their essential role in making their lives and neighborhoods better. When people engage in community building they are participating in civic and electoral life. As we noted earlier, if a small number of new people become engaged in the civic process, they can make a big difference, not just in their local community, but nationally as well.

Despite the difficulties and lack of financial support, there are non-profits that remain engaged in community development. I’ll illustrate this with work we’re engaged in in Texas.

A number of folks in this room and elsewhere, with invaluable assistance from HAC, have worked for many years on the problems faced by rural colonias in Texas. Colonias are informal, mostly homeowner subdivisions, inhabited mostly by Hispanics who are largely native-born along with some immigrants. Residents of colonias are excluded from cities and towns by ethnic and racial prejudice and by the fact many are foreign born and many have limited English proficiency. Substandard housing (pictured at top), the lack of essential public infrastructure and public services and severe environmental problems from flooding and pollution combine to make life very hard and to limit economic opportunities for colonia residents.

Over three decades we chipped away at the problems faced by colonia residents. One big success was getting water to most colonias. But many problems remain.

Five years ago, a national foundation approached a group of community leaders, elected officials and non-profits and asked if we would like to propose a community organizing and community building strategy. Many people were too busy or didn’t believe solutions were possible. But four organizations, with long-term track records of working in the community (but not always in working together) decided we would try.

Those groups are:

  • The Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, an effective non-profit housing provider.
  • A group of women leaders called A Resource In Serving Equality (ARISE), who are supported by the local Catholic diocese. The members and staff are all residents of the colonias. They run self-help and mutual aid programs for women and children through a handful of small community centers.
  • The former Texas United Farm Workers Union Service Center, La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a self-described “community union” of colonia residents with more than 5,000 dues-paying members living in the 1,000-plus colonias on the southern border.
  • My organization, a policy development and advocacy group.

Along with grassroots colonia leaders, we began by asking what it would take to make life for colonia residents better. The first thing was political power for colonia leaders so they could get a seat at the table where government funding and policy is decided. The goal was for residents to elevate the inequitable conditions in the colonias into a priority for local and state government action and to have the priorities for action to be set by residents.

Rather than the CDC or the policy advocates taking the lead, the folks taking the lead were colonia residents and their membership-based organizing groups.

As CDCs, housing developers and policy advocates we did not follow the lead of low-Income community leaders just because it was the moral thing to do. Our motivation was strictly pragmatic. For one thing, the CDCs are dependent upon the patronage of local government to secure funding for their housing and other initiatives. We understood the lesson CDCs learned back in the 1970s and ’80s. Non-profits dependent on government grants are not in a good position to make demands of public officials while seeking funding from those officials. We agreed that we could not win the support for the policies and funding we needed for our work unless citizens who wanted those policies and those programs had the political power to win these things.

We set up a project budget that invested two-thirds of the foundation grant into grassroots organizing and grassroots leadership development. We created a citizen leadership academy where we and other experts serve as faculty to equip colonia leaders with the expertise to develop and negotiate policy and programs. We call the approach an “expert leader model.” When the grassroots leaders needed help developing community plans for colonias, we recruited and funded a public interest planning firm, which embedded their staff in the community organizing groups and bade the planners to join our team.

I wish I had an hour to tell you what this community building program has accomplished. Just in part, it has:

  • shaped the rebuilding of 800 homes owned by colonia residents using CDBG-DR funds,
  • gave all those families a choice to stay or move from the colonia into town,
  • built beautiful new multifamily rental housing that created affordability and community for low-income families in higher opportunity neighborhoods,
  • steered $30 million in federal and local funds to provide the first flood control for colonias,
  • brought street lights to rural colonias for the first time, and
  • lead an effort to reevaluate local and state subdivision development regulations and land use practices that have forced immigrants to live in substandard rural colonias instead of cities.

Bringing housing, infrastructure and community improvements to impoverished colonias is important, but it’s only half of the job. There is something far more challenging we need to do. The quality of the community in which the home is located in is critical. Once you decide to build subsidized housing you have to ask, “What is the right community in which to build it?” If the answer is never to build in high opportunity parts of town, then you are not building equality or an equitable community because you are perpetuating residential racial segregation.

The community leaders we work with understand this in ways that few outsiders can appreciate. They frame their community building work as a struggle to win fair housing and neighborhood rights for themselves and their neighbors.

There are four rights the grassroots leaders advocate:

1) First and foremost, the right to choose for themselves the community where it is best for them and their family to live. No government agency or well-meaning non-profit should limit where people of color must live. Yet housing providers routinely do so by providing housing only in impoverished and racially or ethnically segregated neighborhoods.

2) The right to stay, to freely choose to remain in a gentrifying or high opportunity area and, once again, not have that choice denied by a subsidized housing provider or government agency.

3) The right to equal treatment in public services and public infrastructure. Communities of color should not be the place where government permits the building of the things that more privileged neighborhoods do not want. Neighborhoods of color, on the other side of the tracks, should enjoy protection from flooding, good streets, sidewalks, schools and other public services. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires this from local governments that accept federal funds. Yet the law is not enforced by the federal government.

4) The right to have a say in the allocation of public resources and in policies and programs that impact the community.

These four rights – the right to choose, the right to stay, the right to equal treatment and the right to have a say – are the foundation for equitable and inclusive community development.

When we deny people of color these rights we maintain the evil of residential segregation. Segregation maintains racial and ethnic divisions that permit demagogues to stoke racial prejudices – telling whites, for example, the lie that investing in housing and neighborhood infrastructure to benefit everyone, including people of color, is a zero-sum gain that robs from white folks in order to unfairly reward the unworthy “others.”

Fifty years ago Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. entitled his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” It is not only the book’s title, but Dr. King’s insights into the challenges facing America that are remarkably prescient. Dr. King wrote:

“The step backward has a new name today. It is called the white backlash. But the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there…The white backlash is an expression of the vacillations, the same search for rationalizations, the same lack of commitment that have always characterized white America on the question of race. What is the source of this perennial indecision and vacillation? It lies in the cognitive deformity of racism that has crippled the nation from its inception.”

In the analysis of this year’s election, we hear a lot of talk about a national divide between urban and rural areas – how the election result was a backlash by the small town and rural parts of our country against the urban elites. This may be true. But this analysis fails to account for the origins and fails to offer a solution for  these grievances .

Every small town, every rural community I’ve been to still seems to have the railroad track or the river that splits where people live by race. Many others have a nearby, unincorporated subdivision, lacking essential public services where low income people of color live.

There is something inherently harmful about this separateness. It is born of slavery and Jim Crow. It is not just Anglo prejudice against African-Americans. The Journal of Rural Sociology recently published a nationwide analysis of Census data that concluded that “Hispanic residential segregation from whites is often exceptionally high and declining slowly in rural counties and communities. New Hispanic destinations, on average, have higher Hispanic segregation levels than established gateway communities.”

Acute levels of residential segregation makes possible the stereotyping and blaming “the other,” and is the source of the anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant attitude that suffused the presidential election. Prejudice based on the fear of “the other” is incubated in the Petri dish of residential racial segregation.

The inequality produced by segregation is a far too easy path to follow in rural America. In many Western and Southern states, including Texas, rural areas lack building standards and regulations, coupled with exploitation of the housing market by developers and predatory lenders. Low income people of color moving out to rural America routinely encounter a predatory, exploitative housing market. Participants in this market are excluded from the financial advantages and regulatory protections that people in traditional real estate markets enjoy.

And once you build substandard segregated communities, they almost never get integrated or upgraded. So the problems compound: A lack of proper drainage infrastructure or development in a flood plain leads to constant flooding; no street lights, no sidewalks, no decent public infrastructure – who, given a choice, would choose to live in such a community? A segregated minority real estate market depresses home values and robs families of home equity; no good affordable rental housing to compete with slum housing produces blight; predatory lending and land sales are the only routes to homeownership and they rob families of the chance to get ahead economically; limited housing choice in subsidized housing reinforces racial discrimination and public and private neighborhood disinvestment. This pattern is repeated all across rural America. It creates conditions that discourage people from moving to communities in which such neighborhoods exist.  It discourages people already living in such communities from staying there.

We have a federal Superfund program for cleaning up extreme environmental problems. When somebody created a toxic mess and walked away to leave the local community to deal with it, the federal government steps in as a last resort to clean it up. We need a Superfund cleanup program for Jim Crow residential segregation.

We need successful models of community development that create real solutions by engaging local citizens and governments. The federal government will need to provide a big part of the financial resources and enforce civil rights and Title VI laws. But local leadership, commitment and expertise will be needed to do the real work. Developing and defining the model for this joint, federal, local, community initiative will also require foundations to step up and provide some resources for organizing and advocacy. It is up to us to bring together community organizers, CDCs, policy people and planners to show how it should be done.

To build these models we should work collaboratively together through groups like HAC to engage government leaders, foundations and, above all to learn from each other. Our objective should be to undertake a model demonstration Rural America Community Building program in each state.

In addition to advocating this sweeping new community building initiative there are also specific things we must either defend or ask the federal government to do right away.

Here are my ten suggested priorities for immediate federal action:

1) Expand funding for Community Development Block Grants to provide infrastructure, affordable subdivisions and housing finance and to clean up the housing and infrastructure deficits in rural America. This includes the Jim Crow clean-up fund.

2) Enforce existing civil rights laws, specifically the Fair Housing Act and Title VI, to make local and state governments that take federal funds spend those funds in an manner that guarantees people the right to choose, the right to stay, the right to equal treatment and the right to have a say. We must find other funding to build the capacity of local organizing groups to use fair housing and civil rights as tools to challenge discrimination in the siting of subsidized housing and in the inequitable allocation of public services and infrastructure.

3) Expand and revise housing tax credits to better meet the needs of rural communities by providing incentives for smaller scale, mixed-income developments, linking the program more closely to residential desegregation and by permitting the use of tax credits to finance and rehabilitate owner-occupied housing.

4) Greatly expand funding for USDA Section 502 direct loans for owner-occupied housing – a loan with adjustable interest rates based on the income of the borrowers, with built-in foreclosure prevention and other features that actually makes homeownership work for low income people. The 502 direct loan program is the best rural housing program America ever came up with. But it’s been starved by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

5) Make regulatory changes to direct Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make available and to permit HUD and USDA grants and loans to be used for financing incremental development of owner-occupied housing. Low income people need a clear and safe path to finance the purchase of homes instead of being forced into financing from cheats, scammers and predatory lenders. We must insist the federal government not shirk its duties in enforcement of fair lending laws. For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau must stop abuses in rent-to-own and contract-for-deed financing.

6) Incentivize new subdivision development to provide alternatives to unserviced colonias and other informal or substandard rural subdivisions.

7) Increase USDA Section 523 administrative funding and expand Section 502 direct loan authority to make available self-help housing all across rural (and urban) America.

8) Provide tax credit incentives to mortgage lenders to extend credit on more favorable terms in underserved rural markets.

9) Provide direct financial support for the work of community development corporations so that CDCs can provide a level of basic coverage across all of rural America.

10) In addition to the Jim Crow Superfund cleanup, make the existing EPA clean-up program to do its job in rural areas where far too many environmental hazards are located in low income communities of color.

It is up to us to seize this moment to empower the people of small town and rural America to shape the future of their homes and communities so they can realize their aspirations. We must defend existing funding and policies while we offer a new vision of inclusive and equitable community development: Creating communities where everyone, regardless of race or income, is secure and safe, where everyone, regardless of ethnicity is a member of the community and where parents pass down family homesteads to their children that are such great places to live that the children want to remain in their community. Our mission is not merely about housing or infrastructure. It is about justice and building what Dr. King called the “Beloved Community.”

In Dr. King’s vision, this is where racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice are replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. The audacity of proclaiming the intent of building a “beloved community,” in today’s ugly political environment, is spiritually invigorating and awe-inspiring.

Whatever else we accomplish over the course of the next administration, we must come together and defeat the resurgence of racism and exclusion.

The task of building the beloved community is daunting. The political obstacles seem formidable. Who are we to believe that we can take this on? Quoting once more Dr. King’s prophetic words in his book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”:

“The hope of the world is still in dedicated minorities. The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific and religious freedom has always been in the minority. That creative minority…absolutely committed to civil rights can make it clear to the larger society that vacillation and procrastination on the question of racial justice can no longer be tolerated. It will take such a committed minority to work unrelentingly to win the uncommitted majority. Such a group may well transform America’s greatest dilemma into her most glorious opportunity.”

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