Racial and Social Equity Increasingly Are Part of Development Goals

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Over the last decade, the remaking of urban districts around the United States has often led to significant neighborhood upheaval. But developers, nonprofit organizations, and public agencies are placing increasing emphasis on building equitable outcomes into development and renewal, and officials from two organizations at the forefront of that effort shared their experiences at the 2018 ULI Fall Meeting in Boston.

Moderated by Karen Abrams, program officer for equitable development for Heinz Endowments, who also served on a Rose Center for Public Leadership panel that advised Richmond, Virginia, on a historic district development, the conversation highlighted key projects underway as well as the largely novel approach to building equitable community benefits into development agreements.

A.J. Jackson, executive vice president for social impact investments at JBG Smith, a real estate investment trust (REIT) based in Washington, D.C., presented an overview of the company’s Washington Housing Initiative, a market-driven approach to building affordable housing in that region. Lisa Abuaf, development manager for Portland development agency Prosper Portland, outlined the community-oriented planning process underway for Broadway Corridor, a mixed-use transit-oriented redevelopment of 32 acres (13 ha) downtown that Denver-based Continuum Partners has been selected to lead.

Despite soliciting community input during the planning and development process, Abuaf and Jackson often are challenged by distrust from communities that have been negatively affected by development in the past. Prosper Portland’s previous incarnation, the Portland Development Commission, for example, liberally used eminent domain to develop an arena, a hospital, and other projects that ultimately damaged African American neighborhoods, Abuaf said.

As a result, about five years ago, the agency began developing a new plan focused on fostering community and personal growth and success through racial and social equity. Today, the agency concentrates on three core areas: business development, healthy and complete neighborhoods, and wealth creation—or how to provide business and property ownership opportunities to those who previously lacked them.

“Urban needs have changed in American cities, and the public sector needs to change as well,” she added. “It’s about, ‘How do we empower a community rather than act on behalf of the community?’”

Through Prosper Portland’s efforts to steer community involvement in the Broadway Corridor project, a coalition of labor, environmental justice, and people-of-color groups are taking a pivotal role in the planning, she said. Specifically, their input will help guide and ensure that community benefits such as affordable housing, workforce hiring practices, wage requirements, and small business opportunities are part of the plan, Abuaf said.

As part of the Washington Housing Initiative, JBG Smith has joined with the Federal City Council, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the District of Columbia. Together, they intend to build or preserve up to 3,000 affordable workforce units over the next decade and will raise capital from private and philanthropic organizations. Focusing on several “high-impact areas,” which show early signs of growth and are likely to gentrify in five to 10 years, is key to the strategy.

Two other important components are the Washington Housing Conservancy, an independent nonprofit created to own and operate the housing, and the Impact Pool, a fund run by JBG Smith that provides debt for housing acquisition and preservation, Jackson said.

“We realized that we could take our skills and our talents and leverage them into the production of affordable workforce housing in a way that other companies couldn’t,” he said. Currently, the Washington region lacks about 250,000 housing units based on the level of employment in the area, he added.

“That’s not something that we’re going to solve on our own,” Jackson said. “Our intent was to create something that others could replicate in and outside of Washington.”

While much of the panel discussion and question-and-answer session focused on ways to increase the supply of affordable workforce housing to enable longtime residents to remain in gentrifying neighborhoods, Jackson and Abuaf pointed out that business displacement often becomes just as important.

“As streetscapes and businesses change, residents discover that they’re full of people who weren’t there before,” Jackson said. “So, we have to really understand that streetscape experience. People need to feel comfortable in their neighborhood.”

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