Essays on People, Place & Purpose

Investing in What Works for America's Communities

The Past, Present, and Future of Community Development in the United States

by Alexander Von Hoffman

Innovation Lives

For all the unsettling changes, community development was in many ways stronger than ever. The growing popularity of investing to achieve a social goal, against which specific results could be measured, channeled new funds and new energy into community development. A number of efforts demonstrated the persistent appeal of integrated, if not absolutely comprehensive, approaches to effect social change. As before, the many betterment programs took place in housing developments. At the Edgewood Terrace housing complex in Washington, DC, the Community Preservation and Development Corporation instituted a computer technology programs for the residents, which garnered widespread acclaim.

The most innovative of the new generation of community development projects sprang from areas other than housing. Perhaps the most celebrated has education at its core. Led by Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City focused a wide range of efforts on a defined area—originally a single block expanded in 1997 to a 24-block area, and in 2007, to a section of central Harlem that extends from 116th to 143rd streets. The group created a 10-year business plan and led the way for nonprofits by carefully evaluating and tracking the results of its programs so its staff could adjust the implementation of programs that were not achieving their objectives. As its name suggests, the Harlem Children’s Zone first concerned itself with helping local schools and in 2004 helped start the Promise Academy, a high-quality public charter school. Its goal is “to create a ‘tipping point’ in the neighborhood so that children are surrounded by an enriching environment of college-oriented peers and supportive adults, a counterweight to ‘the street.’” To do so, Canada and his colleagues expanded their efforts to include parenting workshops, a preschool program, a health program to counter asthma, and an antiobesity program for children.42

The Harlem Children’s Zone has inspired the Obama administration to institute the Promise Neighborhoods program. Significantly, this community development program resides not at HUD but in the Department of Education. Its purpose is to nurture young people starting from the cradle and ending with a career. To create excellent schools and strong systems of family and community support, the Promise Neighborhoods program takes an approach that would sound familiar to those who invented the Model Cities program 50 years ago: by coordinating and integrating programs across agency boundaries.43

Health care is another entering wedge for community development. The best known example is the Codman Square Health Center located in a neighborhood in the Dorchester section of Boston. Although the organization dates from 1979, in 1995 it had grown to the point that it expanded into a multi-million dollar medical facility created out of a former nursing home. Its broadly defined mission is “to serve as a resource for improving the physical, mental and social well-being of the community.” From the start, its leader William Walczak believed that health care could serve as a tool for community development and often partnered with the local CDC located across the street from the health center. Hence, besides an array of medical and health services, the community clinic offers access to adult education, “financial health” classes (such as personal finance workshops), and youth services, and in conjunction with Dorchester House Multi-Service Center (a surviving local Settlement House!), civic engagement activities.44


The field of community development has grown immeasurably since the dark days of top-down policies such as urban renewal. In urban and rural areas, local and regional nonprofit organizations are developing real estate and delivering a range of services to once forgotten communities. Thanks to government programs, an array of philanthropic institutions and financial intermediaries such as CDFIs, the field has developed pipelines of funding. As experience in management and business progressed, so too did the sophistication of measures to gauge the results of community development efforts. If comprehensiveness has continued to prove elusive, the multifaceted approach has succeeded in numerous ways to uplift and enrich economically stressed neighborhoods. Innovative approaches as embodied in the Harlem Children’s Zone and Codman Square Health Center hold bright promise for the future.

At the same time, current conditions pose great obstacles to community development. First and foremost are the effects of the Great Recession. The economic downturn has brought a wave of foreclosures in low-income neighborhoods and modest suburban subdivisions. It also has created, or revealed, a new dimension of poverty in the millions of long-term unemployed. Once again homes are abandoned and communities are in peril. Some cities never caught the wave of community development and urban revival. Cities such as Detroit, Baltimore, and New Orleans pose extreme cases of shrinking populations and empty streets. At the same time, the community development field has yet to establish a significant number of organizations in the suburbs, where the poor increasingly live.

As the plight of poor and working-class Americans grows increasingly dire, however, government social policy is in retreat. In response to plummeting tax revenues and gaping budget deficits, federal, state, and local, have cut back funds for a wide variety of social and economic programs. The new austerity directly imperils community development.

Hence, today the community development field stands on the threshold of new synergies, but it also faces challenges as never before. The people in this dynamic industry must apply the knowledge gained through past experiences to new and difficult circumstances. If history is a guide, they will rise to the occasion.


  1. “The Past, Present, and Future of Community Development in the United States.” Copyright © 2012 Alexander von Hoffman. This article cannot be reproduced in any form without written permission from Alexander von Hoffman. Permission requests should be sent to
  2. Robert C. Weaver, The Negro Ghetto (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948); Charles Abrams, Forbidden Neighbors: A Story of Prejudice in Housing (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955); Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
  3. Alexander von Hoffman, “A Study in Contradictions: The Origins and Legacy of the Housing Act of 1949,” Housing Policy Debate, 10 (3) (Summer 2000): 299–326; Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto; Raymond A. Mohl, “Race and Space in the Modern City: Interstate-95 and the Black Community in Miami.” In Urban Policy in Twentieth-Century America, edited by Arnold R. Hirsch and Raymond A. Mohl (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993), pp. 100–158; “The Interstates and the Cities: Highways, Housing and the Freeway Revolt.” Research Report (Washington, DC: Poverty and Race Research Action Council, 2002), pp. 30–38.
  4. Robert Halpern, Rebuilding the Inner City: A History of Neighborhood Initiatives to Address Poverty in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 89–101; G. William Domhoff, “The Ford Foundation in the Inner City: Forging an Alliance with Neighborhood Activists” (Santa Cruz, CA: University of Southern California,, 2005), available at
  5. The Kerner Commission singled out three major underlying causes of the riots: discrimination and segregation (in employment, education, but also housing); black migration and white departure from central cities (causing “concentration of impoverished Negroes”); and black ghettos. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam, 1968), pp. 203–204.
  6. William P. Ryan, “Bedford-Stuyvesant and the Prototype Community Development Corporation.” In Inventing Community Renewal: The Trials and Errors that Shaped the Modern Community Development Corporation, edited by Mitchell Sviridoff (New York: Community Development Research Center, New School University, 2004), pp. 67–96; Jeff Shesol, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), p. 249 (Moynihan quotation).
  7. Alice O’Connor, “Swimming Against the Tide: A Brief History of Federal Policy in Poor Communities.” In Urban Problems and Community Development, edited by Ronald Ferguson and William Dickens (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999), pp. 105–108.
  8. Kimberley Johnson, “Community Development Corporations, Participation, and Accountability: The Harlem Urban Development Corporation and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 594 (1) (July 2004): 117–120.
  9. Ford Foundation, “Program-Related Investments: A Different Approach to Philanthropy” (New York: Ford Foundation, 1974), pp. 5–6, 16; “Investing for Social Gain: Reflections on Two Decades of Program-Related Investments” (New York: Ford Foundation, 1991), pp. 5–7.
  10. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, “The Case Against Urban Desegregation,” Social Work 12 (1) (January 1967): 12–21; “Desegregated Housing—Who Pays for the Reformers’ Ideal?” New Republic, December 17, 1966; John F. Kain and Joseph J. Persky, “Alternatives to the Gilded Ghetto,” The Public Interest 14 (Winter 1969): 74–83; John F. Kain, “The Spatial Mismatch Hypothesis: Three Decades Later,” Housing Policy Debate 3 (2) (1992): 371–460.
  11. William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
  12. Avis C. Vidal, Arnold M. Howitt, and Kathleen P. Foster, “Stimulating Community Development: An Assessment of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation.” Research Report R86-2 (Cambridge, MA: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, June 1986), pp. 3–6.
  13. Y. Thomas Liou and Robert C. Stroh, “Community Development Intermediary Systems in the United States: Origins, Evolution, and Functions,” Housing Policy Debate 9 (3): 585–586; Enterprise Foundation, Many Roads Home. Annual Report (Washington: Enterprise Foundation, 1993), pp. 3, 41.
  14. Ronald Grzywinski, “The New Old-Fashioned Banking,” Harvard Business Review 69 (3) (May-June 1991): 87–98; Richard P. Taub, Community Capitalism (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1992); ShoreBank, 1996 Annual Report (Chicago: Shorebank, 1996), available at
  15. Portfolio Advisory Board, “History of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Socially Responsible Investments” (Adrian, MI: Adrian Dominican Sister, n.d.), available at
  16. Thomas Miller, Bridges to Dreams: The Story of the Low Income Investment Fund, Celebrating 25 Years of Impact: 1984-2009 (San Francisco: Low Income Investment Fund, 2009), available at
  17. Mark Pinsky, “Taking Stock: CDFIs Look Ahead after 25 Years of Community Development Finance.” (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution and Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2001).
  18. David J. Erickson, The Housing Policy Revolution: Networks and Neighborhoods (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2009); David Erickson and Nancy Andrews, “Partnerships among Community Development, Public Health, and Health Care Could Improve the Well-Being of Low-Income People,” Health Affairs 30 (11) (2011): 2058.
  19. Margaret M. Brassil, The Creation of a Federal Partnership: The Role of the States in Affordable Housing (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), pp. 48, 51–54; Alexander von Hoffman, House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America’s Urban Neighborhoods (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 86.
  20. The Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 required federal bank regulators to release CRA evaluations and changed the rating system from a numeric to verbal grades. The Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994 allowed mergers of banks in different states. William Apgar et al., “The 25th Anniversary of the Community Reinvestment Act: Access to Capital in an Evolving Financial Services System,” prepared for the Ford Foundation (Cambridge, MA: Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University, March 2002); Eric S. Belsky, Michael Schill, and Anthony Yezer, “The Effect of the Community Reinvestment Act on Bank and Thrift Home Purchase Mortgage Lending.” (Cambridge, MA: Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2001); Eric S. Belsky, Matthew Lambert, and Alexander von Hoffman, “Insights Into the Practice of Community Reinvestment Act Lending: A Synthesis of CRA Discussion Groups.” (Cambridge, MA: Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2000); National Community Reinvestment Coalition, CRA Commitments (Washington, DC: NCRC, September 2007), p. 5, available at
  21. Ryan, “Bedford-Stuyvesant and the Prototype Community Development Corporation”; Barry Bluestone and Mary Huff Stevenson, The Boston Renaissance: Race, Space, and Economic Change in an American Metropolis (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2000), pp. 68–70.
  22. von Hoffman, House by House, Block by Block, p. 85; Ryan, “Bedford-Stuyvesant and the Prototype Community Development Corporation,” p. 88.
  23. Michael Schill, Ingrid Ellen, Amy Ellen Schwartz, and Ioan Voicu, “Revitalizing Inner City Neighborhoods: New York City’s Ten Year Plan for Housing,” Housing Policy Debate 13 (3) (2002): 529–566.
  24. For the range and accomplishments of community development groups in the 1990s, see von Hoffman, House by House, Block by Block; Carol F. Steinbach, “Coming of Age: Trends and Achievements of Community-Based Development Organizations.” (Washington, DC: National Congress for Community Economic Development, 1999); Avis C. Vidal, “Rebuilding Communities: A National Study of Urban Community Development Corporations.” (New York: Community Development Research Center, 1992).
  25. Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar, Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood (Boston: South End Press, 1994); Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, “From the Bottom Up: The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative Strategy for Sustainable Economic Development.” (December 1997), available at
  26. Medoff and Sklar, Streets of Hope; von Hoffman, House by House, Block by Block, pp. 92–94, 107–108.
  27. Xavier De Souza Briggs, Anita Miller, and John Shapiro, “Planning for Community Building: CCRP (Comprehensive Community Revitalization Program) in the South Bronx,” Planners’ Casebook 17 (Winter 1996): 1-6.
  28. CCRP, “Summaries of Quality-of-Life Physical Plans.” (New York: CCRP, 1995), pp. 1–2.
  29. Gerri Spilka and Tom Burns, “Final Assessment Report: The Comprehensive Community Revitalization Program in the South Bronx.” (New York: CCRP, OMG Center, 1998), pp. 15–30. See also Anne C. Kubisch et al., Voices from the Field III (Washington, DC: Aspen Institute, 2010).
  30. Robert J. Chaskin, Selma Chipenda-Dansokho, and Amanda K. Toler, “Moving Beyond the Neighborhood and Family Initiative: The Final Phase and Lessons Learned.” (Chicago: Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, 2000); Winton Pitcoff, “Redefining Community Development, Part I: Comprehensive Community Initiatives,” Shelterforce 96 (November/December 1997) (Special Section): 2–14; Winton Pitcoff, “Redefining Community Development, Part II: Collaborating for Change,” Shelterforce 97 (January/February 1998) (Special Section): 2–16.
  31. Anne C. Kubisch, “Lessons to Improve the Design and Implementation of Community Change Efforts.” In Kubisch et al., Voices from the Field III.
  32. Arthur J. Naparstek et al., “HOPE VI: Community Building Makes a Difference.” (Washington: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2000); Susan J. Popkin et al., “A Decade of HOPE VI” (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2004).
  33. Sabrina Tavernise, “Soaring Poverty Casts Spotlight on ‘Lost Decade,’” New York Times, September 13, 2011.
  34. Sabrina Tavernise, “Outside Cleveland, Snapshots of Poverty’s Surge in the Suburbs,” New York Times, October 24, 2011.
  35. von Hoffman, House by House, Block by Block; Kubisch, “Lessons to Improve the Design and Implementation of Community Change Efforts,” p. 135.
  36. Michael Sherraden, Assets and the Poor: A New American Welfare Policy (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1991); Michael Sherraden and Deborah Page-Adams, “Asset-based Alternatives in Social Policy.” In Increasing Understanding of Public Problems and Issues: Proceedings of the 1995 National Public Policy Education Conference (Oak Brook, IL: Farm Foundation, 1995), pp. 65–83; Deborah Page-Adams and Michael Sherraden, “Asset Building as a Community Revitalization Strategy,” Social Work 42 (5) (September 1997): 423–434.
  37. Elaine Edgcomb and Joyce Klein, Opening Opportunities, Building Ownership: Fulfilling the Promise of Microenterprise in the United States (Washington, DC, Aspen, Colorado: Aspen Institute, 2005), p. 24; William Burrus, “Innovations in Microenterprise Development in the United States.” Paper for Microcredit Summit Campaign, 2006, pp. 9, 16, available at; Mark Schreiner and Gary Woller, “Microenterprise Development Programs in the United States and in the Developing World,” World Development 31 (9) (2003): 1569–1570.
  38. The community development movement, nonetheless, is stronger in some regions—the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast, especially—than others. National Congress for Community Economic Development, “Reaching New Heights: Trends and Achievements of Community-Based Development Organizations.” (Washington DC: NCCED, 2005); Edward Goetz, “Local Government Support for Nonprofit Housing: a Survey of U.S. Cities,” Urban Affairs Quarterly 27 (3) (March 1992): 424.
  39. The figure for financing originated in 2008 was based on a smaller sample of 423 respondents and thus understates the totals for all 495 CDFIs. CDFI Fund, “List of Certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFIs) with Contact Information as of December 31, 2011.” (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Treasury, 2011), in Excel file, “Certified CDFIs and Native CDFIs – Sortable,” available at; CDFI Data Project, “Development Financial Institutions: Providing Capital, Building Communities, Creating Impact, 2008.” (Washington DC: Opportunity Finance Network, 2008), pp. 2, 9, 10, 11, available at; Low Income Investment Fund, 2011 Annual Report (San Francisco: Low Income Investment Fund, 2011), available at
  40. LISC, “Our Mission.” (New York: LISC, n.d.), available at mission; Enterprise Community Partners, “Mission and Strategic Plan.” (New York: Enterprise Community Partners, n.d.), available at; NeighborWorks America, “History of NeighborWorks America and the NeighborWorks Network,” available at
  41. von Hoffman, House by House, Block by Block, pp. 16, 272n14. For conservative estimates of the number of CDCs, see National Congress for Community Economic Development, “Reaching New Heights,” p. 4. The general sentiment of those who work in the community development field is that for several years the ranks of CDCs have been thinning.
  42. Harlem Children’s Zone, “The HCZ Project: 100 Blocks, One Bright Future,” available at; Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer, Jr., “Are High-Quality Schools Enough to Increase Achievement Among the Poor? Evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone,” Federal Reserve Community Affairs Research Conference, Arlington, Virginia, April 29, 2011, available at
  43. U.S. Department of Education, “Promise Neighborhoods.” (Washington, DOE, Office of Innovation and Improvement, 2012), available at
  44. Codman Square Health Center, “Mission Statement,” available at; “Community Services,” available at See also Sandra Braunstein and Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, “How The Health And Community Development Sectors Are Combining Forces to Improve Health and Well-Being,” Health Affairs, 30 (11) (November 2011): 2042–2051.

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