November 10, 2000 - From the November, 2000 issue

LISC's Michael Woo Reviews "Comeback Cities"

Through creative public-private partnerships, activists across the country have begun revitalizing America's neglected neighborhoods with a passion and fervor previously only dreamed about. A book entitled Comeback Cities-by former Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) President Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio-documents this movement. TPR was pleased to speak with LA LISC Director Michael Woo, who used Grogan's book as a lens to critically examine what's happening in L.A. He suggests no shortage of possibilities for affordable housing, charter schools, and the upcoming elections-if the right forces can coalesce.


Michael Woo

Michael, as Director of the Los Angeles Local Initiatives Support Corporation, you hosted a meeting last month for stakeholders interested in livable communities to hear Paul Grogan, former national head of LISC, talk about his book, Comeback Cities. Could you give our readers an overview of the theme of this book and his remarks here in Los Angeles?

The overall message is an optimistic one: that citizens working together at the neighborhood level can make a difference in low-income areas.

Mr. Grogan uses his 12 years of experience with LISC, traveling all over the country, to flesh out examples of partnerships between business groups, grassroots neighborhood organizations, and local government in big cities, small cities and rural areas.

How does the message apply to L.A.? Is there hope for our neighborhoods? If so, what are the challenges and impediments to realizing the full benefits of this hope?

The message for Los Angeles is partly good and partly not so good.

The good news is that many neighborhoods have formed Community Development Corporations to make brick and mortar changes in their neighborhoods. In addition, there's a real market right now for economic development in the inner-city-businesses, investors and others are starting to recognize they can both make money and "do good" at the same time.

Unfortunately, the uncertainty is whether there will be long-term financial support to continue revitalization.

The ray of hope is described as a blend of public-private partnerships, grassroots and nonprofit organizations, and a willingness to experiment. You're part of one of the organizations trying to do it. My sense is that the heyday was in the 80s, not the 90s. What's happened in the last decade with respect to the incorporation of public-private partnerships, the burgeoning of grassroots/nonprofit organizations, and a willingness of our public and private institutions to experiment in the inner-city?

We've seen a rise, a fall, and now the beginning of a rise again.

The mid-90s signaled a precipitous drop in the level of City funding for affordable housing in L.A. And the private sector has seen both organizational changes within the banking industry as well as uncertain levels of commitment from foundations.

Now, over the last couple of years, we've seen another rise in the level of public resources available. Foundations like the California Community Foundation have shown promise, and hopefully other philanthropic organizations will step forward. Grassroots groups that went through hardships in the mid-90s are now making a comeback as well, and we're seeing an enlarged pipeline of housing and economic development projects coming to us for help.

Allow TPR to be a skeptic, Michael. Critics assert that L.A. has a housing recession in terms of the development of units, and note that foundations and corporate leaders have so far played a pitiful role in responding to need. You talk about hope, but what evidence is there to support that hope?

Next year will mark the beginning of a major campaign called "Housing L.A." Its goal will be to encourage the new Mayor and City Council to support between $50 and $100 million for a housing trust fund. At this point, the outcome is far from certain, but we're optimistic that over the next year, resources at the City level will grow substantially. Cardinal Mahoney has agreed to co-chair the campaign, and we're hoping to involve the business community as well as grassroots groups.

At the State level, a significant amount of new funding for housing production came out of the last legislative session.

Michael, you've now been the Director at LISC for a couple of years. The backlog in housing production is growing to the point where $100 million in new funds-while it may pay for a new cathedral-isn't going to pay for the deficit in housing. Can the demand be met?

You're right-the need is enormous, and it's not certain what the level of private for-profit or nonprofit support is going to be. There is, however, room for us to do something if we can get the leadership attentive to the issue and mobilized to make a difference.

From 1998-99, there were 1,900 new units built within the City of L.A. for a population that grew by 65,000 people. We need somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 units-both market-rate and affordable-every year. And so far, the production has been far below that.

In Paul Grogan's book, he notes that public school systems have basically failed to respond. While there has been evidence of police reform and welfare reform, it seems the schools have simply failed us. Is that true in L.A.? Are there any rays of hope in revitalizing schools to become centers of neighborhoods?

We think that the charter school movement offers real hope for the future. LISC provided its first loan for a charter school last year-the Camino Nuevo school developed by Pueblo Nuevo in the MacArthur Park area. That school has since opened, and they're doing very well.

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We've provided the school with additional funding to create a healthcare clinic on the site-not just for the students, but for the needs of the entire community. We want to make the school more of a community center that goes beyond education, and believe it can serve as a future model.

We're now proposing to establish a Charter School Development Fund to start charter schools in other low-income neighborhoods-not just for education purposes, but as centers of community.

Paul Grogan has a chapter in his book called, "A Third Way In City Hall." Is there the potential for a third way in the City Hall of Los Angeles

Yes. Next year's elections-of a new Mayor and six new Council members- could potentially bring more support for neighborhood development. LISC is currently working with SCANPH (Southern California Assoc. of Nonprofit Housing) to develop a citywide campaign so that candidates running for office will become aware of these needs and make real commitments.

There are literally dozens of community development corporations in L.A. starting projects, building housing, creating jobs in new businesses, but most people don't know about them. The challenge-whether through the established print or electronic media or other medium-is to give people a sense of optimism that it's possible to make a difference in low-income neighborhoods and that grassroots organizing is a viable way to make a difference.

L.A. has lost some newspapers in the last couple of years, and even the new ownership of the L.A. Times may be pulling back from local coverage. With the electronic media currently doing a horrible job of covering local news, how do we spread word so that citizens can demand this kind of agenda from their public officials?

First, the L.A. Times-I've heard the publisher indicate that while they eliminated many of the local "Our Times" weekly supplements on a neighborhood level, they do plan to make the Metro section a stronger local news section. Frankly, I always thought the supplements were kind of soft news anyway. If the new management brings high standards and a real commitment for space to the Metro section, this could be a good sign. Of course, the Times reaches a largely elite audience and not necessarily the large masses of people in L.A.

I don't have high hopes for the electronic media, at least in terms of conventional television and radio journalism. We need to develop institutions-whether at the neighborhood level or broader-to provide local information. In the development of our neighborhood councils, I've seen many ups and downs. But hopefully, as a result of the election activity over the next year, there will be a higher level of voter interest in following the charter revisions and getting involved in government.

Grogan makes a lot of references to deregulating and removing the roadblocks to recovery, which deals with liberal politics-public schools and welfare as we knew them. Michael, as someone exploring a return to public life, can we find a third way? Or are politics locked into the binary Republican/Democratic, State-directed vs. private sector approach that has dominated L.A. politics for so long?

There's a huge vacuum in terms of concerted, deliberate efforts, as well as awareness of the problems. But that's an opportunity for both new foundations and corporations to develop.

But it's going to require a strategy. Players that have not yet come to the table must be willing to roll up their sleeves, make money available, and support the grassroots organizations.

Elaborate on that, Michael. People have asserted a lack of civic leadership in L.A. for some time, and much of the Fortune 50 companies have moved on in the last seven years. With local foundations so wary of getting involved in policy, what gives you hope that civic institutions post-charter reform will be drawn back?

I'm not pretending to be overly optimistic. But the opportunity is there; this is not a poor city.

The challenge is that the infrastructure may not exist to channel L.A.'s wealth to the areas that need it most. And this is where leadership comes in. Whether it's City Hall, individuals like Eli Broad, or new emerging organizations, the public needs to demand this from its leaders: What are you going to do to help 1,000 flowers bloom?

We started with the blueprint for urban neighborhood revival outlined in Grogan's book. Let's end with what's unique about L.A.? What lessons can we take from other metropolises, and what's peculiar to our landscape?

Los Angeles is unique in terms of its size, scale and diversity. In fact, those are the main reasons that people came here in the first place, but they also make it difficult to organize. The challenge is: How can we use the political process to address our real needs?

There are many neighborhoods in L.A.-so many that sometimes we lack a sense of center. But this neighborhood affiliation has the potential to become the basis for stronger grassroots organizing and the kinds of community corporations that we encourage at LISC. We need to start with small steps-not grand plans-that can make a visible difference within a few years.

The goal of our Neighborhood Turnaround Initiative is to fund projects in seven L.A. neighborhoods in narrowly defined geographic areas to show that if money is provided, a visible difference is possible. We're hoping to make this a pilot project for other parts of L.A. But it will require vision to see that a neighborhood can be different. It will require discipline to focus resources in a specific area. And it will require neighborhood residents of goodwill to step forward and take on projects.

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