Thursday, November 1, 2007

Building sustainable communities in Michigan

Making livable communities out of distressed ones takes money, creativity and teamwork.

In the midst of Michigan's economic upheaval, economic development organizations are helping local communities find a way back to sustainability and livability.

Providing housing is the first step in redeveloping vulnerable neighborhoods and local community development organizations collaborate with schools, hospitals, banks, small businesses, foundations and corporations to create sustainable communities. Several specialized private nonprofits help them navigate these complex efforts.

Michigan Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), Detroit LISC and the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan (CEDAM) coordinate local development projects in Michigan. They will jointly host the Building Sustainable Communities Conference on Wednesday, Nov. 7, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., at the Holiday Inn South in Lansing. The meeting is intended for community development organizations, human service nonprofits, policy makers, community action agencies, housing agencies and potential funding sources.

"We're rolling out the Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) which is about building communities that are desirable to live in," said Tahirih Ziegler, executive director of Michigan LISC. The new initiative focuses on five areas: affordable housing, regional economic development and micro-enterprise development, increasing family income and wealth, improving access to quality education - preschool through adult, and supporting healthy environments and lifestyles. The program pushes community development beyond just providing housing, she added.

Since 1990 Detroit LISC has invested more than $100 million and leveraged $650 million for revitalization in Detroit, according to the group's website. Michigan LISC, has invested $100.5 million and leveraged $346.3 million since 1988. Detroit LISC and Michigan LISC are local affiliates of a national organization that boasts investing $7.8 billion nationwide over 25 years.

Overall, sums spent in redevelopment are vast, but smaller investments on a human scale are key to local projects. Micro enterprise development is central to revitalizing distressed areas, said Ziegler, adding, "It's been overlooked...86 percent of small businesses are micro enterprises. At the conference we're going to talk about how we can rebuild neighborhoods using local businesses and local services."

In southwest Detroit, LISC's Neighborhoods Now program built 30 single-family homes for sale to low-and moderate-income residents. The homes are located in Mexicantown, the site of aggressive commercial redevelopment, including the 45,000-square-foot Mexicantown International Welcome Center and Mercado.

The Sustainable Communities Conference comes at a time of increasing need in Michigan, which has the nation's highest unemployment rate, a shrinking workforce, lower-than-average college completion rates, high residential foreclosure rates and significant child poverty.

"As the public sector shrinks the nonprofit sector is asked to take on more," said Angie Gaabo, executive director of CEDAM, acknowledging the impact of Michigan's current state funding crisis. The need for community development assistance spans urban and rural Michigan, she added.

"There is deep poverty in the rural parts of Michigan," Gaabo said. "We are interested in getting a rural caucus started in the legislature. Rural communities have some of the highest poverty rates in the state. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2004 Michigan's poverty rate was 12.5 percent, nearly even with the national rate of 12.7 percent. Yet rural counties' poverty rates topped 15 percent (Luce 16.2 percent, Mecosta 15.3 percent, Gogebic 15.3 percent, Isabella 15.2 percent). Urban poverty in Wayne County is the highest in the state at 18.8 percent

"Right now the big success we can point to is the Living in Michigan Campaign," Gaabo said. "It's an effort to create a dedicated state source of revenue for housing and community development. We are getting close to having an appropriation for the Housing and Community Development Fund in this budget, which would be a first in Michigan. Considering the state of the budget, this would be a big victory."

According to its website, the Living in Michigan Campaign aims to establish "a $100 million-a-year program that will leverage an additional $280 million investment annually." Proponents claim the MHCDF "will create more than 6,000 good-paying jobs and generate $21 million in state and local taxes."

"LISC's role has always been to advance partnerships, invest in neighborhoods and ultimately improve lives," Ziegler said.