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December 7, 2006


Notes for Neighborhood Works
Concerns and Solutions — Tom McPheeters

By way of introduction, I have to say that I speak probably more from the perspective of a longtime resident of a neighborhood that has changed dramatically over the last 25 years. More recently, I have been a member of the South End Action Committee and participated in that planing process.

I have been asked to speak today representing ARISE. ARISE is a community organizing project most of whose members are churches (we now have one mosque), but whose main focus has always been the distressed neighborhoods or our region. We are not a service organization. I think what is most significant about ARISE is that we approach things from a regional perspective. We understand that many of the causes of neighborhood decline — certainly not all, but many — are due to the disinvestment that comes with the migration of the middle class to the suburbs, sprawl, and the resulting misallocation of resources. Concentrated poverty and racial segregation are the results of these policies, not the cause of them. We can plan until we are blue in the face, but we won’t succeed in turning our neighborhoods around until we figure out how to bring in more resources — not more subsidies (although that would be nice also) — but real capital from people who want to live, work and invest in great neighborhoods. And, if we are really going to deal with concentrated poverty, we better have a much broader understanding across municipal lines about where poor people can live in this region and how to get them training and access to decent jobs.

Having said that, ARISE is probably most identified at this point as an advocate for more local employment in the construction trades. That’s an initiative that started almost as an afterthought on Grand Street in the Mansion Neighborhood about five years ago when our vacant buildings were being rehabbed. What I learned then — and I hasten to admit that I was pretty clueless — is that there really are capable young men and women in the South End eager to work if given the chance. But they don’t have the training, they can’t get to the jobs and they usually don’t have a union card. Lots of people understood and experienced this disparity a lot longer than I have. I want to emphasize that ARISE is not the only voice calling for change here, but we may be one of the loudest, because we speak for more than 30 churches, neighborhood groups and civic organizations. We’re also part of a movement of similar groups in upstate New York, called the Thruway Alliance, that is calling for similar employment opportunities in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, and an even larger national network through the Gamaliel Foundation that is now exploring how to get federal transportation dollars to work to the benefit of people in inner city neighborhoods.

But it brings us to this point where there is a broad coalition of people calling for better hiring practices for the new convention center, both in the construction jobs and in the jobs that will result when it is built. I think a consensus is building that the best way to capitalize on the promise of these large, government-subsidized projects is by organizing to negotiate a community benefit agreement. That means there must be an entity in place that has broad community support and the capacity to negotiate these complex agreements. I am very please to say that organizing for a community benefit agreement is happening here in Albany.

I would like to mention also that community benefit agreements could be a powerful tool anywhere in our region that large, government subsidized projects are proposed — at the Harriman Campus, for instance, and even way up in Luther Forrest.

The convention center benefits also from the willingness of public officials to think and act on a large scale. The 2007 Albany County Budget proposed by County Executive Michael Breslin contains two very significant initiatives.

The first proposal is contained in the Department of Social Services budget and provides money to prepare inner city residents for the building trades in response to the opportunity represented by the Albany Convention Center. ARISE has actively supported the Capital District WORKER Center in its request for county funding for its Building Skills Project. The county budget contains $233,000 for a Building Bridges program that appear to fit well with the WORKER Center's project.

The second proposal is funding for a county Housing Trust Fund, which stems from an initiative from a group of housing not-for-profit groups. This also relates to the impact of the convention center, although it could benefit suburban and rural towns as well as the cities. By proposing a specific "funding stream" (proceeds from the sale of some tax foreclosed parcels) the county executive moves this discussion to a new, more concrete level, and already we are seeing the beginnings of a county-wide discussion on what affordable housing means in different parts of the county, and how it can be developed to benefit suburban towns and rural areas as well as cities. I think it’s a very promising development.

Just a final word, if I may. I think the planning that is going on in Albany now is on the whole very positive. In the South End, a real effort is being made to involve community people and at the same time come up with realistic, fundable plans that will draw new people into some of our most distressed areas, while at the same time preserving and adding to our stock of affordable housing.

But the challenges are enormous. If you think of the vacant building problem alone, it’s sort of like where we are now in Iraq — no easy options left. Add to that all the negative effects of squeezing generations of poor people together and exposing them to constant criminal activity and underperforming schools. We have an enormous amount of work to do.

The good news is that people are doing this work now. There really are hopeful signs, but every organization I know that is doing good work in housing, social services, addiction recovery, family support, jail diversion, academic help — you name it — is way, way under funded. Infrastructure is not just our roads and sewers — it’s our people and our social fabric. To be sure, we need some outside money and some big developers, but in my view it’s the little guys who will be here a decade from now, weaving things together.

So I view Recapitalize Albany as a positive thing for two reasons. One, obviously we need the capital, human and otherwise. And two, I think the fact that people from outside the city are willing to invest their energies and talents on behalf of Albany should be applauded. Albany is at the center of a region. It’s a regional asset, and the sooner we give up our parochial ways, the better off we will be, and the better our region will be.


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