Spending 24 hours in Manhattan can renew your faith in the human enterprise.
At least that was my experience yesterday when four of my partners and I devoted a day to touring and attempting to understand the amazing work of Common Ground Community, one of the most successful and edgy community development corporations in the world.
Rosanne Haggerty runs the outfit from her office as President. She oversees the creative and diligent work of 200 professionals who are devoted to developing, delivering and managing high-quality housing opportunities for some of the poorest of the poor who reside in New York City.
About half of their almost 1,200 units are now home to formerly, chronically homeless men and women who lived on the streets of our nation's largest city.
So, what did I bring home from the trip?
1. Low-income working people and formerly chronic homeless persons can live together successfully in high density developments. None of this mixing of market rate units in the Common Ground developments.
All of their major projects are filled with low-income tenants. The Times Square Hotel, their first major project, offers over 600 units to low-income and formerly homeless. We visited the Prince George Hotel (over 400 units) and The Christopher (200 plus units, including about 40 youth who aged out of state foster care services). Each development is a stunning success. Turn over rates are extremely low in all of the properties Common Ground owns. Waiting lists are long.
Common Ground proves that the “housing first” philosophy works and works well. The notion that people need to earn their way into permanent housing is a foolish, paternalistic idea. By placing people in decent housing first and then surrounding them with relationships and friendship, Common Ground is proving that life can change for even hard core poor and homeless persons.
2. Cities, like Dallas, must change their priorities if they truly desire to see homeless eradicated and sufficient workforce housing developed in their communities.
The City of New York mandates that their housing preservation dollars be spent primarily on chronically homeless individuals. They back up that commitment with money.
Dallas should go to school on New York City.
Enough of our excuses.
It is time for the city to adequately fund a real housing strategy. The next mayor needs to be on board with such a plan. Every mayoral candidate needs to declare a position on housing and homelessness, the sooner the better.
3. The key to success resides in how we regard low-income people.
Common Ground believes in people. It’s that simple for them.
Everyone we met exhibited a positive attitude about their relationship with the tenants. Haggerty told us that her Tenant Services staff shares more in common with cruise directors than professional case managers or traditional social workers. The refreshment that flows from that attitude cannot be over emphasized. Haggerty spoke eloquently of the “normalizing” factor such an attitude brings to the living environment.
The key question asked again and again by the Tenant Services team members is, “What does my friend [insert first name here] need?”
4. Common Ground seeks to meet the housing needs of very poor people by sharing their experiences and their intelligence freely with whoever is interested in joining in the battle. We were amazed and encouraged by just how transparent the entire team was with us. We left determined to be more attentive to groups wanting to meet with us and share learning here in Dallas.
Our CityWalk@Akard development can become a major asset to the city of Dallas, not only in terms of its immediate impact on the housing inventory available to the very poor, but also as a model for future projects.
Confession: I have found that if you stay in Dallas for long, unbroken periods of time, you begin to believe our “community lie” that the poor are simply a major, distracting aggravation and that the homeless are hopeless. Such poison can seep into your soul and sap your energy and kill your heart and passion.
Getting away for just a day to be among people who are getting the job done in a city that is determined to get it done, is invaluable.
As we flew home, I realized that we really aren’t such fools after all. We just need to stay at our work and we need to persuade others to join us.
5. Big projects are much better than small ones. Why waste time and energy dreaming small? Large projects enjoy efficiencies and advantages of scale that make them the best option. I saw it in New York City all day long with Common Ground.
Dallas needs to think bigger.
Neighborhoods need to step up and people need to grow up.
It is time our city actually worked on becoming world class. We’ve talked a good game. But now the time has come to put up or shut up.
Thanks, Common Ground! I needed exactly what you provided.