Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Common Ground Community

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.


Amy said...

I am glad your faith was renewed by your trip this week. I often wonder how you stay on task so well in such an overwhelming undertaking as you are involved with.

Jasmine said...

Larry, you mentioned that Common Ground incorporated only formerly homeless with low-income housing. Has this changed your mind at all about mixing market value units with affordable units at 511 Akard? Did Rosanne Haggerty offer any advice in tackling the feat of incorporating all three?

Also, you mentioned the "community lie" that infects Dallas dwellers after long, continuous stays in the city. How do you intend to fight those who either believe the lie of hopelessness or don't want the poor and formerly homeless living near them (or in the same building as them as in 511 Akard)? This is going to be necessary if we ever want Dallas to be as successful as Common Ground in acting like "cruise directors" to the poor, rather than case workers.

Larry James said...

Thanks, Amy and Jasmine for your posts.

I think that "staying on task" is the one thing that keeps me from giving up.

Regarding the mix of tenants at CityWalk@Akard, I have always thought that we could handle more homeless persons, but the City of Dallas took that choice out of our hands. We will stay with our current mix plans.

Regarding the fight to change hearts and minds, we hope to produce a model project while we continue our efforts to persuade people of the possibilities of opening up to one another in love and mutual respect.

syvess24 said...

I grew up in Dallas my whole life, and you are right. We live with this idea that the poor are not worth the time of day. We assume too little of our fellow citizens. We view them as a disease rather than the people they are, or could become. I think the housing idea that New York has is a phenomenal work. The poor are people too, and too often we think of them as just lazy bums on the streets. I believe everyone has worth, and there are no hopeless causes. There are only hopeless dreams when no one takes action. If we take action, anything is possible, especially with God's help. I would be proud to live in a city that would take the time to encourage the poor rather than expect them to do everything on their own. I would love to be a aprt of a community that takes in the poor. Instead, good old Dallas turns the other way. I think there needs to be a change. Maybe someday there will be. I will be in prayers for our town.

Anonymous said...

I think that providing quality housing first for the previously homeless and low-income is a great plan. It is hard for people to learn a different way of living when they are in the same environment that keeps them down. Even rearranging my furniture tonight helped me straighten up, and the new atmosphere added to my motivation to keep it that way. I also know people that a move across the street to a better situation has helped tremendously. Most of us have had some big opportunity given to us at some point that was instrumental in getting us where we are, so we can hope that this will soon be that something for those in need in Dallas. We all need room to grow.

Jeremy Gregg said...

This is a bit random... but just opened for business. I put up a page for Central Dallas Ministries, in case anyone is interested:

Thanks to all the blog readers for your support!

Jeremy Gregg
Director of Development
Central Dallas Ministries