Who Has Claim? – Part II: Community Benefits Agreements

This is Part II of a short series on inequality and inequity in the built environment and the resultant biased and prejudiced sensibilities and behaviors. In Part I: Exclusionary Ownership, I shared some thoughts on how the design and development of our cities and communities, which facilitated the lives and livelihoods of a privileged few at the expense of the marginalized majority, raises questions of entitlement – whether perceived or real, legitimate or illegitimate – of space.

An article by Edward McClelland in Politico entitled Meet the Community Organizers Fighting Against… Barack Obama caught my attention, for obvious reasons. Admittedly, as I read it, I was rather saddened, but not surprised, as I learned about the efforts of Chicago’s Southside to ensure that they are not forgotten in the midst of the hubbub and hooplah surrounding the soon-to-come Obama Presidential Center. Central to this effort are the agreements that residents and activists, local organizations, and community and advocacy groups are hoping to make to secure their community’s long-term health and viability, and mitigate the looming threat of gentrification and displacement. This inspired me to jot down some of my own thoughts regarding CBAs.

Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) are terms that are established between private developers and the communities where they wish to develop in an attempt to offset the adverse impacts of development on these communities (i.e. traffic, noise, increased cost of living, displacement, etc.). With these agreements, developers will agree to provide public amenities (i.e. land and/or facilities) or mitigation funds in exchange for local residents’ public approval of the project.

The Obama Center isn’t scheduled to open until 2021, but it’s already being touted as a residential amenity by realtors. Perhaps as a result, the real estate website Redfin named Woodlawn the third-hottest neighborhood of 2017, reporting a 23.3% increase in home values in the first six months of that year. Woodlawn is a poor, African-American neighborhood adjacent to middle-class Hyde Park, home to the University of Chicago. Woodlawn residents worry that their neighborhood is an ideal target for gentrification, and that the center will raise rents.

Development of any kind – whether public, private, or non-profit – always has an impact on the community where it is located. Unsurprisingly, the communities that are targeted, those that are ripe for development, tend to be where low-income and/or people of color live. These are communities where land is cheap, where infrastructure has crumbled, where businesses struggle, where homes are foreclosed, and where blight runs rampant, none of which, mind you, is an accident. This merely follows a historic pattern of community development and divestment that is incredibly biased and prejudiced.

In addition to the disparities in where development happens, there are also disparities in who development impacts. The advantages and disadvantages of development are not shared equally or equitable between: White and non-White persons, renters and owners, the wealthy and the poor, the abled and the disabled, the mobile and the immobile, and those who are highly educated and those who are not, to name a few. For those who stand on the margins, for those who are repeated victims of institutional and systemic oppression, violence, and neglect, CBAs are often the only tool and opportunity for them to have some semblance of input and impact on public processes that affect their communities.

[CBAs] evolved initially because communities couldn’t get traction within the public arena. The organizing effort put pressure on [cities]. Elected officials would say, ‘If I’m going to approve this, I’m going to need you to work out some agreement with these people, who are my voters.’Virginia Parks, Department Chair and Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy, UC Irvine

The reason why I chose to write about CBAs, the reason why I have made it a part of this series, is because of the inequality and inequity that exists in the processes that create the built environment. CBAs are a response to public processes that are removed from the public – they are an effort on the part of people to righteously force themselves into conversations that happen around and about them, but seldom with them. Even if this is not always the reality, the public’s perception is that development  proposals are created and advanced behind closed doors or in hard-to-reach places and, by the time they reach the community, these proposals are all but done. As a result, public engagement efforts are reduced to a mere formality and whatever “input” is solicited from concerned citizens very rarely exacts any measure of change. CBAs are important and necessary because they are an opportunity for the people who are intentionally excluded from the political arena and decision-making processes, those who need it most, to have their voices heard in a way that is a little more difficult to ignore or overlook.

However, CBAs are not a magic bullet towards equity or inclusion in public processes, and this is not simply due to the complexities surrounding oversight, timing, and implementation. So long as institutions remain the playground of the privileged and the elite, so long as public processes and participatory planning persist as illusions of inclusion, we will only every go so far. So long as communities that have been allowed to fall into disrepair continue to remain the target of redevelopment efforts with no serious thought to the people who live there, we will only ever get so far. Finally, so long we rely on tools such as CBAs – or the “good will” of private enterprise – to provide surface level amenities to communities and fail to engage in much more intentional and targeted conversations and processes that address the inequalities and inequities that have been built into our society based on extremely inhumane beliefs and practices, and work to restore what has been taken away or destroyed, we will only ever get so far. I have no objections to CBAs. Rather, I object the fact that they are even necessary.

Who Has Claim? – Part I: Exclusionary Ownership