Making the City of Good Neighbors a Reality
Following decades of disinvestment, the advent of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the Buffalo Billion were welcome news for the region, promising a wealth of potential for economic resurgence. Yet, in 2014 alone, the regional economy could have been $4 billion stronger had racial income gaps been eliminated. Continued exclusion from the development process would only exacerbate inequalities in health, education, access to jobs and services, and wealth, and further limit Buffalo’s growth potential.
Buffalo may be dubbed “The City of Good Neighbors,” but far too often, it seems that we forget about our local communities when it comes to top-level decision-making, and we turn a blind eye to an uncomfortable reality that Buffalo-Niagara is one of the most segregated metropolitan regions in the nation. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and community members recognize that.
Having learned about community-controlled economic development in the classroom setting, I’ve now had the pleasure of actually seeing it play out in my organization and the greater Buffalo this summer. At Partnership for the Public Good, we have over 270 (and counting!) partner organizations who collectively strive to create a more just, sustainable, and culturally vibrant region. Over the course of my fellowship, I’ve been able to see how inclusion of local interests and knowledge in the development process can and has translated into more inclusive public policies which are better informed, which are longer lasting, and which optimize Buffalo’s social and economic potential.
One of the first things I was introduced to upon arriving at PPG was the Community Agenda: the top ten ways to change local and state policies in the coming year and improve Buffalo Niagara. These issues are formulated and prioritized by the partner organizations, and become the focus of PPG’s work. Perhaps the most central of these proposals to catch my eye was to Ensure Fair and Affordable Housing in Erie County.
In fact, the first of three projects I have worked on this summer involved researching how, if at all, community land trusts partner with land banks to produce a targeted impact on creating permanently affordable housing in communities at-risk for gentrification. Buffalo’s FB Community Land Trust, despite its recent inception, has already managed to secure 20 vacant lots from the City after an over two-year moratorium on sales. Finding ways to acquire discounted land from a land bank is just one of the other various ways I researched that could build the community land trust’s capacity to effect change. This is also just one example of many in how community stakeholders have been able to make growth accountable for all people who live there. Through this research process, I have not only learned an incredible amount about housing affordability and acquisition, but I have also discovered a new interest for housing and urban development issues that was only further peaked by attending local meetings on how to tackle rising property taxes in Buffalo.
The second project I undertook was again to serve as a resource for empowering the community. There are many bureaucratic barriers to finding leadership positions where stakeholders can have a say in decision-making, one being awareness of the extensive list of entities, and the other being accessibility of information about the process of attaining leadership positions and vacancy opportunities. Therefore, I compiled a qualitative dataset in a guide of over 70 boards and commissions, with corresponding information sources, to facilitate inclusion of the underrepresented local community. What I didn’t anticipate was how convoluted the governing statutes would be and how much information I would need to call and send numerous emails for. For instance, one board’s by-laws stated that there shall be eight citizen members, with terms staggered two members, two members, and three members. Two plus two plus three. Seven? Nevertheless, approximately 25 pages and around 100 citations later, I could visibly see how valuable this centralized database would be for streamlining local leaders into decision-making positions. The timing worked out particularly well because the audience it was for (Open Buffalo’s Emerging leaders program and Democracy Fellows program for budding leaders from communities directly impacted by injustice) had just completed training. While the work of even digging up the right information, with no guarantee of success for every entity, was taxing, it’s been extremely rewarding being able to see the reception to this one-stop shop for information. These leaders could now easily target where they wanted to make their impact in terms of having seats at the decision-making table.
Finally, I was tasked with drafting a policy brief on first-source hiring practices. These policies require organizations receiving public subsidies to include local workers in hiring contracts, especially targeting those from areas of extreme concentrated poverty caused by unemployment and underemployment, even though education is unable to account for the extent of exclusion from satisfactory employment. While my time at PPG is coming to an end, I hope my draft will prove useful and expedite future work on formulating and pushing for successful targeted policies.
Overall, this summer experience has been incredibly rewarding. I have learned so much about policy work and the Buffalo community, and have been consistently amazed and inspired by the work that local leaders and my Fellow cohort members are doing. Yet, it is important to keep in mind the inclusion of community stakeholders in the development process that allows us to tap into Buffalo’s full potential for resurgence. Where policies and administrative decisions run contrary to those principles of inclusion and equality, it is vital to empower members to take action steps towards creating a better Buffalo and make the City of Good Neighbors a reality.