From the view of national philanthropy, it can be difficult to identify ‘innovation’ across cities facing vastly different circumstances. Yet as we learn about how cities are addressing persistent problems, we need to pay close attention to more innovative methods.
Look at Memphis, where cross-sector stakeholders have come together at both the city and neighborhood levels to address a historically scattered and inefficient community development field. In March, I visited the Frayser neighborhood as part of the second meeting of the PLACES Fellows and the annual Funders’ Network conference. Frayser is one of the Memphis neighborhoods hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. With fewer than 100 mortgages awarded to its residents in 2012, it continues to struggle today. Revitalization efforts have taken their time in part because Memphis has a relatively young community development and affordable housing ecosystem when compared to places like Chicago or New York City. Even today, Memphis may be the largest U.S. city without a national affordable housing intermediary present.
In response to this need, local nonprofit, foundation, government and business leaders came together to establish Community LIFT, Memphis’ own - and only - housing and community development intermediary. LIFT is charged with implementing the Greater Memphis Neighborhood Plan, which itself resulted from a multi-year planning process between a cross-section of local leaders and focuses on 3 issue areas: economic development, human capacity building, and community development.
To further strengthen Memphis’ local capacity, LIFT also recently kicked off efforts to establish a local Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). The lack of a dedicated financing institution was another significant hurdle facing the comprehensive revitalization of the city’s neighborhoods. This emergent CDFI, River City Capital, provides banks an opportunity to meet their mandated community reinvestment goals through a central institution.
The story of Community LIFT and River City Capital in Memphis is an example of how one place is building their own affordable housing and community development capacity in a new and innovative way. While many other cities already have long established housing intermediaries and supportive CDFIs, the efforts behind Memphis’ emerging ecosystem show an alternative path. The Memphis example also points to the importance of cross-sector stakeholder collaboration in building a shared vision and working together in new ways to address stubbornly persistence problems. Unsurprisingly, this theme of collaboration can also be found at a more micro-level in Memphis’ community development ecosystem.
Another side effect of Memphis’ historically scattered community development landscape is the strengthening of neighborhood community capacity. In the past few years, both the Frayser and South Memphis neighborhoods have formed local collaboratives to bring together the different actors working in each community. In Frayser, local leaders grew tired of national actors dropping disparate programs into the neighborhood without adjusting for their specific context. Out of this frustration, local leaders began convening as the Frayser Neighborhood Council to better coordinate all the work happening within the community. In this case, the absence of a strong city-wide intermediary led neighborhood leaders to come together to build up local capacity to address community-wide issues.
As a national funder, it can be tempting to measure cities along terms we are more familiar with. Yet as we think about how to expand our impact across the entire country, it’s important to recognize what innovation looks like in new places. Memphis’ example of city stakeholders coming together to address a systemic problem by forming a local intermediary and CDFI can serve as a model for other places facing similar challenges.