Have CDCs Created a Dependent Poor Population?

Posted by David Holtzman on August 8, 2013

Michael McQuarrie’s article, "What Mumbai’s Slums Do Right, And Why We Should Emulate Them," in the new issue of Shelterforce makes an intriguing suggestion that the citizens of slum neighborhoods in Mumbai have both more resources and more skills at their disposal than people in poor districts of American cities.

He notes that in the United States, poor people look to government as well as nongovernmental organizations like CDCs to provide services. He argues this has encouraged people to be dependent, rather than self-reliant.

By contrast, in Mumbai’s Dharavi district, there is little government presence, nor are there nonprofits to try to pick up the slack. So the people of Dharavi have had to develop their own resources, which has made them stronger as individuals and as a community. 

I like this theory a lot, but I also wonder if it doesn’t over simplify things.

McQuarrie talks about how many CDCs started out in the 1960s and 1970s as grassroots empowerment groups, helping residents in U.S. cities to organize community gardens or to enable housing in buildings that had been squats. Over time, he argues, as the community development industry professionalized, it became distant from its roots in empowerment and collective approaches. Instead, CDCs began to take a market-oriented view of how to build neighborhoods. In so doing, some organizations started to view their constituents less as partners in a collective effort, and more as customers who would pay for services.

This sounds comparable to a common criticism of government welfare programs, that they encourage dependence rather than self-reliance. Fair enough. But I feel the need to pick apart McQuarrie’s argument a bit.

I am right with him when he says CDCs should be helping people to start their own businesses and raise their own gardens. I like his idea of CDCs helping people build their own housing, too, but that’s where the idealism of his argument runs into the reality (whether we like it or not) of our society and economy.

McQuarrie himself points out that unlike in Dharavi, the average poor citizen in a downtrodden neighborhood of an American city can’t just build their own house. There are building codes to contend with, not to mention the cost of real estate. Even someone in abandoned sections of Detroit probably can’t escape these realities. Government may be unwilling to provide basic services, but it is still happy to charge fees and tax people to the point where building a house becomes unrealistic.

More than this, what is really different about American poor neighborhoods from a place like Dharavi is that in spite of all their problems, the American neighborhoods and their citizens still very much tied to the cities and nation they are part of. That's not a bad thing.

“The original vision for community development was often to develop those resources within communities themselves, not connect people to resources outside of the community,” McQuarrie writes. But what’s wrong with helping people connect to resources outside the community? Yes, housing co-ops or land trusts; community-based businesses; and urban farms can and have given residents in some cities a sense of empowerment. But people still want to be able to move up and out, whether to live in a better neighborhood or to work in a better-paying job.

Those opportunities are available for people in poor U.S. neighborhoods in ways they aren’t in Dharavi. Dharavi, it seems to me, is so far removed from opportunity in India that people feel they have to act collectively to survive.

My other thought is that in addition to the tentacles of government, there's also no escaping the U.S. market economy. Every time I hear about a new affordable housing development that strains the resources of a CDC, and still only manages to provide homes for people with incomes at the 60 percent of median level or higher, I wonder about the viability of the "capital-intensive" model that so many community developers have to rely on. McQuarrie suggests that CDCs should look at a different path. That's a really good idea. But CDCs are operating within a context where the capital-intensive approach seems like the only viable path. Unless you take land out of the market, as in a community land trust.  

I'm curious to read other readers' reactions to the McQuarrie article.

About the author more »

David Holtzman is a former planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a newspaper reporter, and a former Shelterforce editor.

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