Building Urban Villages

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative Staff and Board, 1990

As the gap widens between those with wealth and those without, it’s refreshing to find a community that is actively planning and creating its neighborhood so as to promote stability and homeownership, especially among its lower-income residents.  The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, one of the most innovative and well-respected planning and organizing nonprofits in the country, has lead the revitalization of Boston’s poor but diverse Dudley neighborhood through the use of a community land trust.

In the mid-1980’s residents of Boston’s Dudley Street neighborhood were concerned about a plan to redevelop the area, a move that could potentially gentrify the community and displace a majority of its then residents.

In an article for the Newsletter of Poverty and Race Research Action Council, Gus Newport explains how the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative formed, “This initiative grew out of the community’s concerns about a new Redevelopment Area plan which was being brought forth supposedly to raise the quality of life for the residents, through improvements such as housing, open space, recreation and cultural institutions.  When this planning process became public, the community came out in large numbers to voice its opinion as to what the planning process ought to be, and why a method had to be imposed that would assure the community’s input in all pertinent planning decisions and protect current residents’ ability to enjoy the improvements into the future.”

The Dudley area residents wanted to participate in the process of planning for the community, in part to promote home ownership for lower-income residents.  In 1988, DSNI became the only community group in the nation to win eminent domain power to acquire vacant land for development. They formed a community land trust to hold the land and involved the neighborhood members in the process of planning the use of that land.

Since then, approximately half of the 1,300 vacant lots it took control of have been developed with 300 new homes, 300 rehabbed homes, a Town Common, gardens, urban agriculture, a commercial greenhouse, and parks and playgrounds. Neighborhood residents purchase the homes and lease the land on long-term leases.  The homes have a cap on resale prices so that they remain affordable to future resident-owners.  This permits lower income members of the Dudley Street area to build equity in the replacement values of their homes, though not in the land value which is held by the community as a whole.

The Fannie Mae Foundation recently selected Dudley as one of the 10 “Just Right” emerging neighborhoods across the country for increasing affordable homeownership while attracting capital investment.

Two young and dynamic DSNI leaders, John Barros, and Jason Webb, will be speaking in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 3, 2006, for the annual meeting of the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires.  The topic of their talk will be “The Creation of an Urban Village: The Journey of the Dudley St. Neighborhood Initiative.”

In 1991, Barros was, at age 17, the first young person elected to the DSNI Board of Directors, triggering a more visible, active presence of youth across the organization.  He was one of the co-founders of the youth committee – Nubian Roots – and the designer of a prominent neighborhood mural.  After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1996, Barros served as Vice President of the DSNI Board and of Dudley Neighbors, Inc. the community land trust created to assure permanent affordable housing.  Barros, a lifelong Dudley resident, was elected DSNI’s Executive Director in 2000 after the departure of Greg Watson.

Jason Webb, the Director of Operations of the community land trust, Dudley Neighbors Inc., has worked at DSNI since 2001, staffing the community land trust and the community planning functions around physical and economic development.  In addition, Webb has played a significant role in DSNI’s internal technology capacity as well as the use of technology innovations in the community building process.  He has assisted in various youth development activities and the annual Multicultural Festival.  Webb joined the DSNI staff after a long history of involvement as a dedicated resident volunteer, dating from the age of seven.  He was a co-founder of Nubian Roots Youth Committee, and served on the boards of both DSNI and Dudley Neighbors, Inc.

The Community Land Trust meeting, with these featured speakers, starts at 7:30 PM, Friday, February 3rd at the First Congregational Church, 251 Main Street, Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Tickets are $5 at the door. The Schumacher Center is one of many co-sponsors of this talk.

If you are in the region on February 3rd, please join us to hear John Barros and Jason Webb. Membership information for the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires is online.  General information on community land trusts and their application in shaping stable local economies and local communities is at the Schumacher Center’s website.

The gap between wealth and poverty is growing in the U.S., because policies to stabilize the lives of the poor and people of color do not focus on long-term solutions. Our economy is unstable, in an inflationary spiral that continues to raise the cost of basic goods, including food, gasoline, medicine and health care. Most depressing is the lack of affordable housing for the poor, working and unemployed, and seniors with limited retirement income.

Through a series of policy firsts, DSNI became the first community nonprofit organization in the country to be awarded eminent domain powers over vacant land in a 1.3 square mile area of the city of Boston. Through a seldom-used statute on the books in Massachusetts known as “special study status,” the community plan became the zoning plan for the area. Having received eminent domain rights over 30 acres of land, DSNI sought a mechanism to assure permanent affordability and discovered the Community Land Trust model.

Dudley Street has become a renowned example of the power of truly participatory community-building for the long term, which addresses the fundamental policies and practices that have caused poverty and decline in cities across the country. Through the community-controlled land trust, the residents were able to create a vibrant multicultural community, developing hundreds of affordable homes and providing an opportunity for residents to personally benefit from the community revitalization they themselves planned.

— “The CLT Model: A Tool for Permanently Affordable Housing and Wealth Generation” by Gus Newport

What drives the remarkable scale of change here? Resident voices determine how their dream of an urban village unfolds. And at the center of this renaissance have been young people who, nurtured by adults who believe in them, have contributed guts, ambition and sincerity to building their community.

—”Essential Partners,” report for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1999

Many scholars and housing activists view market forces and housing affordability as mutually antagonistic: Either a community remains affordable for its low-income residents, or it attracts capital investment, development and growth. If there is a way out of this fundamental contradiction, Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) has found it.

—”Ten ‘Just-Right’ Urban Markets for Affordable Homeownership,” Fannie Mae Foundation, September 2000