Baran: Responsible promise

What will economic recovery in New Haven look like? This question is on the minds of many, even as we continue to fully account for how we got into this mess in the first place.

For progressives, what’s clear is that the economic disaster that began last year was a long time coming. The rapid increase in income inequality, the decline in real wages for low- to mid-income people and the increasing cost of living have put unprecedented levels of debt on working people.

So what are we going to do to ensure a meaningful economic recovery in New Haven? Would it be enough to return to where we were before the economic crisis hit us hard?

Clearly not. Rahm Emanuel was right to say that this moment of crisis presented us with an incredible opportunity to make real, lasting change. But making real changes will require serious long-term investments in our economy, particularly in cities just like New Haven. Cities are the main drivers of our economy, where most of our jobs are located and most of our GDP is produced. If we are invested in seeing a broader economic recovery in this country, we cannot simply look to the federal government for action, and we cannot settle for turning back the clock to 2007. We’re going to have to make change happen here in New Haven.

Making long-term investments in New Haven cannot stop with the $787 million stimulus package. We need to look hard at how we can ensure that, when credit markets unfreeze, new investment in the city — in the form of new development projects — is treated with a critical eye by the Board of Aldermen and by the public at large. We need to ask, with every development, whether and how that development will benefit the community and provide a long-term investment in New Haven’s future. And we need to ensure that the community has a seat at the table to negotiate how new development will impact neighborhoods and help ensure long-term economic growth.

There are many powerful, positive possibilities that responsible economic development can bring to New Haven, and community benefits agreements, or CBAs, that have been won by organized community groups in other cities provide numerous examples of the great changes that responsible development can bring to a city in the areas of jobs, housing and environmental justice.

In San Francisco, for example, the Bayview-Hunters CBA provided $8.5 million for a workforce development initiative for local residents and $27.3 million to a fund that will assist qualified low-income local residents in purchasing market-rate units via down-payment assistance, rent-to-own opportunities and other methods.

In Seattle, the Dearborn Street CBA is providing subsidized rent for nonprofit organizations on 5,000 square feet of space in that project, at a cost of $1 million to the developer, helping provide that community with more nonprofit resources. It also provides $200,000 to help mitigate the development’s traffic impact and ensure more environmentally friendly development. It even prohibits payday lenders and pawnshops from locating in the development and taking advantage of surrounding communities.

These are just two examples of dozens of CBAs that have been won around the country. We need to ensure that New Haven practices responsible economic development of this nature in the years to come. The promise of responsible development is rich, as the example of many other cities demonstrates. When communities organize and insist on being involved in the development process, everybody wins: Developments become more useful to the communities they occur in, and communities are more invested in the success of particular developments. Moreover, responsible development helps create a more highly trained workforce here in New Haven to fill the jobs of tomorrow.

Ensuring that our local government promotes responsible economic development could thus be an essential and powerful way forward to a more just, equitable and sustainable economy. If we want to see a broader national recovery, we must all stand up and act to realize the promise of responsible development here in New Haven.

Hugh Baran is a senior in Davenport College.

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