The Future of Urban Resilience


December 7, 2018 / Key takeaways of the City First Community Development Finance Impact Forum/ Blog

Socio-economic stresses in the form of racial inequality, housing instability, inequitable education, and toxic environmental exposure are increasingly felt by urban populations, and threaten the progress and resiliency of seemingly prosperous cities. Healthy urban infrastructures are critical to mitigating the impacts of man-made and natural disasters.

Leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors must collaborate to develop holistic solutions that enable our cities to thrive in the face of change. Public, private and nonprofit sector leaders shared their insights for strengthening DC’s resiliency by improving socio- economic opportunities and our infrastructure.


Brian Argrett, President and CEO, City First Bank

  • This is City First’s fifth community development forum for this year and is a part of a series that included New Market Tax Credits, impact investing, affordable housing, and urban resilience as well as a celebration of City First’s 25th The purpose of these critical conversations is to grow the impact of our collective work and expand opportunities for serving low-to-moderate income communities.
  • A couple of years ago, City First established three pillars as the focus for its work, which are impact, leadership and culture. Impact relates to strengthening the resilience of underserved people through capital, programming, and leadership. Leadership is about evoking solutions in support of underserved communities through thought and action- oriented leadership. Culture is about driving inclusion, focus, respect, and results.
  • City First Foundation’s mission is to promote broader knowledge, participation and collaboration in the community development ecosystem, particularly in Washington, DC. Collaboration is essential for driving change through idea sharing.

Data Presentation

In an equitable DC, every resident would have the opportunity to prosper. But, decades of discriminatory policies and practices have created inequities by ward, neighborhood, race and ethnicity. The Urban Institute’s new Equity Indicator Tool can help guide policies and action for closing equity gaps.

Peter Tatian, Senior Fellow and Research Director, Urban Institute

  • The Equity Indicator Tool shows what it would take to improve equity across wards and neighborhoods in DC by informing actions that can be taken to close equity gaps. It has 16 indicators covering topics, such as economics, education, finance, health, housing, and security. The tool can be used by selecting an indicator and a ward or neighborhood cluster. The data shows where there is a gap and the size of it. It also provides links to resources about actions that can be taken to begin closing equity gaps.
  • Communities can use the Equity Indicator Tool to set targets for where they want tobe in achieving equity. This tool empowers community members by giving them information they can use in having conversations with decision makers, investors, and service providers, about their vision of equity and what it means for their community.

Panel Conversation: Strengthening the City Toward Resiliency Opening Remarks

Kate Goodall, Co-Founder and CEO, Halcyon

  • Halcyon provides space, community and access to the best social entrepreneurs from around the world. A social entrepreneur is someone who is tackling and measuring their impact towards solving a social or environmental problem while also making a profit. Halcyon provides a five-month residency as well as a stipend and access tolegal and business consulting services for social entrepreneurs.
  • The Halcyon program is competitive in which eight ventures are selected twice per year from a pool of 500 applicants from around the world. About half of the candidates selected are from the Washington, DC area. Halcyon finds the best social entrepreneurs and supports them in growing profitable companies that create a positive impact.
  • Ventures supported by Halcyon have collectively impacted about 700,000 lives around the world. These ventures have created nearly 600 jobs, about half of which are in the District, and have raised over $56 million. Fifty-two percent of Halcyon-supported ventures have a female founder and 59% have a founder of color.
  • What if DC was on the leading edge of prioritizing health, happiness and sustainability? What if DC was in the vanguard of cities that measure health beyond GDP and economic measures? One way to accomplish this is by increasing collaboration between sectors, which is the fastest way forward.

Bo Menkiti, President and CEO, Menkiti Group and Board Member, City First Bank

  • This panel reflects a diversity of perspectives in terms of data and research, equity inside organizations, and resiliency as well as at the global, national, and on the ground (working with constituents on a day-to-day basis)
  • There are some statistics related to stressors that DC is facing. DC is expected to have one million people by 2045. The median African-American household net worth in DC is on the path to zero by 2053. DC is also impacted by climate change in which there are low lying areas that are prone toflooding that are predominantly inhabited by people of color. Amazon HQ2 is contributing to stressors around population growth. Opportunity Zones represent the potential for targeted capital coming into communities, but not necessarily with targeted engagement.

Kevin Bush, Chief Resilience Officer, Office of the City Administrator

  • What is resiliency? Resilience is the immune system of the city. Cities are undergoing an impressive amount of change, like climate change and population growth. The DC Government and other organizations need to work together to plan for the future. This includes being resilient to climate change, population and economic growth, and technological change.
  • How is resiliency relevant to community development? We have to think about things in a steady state because the extent to which we are able to deal with disasters equips us to deal with sudden, unexpected shocks when they do occur. An example is the floods that occurred in Louisiana, which created a negative vacancy rate and made it difficult for people to secure housing because there was not an excess housing supply available.
  • What partnerships are needed to move DC’s resiliency plan forward? We came up with big, bold questions around governance, climate change, economic mobility, and technological change. We focused on the Anacostia River and neighborhoods on either side of it because many of these forces come together in this place. We brought people together to discuss outcomes related to these broad questions. A result of these conversations is that people volunteered to help by researching best practices, conducting literature reviews, and mapping public access points along the Anacostia River. We convened people to discuss what was learned and opportunities to strengthen the city’s resiliency. Now we’re organizing around these learnings to determine big ideas, many of which are partnership based. When you take outcomes as the starting point that enables you to find partners. This is easier to do in a city, like DC, that has a lot of great institutions that are interested in working on the same things.

George Jones, CEO, Bread for the City 

  • What does equity look like on the ground for low-income communities? Bread for the City has pivoted from only being a service provider to helping to solve racial inequality. This started when staff attended a racial equity training and questioned why all of our clients were people of color. We now send all of our staff to racial equity training. Another change was developing an advocacy program that works with community members and helps them tell their stories about the systemic forces that have pushed them into poverty and keep them there as well as what needs to be done to reverse this situation. Equity is about producing equal outcomes. The way to get to equality is through equity.  This means recognizing that treating everyone the same doesn’t work because everyone has different needs. Equitable solutions are about meeting people where they are. Targeted universalism is about taking our resources and targeting them at communities that are struggling. There is consensus in DC that equity gaps should be closed. The problem is that policymakers who represent communities with more resources have to convince their constituents to give up some of their resources to help lower income communities in order to achieve universal benefit.
  • You talked about some of the changes you’ve made at Bread for the City, but what systemic changes are needed? I completely agree with starting with the end in mind. I think that all of the sectors have a role to play in a racially just city, which is what we should be envisioning for DC. First among equals is the government since they manage most of the systems. The private sector can empower and authorize the government to talk candidly about targeting the investment of resources in low- income areas. The nonprofit sector can advocate for conversations about racial equity. All sectors have a role to play in making our own organizations anti-racist.This involves building your systems around the people you’re serving and not the other way around. Organizations function as gatekeepers by controlling access to resources and making low-income people jump through hoops to obtain services. Institutions need to become gateways that make it easier for people to get the services they need. This is how you undo racism. It’s by changing systems so that they work for the people who use them.
  • Do you think that the equity gap is closable? To quote from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize speech: “We have the resources to end poverty.” This is especially true in Washington, DC in which almost all of the residents are liberal, there is a lot of money here, and we have a finite challenge based on the data presented by the Urban Institute. Those numbers can be changed. I think that we can end poverty in this city within the next 20-25 years if we’re willing to take it on.


Sarah Rosen Wartell, President, Urban Institute 

  • Can you give us some context on DC’s housing market? What got us to the place we’re in? One of the greatest stresses our city is facing is the stress that comes from growth. Although this is a good problem to have, there are consequences especially for low-to- moderate income populations. The Washington, DC region population has grown from 4.8 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2017. Population is expected to continue to grow by 38% in the next 20 years. The problem is that housing production has not kept pace with this growth. Since 2010 there has been a 7% growth in population, but only a 2.7% increase in the number of housing units, many of which are high-end. The DC area population has grown in two ways. There has been a 34% growth in the number of people with incomes of over $150,000 per year. There has also been a 20% growth in the number of households whose income is at the bottom. There has been zero growth in the population whose income is in the middle. The typical home value for a black family in DC is $250,000, which is 2/3 of the typical home value for white and Latino families. White households in the DC region have a net worth that is 81x greater than that of black households. Eighty percent of white households who have a high school diploma are home owners as compared to 45% of black households. The point of all of this data is that the availability of housing units for people at the bottom of the market has continued to shrink. This is not only because of displacement, but also because housing supply is not keeping up with demand.
  • What examples are you seeing from other cities participating in 100 Resilient Cities? The Urban Institute is the evaluator for this program. What makes a difference for racial equity and resilience? A key word that keeps coming up in our work is participation. One example is using a participatory budgeting process to determine how public funds are spent. This enables people to participate who wouldn’t normally be at the table. The result is that the solutions they came up with are different than ones that might have been chosen if the government had made these decisions on their own. You get different answers when the people who are framing the questions and collecting data represent the community. It’s about participation with influence and not just input. Addressing inequality requires going beyond talking about disparities to getting people around the table to talk about what specifically needs to be done to close these gaps.
  • What impact has Amazon had on the systems and the conversations we’ve been having? The Urban Institute will analyze the impact that Amazon HQ2 will have on the housing market in the Washington, DC region. This region has an affordable housing crisis in which there is a mismatch between supply and demand. Amazon HQ2 and other firms that will be attracted to this region will cause the demand for housing to grow at a much faster pace. How do we turn the affordable housing crisis into an opportunity? Transportation corridors will experience enormous pressures on their home values. Affordable housing advocates face an uphill challenge in trying to get a few more additional affordable home units for every high end housing project. There is a “not in my backyard” mentality for people at the higher end of the income spectrum who don’t want higher density where they live. Lower income neighborhoods are concerned about the pressure of rising prices and gentrification. The result of all of this is slowing down the production of housing. What if the business community said that we want the production of more housing, but it has to be balanced? The Urban Institute will determine what the housing needs are in each region and identify policy tools that can help address these needs. This information can be used by county executives to commit to producing their share of housing. Once there is an agenda there is an opportunity for discussion about what people are and are not willing to support. Does this opportunity cause us to think in a different way that hasn’t done before?
  • How do you see the impact of opportunity zones on the conversations we’ve been having? There is the potential for bad deals to get done, property values to spike then collapse, and then the neighborhood is left alone to deal with the consequences; but it doesn’t have to be this way. How do you help the people who want to use this subsidy in ways that will be most beneficial? The Urban Institute has studied these census tracts and have identified the ones where there is already an influx of money coming in and the racial composition of these neighborhoods is changing. These are the areas that we need to be concerned about because there is the potential for the Opportunity Zones to contribute to displacement. The government can use its access to data and tools, such as workforce development, to use Opportunity Zones as an economic engine for inclusive growth. There is a lot of work to do, but not a lot of time to do it to help public officials, mission investors, and community development financial institutions use this program to achieve better possible outcomes and mitigate negative consequences.

JaNay Queen Nazaire, Managing Director for Performance and Results, Living Cities 

  • How does race play into the affordable housing conversation? Structural racism is the virus that keeps attacking the immune system of our city. If we do a root cause analysis to understand why we are where we are, we can see the impact of structural racism in the housing crisis as well as in education and transportation systems. What’s happened is that there has been a history of policies at the federal, state and local levels, like red lining, that have caused us to be where we are. The result is that people who are negatively impacted by these policies don’t get the same start that others get to begin building wealth. Affordable housing isn’t fair because of who has the power in making decisions that affect people of color. Decades of disinvestment also plays into this as well as flight into and out of the city over generations.
  • How do you think about patterns of migration in cities? Migration is not only about patterns of white or black flight. There is also impact in terms of class. When people with higher incomes leave a city, they take their resources with them. The way to address this situation is by fixing systems, but we tend to focus on fixing people. When race is no longer a predictor of outcomes across systems then we have achieved equity. To do that we need to acknowledge the history and structure of racism as well as the decisions and choices that were made to get where we are now.
  • What work do we need to do within our organizations to strengthen our contributions to racial equity? Gatekeeping is about a shift in power. There is loss associated with a shift in power. People who have power don’t want to give it up. Addressing shifts in power involves reckoning with the history of racism in our country in terms of who has benefitted from it, how, and by how much. This is a scary conversation for people to have because it means acknowledging the system of free labor this country has built. Asking people to change their perceptions about race and power is a huge deal because we haven’t had to do it. A consequence of this system is that it has enabled people to accumulate wealth based on privilege. Undoing racism requires changing the system so that benefits are based on demonstrating excellence. When Living Cities did a root cause analysis we discovered that we weren’t talking about racism as being at the root of the outcomes we wanted to achieve. We learned that systems aren’t broken. They are designed to get the results they achieve. It’s not enough to send staff to diversity and inclusion training. The leadership also has to do the work. Changing our beliefs permeates into our roles as leaders. If the leadership is resistant to change then you need a critical mass of support to get them on board. We did competency building to develop a common language, move beyond being race neutral, personal work that involved examining and questioning our beliefs about people of color, put racial equity at the center of our work, and took risks with our board and key supporters.

Sonal Shah, Executive Director, Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation, Georgetown University

  • What innovations can support us in closing the equity gap? In looking at this from an innovation perspective it’s important to start with the outcome first. We sometimes start with the program first. The challenge with this is that we start to fix programs without looking back at changing the outcome or whether this particular program offers the right approach to addressing the problem. We can start with the outcome first by asking ourselves: What do we want to achieve with this initiative? How do we want to approach programming differently? Who needs to be at the table? The benefit of this approach is that the outcome conversation forces us to address all of the inequities in the process. Through this process we can discover if we’re looking at the data in the right way or if the data we’re collecting is equitable. To reconstruct innovation, we have to deconstruct our current processes. The public, private and nonprofit sectors tend to be stuck in silos in which real conversations are obscured by what each group wants from each other. There is no single solution for innovation. What we really need is a process by which we approach it differently.
  • What approaches to collaboration have you seen that work? We worked on a block chain project that brought the technology, business, and civil society communities to the table. When we first started nobody spoke the same language. It took three conversations to determine how to collaborate. The outcome of these conversations was coming up with an inclusive process for building a block chain. Now everyone knows the steps that need to be taken to move the process forward. The acceleration of this process became faster once everyone was on the same page. You can’t speed up the process until everyone is having the same conversation. Collaborations work when there is a neutral convener who can bring different groups, who may not agree with each other, to the table, ask the hard questions that no one else is asking, and ensure that the process leads to a transparent outcome.
  • What impact has Amazon had on the systems and the conversations we’ve been having? What if we had used a participatory bidding process for Amazon HQ2? Instead of a top- down process in which the government does the planning and then gets input from the community, what would it look like if the process engaged the community? I think that government leaders need new tools and new models to do their work. How do we allow the government to test new ideas that provides the space for failure? The only way to come up with new models that are innovative is to fail.
  • How do you see the impact of opportunity zones on the conversations we’ve been having? One of the things we’re working on, in partnership with the Urban Institute and other organizations, is making sure that impact is at the core of Opportunity Zones. Everyone is talking about Opportunity Zones from the investor perspective. We’re going to push the impact perspective. The original purpose of Opportunity Zones was to improve neighborhoods, but that part of the legislation was stripped out since there is no requirement to report on impact. City and state governments, as well as community members, can ask for data on impact and transparency. We can also use Opportunity Zones to do demonstration projects to test which ideas work. There are investors who are interested in the impact element of Opportunity Zones, but they don’t know how to do it. This is an opportunity to bring people together to talk about how to do impact.


Audience Member Q&A


Have you have looked at the limited equity co-op model and is it better than traditional apartment models?


Sarah Rosen Wartell: I’d like to talk about this model within the context of inclusive development. The 11thBridge Street Park project is an example of how community members can take advantage of rising property values in their neighborhood. Limited equity co-ops and community land trusts are tools we have available that can be used.


How can Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) shift power to community members? What are your thoughts about their potential to bring about this kind of change?


Bo Menkiti: I think that ANCs have tremendous opportunity, but that they are underutilized and inconsistent. Addressing this problem requires having a common language and a common set of facts and information. With some ANC meetings there are disparities in access to information and time spent discussing an issue.  There is a bill circulating through the DC Council to help ANCs have the tools they need to be more effective. Shifting power involves giving people the information and tools they need to make informed decisions. There is a lot of room within this structure to start to shift the dialogue about solutions. The problem is that the dialogue tends to be about obstructions, which doesn’t give ANCs the strength they need.

George Jones: If DC decides to be an inclusive city that eliminates race-based disparities then this becomes the macro premise by which all institutions operate. If we all agree that disparate outcomes can’t happen anymore then our conversations should reflect this premise. If these conversations aren’t happening, it’s up to us to call out the organizations working in this city.

I’m interested in learning more about the internal impact of the racial equity work that has been done at your organization. How has that changed the way that Living Cities works?

JaNay Queen Nazaire: We shifted our leadership structure to work on shared power. We still have a CEO who is accountable to the board, but we have a Resources and Results Team that includes staff from different levels of the organization. We also have tools that we use for having conversations and making decisions. For example, we take an equity pause to answer questions that help us check out blind spots, like who’s at the table, who’s voices are being prioritized, and who’s voices are being silenced. We prioritize people of color in our procurement processes; 43% of contract funds have gone to black entrepreneurs and service providers. We have cohort leads in the cities where we work who are people of color. Cohort leads talk about how to open up procurement opportunities for people of color and small businesses. We also talk about putting people of color in the center to close equity gaps.

My company is making efforts to increase diversity and inclusion, like going to career fairs attended by people of color and broadly posting job positions. What other tactics can local companies use who have the awareness and intention, but aren’t seeing better results?

Sarah Rosen Wartell: Not every organization is going to be like Living Cities, but there are ways to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion beyond talent. Changing the composition of who is at the table is important, but that is a result of the work we do. At the Urban Institute we use some of our own resources to support research around structural racism. We’ve also started to look at language guides and pay attention to how we talk about the issues we’re researching.

When you do different work the talent attraction and retention pipeline flows from that. Is there a way to integrate this focus into your day-to-day work?

Final Thoughts


George Jones: Doing anti-racism work is hard. What we need is a critical mass of organizations who are doing this work and then we will start to see change at the systems level.

Sarah Rosen Wartell: I want to end on a note of optimism. We have a city that is growing economically, has a lot of resources, and is diverse. DC is also visible as the nation’s capital and can use this opportunity to influence other places. Instead of only talking about the challenges, we can also recognize the assets this region has and its chances for making good progress.

JaNay Queen Nazaire: Relationships are an underutilized currency in our work and we need to lean into them because this is what will help up to get to results.

Sonal Shah: We have the power to make change. If we wait for others to do it, it’s not going to happen. I would also like to thank City First for all of the work they have been doing for the past 25 years. If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Kevin Bush: We’re the nation’s capital. We have an opportunity to use the assets we have to address all of these challenges. We need to take action now before a disaster occurs and it becomes more obvious that these are the kinds of things we need to work on.

Bo Menkiti: A big part of this is awareness about the challenges and opportunities we face. Shocks to our system, such as more people moving to this area, can also serve as opportunities to bring in more resources to address them. It starts with awareness that can lead to conversations that result in collaboration to create a more equitable and resilient city.

Key Takeaways:

  • Social, economic, and environmental stresses that DC is facing can be transformed into opportunities to build a more resilient and equitable city.
  • Closing equity gaps requires  working at multiple levels:  personal (awareness of the root causes of inequality), organizational (functioning as gateways instead of gatekeepers), and socio-economic systems (building the commitment to take collective action).
  • Change begins by starting with the outcome you want to achieve and then designing a process that will lead to desired results.
  • Participatory processes, in which the people who are directly affected are able to shape the dialogue and decisions that are made, increases the likelihood of better outcomes.