Community development works

Community development organizations work to solve Md.'s major issues.

Across the state, local efforts are quietly strengthening Maryland communities.

In Takoma Park, Gilbert Highlands is transformed from a dilapidated apartment building into a green, 21-unit affordable housing community that is walkable to retail, parks and public transportation.

In Cumberland, the Main Street program is working hard to transform downtown, using façade improvements and expanding local business to entice visitors and meet the needs of residents.

In Dundalk, housing values and waterfront living are attracting new buyers, and a partnership with private investors is producing quality renovations many homebuyers want.

These are just three of the many projects that benefit Maryland under the umbrella of community development. Throughout the state, more than 200 organizations and public agencies are doing community development — making smart investments to strengthen neighborhoods and give individuals and families new opportunities to build better lives.

Maryland's community development industry is a major force. According to a recent survey answered by more than half of our network members, community development led to more than $122 million in dozens of projects statewide in 2014 alone, including housing, street-scaping, vacant lot cleaning, façade improvements and others.

Our industry employed more than 3,500 Marylanders full-time with benefits and 400 people part time, and it engaged more than 14,000 volunteers. In 2014 alone, more than 1,045 housing units were developed, including new construction and rehabs and both market-rate and affordable homes.

Community development organizations work to solve major issues. For instance, several organizations work tirelessly to spur the redevelopment or demolition of the thousands of vacant properties. Some focus on ensuring that people have affordable housing — a major challenge for many lower-income families and individuals in this generally affluent state. Others provide important housing counseling to ensure families are ready to purchase homes or able to keep their homes if they find themselves in a crisis.

In towns and cities, community development has led to the creation of "main street" areas that promote revitalization; in some rural areas, a key focus is on improving transit options to reach medical care or other vital services.

Funding for community development comes from many sources, including foundations, individuals and the private sector. But state funding often helps fuel these efforts.

The Community Legacy program supports community-focused efforts to attract and retain businesses, encourage homeownership and revitalize commercial areas. It has helped generate far more private-sector investments that have paid off in dozens of areas.

The state's Strategic Demolition and Smart Growth Impact Fund makes smart investments to accelerate economic development and job production in existing Maryland communities, focusing on projects that promise the biggest impact.

And the state's Baltimore Regional Neighborhoods Initiative, championed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, invests in local housing and businesses to create sustainable communities with healthy economies.

Today, many of these programs face significant cuts in Annapolis. We fully recognize the fiscal challenges facing the state, but we urge lawmakers to think strategically and support state spending that leverages significant investments in communities facing major challenges. These community development funds have proven their ability to generate additional resources and strengthen communities.

For instance, over the past five years in the central Baltimore area, which is undergoing an amazing transition, $1.4 million in state Community Legacy funding and $1.5 million in Baltimore Regional Neighborhoods Initiative funding has leveraged more than $86 million in additional investment. In Ocean City, since 2002, about $790,000 of Community Legacy Program funding has generated more than $5.7 million of private investment to rehab older downtown buildings on Baltimore Avenue, with 164 businesses and property owners receiving critical façade improvement funding — projects that created more than 500 construction jobs

State leaders should also maintain and expand incentive programs, such as the Community Investment Tax Credit, which serves as an incentive for individuals to contribute generously to nonprofits.

Maryland is a strong state overall but has pressing challenges. Many people work hard but can't afford decent homes in their communities. Many of our friends, relatives and neighbors need a boost in preparing for or finding jobs. Families across the state need assistance in landing on their feet after a foreclosure. And many of our neighborhoods — urban, suburban and rural — need new energy and investments to spur private investments.

Community development organizations are working on all of these issues and more. As a state, let's continue to give them the tools to succeed.

Odette Ramos is executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland. Her email is odette@communitydevelopmentmd.org.

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