New to Peoria, LISC is working with a range of community partners to help revitalize the city’s distressed neighborhoods.
Early last year, 49 states and the federal government announced a settlement with the country’s five largest mortgage servicers to provide $25 billion in relief to distressed borrowers. This agreement—the largest consumer financial protection settlement in U.S. history—settled investigations into unlawful practices that helped to create the foreclosure crisis. In Illinois, $70 million was made available to communities hit hard by foreclosures. But while several organizations in Peoria were interested in applying for this money, none had the resources to do so on their own. Enter the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, aka LISC.
“When leaders of several East Bluff groups approached us… we knew it could be a great opportunity,” says Brandon Holmes, Peoria LISC executive director. “They had a vision for what could be accomplished, but they needed a partner to help pull together the necessary expertise and matching funds to really make this happen.”
Holmes pursued the grant on behalf of a coalition comprised of the Peoria Opportunities Foundation, IFF, Novadebt and METEC Housing Counseling Resource Center, among other community partners. Despite fierce competition, the effort paid off. In July, the team learned it would receive $3 million to support the demolition of 20 buildings, construction and rehab of 30 homes, housing counseling services and down payment assistance in the East Bluff.
“This is huge for Peoria,” Holmes says. “For new money coming in, in this economic climate… $3 million is huge. Peoria has missed out on a lot of opportunities over the years because there wasn’t someone able to capitalize on them.
“That’s why we came [here],” he adds. “To energize projects, programs and community-based organizations in ways that improve the quality of life in challenged neighborhoods.”
Answering the Call
It all began with a cold call. LISC was seeking an investment from the Caterpillar Foundation. The foundation—having shifted its philanthropic focus toward “outcome-based” investing, with an emphasis on well-defined, measurable goals and strategies—was looking for new approaches to community development.
Many neighborhoods in Peoria, it found, continued to struggle with the same ills despite a strong network of nonprofit support. “It became evident we were treating the symptoms, not the causes,” explains Caterpillar Foundation President Michele Sullivan. But as her team began to research LISC, “doubt turned to intrigue.” “The Greater Peoria area needed an organization to help develop the blighted neighborhoods and address challenges such as affordable housing and high crime rates,” Sullivan says. “[We] thought this could be just what Peoria needed.”
Though LISC hadn’t launched a new site in 15 years, the organization agreed to assess the possibility of opening a Peoria office. A year and a half later—with $3 million in seed money from the Caterpillar Foundation—it opened its doors.
Everything is Connected
Neighborhoods are complex entities. Every facet of the community impacts every other, for good and bad. A recent article by community development expert Jim Capraro in Shelterforce, a journal published by the National Housing Institute, paints a picture of these interlocking dependencies:
- “The ability for single moms to enter the workforce is enhanced by the presence of day care, as well as workforce training and referral.
- Neighborhood safety is increased by the presence of youth sports and activities, and is also influenced by the quality of parenting and the vibrancy of neighborhood social networks.
- Local businesses fare better when customers have jobs, and when those businesses do better they are able to grow and provide more local jobs.
- Employability rises when local schools perform well, and families engender strong values and a strong work ethic.
- Physical health is greatly aided by high-quality nutrition, grocery stores, and sports and physical exercise opportunities, as well as the presence of primary healthcare services.”
In order to affect sustainable change in a community, the piecemeal approach just doesn’t work; yet no single organization can tackle all these issues on its own. Rather, a broad-based vision must be implemented across the community by many individuals and groups working together. This is comprehensive community development, an approach which recognizes that “housing, safety, health, economic development, retail revitalization, entrepreneurship, workforce development, education, recreation and youth opportunities are not only important in and of themselves, but are also important and strategic to each other.”
But to make such an approach work, you need someone to plan and coordinate this web of activities. “That’s one of the things LISC really focuses on: bringing partners together to leverage each other’s valuable assets and work together in a way that people never really have before,” says Holmes. “Everyone has been working in silos… We bring everyone together.”
On the Ground and in the Middle
LISC’s roots lie in the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977, federal legislation designed to reduce discriminatory credit practices in low-income neighborhoods. “Essentially, Congress said that banks have to make investments in the communities they are taking deposits from,” Holmes explains. Being risk-averse by nature, banks were less likely to make loans in neighborhoods with distressed property values—yet these were the very areas that needed development the most. The CRA provided a framework for financial institutions, governmental agencies and community organizations to work together toward that end.
“What happened next was a whole movement in which intermediaries like LISC started popping up to help mitigate that risk,” says Holmes. “With CRA, banks could invest in intermediaries, which then turn around and make investments for the banks.” As an intermediary, LISC doesn’t directly provide programs or services, but invests in those that do, facilitating partnerships and lending expertise on tax credits, grants and other opportunities so service providers can focus on their core programs. “I always joke that my job is to be in the middle of everyone’s business,” Holmes chuckles. “We provide resources to get the job done, bring best practices to the table, and make the connections.
“Let’s say we’re looking at a neighborhood on the south side of Peoria where there haven’t been private mortgage transactions—they’ve all been cash sales. The mortgage market just isn’t working… We look at the totality of what’s going on in the neighborhood—all the various nonprofits working together, and the for-profit developer… and what it will take to get the project done,” says Holmes. “We provide the high-risk money on the front end… that’s going to start to stabilize the market and make everything in the neighborhood work better.
“It’s a completely different way of working,” he adds. “And we look at doing that in scale—not just one [house] here and one there… Let’s take on a whole block.”
» Building Sustainable Communities
LISC combines corporate, government and philanthropic resources to help nonprofit community development corporations revitalize distressed neighborhoods. Since 1980, LISC has invested $12.9 billion to build or rehab 298,300 affordable homes and apartments and develop 49 million square feet of retail, community and educational space. LISC’s comprehensive approach to community development means that “we really look at the entire neighborhood as our client,” says Holmes. The organization’s strategy offers a wide range of programs and resources centered around five key components:
- Expanding investment in real estate,
- Increasing family income and wealth,
- Stimulating economic activity,
- Improving access to quality education, and
- Supporting healthy environments.
For more information, visit lisc.org.
Driving the Vision
Holmes’ experience on all sides of the development equation affords him unique insight. Born and raised in Canton, Ohio, he grew up in poverty in a single-parent home. Inspired by his mother, a first-generation college graduate and successful businesswoman, he received his bachelor’s degree in finance and real estate, and “had plans to focus on commercial real estate and be a big-time developer.” But after landing a fellowship with the Department of Housing & Urban Development, his life took a different direction. “I realized I could couple my finance and real estate background to work on the urban core.”
Holmes went back to school for his master’s degree in community planning, then worked for several community development organizations in Cincinnati before joining LISC in 2010. Arriving in Peoria last November, he was anxious to get to work. “Having seen what happened in Cincinnati… and seeing the opportunities in the Warehouse District, the East Bluff and the south side… and what could happen in five, 10, 15, 20 years… I saw the vision. I saw the future.”
Since his arrival, Holmes has spent much of his time learning the community and building rapport with city staff, public officials, nonprofit groups and neighborhood organizations. “All this work is relational,” he explains. “You have to have strong relationships. You have to know who’s doing what, and what hasn’t worked in the past. And then, [it’s all about] building trust. As an outsider coming in… if no one trusts you, you’re not going to get anything accomplished.”
As Holmes settled into his new home city, he sought proposals from the community for some early-action projects. “We wanted to get some money out the door so people could start to understand what an intermediary does,” he says. “When you’re used to a nonprofit being a direct service provider, then you have an intermediary thrown into the mix… it’s a whole different concept. So to have examples to show people is very valuable.”
In April, LISC announced funding for a number of projects from that initial batch of proposals:
- A job training and youth employment program through the Peoria Opportunities Foundation
- An electronic information board at East Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services
- A beautification project on Kansas Street for Keep Peoria Beautiful
- Home repair/beautification project through Children’s Home and Peoria YouthBuild
- A junior staff program for the Boys & Girls Clubs
- Developing a “Friendship Garden” at Friendship House
- Adult literacy and GED classes through the Moonlight Coalition for Adult Learning
- A large community garden and nutritional programming at Crittenton Centers.
Around the community, Holmes’ joke about being “in the middle of everyone’s business” appears to ring true. LISC is currently working with the City of Peoria and Peoria Housing Authority on a plan for the future of Taft Homes. It’s bringing AmeriCorps volunteers to town and co-sponsoring a speaker on community safety initiatives at the Regional Neighborhood Network Conference in Peoria later this month. It’s also planning the launch of a Financial Opportunities Center (FOC)—“a one-stop shop for low-income individuals or families looking to get out of poverty”—sometime in the next year.
Bringing together career services, financial coaching and public benefits access under one roof, LISC’s network of more than 70 FOCs around the country has proven very successful, unique for their focus on long-term relationships. “The research shows that when you just have one touch with a client, you really don’t get change,” Holmes says. “But when you go and see the same person for several years, you start to develop a relationship; you start to trust that person.”
In addition to its focus on the urban core, there is also a rural component to LISC. “The Peoria office will be very unique,” he says. “The rural and urban environments are so connected here, you can’t really separate them. We usually have an urban office and a separate rural program, but this office was actually designed to have the rural component working out of [it]. We’re starting to look at potential [rural] partners, but right now we’re focused on getting a firm foothold in the urban work we’re doing.”
Building a Blueprint
As the rest of Holmes’ team comes on board, their priority will be quality-of-life planning, a process that will be the key driver of LISC’s initiatives going forward. “It’s really a blueprint developed by all the various stakeholders in the community, and essentially, a quasi-contract as to what is going to happen in the community and who’s going to carry out those activities.”
But when Holmes first broached the topic, he got pushback. “[Some said], ‘We don’t need another planning process.’ In the past, there has been a disconnect between the planning and the implementation—that’s what I heard from a lot of residents,” he says. “It was important for us to take a step back and modify our strategy. You have to listen to the community you’re working in, because they know best.”
So what will be different about LISC’s quality-of-life planning? “When a traditional planning firm comes in, [they ask] what you want, then go back to their ‘ivory tower’ and draw up a plan. There’s usually never any talk about execution. But in quality-of-life planning, execution is built into the process. If we can’t identify who’s going to do [something] and how it’s going to get done, it doesn’t go in the plan. My job is to make sure we have the structure in place to hold all the various partners accountable. That accountability piece doesn’t usually happen with a traditional plan that sits in the shelf.
“Here we go again… I’ve heard that from a lot of community leaders,” Holmes admits. “There are years of distrust [to overcome], especially on the south side. They’ve been promised a lot of things over the years. There’s been a lot of talk, but things just never happen. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and really get some work done.”
The Work Ahead
The issues tackled by LISC are about as significant as they come. How does a city refocus on its urban core when it’s easier to turn away? How do you rebuild entire neighborhoods? How do you replace the middle-class jobs that are gone and aren’t coming back? How do you overcome the structural inequities that are choking off the American dream for far too many?
“These are the things that keep me up at night,” Holmes nods. “But you have to stay focused on where you’re working right now, and how you can move the needle just a little bit. If you’re changing one family’s life, that’s an impact. And if you can just keep doing that over and over…” He pauses and smiles. “You have to be optimistic, or we wouldn’t be doing this work.”
Even as LISC’s presence has already paid dividends for Peoria, Holmes knows that change doesn’t happen overnight. “This isn’t some quick fix,” he says. ”We’re taking a different approach than what’s been taken in Peoria before—a collaborative, long-term, sustainable approach. For this strategy, it’s usually seven to 10 years of targeted investments before we start to see true change at the neighborhood level. And we’re really just getting started.” iBi