Spotlight on Community Voices Heard and the Economic Recovery

The economic stimulus package has tackled some of the most pressing job-related issues facing our communities.  However, with national unemployment at over 10% for the first time since the early 1980s, we have to make sure recovery monies are spent in communities who need help the most. We have a better chance of achieving success in these areas if we come together to ensure that our most vulnerable communities, including communities of color, immigrants, and the poor, can participate in and contribute to our economic growth.

Over the next few months, The Opportunity Agenda will be highlighting the progress that a number of community groups have had in dealing with the economic recovery. Specifically, we will be highlighting the successes and challenges that these groups have had in accessing stimulus funds, how those funds have been used to increase job opportunities and ensure economic security, and what the economic recovery package has meant for poor communities and communities of color.

As an organization working to ensure equal opportunity in the economic recovery, we have begun interviewing local and state-level groups to gain a better understanding of how our country is faring during this critical period. Today’s post centers on the our interview with Sondra Youdelman and Henry Serrano, focusing on their work with Community Voices Heard (CVH), a membership organization working to build power for low-income families in the state of New York. Sondra is the Executive Director of CVH, and Henry is their Senior Organizer/Voter Engagement Project Coordinator.

During these trying economic times, CVH has been lucky enough to achieve success by taking advantage of stimulus funding opportunities and grassroots activism. Recently, CVH won $25 million in new resources for subsidized employment, partly through regular Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) contingency money. In addition, CVH has been extremely proactive in assuring proper oversight and monitoring of public housing capital funds, specifically in the enforcement of Section 3 provisions of the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act. The Opportunity Agenda interviewed Sondra and Henry together on October 21, 2009. Here are some portions of that interview:

Opportunity Agenda: Why did your organization decide to get involved in the economic recovery, and specifically in advocacy around the stimulus package?

Sondra Youdelman: There were a couple of reasons. Obviously there is our constituency. Our membership has been dealing with the recession forever. As discussions about the broader recession were coming forth, public recipients were kind of forgotten in the mix as the focus was on the middle class and how they were being impacted in the recession. . . . From an organizing perspective, this is the big thing happening right now and people organize in moments of crisis. With the focus on the federal level, we could use this moment to organize people and make change. It became clear to us that given the public housing crisis here in New York City, there was finally a chance to win funds on the federal level for capital improvements.

The Opportunity Agenda: What are some projects dealing with the recovery, and in particular the stimulus package, that your organization is working on?

SY: . . . One is around the public housing capital funds. It began with having conversations with key federal legislators when the package was being put together. Now, it plays out at the local level; $423 million in public housing capital funds is coming to New York; it’s being directed to 70 projects that are shovel ready. Our campaign now locally is focused on assuring proper oversight and monitoring, and enforcement of Section 3 provisions. There have been historical problems with NYCHA [the NYC Housing Authority] and misspent resources and we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

With public housing, we have a local fight to make sure that oversight and monitoring happens with the spending; in order for NYCHA to function for the long haul, the current NYCHA deficit needs to be plugged. There needs to be full funding coming from the city, state, and federal governments. We are trying to set up a community-labor-resident-elected oversight committee to oversee these funds—to be the watchdog group. Another thing around public housing is the Section 3 issue.…

The Opportunity Agenda: Can you broadly describe the Section 3 provisions that you mention?

SY: Sure. Section 3 was enacted in the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act; it is part of a piece of federal legislation that basically tells housing authorities and developers that receive federal resources that come through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), that there needs to be “best efforts” on behalf of the entity in providing access to jobs and training opportunities to residents with low incomes residing in the communities where work is being done. So communities of color and low-income communities, including public housing residents, can benefit specifically because of this.

Henry Serrano: In terms of the stimulus, we are seeing that this may be a unique opportunity to change the decision-making structures in streams of federal revenue. We have offices, one in Newburgh, one in Yonkers, etc. We are trying to use the fights we have had over oversight to create the same thing with NYCHA—create an oversight board that includes the participation of low-income residents. In Newburgh, we have gotten the city to create and oversight committee wherein membership of the community can participate in oversight of CDBG, and thereby some stimulus, funds. That just got put in place. . . .

SY: One of our stimulus activity focal points has been around the TANF welfare resources added into recovery packages. We tried to push for there to be a concrete block of money for paid transitional jobs program at the federal level; a paid work program as opposed to unpaid workfare. We had thought that there was possibility within the recovery plans, that we could try to get resources at the federal level—resources that we had not been successful in winning in the last reauthorization debate for federal welfare. But this time, in the recovery bill, we were more successful around TANF. The federal stimulus provides a potential for extra resources for the state for subsidized employment through a 4 to 1 match program. The federal government will match one shot deals or subsidized employment programs. In our regular state organizing work, we were pushing for resources for a transitional jobs program. In the state budget this year, we won $25 million in new resources for subsidized employment, partly through regular TANF contingency money. . . . We now need to launch local city and county level campaigns to bring in new resources, so that we can trigger eligibility for additional federal funds through the state as an intermediary.

The Opportunity Agenda: In regard to the economic recovery, how do you measure success? How would you describe success to a reporter? For example, would you measure success by the number of jobs created?

HS: It’s not quantitative, not the amount of jobs created. In some places, especially outside of New York City, it’s about getting the programs created. It’s about the implementation of these programs, not the scale. The first barrier/challenge is to get the programs implemented and then we worry about the numbers. What we are trying to do is to use the development and implementation of these programs as a measure of success.

SY: We don’t want it to be this quick one shot deal. We want to create these new structures that can operate with regular resources in the future. But we also want to create new programs that will meet the needs of the constituency we are organizing with. The broader public wants to know about how many jobs, where they are, etc. That’s important, too. In the broad realm we want to see certain demographics, where they live, what services there are, are they reaching our communities as opposed to just the state. It’s a combination of things.
. . .

To request a full transcript of the interview, please contact Dina Rezvani, dina@opportunityagenda.org.

For more on the economic recovery, from The Opportunity Agenda, visit here.

Tags: community, economic justice, Economic Recovery, Opportunity, stimulus, unemployment (all tags)

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