Partners (Number 1, 2008)

Fellowship Program Builds Lasting Legacy in New Orleans

Successful affordable housing ventures are most often the work of seasoned community development professionals who can deftly change hats as needed to see these complex undertakings to completion.
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Community development practitioners come from a variety of backgrounds: they may be community activists, planners, architects, bankers or public administrators. Because few professional certifications exist in this industry, the majority of new professionals entering the field must learn their jobs through trial-and-error, networking, workshops and sheer will. One school of thought is that good developers only come into being after many years of experience, numerous mistakes and at least one soul-crushing failure. Is the "school of hard knocks" the only way to create a seasoned developer? Or is it possible to cultivate those skills in a supportive learning environment?

Building a better developer
Richard Baron, co-founder, chairman and CEO of McCormack Baron Salazar, the nation's leading for-profit developer of mixed-income urban neighborhoods, believes the skills to carry out affordable housing devel­opments can be taught. Baron's accomplishments are impressive. He has developed more than 100 projects in 25 cities, comprising more than 12,000 housing units and close to 1 million square feet of commercial space, representing more than $1.5 billion in investment. Along the way he helped transform neighborhoods, schools and individual lives. However, when he looked for the next generation of large-scale urban housing developers, he didn't find them. So, in the spirit of a true visionary, he made it his mission to create them.

In 1997 Baron set out to find others who shared his concerns and his commitment to excellence in community development. Out of that commitment, with the help of an initial $2.4 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Center for Urban Redevelopment Excellence (CUREx) was born at the University of Pennsylvania.

The goal of CUREx is to support the next generation of urban developers by placing talented individuals in a fellowship program. Fellows are assigned to two-year project management jobs at host redevelopment organizations throughout the nation. Prior to beginning their fellowship jobs, participants receive intensive, cross-disciplinary training at the University of Pennsylvania. Their field experience is reinforced by training sessions and site visits at locations across the country during the two-year term of the fellowship. After graduating from the program these professionals continue to network with each other and act as mentors for their junior classmates.

CUREx goes to work in New Orleans
In late 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Rockefeller Foundation was considering how it could best make a lasting impact on the city of New Orleans. Even before the storm, "lack of capacity" was often cited as a reason the city had made slow progress addressing its blight and affordable housing challenges. So the Foundation approached CUREx Executive Director Valerie Piper about the possibility of bringing the fellowship program to New Orleans. A generous grant from The Rockefeller Foundation made it possible to launch the new program, which is an adaptation of the Center's national model. The fellowship program will build long-term capacity for urban redevelopment in the New Orleans region.

In spring of 2006 Piper asked Senior Community Development Manager Nancy Montoya at the New Orleans branch of the Atlanta Fed to help mold the program to meet the city's needs. She was charged with providing insight into the New Orleans perspective, introducing the fellows to key development professionals in the city, and providing guidance and support along the way. As a result, 22 dedicated fellows from across the country are now enthusiastically and productively involved in various aspects of housing development in the city's most prominent housing organizations.

Egbert Perry, President and CEO of The Integral Group LLC, is an Atlanta-based developer who has received numerous awards for excellence in affordable housing redevelopment, including the Urban Land Institute's 2000 Smart Growth Award and the 2002 New Face of America's Public Housing Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism. Perry, an Atlanta Fed board member, vouches for the CUREx program:

"The CUREx Program brings together individuals who feel 'called' to enter the community development and affordable housing arenas with the network of practitioners and other professionals with many years of on-the-ground experience. Consequently, the cohorts capitalize on the hard-earned knowledge of these practitioners—a knowledge that is not taught in conventional classrooms," he states.

He notes that unlike conventional real estate programs in academic business schools, this program offers a unique opportunity for individuals who are economically and socially focused on community development to pursue their interest "with both a passion and a purpose."

Perry believes that working in the area of community development in New Orleans provides these young professionals with a unique opportunity to innovate, like artists beginning with a blank canvas.

"Utilizing the principles of comprehensive community development from the outset presents a rare opportunity to 'do it right',"Perry states. "It is my belief that their final work product will reflect an impact on the development landscape that will be felt for a very long time, and in very fundamental ways."

Rigorous training creates strong bonds
Fellows are often placed with the most progressive for-profit developers in the country, including McCormack Baron Salazar. Many are on the front lines of some of the most controversial public housing redevelopments in recent times; some are working fiercely through the legal system to pilot-test cases around the powers of eminent domain. Others are involved in "bricks and mortar"project management and working to build human capital.

All of the fellows are juggling demanding full-time jobs while completing requirements for the intensive training program. Coursework features rigorous hands-on training from nationally recognized experts and industry leaders such as Donald R. Hinkle-Brown of The Reinvestment Fund; Paul Brophy and Mary Reilly of Brophy and Reilly LLC; and Sandra Moore, president of Urban Strategies. Despite a tight agenda, they find time to understand and explore some of the city's treasures: over meals, music and culture the participants have bonded through the New Orleans experience to pool their knowledge and provide mutual support. Together they are thinking through how they can create a lasting legacy for the city and transform systems that are dysfunctional or outdated.

"Both the developers who support the program and the fellows who participate in the rebuilding efforts express deep commitment to revitalizing New Orleans in particular."

Sara Meadows Tolleson, a Fellow with Gulf Coast Housing Partnership, had this to say about the value of the training:"The CUREx curriculum was incredibly timely and relevant to my work as a first-time project manager at GCHP. I found myself applying knowledge and skills on the job that I had literally just learned in class the day or week before. The 'real-time' value of the coursework and the practical expertise that our seasoned lec­turers infused into the curriculum are what made the fellowship so valuable to me professionally."

As the training is completed Tolleson's project leader, Paul Cressy, recognizes the importance and impact of work in the classroom. Cressy concurs with Tolleson that applicability is the key: "The success I can identify is the ability of Sara to translate the curriculum into her day-to-day responsibilities and the positive impact it has in the office. The evolution and strength that Sara has brought to her projects is a testament to the objective set by the fellowship curriculum."

Leaving an enduring legacy
Both the developers who support the program and the fellows who participate in the rebuilding efforts express deep commitment to revitalizing New Orleans in particular. "We have an opportunity (I would say a responsibility) to focus on the uplift of people at the core of our community-building efforts in New Orleans. This certainly requires that we implement solutions that address and link education reform, mixed-income housing development, economic development and human transformation," says Perry of Integral Group.

Sara Meadow Tolleson's more personal reflection on her participation is often echoed by other fellows: "On top of it all, Rockefeller and Penn gave me and my 'fellow fellows' the honor of participating in New Orleans' recovery and rejuvenation. I don't know one of us that does not have a deep, deep sense of both gratitude and indebtedness for the privilege of being in this city here and now, learning and doing this work."

Nancy Montoya, the program's local director-in-kind, praises the hard work of the participating fellows. "Not in my 17-plus years of experience in community development have I participated in such exhaustive and intensive practitioners' training. But the fellows, new to the field, demonstrated their commitment by never failing to exercise their minds, talents and passions in the coursework, sharing and supporting each other, all while actively being engaged in rebuilding a new New Orleans. Their commitment to our field is inspiring—every major city in the United States should be invested in this quality program. Years after they've started their work they'll be able to point to healthy, vibrant, diverse communities and know that they've left their own legacy behind in one of America's most treasured cities."

This article was written by Nancy Montoya, senior regional community development manager in the Atlanta Fed's New Orleans branch.