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'Empowering' the People

THE COMMUNITY BUILDERS: First in a series on neighborhood groups who are creating low-income housing and grass-roots leaders.

March 15, 1992|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Klein is a Monrovia free-lance writer. and

Denise Fairchild's favorite verb is "empowering." She talks about "empowering local people to take control of their own destiny," and "empowering the little guy" by giving him the clout to change things in his neighborhood.

Fairchild is the director of the Los Angeles office of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., the major resource center for nonprofit community developers.

LISC is at the forefront of an important phenomenon: an increasingly sophisticated alternative real estate industry that links public agencies, private industry and community groups for the purpose of creating affordable housing.

"We're providing the local people with ownership and control over their own communities," she said. "My motto is 'The Community Can Be Its Own Builder.' "

As LISC director, she works with grass-roots groups, social service directors and community activists who are serious about turning their communities around. Most of the time, she sees them achieve personal transformations while they are busy transfiguring their neighborhoods.

"The alternative real estate market is the best kind of real estate you can do--it's not only building with brick and mortar but it's building community leaders," Fairchild said.

"I'm inspired by these people. They have a passion for what they're doing that you wouldn't find in an ordinary real estate deal because the development is only the cornerstone to a larger agenda for them."

Community development has evolved to fill a need that has become increasingly obvious over the past decade.

Beginning with the Reagan Administration, the federal government virtually got out of the low-income housing business, Fairchild said. The free market did not provide hoped-for housing solutions for low-income people, and the housing shortage grew more severe.

Nonprofits, aided by organizations like LISC, have stepped in to fill the affordable housing gap.

The communities that LISC targets have been virtually abandoned by the private sector. Places like South-Central Los Angeles, where commercial centers and industrial facilities closed 20 years ago. The banks are still leaving these communities, Fairchild said.

The only institutions that have stayed in disenfranchised communities such as South-Central are the churches, the nonprofit agencies and the activist groups. But with little money and less political clout, they typically find themselves well-meaning but powerless.

"We're here to provide the groups that have formed with some credibility, so they can go into banks, board rooms, council halls and negotiate with credibility. We want to empower the people that stayed behind, the ones who live there, by giving them access to information, resources, things they've never had before," Fairchild said.

When these groups gain an asset base and a measure of credibility by linking up with LISC, they have a built-in track record they can use to do all kinds of things, Fairchild said. They are buoyed up to approach banks and politicians, and they find new faith and motivation to do for themselves.

LISC is the largest nonprofit financial intermediary in the country, established in 27 mostly urban, inner-city areas around the country. In 1991, the Los Angeles office raised $47 million for 13 affordable housing projects statewide, five of them in Los Angeles County.

A spinoff 11 years ago from the Ford Foundation, the concept behind LISC was born much earlier, stemming from the War on Poverty tenet that poor communities could solve their own problems with their own ideas if only they were given the resources to do so.

The problem for poor activists, the theory went, was not that they did not exist or care, it was simply that they did not have the pull to put their ideas to work.

The first community-based development was in the Bedford- Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York. Because the Ford Foundation, a charitable organization, felt that model was successful, they determined to make it work in other communities. LISC was formed as a financial resource with that goal in mind.

LISC moved into Los Angeles in 1987, and Fairchild, who has a doctorate in urban planning, has headed the 11-person office for three years. Along with financing and training nonprofit developers, the group conducts 32 other programs, including carrying out a cable television market study, doing economic development programs and giving out grants for neighborhood planning.

For nonprofit developers, LISC provides a variety of resources. The Revolving Loan Fund provides a crucial first step: "pre-development" money. The upfront capital is used to test the feasibility of a housing or commercial project before any other funding can be put into place.

Up to $50,000 can be loaned unsecured through the fund without interest charges and it has to be paid back once the funding for the actual project is in place. The money is used to pay for environmental reports, architect's fees, consultants, site analysis and appraisers.

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