Routinizing the Extraordinary

In a new book, Investing in What Works for America's Communities, launched yesterday in Washington, D.C., I join some of the nation's leading thinkers on policy, finance, business and other specialties to explore the complexity of poverty and the role of community development in helping low-income communities thrive. In his chapter, "Routinizing the Extraordinary," the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco's David Erickson points to programs that are helping communities thrive despite difficult circumstances.

Programs like Purpose Built Communities.

Seventeen years ago, Atlanta real estate developer and philanthropist Tom Cousins took on the challenge of transforming one of Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods. By combining mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college education pipeline and community services and facilities, he worked with local leaders to lift up low-income residents and attract middle-income families to the neighborhood of East Lake Meadows.

The results are stunning: the employment rate of low-income adults increased from 13 to 70 percent. The neighborhood's Drew Charter School moved from last to 4th place among 69 Atlanta public schools and violent crime dropped by 90 percent. "I really didn't know whether this was going to work," Cousins later said.

It's important to understand why Cousins succeeded. By attacking housing, schools, safety and social services all at once, he and his partners attacked poverty -- and won. The model they created is now a program called Purpose Built Communities led by former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and funded by public and private funds -- blending resources from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, CRA-motivated banks, and philanthropists including Warren Buffett, to name a few. Similar projects are under development in Indianapolis, Galveston and New Orleans; the goal is to have 25 projects in place by 2015.

Extraordinary? Yes. Routine? Not yet.

As the country's largest philanthropy devoted to improving health and health care, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is looking at the places where people live, learn work and play as opportunities to improve health. Beyond jobs and housing and struggling to make ends meet, poverty is also about health, early childhood education, schools, grocery stores, recreational facilities and transportation. So really, it's about communities, as Cousins realized.

We all strive to lead successful and fulfilling lives. But demographic and economic shifts have made this goal elusive for millions of families. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is now working with partners in the community development sector to provide opportunities for people to thrive and achieve their fullest potential by improving the places where they live, learn, work and play.

We have worked for the last 40 years to improve health and health care. Since the mid-1960s, the community development sector has invested largely in housing and infrastructure. We are now working in partnership because we realize that our collective knowledge and financial impact can transform communities using many of the same principles that Cousins adopted in Atlanta. We've realized that investment in places (community development) and people (community health) is a powerful combination.

Together, our sectors already invest billions of dollars each year. Joining forces is not about spending more money but about better targeting our efforts, sharing tools and data, learning what is working and then replicating those programs and investments for greater impact. Beyond East Lake, there are other promising examples in communities across the country.

In Seattle, for example, public health and housing leaders are working together to reduce allergens in low-income homes that can cause asthma, a scourge of low-income children that results in an estimated 10.5 million missed school days nationally and $50.1 billion in annual medical costs. Mercy Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, has created a healthier environment for seniors with its San Francisco Mission Creek Apartments, saving the city nearly $1.5 million a year.

We know from experience that siloed approaches to improving health and improving communities do not work on their own. We must find ways to integrate programs and funding across our sectors. One example is the Living Cities Integration Initiative, a collaborative of 22 of the world's largest foundations and financial institutions, which is focused on improving "social factors" by providing $85 million to support public-private partnerships in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark and Minneapolis-St. Paul to improve access to healthy foods and employment opportunities, to create walkable communities served by public transit, and to preserve and create affordable housing.

In his book chapter, Erickson challenges leaders to set bold goals such as doubling high school graduation rates, making sure 100 percent of kindergartners arrive at school ready to learn, and cutting emergency room visits by 75 percent. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation accepted the challenge: our bold goal is to spend $500 million to reverse the childhood obesity rate.

As long as where you live predicts how long and how well you live -- regardless of how hard you work to get ahead -- new approaches must focus on strategies that have proven to build healthier and stronger communities. This is how we can make every community extraordinary.