Community Benefits Agreements

Community Benefits Agreements

 Require developers to share information about projects in multiple languages so communities can negotiate local benefits.

West Harlem recently negotiated a Community Benefits Agreement for Columbia's new campus. Photo by Associated Press.

What's the issue?

One of the major issues in neighborhoods facing gentrification is a sense of powerlessness among long-time residents. The sense that new construction and investment are occurring that they have no hand in designing and that may not benefit their community in the long run erodes relationships with city governments and intensifies animosity towards gentrification and investment. More importantly, this increasing powerlessness can push families out of neighborhoods and can contribute to housing instability.

How do community benefits agreements help?

Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) help existing residents capture some of the reinvestment in urban neighborhoods that comes with gentrification. They are project-specific contracts negotiated between a developer and one or multiple community organizations representing residents' interest. CBA can help developers by producing development projects that the community embraces and sees as beneficial rather than disruptive. Cities should require CBAs on any development projects receiving public economic incentives.  Cities should encourage CBAs for all developments by communicating that RFP responses that have a CBA element have a competitive advantage, incentivizing projects with CBAs with fast-track approvals, and supporting CBA negotiations. However, cities should not require CBAs for all developments, because there is not always an organization that can speak on behalf of the community. In these cases, there is a danger that special interest groups will co-opt CBA negotiations.

A robust CBA policy will require developers to communicate project specifics to communities early in the development process, even if a CBA is not required. Developers may actually benefit from community cooperation and discover new opportunities to draw on community assets. Local governments should inform communities of their right to negotiate a CBA and provide support in the form of  translators, meeting rooms, and legal expertise.

Communities have used CBAs to secure new affordable housing; living wage and local hiring targets; priority for community access to new space or services; the provision of community healthcare; housing assistance funds to neighborhood residents, including down payment assistance; funds towards securing a neighborhood grocery; targeted outreach to local & minority businesses to be tenants in a new development; and even funding for a gentrification study. Inspiration for this policy comes to us from Got Green in Seattle.

"Community Benefits Agreement Pilot Evaluation," City of Portland, Oregon, 2016.

When and where does this policy work best?

A successful CBA relies on the presence of active community groups. The advantages of good CBAs are many. They provide a forum for communities to interact constructively with developers, which can spur community visioning and prevent litigation down the road. CBAs, unlike citywide policies, tailor community protections to specific projects, so they can be very effective as a tool to prevent the negative effects of gentrification. However, the process does not work if there are no organizations that the community trusts to represent their interests.This policy is also designed for neighborhoods where many original residents are still present but are starting to feel the pressures of change.

Works best for neighborhoods in middle-stage gentrification

Works best when neighborhoods are/have...

What are some possible problems and how can we address them?

Community Benefits Agreements can have unintended consequences. First, there can more be more than one active community group with potentially different interests. As a CBA negotiation facilitator, city government can ensure that all impacted groups are involved in the CBA negotiation process.  Second, it is difficult to calculate up-front what a development should provide to a community, since its economic viability and cost to the community are still uncertain. Secondly, CBAs run the risk of preventing development that is a net public good. If the cost to the developer is too great, he or she may look for somewhere else to site the project, depriving the community of any benefits. Lastly, once a CBA is in place, developers may feel they have fulfilled their entire obligation to a community and cease to be "good neighbors." To avoid these outcomes, cities must carefully set up a framework for when CBAs are advisable and how much they can exact.