Wealth, reimagined

"Community wealth building" is gaining traction among businesses, cooperatives and non-profits across the country

Published May 25, 2012 12:35PM (EDT)

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This article originally appeared on AlterNet. It is part of a five-part series, New Economic Visions, in which creative thinkers come together to explore the exciting ideas and projects that could sweep away outmoded economic models.

AlterNetAs resistance has grown to America’s widening gulf between the “1 percent” and the rest of the population, something new has exploded in America’s communities; “community wealth building” is an explicit strategy to democratize the ownership of wealth from the ground up. With traditional regulatory and tax-and-spend approaches faltering at every level, the notion that we should create new democratic economic institutions to build wealth, community by community, is quietly gaining traction. We now have the potential for larger and longer-term transformation throughout the nation.

Power for the People

The central idea is simple: people join together through some form of public, community or employee-owned business to meet local needs and thereby regain a measure of local economic democracy and control. Partly self-help, partly community mobilization, and partly sketches for future system-wide expansion, community wealth-building efforts can be found in virtually every region of the country. The range of efforts is vast. Community wealth-building institutions include community development corporations, community development financial institutions, social enterprises, community land trusts, employee-owned enterprises, and cooperatives. All pool capital in ways that create new jobs and anchor jobs in communities.

The efforts also define a new approach to challenging corporate power— a strategy that changes who owns, controls and benefits from the underlying economic wealth of the system. It involves not merely replacing private capital, but displacing it through developing community ownership of business. In other words, profits should flow to workers, consumers or the community—rather than outside investors. And these businesses need to succeed! Increasingly, too, ecological concerns are structured into the very core of many models.

Transformation Everywhere

Examples of the new approach are evident around the world, including worker-cooperatives in Argentina; the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh (which, with its founder, Muhammad Yunus, won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize); and the Mondragón cooperative network in northern Spain, which employs nearly 85,000.

Non-profit social enterprise is a community wealth building strategy through which nonprofits independently secure resources to meet their missions in the absence of adequate government support. In San Francisco, a group known as REDF (formerly the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund) has helped boost the business activity of 50 social enterprises that have employed 6,500 people and earned revenues of more than $115 million. Three-fourths (77 percent) of social enterprise employees interviewed two years later were still working. Average employee wages had increased by nearly one-third (31 percent) and monthly incomes had almost doubled (90 percent). One of the enterprises in REDF’s portfolio is Buckelew Programs, a mental health agency with 220 employees that provides a continuum of services to roughly 7,000 clients each year and operates three social enterprises, including a green café and a green cleaning service, as well as a staffing service. This year, it intends to open a fourth social enterprise, a fresh-cut produce processing business.

In Grayland, Washington, Coastal Community Action—a nonprofit agency that operates a range of housing, food, healthcare, and employment programs—has built a 6 MW wind farm consisting of four wind turbines. The wind farm, which sells energy to the electrical grid, generates enough power to satisfy the energy needs of more than 1,500 households. The nonprofit estimates that its ownership of the $14-million wind turbine project generates $720,000 in unrestricted income each year, enabling it to increase service delivery options, lessen its local dependence on outside funding, and supplement the community's ongoing projects and to meet more of the community's needs.

In Seattle, Pioneer Human Services, founded in 1963, offers drug- and alcohol-free housing, employment, job training, counseling, and education to recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. It employs a total of 1,000 people and finances 99 percent of its $70 million budget through fees for services and earnings generated in the manufacture, distribution and sale of products. Businesses include retail cafés, sheet metal fabrication, aerospace precision machining (it's a contractor for Boeing), wholesale food distribution, and contract packaging. Not only do these enterprises build community wealth and provide independent resources that finance social services, the businesses themselves are central to Pioneer's mission of helping “people on the margins of society” stay out of prison and off the streets, enabling Pioneer to employ more than 700 men and women drawn from the ex-offender, homeless and drug-recovery populations it serves.

Community development corporations (CDCs), formed initially in the 1960s in a crucible of urban riots and rural neglect, now perform important community wealth-building and planning roles in cities and counties across the United States. CDCs can be found in virtually every major city. A Massachusetts study found that between 2003 and 2011, Massachusetts-based CDCs created or preserved over 9,000 homes and 14,000 jobs, while supporting more than 8,000 businesses and 160,000 families, generating nearly $2 billion of economic activity. A 2005 survey found that nationwide an estimated 4,600 CDCs help create 75,000 jobs per year.

Community development financial institutions (CDFIs), first given federal recognition in the 1990s, have the explicit aim of building wealth in low-income communities through providing financing where conventional lenders fear to tread. Even in the face of contracting conventional finance, assets in community investing institutions rose more than 60 percent--from $25.0 billion in 2007 to $41.7 billion--in 2010. In 2008 alone, credit unions financed and assisted businesses and microenterprises that created or maintained 35,624 jobs, financed the construction or renovation of 60,205 units of affordable housing, and provided 16,405 responsible mortgages to first-time and other homebuyers.

Community land trusts provide still another powerful illustration of community wealth building. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, pioneers like Bob Swann in western Massachusetts and Charles Sherrod in Georgia struggled against huge odds to develop modest land trusts efforts, often also involving other concerns, like respect for environmentally sound land use practices and rural community development. Today hundreds exist; in Irvine, California, the city’s strategic plan calls for 5,000 units of housing to be developed using land trust strategies.

Trusts of this kind keep the ownership of land underlying housing in non-profit or public ownership. Appreciation in land values is split via a formula between the homeowner and the trust, thereby avoiding gentrification. A study of a community land trust in Burlington, Vermont — the nation’s largest — also found that during its first two decades, 61.9 percent of residents who sold their land trust home after an average residency of six years were able to “step up” to traditional homeownership. Meanwhile the equity gain that the trust retains enables it to continue providing affordable housing to future generations. In a down market, community land trusts are even more important. Simply put, community land trusts keep people in their homes. A 2011 study found that land trust homeowners were 10 times less likely to be in foreclosure proceedings than conventional homeowners.

Employee ownership is another powerful community wealth-building strategy. The National Center on Employee Ownership (NCEO) estimates that in 2009 there were 9,800 companies owned in whole or part by workers through their pension contributions through a form of ownership known as an employee stock ownership plan or ESOP. As of 2009, there are 10.3 million employee-owners of companies own in whole or part by ESOPs, with net assets of $869 billion. In other words, the average ESOP employee-owner has an ownership stake of over $84,000. NCEO estimates that since 2009 the number of ESOPs has climbed over 10 percent to 10,900 companies.

Employee ownership also has powerful economic stabilizing effects: between 2000 and 2008, while the number of manufacturing jobs fell 29 percent in the state of Ohio, employee-owned manufacturing jobs held steady, dropping only 1 percent. Nationally, in 2010, 12.1 percent of all workers—nearly one in eight—had faced a lay-off in the previous 12 months; by contrast, only 2.6 percent of workers who were employee-owners were laid off.

Sharing the Wealth

Perhaps the most visible form of a community wealth building is the cooperative. More than 130 million Americans are currently members of a co-op or credit union. Because many Americans own shares in more than one co-op or credit union, the total number of co-op memberships in the United States exceeds 350 million. Overall, a 2009 University of Wisconsin study found that nearly 30,000 cooperatives in the U.S. account for more than $3 trillion in assets, $514 billion in total annual revenue, and provide 856,000 jobs.

Credit unions are governed by the core cooperative principle of one-member, one-vote. Importantly, they make their loans directly to their members – member-owners of credit unions can be confident that their deposits will be reemployed productively through loans that help finance local consumer purchases, create jobs and build wealth at home.

Another powerful community wealth-building mechanism is the state-owned bank. In North Dakota, a state-owned bank has operated since 1918, earning the state more than $300 million over the past decade, while helping support local banks and local community investment. Legislation exploring or creating such banks has been introduced this past year in more than a dozen states, including Arizona, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington.

As experience with the various democratized forms has become increasingly enriched over time, innovative strategies of collaboration among enterprises and/or with local governments have also begun to emerge. In California, a comprehensive, community-owned development project consciously links individual and collective wealth building in the diverse working-class Diamond neighborhood in southeast San Diego. With the support of the Jacobs Family Foundation, the community raised philanthropic and government funding to develop a commercial and cultural complex, anchored by a shopping center. A key element was the community public offering, which provided community residents and employees an exclusive opportunity to buy shares (valued at $200 and capped at $10,000) for a total 20 percent ownership stake in the project. As one community owner noted, “That we own stock, and that we have an opportunity to make a difference in what type of business goes in the community [is unbelievable]. We have some say-so in the community environment.”

The Neighborhood Unity Foundation also has a 20 percent ownership share that provides it with a sustainable source of funding for its community wealth building efforts. The Jacobs Family Foundation, which retains 60 percent ownership, intends to turn over its share to community owners by 2018. Ultimately, area residents will own 50 percent of the project and the neighborhood foundation the other 50 percent, retaining the profits generated to benefit the community rather than outside investors.

In Cleveland, Ohio, an integrated group of worker-owned companies, supported in part by the directed purchasing power of large hospitals and universities, has opened a major new vector of urban strategy. The first of Cleveland’s planned network of cooperatives opened its doors for business in September 2009. The co-op industrial scale laundry is a state-of-the-art, ecologically green, commercial facility capable of handling 10 million pounds of healthcare linen a year. Its sophisticated business plan provides all employee-owners a living wage and health benefits. If current projections are realized after seven years on the job each employee will have a $65,000 equity stake in the enterprise.

In October 2009 a second employee-owned, community-based energy company began large-scale installations of solar panels for the city’s largest nonprofit health, education and municipal buildings. (Additionally, it provides home weatherization services.) A third business scheduled to start operations this year is a year-round hydroponic food production greenhouse capable of producing three million head of lettuce and approximately 300,000 pounds of basil and other herbs a year.

More to Come

Many other enterprises are in the planning stage. Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson praised the co-ops for being "a model for how we can put our people back to work and rebuild our community." A growing number of economic development officials, tired of chasing corporations with public subsidy dollars, like the idea of creating anchored, community-owned enterprises that won’t get up and move. Already, the Cleveland co-ops have inspired efforts in other cities to develop similar networks, including Amarillo, Texas; Atlanta, Georgia; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Washington, DC.

Community wealth-building strategies offer powerful possibilities for longer-term change. First, in most instances, the new wealth-democratizing approaches provide responses (or suggestive directions of response) to economic dislocation and social pain where traditional political approaches have failed. Second, in many instances, they involve quite unusual local alliances, frequently including small business and religious leader support. Third, often the institutional trajectories have also begun to define (and secure) new supportive measures from local, state and national policy makers, thereby also beginning to define new directions for potential ongoing and more expansive policy and political action. Finally, that they are based in local, everyday experience may also lead to changes in the foundations of political and democratic cultural development over time.

Together the above suggest a long, slow developmental arc left in the wake of the failure of conventional politics and economics. And already, a growing number of Occupy activists are looking to worker-owned cooperatives as a way to self-fund the movement, displace corporate economic space, and develop an economic base that can support alternative economic and political formations. The path to building a truly democratic economy may be long, but the growing base of community wealth building institutions provide some building blocks that, over time, suggests the quiet development, potentially, of the basis for a community-sustaining economy that serves the interest of all Americans, rather than our current system which disproportionately benefits the wealthiest at the expense of the 99 percent.

Steve Dubb is research director of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland.

By Steve Dubb

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