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Perspective from Los Angeles

Comprehensive community development is a diverse field, with a wide range of communities, programs and people who are leading the way. In this new occasional series, our Loreal Mallett is talking with practitioners from around the country to hear about their work and how they approach the job of operating a comprehensive community initiative.

Claudia Lima joined LISC Los Angeles in 2010 and became its executive director this March. Her experience includes serving as a senior loan officer with the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF) and in project management for an affordable housing developer. She is responsible for overseeing all activities of LA LISC including the lending and grant making activities, identifying and creating capacity building and programmatic initiatives needed for the local market and fundraising for operations and programs.

Claudia Lima

Can you tell us what LISC Los Angeles is up to now?

During 2011 we ramped up lending. We got $7.2 million of loans approved, more than 60 percent of that closed during that year and then some the following year.

And we deployed approximately $1 million in grants. We got two major initiatives going. One is the reassessment of a Quality-of-Life plan which was completed in January 2012. It’s giving us a great deal of information on some of the things that we need to implement moving forward.

The second major initiative is the Commercial Corridor Initiative. We’re currently finalizing phase two. The purchasing power of our communities is great and we are not taking advantage of it.

What are those communities?

For lending and equity we cover all of Los Angeles County, Orange County and Ventura County. However, for our place-based work, under the Building Sustainable Communities initiative, we have three communities that are under that umbrella: Boyle Heights, the Vernon-Central community and the Crenshaw community.

We also have two additional informal communities: the Little Tokyo area and the Figueroa Corridor, which is very, very close to downtown.

LA LISC's Commercial Corridor Revitalization Initiative is employing a set of tools developed by LISC and community development banks.

What are some of the challenges facing these communities?

Part of what we’ve seen is that a lot of the nonprofits in our area—or pretty much everywhere in LA County and probably even Southern California—have been hit very hard by the recession.

Beginning with the 2008 economic crash, we began to see a very, very strong credit crunch. Banks were not really lending for small businesses and had stepped back credit around affordable housing units. So we began to see a lot of nonprofits having to use up their cash because their real estate projects had stalled or because they couldn’t access a line of credit.

In addition, because of the recession and the budget crisis, a lot of the contracts at the federal, state and local levels have also been cut. So we’re seeing contracts for social safety nets that have either been reduced or completely eliminated at a time when the need is even larger. 

So our nonprofits have lost revenue and a lot of them are scrambling to either replace the lost revenue with additional contracts. But new government contracts take three to six months to pay on a reimbursement basis, which means that the nonprofits must have cash upfront to be able to execute on the contract. We are seeing a lot of them having difficulty with their cash flow.

A large portion of the nonprofits we serve are charter schools. And the state of California is deferring 38 percent of the revenues of any public school into the next school year. While at the same time [the schools] still need to pay their teachers, they still need to pay the lights, they still need to pay for the books and overhead of running their schools. And so, again, we’re seeing a cash flow problem with that.

The other major shift that we’re seeing here is related to transit. The new light rail systems that are going in—some of which have already been built and some of which are in construction and some of which will begin construction pretty soon—they are going through all of these communities and there really hasn’t been a lot of community input. Not to the point where we can say that the developments that are going to go along this light rails are going to be equitable.

Work has started at the 28th St. YMCA Residences, an adaptive re-use of an historic YMCA that was designed by renowned African American architect Paul Revere Williams.

And so we’re working with a lot of these communities to help put a voice into the development process so that they can take advantage of some of the benefits. We want to make sure that there’s affordable housing there, that community facilities are there, that their local communities can access some of those jobs.

A lot of the local CDCs may not have the capacity to really take on a transit or [associated] development because these are large, large developments. So there is a challenge around that as well.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in this work?

For true transformation you need to have economic capital, money. You can not do anything without that.

But you also need to work with the communities to increase their social capital, making sure that the communities know who are the power players and have all of the power players talk to each other.

You have to increase political capital, making sure that these communities understand how they need to organize so that they can access and have their council members, the governor, the mayor talk on their behalf.

You need to build human capital, investing in workforce development, job-training opportunities, education. That is the human capital that you’re bringing to those communities.

And lastly, the cultural aspect of our work. Making sure that the cultural vitality is also something to preserve. Because that is the identity of a community. And so everybody talks about preservation of housing or preservation of cultural assets. But nobody really talks about preservation of the cultural vitality of those communities to ensure that the community keeps enjoying their identity.

In August, the transformation of the historic Boyle Hotel into 51 housing units and the Mariachi Cultural Center will be complete.

Can you describe how the work you do is comprehensive?

Oh yes, definitely. An example is one of our organizations that we have funded that has a YouthBuild program.

A youth can finish high school through the charter school, can get training through the YouthBuild program, which is job skills, and then if they’re interested can get an associates degree, you know, and move into the community college.

The wonderful thing about this is that since YouthBuild is related to the construction trades, we’ve been able to have some of those youths get actual construction skills in some of the affordable housing units that we have also funded.

And so it’s actually a great program because we’re doing the physical aspect of it, which is the real estate, and at the same time we’re building job skills and increasing the human capital of these youth. A lot of these youths didn’t have a lot of other opportunities, and this program has pretty much has changed their trajectory. 

A mural in Boyle Heights, a community interested in preserving its Latino heritage.

Sounds like very rewarding work. In community development, a lot of people are retiring. Are there issues that you as a younger person in community development think that the sector should be thinking about?

Well, I mentioned earlier that cultural vitality is an important piece that a lot of the intermediaries and other CDFIs are not paying attention to.

In Vernon-Central community there is a historic jazz district. When there was still segregation, a lot of prominent African-American leaders stayed in the hotels in that community. And from there this Jazz district was born 

We should embrace that history and make sure that it is included as part of the comprehensive transformation of that community. Let’s not lose that. You know, that is something we should save.

Or in Boyle Heights, which is more of a Latino district, there is [an interest] in the formation of an arts district. If the community feels it is important, it should definitely be part of the quality-of life-plan.

Looking at the cultural vitality of a community should be part of looking at how to transform a community in a comprehensive way, which I don’t think a lot of the intermediaries now are doing.

Posted in Implementing, Los Angeles, Commercial and Economic Development

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