Volume 17, Number 47 | April 15 — 21, 2005

Talking point

Equity and faith needed in community spending plan

By Daniel H. Bush

Last week the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation released guidelines for how remaining 9/11 Community Development Block Grant money should be spent.

The word “Equity” leaps out from among the themes the L.M.D.C. identified as significant. Equity, or the lack of it, is something that religious leaders and 9/11 relief agencies are acutely familiar with. This is because people go to spiritual leaders and faith-based relief agencies when they have nowhere else to turn. After 9/11 those who were in dire need were primarily immigrants, low-income people, people of color – those who lost loved ones, or livelihoods, those whose stories were often ignored.

While the L.M.D.C. acted quickly allocating funds to corporate business retention and aiding the real estate market, immigrants and low-income individuals were forced to seek other means of sustenance and support for their families. The L.M.D.C.’s residential grant initiative for retention did nothing to alleviate the struggle of low-income families for housing. Many have faced eviction proceedings since 9/11.

For faith communities still actively engaged in 9/11 recovery work and the clergy serving Lower Manhattan houses of worship two things are particularly urgent: the housing and the health of Lower Manhattan residents.

After 9/11 the mayor articulated a vision that ascribed $293 million of the C.D.B.G. money for low-income and affordable housing. The need for this housing was and is urgent: the partners of New York Disaster Interfaith Services, through the NYC 9/11 Unmet Needs Roundtable, have put more than $2 million toward eviction prevention for people directly impacted by 9/11. Out of more the $4 million the Roundtable has distributed to 9/11 victims, housing ranks as the greatest need. Yet the L.M.D.C. has not started to turn the $50 million they did promise for mixed-income housing into housing.

The health of Lower Manhattan residents is another area where diligent spending could help to alleviate inequity. At the recent March 16 public forum at University Settlement, Father Kevin Madigan of Saint Peter’s Church (which is across from ground zero) spoke movingly about how his congregants have suffered adversely in terms of health. He highlighted the experience of low-income parishioners who were not able to move away from W.T.C. toxins, as wealthier residents could. Medical studies are now showing the public health impact of these toxins, particularly on children. There’s an urgent need for a medical screening and treatment program for Lower Manhattan residents like the one that exists for ground zero recovery workers. An investment in this type of program is especially urgent for immigrant residents of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, a significant number of whom are without health care.

Equity also means workers displaced by 9/11 getting good jobs as new projects get going at and around the 16-acre site; a vibrant and diverse mix of jobs with good minimum salaries and career ladders leading to the middle class. The L.M.D.C. can set the standard by requiring that work done with L.M.D.C. funds meet requirements for wages, benefits, and training opportunities.

One initiative the L.M.D.C. should have funded is the co-op restaurant former Windows on the World workers plan to open through the organization they’ve created, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York. Their project is a powerful model of what recovery should look like: an impacted group of victims (in this case underserved immigrant victims) creating a resilient enterprise; one that would draw people to the neighborhood as surely as the Tribeca Film Festival, which the L.M.D.C. funded. Because they never got an answer from the L.M.D.C., the group signed a lease for a smaller space in the Village. They are only one outstanding example of how equity could be concretely realized in the spending plan

The L.M.D.C. is to be applauded for meeting with clergy and community leaders, for listening to needs, but the L.M.D.C. has yet to show they’ve heard these needs by taking appropriate action. The public hearing the L.M.D.C. has announced for Wednesday April 27 at 6pm at the U.S. Customs House at 1 Bowling Green is a meaningful opening. But much depends on whether the L.M.D.C. uses it to dialogue with underserved members of the community about using the remaining money equitably.

There exists a danger in the debate over remaining C.D.B.G. funds, of pitting the grief of 9/11 families and the need for a memorial at ground zero against the needs of low-income communities that continue to suffer because of the fallout of the attacks. The religious community recognizes both sets of needs as sacred, and sometimes overlapping. We believe both needs can be addressed justly, but only through open dialog, with leadership that helps groups work together rather than compete.

The L.M.D.C. has begun to meet with religious leaders about the building of the memorial at ground zero, a particularly sensitive issue since the attacks of September 11 were an act of violence in the name of religion. Spiritual leaders hope the memorial will inspire visitors with what is redemptive and healing in our traditions as a community. Yet this work will not be achieved by the memorial site alone but by the living memorial that groups are struggling to create together through enterprises of restoration and resilience. Achieving equity through diligently spent recovery funds is a key catalyst to this process.

Daniel H. Bush is the director of 9/11 Recovery and Victim Advocacy for New York Disaster Interfaith Services, a federation of faith-based disaster relief agencies.

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