Odette Ramos: New Challenges, New Leader for Community Development Network of Md.

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Claudia Wilson Randall takes over as the new executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland. She is the right leader for the next phase of CDN’s development to meet the needs of our industry and the people it serves throughout the state.

It has been my great honor to serve as the Community Development Network of Maryland’s executive director from April 2013 to now. We transitioned the organization from the Asset Building Community Development Network to the Community Development Network of Maryland in 2013, and CDN became an independent 501c3 in 2014.

We launched the annual Community Development Week in 2014, and it has become a successful week of highlighting community development across the state each year. That same year we instituted the regional coalitions as a way to make sure we are hearing from members across the state about their needs.

CDN has become the thought leader in community development and affordable housing across the state and sought-after experts for the General Assembly. We passed legislation to protect homeowners and reduce vacancies, end source of income discrimination, provide more tools to jurisdictions to eradicate vacant and abandoned properties, and more. These are a few of the accomplishments I’ve had the privilege of working on with all of you.

Odette Ramos

I was on leave from January to June of this year to run for city council in Baltimore City’s 14th District. I won my primary and have been back in my role since then. I had intended to step down in December when I get sworn in so I can be a full-time city councilwoman.

I am stepping down from the role of executive director now for many reasons.

Last year, we hired Claudia as our associate director. While I have been on leave, she has been a stellar leader for CDN throughout the COVID-19 crisis and in the General Assembly. She deserves the title, responsibility and recognition as executive director now.

In addition, I am a parent of an 8-year-old third-grader in Baltimore City Public Schools. I have to take the time to dedicate myself to virtual school, which is going to be challenging. I have to get her into the routine before I get sworn in so that my husband can take over in December. I am one of many parents making sacrifices to support virtual learning. But I have the luxury of doing so. Many parents do not have the flexibility from their employers to make this work. I am worried about them.

CDN has prepared me for my new role. Our work these past eight years advocating for more funding for community development, passing legislation that helps families and communities, and learning from all of you, is valuable experience I could not have found anywhere else. I absolutely value the conversations we’ve had across the state to understand the community development needs and the challenges of figuring out how we can address them.

I leave this role and move into my next one in the midst of a new community development crisis, one made specifically by the lack of federal and state government leadership during the COVID-19 crisis. We anticipate thousands of families will lose their homes through eviction and foreclosure.

While the governor’s order is still in place, renters have to make the specific case their lack of income is due to COVID. Renters are not guaranteed representation in court, which does not allow them a fighting chance. We must change this.

The state only made available $30 million in rental assistance for the entire state. It is important to advocate for $75 million in CARES Act funding available for more rental assistance and think of innovative solutions to this problem.

The need for affordable housing has just increased exponentially. While the state has excelled in providing low-income housing tax credits and innovative programs for both rental and homeownership projects, much more needs to be done.

We have been waiting three years for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to create and release its statewide needs assessment to determine the specific housing needs, in order to make policy and funding decisions based on data.

During the 2017 General Assembly, CDN worked with the Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition and members of the House Appropriations Committee to insert language in the budget requiring the assessment. I anticipate the results will show more affordable housing for older adults is needed, as well as permanent supportive housing to address the massive homeless crisis and eviction crisis. These developments will take time to build, but we can do it. I look forward to seeing the assessment hopefully later this year.

Housing counseling organizations dismantled their foreclosure prevention apparatus a couple of years ago, when the impact of the 2008 great recession had started to dissipate. Maryland must invest in the housing counseling agencies again to help residents avoid foreclosure and land on their feet during and after the coming recession.

Two years ago, HB1209 was passed in the General Assembly providing more protections for homeowners from tax sale. Parts of this legislation authorized jurisdictions to come up with ways to ensure the properties owned by older adults, low-income families and disabled individuals could be taken out of tax sale. Tax sale is the predatory process of collecting taxes, liens and other fines, and generally older adults are the targets. Jurisdictions should implement these protections because we know more families could fall prey to tax sale as families are unable to pay for basic needs given the COVID-19 crisis.

Now is the right time to implement the Land Bank and other legislation creating more tools to address vacant and abandoned properties that CDN and partners advocated for in the General Assembly a few years ago. With a recession imminent, we want to avoid speculative landlords gaining access to properties they will just hold onto. Using these tools to address vacant and abandoned properties now will enable growth and transition in neighborhoods in an equitable way.

Retail establishments in main street and neighborhood corridor areas are suffering.

There is very little aid to businesses to help them through this crisis. The Paycheck Protection Program offered short-term relief, but we are seeing businesses close across the state because they cannot make their models work or are not getting a break from their landlords. Maryland, through the Departments of Commerce, and Housing and Community Development, along with local advocacy from the Maryland and Baltimore Main Streets programs need to address this head on.

No one can deny that most of our counties, municipalities and towns are segregated. Long-standing systemic racism dictated lending and development. While the Fair Housing Act has helped nullify these policies, we still see systemically racist policy making and practices.

Ensuring the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, of which CDN is a founder, is fully supported will help bring such practices to light. Policy makers and executives must make decisions with an equitable lens, understanding the historic racism in our communities and working to dismantle the current practices. The health crisis amplified the need to change this trajectory.

CDN has navigated difficult waters before, we can do it again.

Claudia’s leadership, the board of directors’ support, and members’ input and guidance, will enable CDN to advocate for families and communities to address the concerns outlined.

One day a couple of years ago, during one of our regional meetings, members started talking about CDN using the word “we.” It was at that moment — that moment — when I knew CDN had become more than just one person. It is all of the community development members and partners who work day in and day out to improve their communities.

I am honored to have been part of this journey.

Thank you to the CDN Board of Directors for your confidence and support throughout the past almost eight years, particularly your flexibility this year. Thank you to our members for your work in your communities. Thank you to our partners and funders who know it is important to invest in community development. Thank you to our champion legislators who continue to lead on these issues.

I look forward to working with all of you in my new role and continuing the progress we’ve made as an industry.

CDN is in a great position to address today’s challenges because of all of you.

— ODETTE T. RAMOS

The writer was the executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland beginning in April 2013. She left the position in August. She is the Democratic nominee for Baltimore City Council in District 14.