Don't Give Up on America's Sandtowns

06/03/2015 06:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

The past few weeks have been difficult for residents of Baltimore and those who have worked for decades to improve life in the city. Rioting, protests and emotional confrontations on city streets have placed Baltimore in an uncomfortable national spotlight.

But the issues that plague Sandtown are not unique to Baltimore. As we increasingly understand what it takes to turn around struggling communities, we should apply these lessons to Sandtown and communities like it everywhere.

As the smoke from Sandtown clears, the question for Maryland's political and business leaders -- and for the country as a whole -- is clear: Are we willing to make the necessary long-term investment to turn our distressed communities around for good? If the answer is no, then we'll be having the same conversation in another 25 years, and the Sandtowns of America will perpetually be one spark away from burning.

25 years ago, Mayor Kurt Schmoke, community leaders and James Rouse, the founder of Enterprise Community Partners, where I am President and CEO, selected Sandtown as the site of what was to be a sweeping revitalization effort. The initiative had positive impacts for residents in the neighborhood: homeownership rose, hundreds of affordable homes were created or renovated, several schools showed dramatically improved test scores and the poverty rate dropped. But it's evident that Sandtown today, like too many other impoverished communities around the country, fell short of its vision for a complete urban transformation.

Revitalizing neighborhoods that have been cut off from opportunity for generations takes time, patience and sustained investment. America's struggling communities did not fall into distress overnight, nor will they be turned around swiftly. They need sustained resources and comprehensive, collaborative solutions from the public, private and nonprofit sectors alike -- and they need our collective will to get the job done.

There is a way forward. I look to successful revitalization efforts like those at Faubourg Lafitte in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, where a once-distressed public housing site is becoming a true community of opportunity. At Lafitte, a broad coalition of public and private partners, including Enterprise, has created a community with quality homes, access to health, education and recreational programs and public transit. Thousands of residents now have meaningful connections to jobs, hospitals and excellent charter schools.

The lessons for Baltimore are many. The changes at Faubourg Lafitte are the result of nearly ten years of thoughtful planning, targeted public and private sector investment and, importantly, resident engagement. This success in New Orleans can help us take the long view as we work to build opportunity in Sandtown and communities like it across the country.

Community leaders in Baltimore have already implemented several programs that are making a difference and will continue to do so in the long term. A number of organizations are collaborating to support the School-Centered Neighborhood Investment Initiative, which is working with a pilot cluster of schools to focus on specific community development initiatives. The city is working with local partners to fill thousands of job slots for eligible youth in a summer jobs program. And Baltimore is working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to bring more federal assistance into the community to support anti-poverty work.

As a start, we should support these initiatives and others like them, as well as the countless community leaders who are dedicated to the future of this city, giving them the resources needed to sustain their work for generations to come.

Long-term problems demand long-term solutions. To successfully meet the challenges in our communities, we need everyone at the table. And we need everyone to stay there until every Sandtown in America is truly full of opportunity. That means safe, healthy and affordable homes. That means access to good schools and jobs. That means that young men and women can walk safely down the street without fear of violence or harassment.

The question, finally, is not whether we can do what's necessary, but whether we will. It's a question we need to answer, and soon, because thousands of cities -- and lives -- hang in the balance.