Community Development

The community development sector includes professionals from multiple fields that share a common focus: improving low- and moderate-income communities. They come from real estate, city planning, law, social work, public policy, public health, affordable housing, and finance fields.

How is community development related to health?

The community development sector focuses its efforts on low- and moderate-income communities. Many of the root causes of poverty and poor health are the same.

Neighborhood conditions – factors like housing, community safety, quality education, employment opportunities, and access to healthy foods – play a critical role in the health of a community. By improving well-being in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, community development affects the root causes of poor health.

Working together, community development and health leaders can have a greater impact on low-income neighborhoods and the lives of people living in them.

Community Development and Health

Community development and health are working side by side in the same neighborhoods and often with the same residents but often don’t know each other or coordinate efforts.

David Williams
Harvard School of Public Health, Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America

What can community development professionals do to build healthy communities?

Community development leaders are, by the very nature of what they do, working to build healthy communities.

While the sector includes professionals from multiple fields, some of the key players in this world are:

  • Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) -- Private financial institutions dedicated to delivering responsible, affordable lending to help people experiencing low-income, low-wealth, and other disadvantages join the economic mainstream.
  • Community Development Corporations (CDCs) -- Neighborhood-level, nonprofit organizations that implement community development projects ranging from the development of affordable housing and community centers to job training and health services.
  • Affordable housing developers, specifically those that address social determinants of health.

Invest. Investing in low- and moderate-income communities is core to the mission of most who work in community development. Changemakers in the sector invest in communities by developing and financing:

  • Affordable housing
  • Businesses
  • Community centers
  • Health clinics
  • Job-training programs
  • Services to support children and families
  • Charter schools

Community development leaders also leverage many types of capital including:

  • Grantmaker program-related investments
  • Health care community benefit dollars
  • Bank Community Reinvestment Act funds

Community Reinvestment Act

Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) is a federal law that requires banks to meet the credit needs of the communities they serve, particularly individuals and businesses in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.

CRA was developed in response to “redlining” practices in which banks deemed particular neighborhoods—typically low-income or predominantly minority neighborhoods—unfit for investment. CRA compliance is monitored by three bank regulatory agencies: the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC).

CDFIs serve as the financial intermediaries between low-income communities and commercial banks to ensure that the banks can meet their CRA requirements.

CRA-funded projects have traditionally focused on affordable housing and business development but today include investments like grocery stores, charter schools, health clinics, and other community facilities that address the social determinants of health. In 2011, financial institutions made $209 billion in CRA loans.1

Advocate for policy. Community development professionals are also key decision makers for policies and programs that impact communities in myriad ways. Leaders in the field are working on a variety of approaches related to housing, transportation, building social capital within communities, and creating opportunities for active living and healthy eating.

By addressing root causes of poverty, community development efforts also address the root causes of poor health.

Build and maintain the community. Investments in low-income neighborhoods don’t come without risk of displacement.  As a neighborhood gentrifies, community development and community leaders need to work to ensure that all voices are at the table to minimize displacement -- both physical and emotional -- which can impact longtime residents.2

  • Physical displacement: Longtime residents can no longer afford to live in their community.
  • Emotional displacement: Longtime residents remain, but the fabric of the community has changed. Costs are higher and they have fewer services to meet their needs.

Changemakers have a role to play in making these changes equitable. Strategies that can help communities find the right mix of investment without too much change:

  • Community building.
  • Advocating for policies that protect longtime residents. Things like rent control, compensation for displacement, right to return, relocation benefits, or caps on condo conversions can help.
  • Advocating for policies that ensure affordable housing.
  • Requiring health impact assessments (HIAs).1

HIAs identify the potential effects of a proposed policy, project, or program. They offer practical options for maximizing health benefits while minimizing health risks. 

Measure your impact. MeasureUp, from the Build Healthy Places Network, is a collection of tools that can help you assess health impact in community development efforts.

Play community quarterback. Community development organizations often play the role of “community quarterback” -- bringing people together from multiple sectors to address community issues such as public safety or academic achievement. More and more connections are being made between community development and traditional health partners like health care organizations and public health agencies.

Leading the Field

Look to various thought leaders for effective strategies or innovations in the field such as:

  • Federal Reserve System: District Banks are a system of 12 Federal Reserve District Banks. Each bank contains a community development function, which promotes fair and informed access to financial markets for communities and individuals.
  • Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), also a CDFI, supports neighborhood revitalization by providing financing, technical and management assistance, training opportunities, and policy support.
  • Low-Income Investment Fund (LIIF), a community development financial institution (CDFI), provides innovative capital solutions that support healthy families and communities.
  • Opportunity Finance Network is the nation’s leading CDFI trade association.
  • Rural LISC provides a wide range of services, including training, technical assistance, information and financial support, to help rural community developers address the problems rural communities face.

How can you connect with community development?

Do your research

First, find out who leads community development in your local community. These groups often operate at a sub-county level. Here are a couple helpful places to start:

  • Build Healthy Places Network’s Partner Finder offers a collection of directories to help you find the community development and health organizations nearest to you.
  • Local city and county planning staff.

What kind of work are they currently doing? Once you’ve identified organizations involved in community development, start with their website. Look for their priorities and information about existing partnerships. 

Look for common ground and common language. As communities work to address root causes, the common ground between community development and health has become more apparent. Issues like housing, community safety, quality education, employment opportunities, and access to healthy foods are ripe for collaboration.

Here are some resources that can help:

  • Build Healthy Places Network aims to catalyze and support collaboration across the health and community development sectors. Check out their site for curated resources and examples of what works to help partner across sectors.
  • The Jargon Buster tool, from Build Healthy Places Network, can help community development and health partners speak the same language.

Get connected

Now that you’ve got some context, look for a way to connect with a person. Ideally, you’ve identified one or more key changemakers in the organization. This could be the agency director or the person who heads community outreach.

If you have a mutual partner, ask for a warm introduction. If not, introduce yourself. Community development leaders are often eager to connect with other changemakers who are focused on improving low- and moderate-income communities. As with anyone, it’s helpful to start by asking about their efforts and priorities.

What’s in it for them?

Mission. Investing in communities is core to the mission of most who work in community development. Connecting with other changemakers can help to build their network and support the work they already do.  

​Data. Public health and health care partners often have data that can help drive decisions about where efforts will have the greatest impact.

Not sure where to start?

Build Healthy Places Network’s Partner Finder offers a collection of directories to help you find the community development and health organizations nearest to you.


  1. Build Healthy Places Network. Jargon Buster. September 25, 2017.
  2. Ray B. Whose City Is it? The Promise and Peril of Gentrification. Crosswalk Magazine. Published 2016. Accessed September 26, 2017.

Learn From This Community

2017 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner: San Pablo, California

The City of San Pablo, CA tries to remove barriers so as many residents as possible can participate in planning meetings or forums on issues that affect them. It holds events at multiple times and different venues, often offering childcare and food, as well as translators.

“By including every sector of the community, we actively engage our residents and encourage them to be a part of the decision-making process,” says Greg Dwyer, the city’s director of community services. 

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