A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is a legally binding contract between a community and a developer that includes commitments the developer will make to the neighborhood, in exchange for the community’s support. In essence, the CBA process is a negotiation between a developer and a community to create a plan to meet the community’s needs. It is not a way to prevent a development from being built.
While a community should base a CBA on the needs of the collective group, common promises in a CBA include:
- affordable housing requirements
- living wage standards for employees
- community services (or funding for these programs)
- access to the space
- workshops or job training programs
- one-time payments to community groups or residents
- hiring standards to ensure the workforce is local and made up of people of color and other disadvantaged workers, such as returning citizens.
In return, community members commit to support the development as well; for instance, they might agree to attend public meetings or help the company recruit staff and contractors.
Local proponents of CBAs say that the city of Chicago has aggressively subsidized economic development that has disproportionately benefited wealthy developers and corporations without protecting or benefiting communities of color and low-income residents. “A strong CBA can be an important counter-weight to an economic development approach that focuses on corporate profit while displacing Black and brown people,” says Ben Beach, legal director at Partnership for Working Families.
According to the Partnership for Working Families, a successful CBA contract should include a roadmap for how the developer will achieve its goals and detail the consequences if they are not met. Since a CBA is a contract, if the developer doesn’t follow through, the community coalition could sue the developer for breach of contract.
What are the steps to creating a CBA?
The process for setting up a CBA isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario. We spoke with a few CBA veterans to create this list of key steps. (Thanks to Jawanza Malone, formerly of the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition; Amalia NietoGomez, Alliance of the SouthEast and the Coalition for a South Works CBA; Mike Tomas, Garfield Park Community Council; Clifford Helm, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights; and Kassie Beyer, Jobs to Move America; for their input).
Step One: Research
Who is the developer and have they made any public statements about working with the local community? Where and when is the development slated to open? Sometimes a developer is open to negotiating community benefits from the beginning, and they will proactively work with community groups to host meetings and create an agreement. But that’s pretty rare. In most cases, residents need to keep an eye out for new developments and initiate the CBA process.
The best way to do this is to build relationships with your local alder’s office and community groups by showing up to events and engaging in person and on social media. Sign up for newsletters, including local news outlets. Not all projects are discussed by City Council, but you can stay up to date about some incoming developments by following the Chicago Plan Commission, Community Development Commission, Chicago Department of Planning and Development and Zoning Board of Appeals. Here residents can observe the deliberations over development proposals legislation that’s required for them to move forward. (Note: Documenters.org is a database run by City Bureau that collects all agendas, notes and other reporting on public government meetings.)
Step Two: Make the community’s initial list of demands
Bring as much of the community together as possible. You might lean on networks that already exist (block clubs, community groups, local school councils) or do your own outreach via social media, attending local events, flyering and inviting folks you know in the neighborhood.
Share the information you’ve gathered about the development. Ask: Do people even want the development there in the first place? What measurable, permanent improvements do we want from the developer? Try to find common ground with your neighbors and note your shared interests and needs. This will help attract more people and build power within your community.
Step Three: Connect with other communities and form a coalition
Reach out to existing organizations and networks to garner support outside your own bubble. Who else might be affected by this development? People in your original group might have contacts that you don’t have, and momentum from your first meetings might encourage people to attend who were not interested when you reached out originally. It’s critical to bring more people into the fold. The larger your coalition, the more pressure you can put on a developer and city officials to work with you. Now is also a good time to reach out to people who have already negotiated CBAs to share skills and resources.
Step Four: Strengthen your draft CBA with expert testimony and data
Have an expert, such as public health and housing researchers, chime in. They can provide statistical data to back up the community’s arguments for what they are asking for, or for what they see as a threat.
Because a CBA is a legally binding contract, it’s important to reach out to civil rights attorneys who understand the legal language. Attorneys can help residents understand their rights, the development process, land use policy and zoning codes.
Step Five: Form a negotiation team
While forming a broad coalition is important, it helps to have a core group of community members who function as a steering committee and/or negotiation team. This group can include legal counsel and experienced negotiators to address legal issues, but it must be reflective of the community.
Discuss and vote ahead of time on what you want this process to look like. Some community groups will prefer to negotiate first and bring in attorneys later to finalize the language, but if a developer negotiates through an attorney then community groups should include legal counsel throughout the process as well. (See bit.ly/cba_handbook for more information on negotiation teams.)
Your team should strategize about which goals are most important to your coalition and which items to bring up earlier in the process. Some goals related to buildings and environmental concerns (affordable housing, size, environmental remediation, zoning changes, etc.) should be brought up first, ideally before permits and approvals are granted, and definitely before construction or site work begins. Other goals that deal with jobs and operations could be ongoing conversations that don’t face the same time crunch—though you could benefit from starting the conversation early. Either way, once the plans are approved by the city, they are much more difficult to change—and the members of the coalition may have significantly less leverage.
Step Six: Negotiate with developers
This process varies wildly, depending on the willingness of the developer to work with the community. An initial conversation with a developer could be a simple information exchange that establishes communication lines. Here is where the negotiation plan and strategy, agreed upon by the coalition, will come in handy.
CBAs often require a public campaign to draw attention to the development and put pressure on the developer. This could include social media messaging, protests and grassroots outreach to community members and possibly elected officials. At the end of the negotiation, the CBA needs to be signed by the developer and coalition partners. Signers should be determined by the CBA coalition.
Step Seven: Monitoring and enforcement
If the community group is able to win a CBA, members of the coalition need to monitor the developer over time to make sure it is following through on its promises. There needs to be clear language in the CBA about who will be in charge of enforcing the agreement, the timeline for reaching specific milestones and accountability measures if the developer does not meet its commitments. There’s no template for what accountability should look like. However, it should be based on what the coalition asked for during negotiations.
The People’s Guide
City Bureau’s Will That New Development Benefit Your Community? The People’s Guide to Community Benefits Agreements and Alternatives informs, engages and equips Chicago residents to be active participants in the development process. Want to share this zine with your neighbors? You can read the full version and order print copies in English and Spanish at citybureau.org/cba