In the early 1980s, an urban planner named Rick Cohen arrived at City Limits’ tiny office on West 23rd Street with a clutch of stories about poor people being pushed out of Jersey City to make way for major government-assisted development projects . Worse, as Cohen was able to meticulously document in a steady stream of articles, the cleansing was being accomplished with the use of federal HUD grants intended to benefit low income residents.
Brilliant, big-hearted and tireless, Cohen was so good at what he did that when a progressive administration was later elected in Jersey City, he was hired as director of housing and economic development where he helped show that growth didn’t have to mean displacement.
He later put that know-how to work for several housing advocacy groups, including Local Initiatives Support Corporation and the Enterprise Foundation. After moving to Washington, D.C., he headed the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy where he served as a tough watchdog on those in the business of doling out money to do good.
Working as an investigative journalist and consultant in recent years, he both spotlighted fraud and abuse in the charitable world as well as highlighting examples of enlightened philanthropy while urging everyone to do more. His last piece, datelined yesterday for the Non-Profit Quarterly, where Cohen had worked as a national correspondent since 2006, urged nonprofits not to “dodge” their responsibilities in the national debate about aiding Syrian refugees.
Shortly after that piece went on line, the Quarterly announced Cohen’s sudden death at the age of 64 on its website. “The world is immeasurably poorer for the loss of him,” the publication said in a statement.
“He was an enormously generous man,” said Marc Jahr, who worked with Cohen at LISC. “He had an encyclopedic memory on all things about planning and housing, a sharp strategic sense, and fine politics.”