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An Era of Federal Opportunity for Cities and Regions?

Neal Peirce / Feb 13 2010

For Release Sunday, February 14, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce WASHINGTON — For America’s cities and regions, this seems the worst of times. But take a look at their partnership with the federal government. It’s a rapid turn for the better.

Check virtually any local budget and the dark side slams you in the face. Tax receipts are taking a deep dive while cities’ needs, from sheltering the homeless to employees’ health coverage to storm recovery costs, are on the upswing. With slow recovery in jobs and property values, mayors and county officials will have a torturously tough job well into this decade.

But check the Obama fiscal 2011 budget, together with companion moves the White House is making to coordinate federal assistance to cities and metro regions. There’s a silver lining to these “worst” times.

One example: the budget asks Congress to approve $1 billion for the new National Housing Trust Fund–a key way for communities to fill the yawning shortage of affordable housing for their lowest income residents.

Plus, the administration is asking an extra $85 million to finance 10,000 added housing vouchers. In a break from many recent years, it’s requested 100 percent of the actual operating costs for public housing. A consolidated $350 million rental housing initiative would, it’s claimed, preserve 300,000 otherwise threatened assisted housing units. Community Development Block Grants would be funded at close to $4 billion. And the administration is asking Congress to make permanent its Build America bonds program, designed to cut cities’ costs for infrastructure projects.

Compared to the “cities-come-last” budget decisions of the Bush years, the contrast is vivid.

But there are two added, potentially decisive innovations in the Obama urban approach.

First, there’s the Obama crew’s steps to work around the “silos” of separate federal departments to make revenue streams for communities work in mutually reinforcing ways.

The radical idea of closely collaborating agencies emerged last June with an unprecedented agreement of the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation, plus the Environmental Protection Agency. Their “Partnership for Sustainable Communities” aims to embrace better quality and energy-efficient housing, access to adequate public transit, good jobs, quality schools, safe streets and environmental protections–regardless of which department’s technically responsible. The goal’s to have the federal government “speak with one voice” in its field operations.

The partner agencies are now moving forward on that agenda. HUD, for example, has a new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, guided by Deputy Secretary Ron Sims, who learned the ropes of metro-area coordination as King County (Wash.) executive, and directed by Shelley Poticha, former president of the policy group “Reconnecting America.”

Add in Obama’s pitch for $1.8 billion worth of speeded-up federally-supported “New Starts” for local transit lines, plus over $10 billion for high-speed rail that would invigorate many metro areas’ economies, plus the Transportation Department’s $1.5 billion in “TIGER” grants for innovative local projects, and one sees a belated but critical 21st century city- and neighborhood building policy coming into focus.

It even reaches the Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments–Obama seeks $400 million to fight the twin scourges of obesity and joblessness in poor communities through a Healthy Food Financing Initiative. Fresh, more nutritious foods would be delivered to inner-city “food deserts” by helping new farmers markets take root and constructing new supermarkets.

This administration seems to truly believe that investing smartly in troubled neighborhoods can dramatically increase life prospects–especially for poor children.

Case in point: the new budget designates $250 million for a “Choice Neighborhoods” program to link housing to school reform and supportive social services. And perhaps most exciting of all, a “Promise Neighborhoods” initiative ($210 million). Its goal: to bring the innovative, proven multi-pronged “cradle to college” strategies of the Harlem Children’s Zone into communities nationwide, breaking barriers by working with parents and their children starting right after birth, and providing kids with smartly-conceived, ongoing, personalized support.

The Promise Neighborhoods idea is complex: it requires collaboration of city halls, corporations, community foundations, neighborhood centers, schools, health clinics, religious bodies and human service agencies. But it’s possibly the best formula yet invented to break the bitter cycle of inter-generational poverty that so easily ruins personal lives, so often fills prison cells, and cumulatively acts as a dead weight on our entire society.

Mayors seem to appreciate the administration’s outreach, underscored by officials’ frequent field tours. They see serious intent to strengthen communities, to help them develop sustainable strategies to make us a more equitable and healthy society. It’s serious stuff, and could eventually equal the post-World War II GI Bill in expanding our middle class and building our collective national strengths.

But might it all wither in recriminations over taxes, deficits or a “teaparty”-style political backlash? Will today’s glittering silver lining tarnish and disappear? That’s the profound danger.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. Posted February 13, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    It all sounds so lovely. The fly in the soup is that every penny must be borrowed from China. The feds are simply adding to the national VISA card which is some 12 trillion in the hole.

    At what time/place in our massive debt load do we force the states to find the money?

    The States could fund every penny of what you described if they repealed the prohibiiton of marijuana and taxed it (net savings of about 15 billion US Dollars)

  2. Neal Peirce
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Message received from Jonathan Rose, illustrious “green” developer and sustainability advocate: These two columns (Peirce and Flint) are great companion stories. We are dealing with two kinds of cities. There are the proactive ones, which want to take full advantage of these programs and become more competitive. And there are the cities and counties in which tea party candidates win, who believe that planning and federal funds are evil, and which will not pursue the strategies and funds you describe. Those cities are about to condemn themselves to being the losers of the future. I think it would be very helpful If you would write something about that choice, so that pro-livability advocates could forward it to their elected officials. In the 1960s , Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia, had similar populations and economies. One turned inward and segregated. One turned outward and integrated . Forty years later, there is little that Birmingham can do to overtake Atlanta. Their fate was made in 1964.

  3. Posted February 18, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    There is a critical omission that would compliment all of the programs mentioned – preservation programs, which generate more jobs per dollar and have the most impressive ripple effect of any other public program. Because every house or building cannot be subsidized it is essential to plan for a ripple effect; every stimulus dollar spent should be evaluated in terms of leveraging private investment. Unless there is a strong preservation/market-rate component, in general affordable housing programs do not have an impressive ripple effect, in spite of claims to the opposite. Preservation programs and strategies do, with a positive impact for all income levels. Even public dollars spent on schools should have a preservation component. It is of great distress that the highly successful preservation programs that generate more jobs per dollar and have an impressive ripple effect have not been included in stimulus strategies. To repeat, preservation programs would compliment other efforts mentioned in this article. Without them, we will simply need to provide more public dollars to keep them going. The tremendous potential of programs such as Main Street, state homeowner rehab income tax credits (we need a federal one), private and public local neighborhood preservation strategies, and other heritage programs efforts have been overlooked or eliminated. Other countries have included such programs, with good effect. The US did in the 1980’s recession. We will delve into programs mentioned, of course, and (unsupported) preservation efforts will no doubt have something to do with their success. It is most unfortunate that preservation programs have been specifically left out – they need to be supported and expanded. The entire country would benefit by utilizing the potential of these programs, so successful since the National Preservation Act of 1966. This is an unfortunate ommission if we are serious about stimulating our economy.