For Release Sunday, February 14, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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