A 20-Year Shift in Neighborhood Investing

brooklynA new condo building stands in the the lower east side of Manhattan. Source: Getty Images.

Where we live, the kind of homes we occupy and the quest for a place of our own remains closely tied to that goal on the horizon we call, The American Dream. Consequently, our nation’s leaders, including those at the local level, devote tremendous energy to issues relating to housing and neighborhoods.

A scan of the last twenty years illustrates some significant and notable shifts in approach to these issues – with implications for the kind of housing that gets built, who pays for development and at what level and who has choices in the marketplace and who does not.

For example, let’s look back at 1994 when the Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME) was in its fourth year. The HOME program provides formula grants to states and localities that communities use – often in partnership with local nonprofit groups – to fund building, buying and rehabilitating affordable housing for rent or ownership or providing direct rental assistance to low-income residents.

This program remains a staple of the local landscape and a bulwark in support of housing opportunities for those seeking to reach a critical wrung on the ladder to the middle class. In fact, during evaluations of this program during 1994, the value and scope of HOME was not in question; the debate centered on the ease and efficiency of program administration and reporting.

PullQuoteIn the same year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a bold effort called the National Community Development Initiative. Brought to the table was a coalition of 10 major corporations and foundations collaborating to raise $87.65 million in partnership with HUD to accelerate central city neighborhood renewal in 23 cities. Through this remarkable partnership, $20 million from HUD was matched by $15 million from Prudential, $15 million from the Rockefeller Foundation and $12 million from J. P. Morgan, among other partners.

By 1998, research from the respected Urban Institute, and its team of researchers Christopher Walker and Mark Weinheimer (Weinheimer & Associates), offered the first solid evidence of program progress. For community development corporations in the 23 target cities, the report found that housing unit production was up, budgets were larger, management structures were vastly improved and funding sources were more diversified.

Views about community lending also were different in 1994. At that time, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) was being lauded as a valuable tool to ensure access to credit throughout a community.

Passed into law in 1977 and amended several times, there remained an expectation that this measure increased the ability of advocacy groups, researchers, and other analysts to “perform more-sophisticated, quantitative analyses of banks’ records,” to paraphrase Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke some years later.

There was an expectation that over time, community groups and nonprofit organizations would establish “more-formalized and more-productive partnerships with banks,” thereby influencing the lending policies of banks.

A Different Kind of Partnership

Jumping forward to 2004, you can hear the alarm bells sounding. The HOPE VI program was coming under considerable criticism as a tool to build affordable housing for those most in need. Public housing advocates increasingly needed to rely on private sector investment to serve those who were not able to pay market rates for rent.

Charles Lyons of Arlington, Mass., President of the National League of Cities that year, was so concerned about the “inequality in our communities due to a lack of affordable housing,” that he launched the Divided We Fall campaign to focus on the growing disparities in cities.

partnerpullDisparities continue to confront Americans today, not only in housing and neighborhood amenities but in educational attainment, income and wealth generation, poverty rates, and criminal sentencing.

Despite these disparities, a lively, engaging federal-local partnership on national priorities remains absent. Rather than a partnership with the federal government, all that localities have now is the prospect of federal leverage. This leverage comes in the form of small pools of dollars offered mostly on a competitive basis and encumbered with enough restrictions and conditions to all but eliminate the possibility for experimentation and truly creative thinking from local decision makers.

If we accept the fact that government alone cannot solve the significant challenges that confront communities and that partnerships are the essential ingredient to success, then the only operative question to ask is, ‘What type of partnership will yield the greatest success?’ To that question, the balance of historical fact argues for a partnership of equals, dedicated to achieving consensus, led by those with the proximity and the experience to mobilize community resources in order to achieve positive outcomes for all the stakeholders. It is this recognition and acknowledgement of a wider shared responsibility to the public interest, rather than to any private interest, that is the required component to establish “a more perfect Union.”

It can only be hoped that by the time the National League of Cities stands to celebrate its centennial, the much desired federal-local partnership will be a reality.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

How to Boost Your City’s Visibility

Lewiston-TourBook

“Technology doesn’t have to be expensive.” That’s what the sales people tell us. These words trigger the warning bell in our heads. But sometimes it turns out to be true, as the city leaders in Lewiston, Maine (pop. 36,600) discovered in their partnership with NLC Corporate Partner CGI Communications.

Prominent on the city’s website is a new video tour that highlights the community generally and offers a specialized focus on arts and entertainment, economic development, community organizations and quality of life. The high resolution streaming video costs the city nothing. CGI Communications builds the entire package and secures sponsorships from area businesses.

I have never been to Lewiston, but now, thanks to the video, I know lots about the community and am looking for an excuse to host an event there. The historic buildings in the downtown are enough to draw my interest and the Lewiston Art Walk is an added bonus. Likewise, the access to the natural world – hiking trails, river kayaking and a wildlife preserve – complement the built environment.

While we all might be drawn to a place because of its natural beauty, its architecture, its amusements and amenities, most of us still have to earn a living. The Lewiston videos offer information on the economic strengths as well as the artistic and recreational opportunities. The economy is diversified across health care, manufacturing, financial services and telecommunications industries. The local fiber optic network serves both businesses and residents and the riverfront development projects represent significant commercial investments.

Video on a city website is not new. But smaller cities like Lewiston tend to spend their local resources on direct service delivery. A web portal, while essential in the present era, is often a no frills site. Lewiston, through its public private partnership with CGI has shown that the city can have the frills and still spend community dollars on key local services.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

Celebrating the Attractions of Small Cities

via Wikimedia Commons by Acroterion

German Street in Shepherdstown, WV, via Wikimedia Commons by Acroterion

When I talk about cities I have visited, I use sensory language. I describe the art or architecture I saw, the unique foods I consumed, the sounds of nature or of music I heard, the landscape I traversed or the people with whom I connected. Big city or small city, in the U.S. or abroad, my experiences are similar. There is always something unique or compelling that creates a story about this or that place.

I have previously written on this blog about thriving and creative small cities. Shepherdstown, West Virginia was one such community that offers a range of activities and amenities that draws visitors to the Shenandoah from across the region. This community, while charming, is not unique. In fact a magazine called American Style has been reporting on the creativity and imagination of smaller communities for many years. Although generally focused on arts and cultural assets, the stories about cities represent the wealth of diversity that causes us to celebrate June as Small Cities Month.

There are few things more delightful than outdoor concerts. Eureka Springs, Arkansas offers a veritable cornucopia of music programs year round. A recent look at the city’s website shows an activity calendar listing the 27th Annual Arts Festival in May, the bluegrass festival in June, the 64th season of Opera in the Ozarks during July and the jazz festival in September.

The visual arts – painting, sculpture, metalwork, photography, etc. – offer other opportunities for communities to advantage a unique strength. The Ox-Bow School and artist-in-residence program in Saugatuck, Michigan is one such example. This program was established in 1910 and is now affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From a beach, harbor and arts and crafts town, Saugatuck has catalyzed their artist colony status into a genuine growth industry.

Sarasota, Florida may offer the most eclectic mix of arts and culture of any city. The long-established Ringling International Arts Festival (Yes, THAT Ringling) puts circus arts front and center as well as dance and music. A more sublime event will run concurrently during 2014, the 27th Annual Downtown Festival of the Arts. This event provides exhibition space to creators of sculpture, painting, jewelry and crafts. Multi-cultural foods tend to grace all events in Sarasota.

Film and music are at the center of the arts festivals in Aspen, Colorado. The annual FilmFest has grown over the years to rival the film events hosted in Cannes, Toronto and Sundance. The historic Wheeler Opera House offers an unmatched venue for previewing autumn new releases, documentaries or Oscar-quality performances. For those whose tastes run to music, the Aspen Music Festival attracts world-class performers and guest artists.

Programs that showcase the arts and culture thrive in smaller cities as well as in larger ones. Many of these festivals have grown from modest events highlighting local artists and performers in ad hoc spaces into high visibility orchestrations with professional management and national or international reputations. Proof that an investment in cultural and arts programming is an investment well made.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

The Economic Impact of Public Transportation Investment

James Brooks, Roger Williams and Mark Weinheimer contributed to this post.

St-Paul-light-rail

Far too many in this country face a transportation infrastructure that is woefully inadequate, limiting opportunities and increasing costs in terms of people’s time and money. While other countries continue to invest, America’s aging infrastructure inhibits our nation’s economic competitiveness and lessens quality of life.

In recognition of National Infrastructure Week 2014, NLC is joining a number of national organizations to call attention to the consequences of inaction and the importance of interconnected infrastructure that provides a safe, secure and competitive climate for economic development and job growth.

On topics such as infrastructure funding and financing and the economic impact of public transportation investment, NLC will call attention to why further infrastructure investment is vital for our nation’s cities.

We ask for local leaders and advocates in the policy community to join NLC in advocating for policies that are informed and driven by local needs. At stake is not merely how quickly we can move people from Point A to Point B – but how we can promote opportunity and build stronger local economies.

The Twin Cities Story

One case in point is the impact of investment on the Central Corridor (The Green Line) light rail project in the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Despite concerns that partnerships take time and large projects consume resources, study after study shows that transportation alternatives that are regionally focused, cost effective, located close to affordable housing and that connect residents to their jobs help make cities more amenable to innovative industries.

The relationships that were forged by the Twin Cities, as they undertook the Central Corridor light rail project connecting their downtowns, is an example of how cities are coming together with a wide range of partners to overcome obstacles and make transformational projects a reality.

Working with the philanthropic community and a broad spectrum of civic organizations that serve the communities impacted by the project, local leaders in the Twin Cities developed a template for planning that other cities can learn from. In addition, the U.S. Department of Transportation not only contributed dollars to the project but restructured funding formulas to ensure the addition of light rail stations in underserved minority neighborhoods along the proposed route.

Far reaching strategic alliances and a “plan-full” approach that involved diverse groups, along with the leadership roles played by various actors and sectors, are the key elements that have enhanced this project’s chances for success. The leaders were able to successfully create a shared vision for vibrancy, economic viability, and neighborhood resilience.

The result is not only a new light rail line, but an increased number of affordable homes nearby, preservation of other homes, new arts and cultural offerings, and a vital retail sector that reflects the ethnic diversity of the communities along the rail line.

The Central Corridor light rail line which is scheduled to open in mid-2014 will also provide cost effective transportation for the residents to connect them to jobs in both cities and in the region, and in general strengthen the attractiveness of living in these communities.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

 

Ride Sharing: The Big Opportunity for Cities

By Pkg203, via Wikimedia Commons

By Pkg203, via Wikimedia Commons

Uber, Lyft and Sidecar present cities with the opportunity to radically transform transportation in their communities. If cities make use of the lessons they are learning from work with car share firms like Zip Car and with bike share programs, they are likely to achieve remarkable success in the newest iteration of the sharing economy.

However, if current trends are any indication, city taxi commissions see these companies primarily as threats to the established order and are seeking regulatory solutions where a little entrepreneurship might be more properly applied.

The outlook is not at all rosy for the car share firms. A dozen cities are either writing citations to Lyft and Uber drivers, issuing cease and desist orders to the companies, or banning operations outright. To be fair, many cities are also seeking to catch up with the application of technology to this otherwise static public service, so I remain optimistic.

It matters little whether companies such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are called Transportation Network Companies or traditional taxi and limousine services. The simple fact remains that existing regulatory frameworks for taxis in cities became outmoded with the advent of the smartphone and the app. The sooner taxi commissioners embrace this reality the sooner they will find the path out of the regulatory maze.

Of course cities have some obligation to regulate services to the general public within their jurisdictions. But where is it written that the basis of such regulation must be the existing formula for traditional dispatch taxicabs? What is it that cities need to actually regulate that is not presently required as part of qualifying for a driving license? Enhanced driver training? Premium vehicle liability insurance? Universal service? Car specifications (color, model, age)? Competition? Price? A case probably can be made for the first two or three but not so much for the latter three.

In 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission issued a ruling that allowed Lyft and Uber to operate under less rigid rules than locally regulated taxis. As recently as this week, a federal judge in Houston declined to temporarily restrain Lyft and Uber from operating in Houston and San Antonio. A further hearing is set for July 15, perhaps providing time for the cities and the companies to hammer out an agreement.

The sharing economy offers opportunities for cities to increase the options available for those in need of transportation, lodging (see Airbnb and its similar challenges) and a range of other services not yet envisioned. The sharing economy represents the highest form of individual entrepreneurship and as such deserves the chance to grow and contribute to the daily life and economic prosperity of city residents.

When a company called Flex Car (later bought by Zip Car) arrived in cities more than a decade ago, the transformation was revolutionary. Cities did the unthinkable – they gave up precious curbside parking spaces to a private company to place universally accessible cars in proximity to people in need of wheels for a short-term errand.

Cities created a new regulatory paradigm for this new and much sought after service. I own a car and still signed up in the first month the company offered services in my city (I’m still a member all these years later.) That same spirit of innovation needs to be applied to the likes of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, and to their successors.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

 

Partnerships Key to Twin Cities Light Rail

This post was written by Roger Williams and Mark Weinheimer to introduce a new case study from NLC about the partnerships that contributed to the construction of the Central Corridor light rail line in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

St-Paul-light-rail

One of the ways cities have tackled challenges to their resiliency has been to undertake transformational projects. These cities have recognized that staying the same, or doing small things, don’t necessarily bring about transformation. But strategically placed projects involving the key challenges of efficient transportation, economic development, community preservation, and job creation can make a difference.

But, given the scope, size and impact of such projects, cities have had to build partnerships and relationships with a diverse group of stakeholders and residents to get these efforts moving. Quite often, they also have had to work to overcome a legacy of past missteps that have eroded community trust and devastated communities.

Despite concerns that partnerships take time and large projects consume resources, study after study shows that  transportation alternatives that are regionally focused, cost effective, located close to affordable housing, and that get residents to their jobs help make cities more amenable to innovative industries and more resilient.

The relationships that were forged by the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, as they undertook the Central Corridor light rail project connecting their downtowns, is an example of how municipalities are coming together with a wide range of partners to overcome obstacles and make these transformational projects a reality.

Working with the philanthropic community and a broad spectrum of civic organizations that serve the communities impacted by the project, local leaders in the Twin Cities developed a template for planning that other cities can learn from.

Far reaching strategic alliances and the “plan-full” approach that involved diverse groups, along with the leadership roles played by various actors and sectors, are the key elements that have enhanced this project’s chances for success. The leaders were able to successfully create a shared vision for vibrancy, economic viability, and neighborhood resilience.

The result is not only a new light rail line, but an increased number of affordable homes nearby, preservation of other homes, new arts and cultural offerings, and a vital retail sector that reflects the ethnic diversity of the communities along the rail line.

The Central Corridor light rail line which is scheduled to open in mid-2014 will also provide cost effective transportation for the residents to connect them to jobs in both cities and in the region, and in general strengthen the attractiveness of living in these communities.

Community Partners Support Baltimore Neighborhood Growth

What makes a great neighborhood? Why do millennials for example, or any other demographic subgroup, choose one city over another or one neighborhood over another? Several factors that are consistent across many research studies include affordable housing, safe and walkable streets, access to employment and mobility networks, options for entertainment and recreation, and the often intangible characteristic known as buzz.

Baltimore_SIBaltimore city leaders have set a goal to attract 10,000 new families (some 22,000 individuals) by 2021. In addition to place-based strategies targeting downtown and neighborhoods, the city is seeking young knowledge workers and demonstrating its openness to immigrants. Extensive investments in education and new school construction are designed to lure families with children. Similar to other cities, it is the character of neighborhoods – solid housing stock, parks and open space, proximity to jobs and entertainment – that will have a significant influence on whether or not Baltimore can achieve ambitious growth goals.

A diverse set of partnerships lie at the heart of efforts in the City of Baltimore to revitalize neighborhoods, grow population, and support community prosperity. The coalitions across the city draw expertise and support from philanthropies, real estate developers, educational institutions, church congregations, community development stakeholders, business owners, housing advocates, and city officials. “Big tent” mobilizations are emphasized.  Whether in East, Central, or West Baltimore, partnerships focus on holistic approaches that address challenges of housing, neighborhood stability and vitality, human capital development, commercial improvement, and grass roots empowerment.

The city government does not lack for allies.  Among the most prominent (detailed in a related NLC case study) are: Southeast Community Development Corporation (SECDC); East Baltimore Development, Inc. (EBDI); Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP); BRIDGE Maryland; and the University of Maryland BioPark at the West Baltimore medical center campus.

There is considerable room for optimism in Baltimore. Driving around the city, whether in Hampden or along Charles Street, or the revitalized 36th Street commercial corridor, there are reminders that the city has good bones. Its iconic buildings, broad avenues, and promising neighborhoods constitute a firm foundation for prosperity and growth. Although challenges remain, the community partnerships are a formidable force for positive change in Baltimore.

Brooks, J.A. 2010
About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

Detroit Needs Mr. Orr and Mayor-Elect Duggan

The lawyers and pundits will scour every word in the ruling by Judge Steven Rhodes declaring the City of Detroit eligible for bankruptcy. Truth be told, I’d probably find that exercise exhilarating!

In the end however, it’s not the ruling from Judge Rhodes with which I am preoccupied. Nor am I particularly concerned with what Mr. Kevyn Orr, the city’s emergency manager, will ultimately present in terms of a plan of adjustment for the city. Rather, I am thinking about January 1, 2014, when Mayor-Elect Mike Duggan and five new city council members take the oath of office and assume their responsibilities to the citizens to Detroit.

Mr. Orr of course has all the power to do what he believes is appropriate to address the fiscal crisis in the city. Judge Rhodes has given him considerable latitude so long as the entire fabric of the recovery plan is reasonable and just in the eyes of the court, especially where pensions are concerned.

But what power does Mayor-Elect Duggan have? More precisely, what power will he have after January 1st? If you answered, “no power at all” you would, I think, be wrong. While Mr. Duggan may indeed have little in the way of decision-making power he nonetheless was ELECTED to office as were five new councilmembers. More to the point, Mr. Duggan reasonably believes that he and his colleagues on the council do indeed have an important and significant role in the management of the city’s recovery.

True leadership grows out of commitment, passion, vision, perseverance, and teamwork. There is every indication that Mr. Duggan and Mr. Orr, former law school classmates, will make an effort to work together. Success for Detroit requires that the cold-blooded management decisions that are the purview of Mr. Orr are tempered by attention to the best interests of actual residents in Detroit – residents represented by the elected political leaders – Mr. Duggan and his council colleagues.

Brooks, J.A. 2010

About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Program Director for Community Development and Infrastructure and is also responsible for leading the International Programs.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

Ageless Cities

This post is part of a special series of blogs inspired by NLC’s annual Congress of Cities and related events such as the National Summit on Your City’s Families.

Interestingly enough, much of what we have learned about how to make cities great places for youth can be applied to making cities great places for seniors. Perhaps we ought to start talking in terms of age-neutral cities or, better yet, ageless cities.

Engagement is a central characteristic of ageless cities – a determination to create opportunities for individuals to bring their talents to the community for the benefit of all. For youth, engagement may take the form of a city youth commission. Such a commission can offer clear and focused insights about the priorities that young people want, whether it’s skate parks, sports fields, or community service opportunities.

For older citizens, engagement translates into maintaining social networks and an active lifestyle, perhaps including opportunities for employment. For city officials, this means a policy focus on quality health care and the transportation networks that connect people from place to place who may not be able to drive a car.

Good decisions about how local officials build and maintain ageless cities rely on timely data. In the City of Bellevue, Washington for example, the city-created Network on Aging conducted a local needs assessment. The information was used to coordinate and align the work of city departments to address community needs.

I think it boils down to a decision about what and who the community values. Teens, recent college graduates, young singles, married couples, families, empty nesters and single seniors each bring important contributions to a community. Skill, talent, energy, dedication, and ideas are not a product of chronological age. A city that is inclusive; that seeks contributions from all residents and that delivers benefits to all residents is a thriving and attractive place to live. An ageless city makes room for everyone regardless of where they are in the progression of their lives.

Click here to watch my interview with Kathryn Lawler of the Atlanta Regional Commission at NLC’s Congress of Cities on creating ageless cities.

Global Connections Solve Local Problems

This post is part of a special series of blogs inspired by NLC’s annual Congress of Cities and related events such as the National Summit on Your City’s Families.

My smartphone informs me about typhoons in the Philippines as quickly as it does college basketball scores. Sitting in Seattle, at NLC’s annual Congress of Cities and Exposition, reminds me just how far many cities have progressed in their global connections. Technology may have helped advance these relationships, but it is leadership by individual elected officials that gives vision and substance to these relationships.

Since 1991, key leaders at the City of Seattle, the Port Authority, King County and the other large public and private-sector partners in the region have made use of the Greater Seattle Trade Development Alliance (TDA) to coordinate the region’s global outreach. TDA took on the tasks of both educating the region’s partners about global competitiveness but also helping to commercialize products and services from companies in the region. The model has been successfully replicated in many cities over the years.

At a meeting of NLC’s International Council, a feature presentation was made on the growth of Brazil as a global market and U.S. trading partner. One of the most dynamic economies of the BIC trio (Brazil, India, China), Brazil is a major competitor to U.S. agriculture exports but could be a major importer of goods and services to upgrade its infrastructure. While major initiatives are launched by the national government, so much of the innovation is the product of dynamic mayors in cities like Rio de Janeiro.

Local officials know from first-hand experience, or from well-honed instincts, that promising solutions to pressing city problems can originate from anywhere on the planet. During trade missions, attending international conferences, or leading a sister city delegation, American mayors and councilmembers have expertise to share and have a desire to learn from the experience of others. As an organization, NLC is blessed with leaders who have a considerable level of international experience and understanding.

Whether the goal is city solutions or simply the establishment of relationships, NLC has been and will continue to be engaged with peers in city government around the world. It is central to the NLC mission to highlight good local problem solving wherever we find it.