Progress Being Made on Veteran Homelessness, But More to Be Done

 Veteran homelessness has dropped 33% since 2010 and 10% in the last year alone.

Navy-Vet-HomelessnessHomeless U.S. Navy veteran looks for his size while collecting free clothing in Denver. Getty Images.

As part of NLC’s on-going State of the Cities series, Veterans Day offers an opportunity to look closely at how cities are following through on their commitment to veterans.

Commanding the headlines in recent days are the promises of VA Secretary Robert McDonald to shake-up VA personnel.

Getting less attention is the dramatic progress being made to end veteran homelessness. Veteran homelessness has dropped 33% since 2010 and 10% in the last year alone. For the 5,846 veterans placed into housing in the last 12 months, ending their homelessness is the most definitive “thank you for your service” that could ever be delivered.

Coordination Unlocks Innovation

In reviewing State of the City addresses from 100 cities across the nation, local leaders are highlighting their support of existing and expanding partnerships. As cities improve how unprecedented levels of resources are coordinated on the ground, they are showing that the issue of homelessness – once thought to be intractable – can actually be solved. By making progress on homelessness, cities are also addressing other important issues and laying the groundwork for dealing with future challenges.

Homelessness InfographicIn San Francisco, Mayor Edwin Lee has made housing a centerpiece of his economic development plans. His leadership has placed the city at the forefront of national efforts to address homelessness. In support of a 7-point plan to build or rehabilitate at least 30,000 homes by 2020, he has signed an executive order giving priority-status to permits for affordable housing developments.

The Mayor’s plan comes as the city joins the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ 25 Cities Initiative. The city’s program, Homes for Heroes, is a collaborative effort between the city’s Housing Department, the police department, the San Francisco Housing Authority, the local VA medical center, veteran service organizations, non-profits and local businesses to improve how local systems identify and house homeless and at-risk veterans and the chronically homeless. The result has been a more than 20% reduction in veteran homelessness from 2011-2013, according to HUD’s Point in Time count.

Across the bay, Oakland is also integrating a renewed focus on ending homelessness with the development of affordable housing and housing counseling. In her State of the City address, Mayor Jean Quan highlighted the opening of the city’s Housing Assistance Center. In only a few months, the city has served thousands of residents as a one-stop portal for housing issues and services. This city-led coordination comes as two former hotels have been redeveloped into 101 studio apartments to house low-income individuals and the recently homeless. The Savoy project’s success led Gizmodo, a leading technology and design blog, to name it one of the 7 Smart New Affordable Housing Projects Making Cities Stronger.

Miami, Fla. is another city that is part of the VA’s 25 Cities Initiative. During his State of the City address, Mayor Tomás Regalado noted that meeting the needs of homeless veterans and the city’s ever expanding senior population required partnerships with philanthropies. “The city has partnered with The Home Depot Foundation to help rehabilitate the homes of our elderly and disabled veterans. In the next few weeks the first home belonging to a Vietnam era disabled veteran will be rehabilitated, ensuring that our commitment to taking care of elderly and disabled veterans is a reality.”

In Miami alone, The Home Depot Foundation has invested more than $660,000 and provided volunteer support for 22 projects benefiting veterans. These investments are part of more than $83.7 million spent in support of 3,780 projects which have built or preserved more than 13,000 units of housing.

Away from the coasts, the past year has shown historic accomplishments in Salt Lake City and Phoenix. Both cities have cracked the code of chronic homelessness. Thanks to bold leadership from Mayors Becker and Stanton, these communities have no more chronically homeless veterans.

This important milestone has shown that cities can end seemingly unsolvable problems by bringing all partners together, identifying their strengths and remaining community gaps. The implications of the successes in Salt Lake City and Phoenix have resonated with elected officials across the country. Mayors from Eugene, Ore., Saint Paul, Minn., Columbus, Ga. and Norfolk, Va., each noted this accomplishment when discussing veterans issues and homelessness as a part of their annual addresses.

The state of our cities is best when all who have served our country have a place to call home. To help bring the progress on veteran homelessness to other cities, NLC is supporting the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness and the more than 250 local officials who have already joined.

We have the resources, the know-how and the leadership to end veteran homelessness in the next 415 days for the remaining 49,933 veterans without a home. What remains is figuring out how we bring these elements together.

For more information about how NLC can support your city’s efforts to end veteran homelessness, contact harig-blaine@nlc.org.

 Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

Cities Focus on Talent, Quality of Life to Grow Local Economies

Instead of focusing singularly on business attraction or workforce development, mayors across the country are taking a more holistic lens to economic development.

Denver-Downtown-ActivityPeople wandering around shops and restaurants in downtown Denver. Getty Images.

In his State of the City speech earlier this year, Mayor Greg Fischer from Louisville shared his mantra for economic development: “In today’s world, companies can’t locate just anywhere – their workforce is not interchangeable. They want to locate where they can find a pool of skilled workers – and a place with the quality of life to attract and retain them, no matter where they are from. So the jobs follow the people.”

Our analysis of annual State of the City speeches finds that many mayors across the country are thinking about economic development in a similar way, taking a more holistic lens instead of focusing singularly on business attraction or workforce development.

The quality of life in a city is an important deciding factor in where residents and businesses locate. Making a city a place where people want to live, then, will also make it a place where people will want to work or start a business.

Demographic trends indicate that this shift in approach to economic development is coming at just the right time. The Kauffman Foundation points to data showing there will be more “thirty-somethings” in the U.S. over the next 20 years than ever before. As Kauffman researchers have suggested, this is an exciting opportunity for cities because the “peak age” for entrepreneurship is late thirties to early forties.

No Time Like the Present

Based on this data there is, quite literally, no time like the present to support small business growth and entrepreneurs. Our analysis of State of the City speeches demonstrates that cities are starting to prepare themselves for this new entrepreneurial environment. Larger cities are seemingly leading the way in developing city initiatives to support start-up growth, but smaller cities are a player in this game too.

Small business is the common business-related topic mentioned by all cities, with 37% of mayors discussing it during their addresses. This does not come as a surprise since small businesses are a key economic driver in a lot of cities, regardless of their size.

Overall, 19% of mayors discuss entrepreneurship in their speeches, with the majority (36%) coming from large cities. However, in cities with 100,000 or less in population, 10% of mayors discuss entrepreneurship, which means this topic isn’t completely off the radar among smaller communities.

Two widespread strategies for supporting entrepreneurship, accelerators and incubators, are not mentioned at all in cities under 50,000 in population, but are discussed somewhat frequently by big city mayors (4% and 18% respectively).

Cities Spearhead Economic Growth

Across regions and population sizes, the cities we analyzed are spearheading some interesting initiatives to support economic growth in their communities.

Providing support to business owners is a theme throughout many mayors’ state of the city addresses. Mayor Bill Lambert in Moscow, Idaho, discussed how he helps support the Palouse Knowledge Corridor, a partnership between two area research universities, economic development agencies, the business community and city government that strives to create economic opportunities in the region.

As part of these ongoing efforts, the city will help host an event called, “Be the Entrepreneur Bootcamp” designed to help entrepreneurs develop business plans and connect with mentors and investors.

Mayors are also pledging to cut red tape at city hall and make it easier for local companies to comply with the city’s regulatory requirements. “The spirit of entrepreneurship is alive and well in Seattle, and we need to make sure the city is contributing to – and not inhibiting – that energy and enthusiasm,” said Seattle Mayor Edward Murray. “This year, the Office of Economic Development will launch a new online restaurant resource guide to help new restaurant owners navigate the local and state regulatory process.”

Workforce development approaches were also highlighted in the city’s speeches. Recognizing that “unemployment is unacceptably high in communities of color, particularly among young men,” Jersey City’s Mayor Steven Fulop will be connecting students to construction apprenticeship programs offered in partnership with local unions and developers as part of the city’s overall goal to increase job placement by 33%. Similarly, in Providence, the city is investing in construction apprenticeship programs through Building Futures and YouthBuild Providence.

The Role of Mayors

A mayor’s role in growing a city’s local economy takes on many forms, from creating well-paying jobs to training a skilled workforce to developing an environment that attracts families and business owners alike.

Economic development was the most frequently-cited topic in our analysis of state of the city speeches, with 98% of mayors mentioning it and 67% dedicating a significant portion of their remarks to the topic. NLC will be releasing more information about this and more topics when we publish our State of the Cities report later this month at the Congress of Cities Conference.

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About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate, Finance and Economic Development at NLC  and the author of a new report on entrepreneurship and small business growth. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.

Cities Succeed Where Feds Have Fallen Short on Transportation

Cities across the country are taking a holistic, long-term approach to developing their transportation systems.

Light-Rail-Oregon

“One big pothole.” This is how former Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has frequently described the state of America’s transportation infrastructure. If you’ve been out at all on the highways, railways or other transit systems that comprise our nation’s transportation network—this analogy likely resonates with you. And for good reason.

The United States has not made a significant strategic investment in the national transportation network since finishing the Interstate Highway System – that’s more than a half century without any vision or plan on a national scale to update critical freight or passenger transportation systems in our country.

In the wake of the economic downturn, there is no doubt that transportation projects have only continued to be neglected and left in dire need of attention. The pending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund has perpetuated this problem, putting more of the onus on state and local policy makers to find the cash for these projects in already challenging times.

Road improvements have been delayed, bridges in need of maintenance have been ignored and transit systems have been forced to cut service and routes. Subsequently people have experienced the adverse consequences. Lest we forget that, at its root, transportation comes down to one basic notion: people.

Though seemingly harsh, the underlying message in LaHood’s analogy is that transportation is important to our everyday lives. It should be a priority. It is the means by which we move goods, reach jobs, connect with family and explore nature. It drives our national and global economies and simultaneously reinforces social equity ideals through a promise to move people and goods to their destinations via our highways, railways, waterways and public-transit systems.

Unfortunately, because transportation has not received the attention it deserves, our lack of investment is catching up to us.

Cities Step Up

A consistent theme across our State of the Cities blog series this year has been cities taking the lead on critical issues neglected at the federal level. Transportation is no exception. City leaders are stepping up to the plate and placing this issue among their top priorities.

Transpo-SOTC-StatsOur analysis of State of the City addresses shows that three-quarters (75%) of the leaders sampled mentioned transportation, and nearly one-third covered the topic in depth.

Local leaders are addressing the laundry list of maintenance and expansion projects that have the most direct impacts on individual users. Nearly one quarter of the speeches in our sample (24 out of 100) addressed highway and road improvement projects, and 22 speeches announced other types of related infrastructure improvements, such as sidewalk repairs and gutter replacements.

Projects like these do not generate a lot of excitement or public support, but their importance cannot be underestimated. All it takes is one falter, one accident, one disaster to remind us of how difficult life is without well-managed, well-maintained, functional transportation infrastructure.

Cities are also focusing on enhancing their streets and arterials to accommodate all modes of transportation, as one fifth of the speeches sampled referenced Complete Streets initiatives. They are once again expanding and building new systems. The streetcar has seen a revolution in the last decade, with cities recognizing this mode’s potential to both improve mobility for residents and also serve as an economic development driver. Streetcar systems are being planned and constructed in Riverside, Calif., Miami, Fla., and Seattle, Wash.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has emerged onto the scene as an affordable and functional mobility option. Chula Vista, Calif. will see a new BRT system in 2015, which will link residents in the eastern part of the city with downtown San Diego and Otay Mesa. Grand Rapids, Mich. transit authority, The Rapid, has effectively rallied the region around the Interurban Transit Partnership BRT project – known locally as the Silver Line. Mayor Jack Poll in Wyoming, Mich., took pride in announcing this regional engagement, and ongoing construction of a segment that will connect the southern portion of Wyoming with jobs, amenities and entertainment in downtown Grand Rapids.

Taking a Long-term Approach

In addition to resuming investments on individual transportation projects, a number of cities are taking a holistic, long-term approach to developing their transportation systems.

In Providence, R.I., leaders are embarking on a major road improvement project (which has created a notable number of jobs), while simultaneously developing a new Bicycling Master Plan to improve accommodations for both bicyclists and pedestrians. There is also work underway to update the city’s zoning ordinances, so as to better support future public transit and smart growth goals.

Fayetteville, Ark. used a road resurfacing project as an opportunity to install new drainage infrastructure, retaining walls, curbs and gutters and 11,000 feet of sidewalk. This was part of their ongoing attempt to facilitate walkability in the city. Residents saw the replacement of one bridge and the renovation of another, along with the addition of over 5 miles of new trails. The city also installed 41 new bike racks and an electric vehicle charging station as part of its Clean Energy District.

The city of Helena, Mont. recently finalized a five year transportation plan, and is now working toward a regional 10 year plan with other state and local stakeholders.

One of the fastest growing communities in the nation, Raleigh, N.C., has also committed to investing in a multi-modal transportation system. The city aims not only to mitigate traffic congestion, but to provide its growing resident base with “equal access to food, healthcare, jobs, childcare, all of those things that are needed for healthy communities.” Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane acknowledged that a multi-modal transportation system offers something less quantifiable, that most residents want: options beyond a car-dependent lifestyle. Raleigh has committed to providing those options.

Transportation Investment Matters

In taking this more inclusive, big picture approach, these cities have acknowledged that investment in a coordinated, multi-modal transportation system matters, and also that it is impossible to deny the strong link between mobility and equity. Transportation matters, simply put, because it impacts people. Kirk Caldwell, mayor of Honolulu, Hawaii drove this point home, when he declared that “Public transportation is about social equity. It is the great equalizer for the people of our community, helping them get to their jobs, their shopping, and their medical appointments. It means giving people a way to get around town that is safe, affordable, and efficient.”

His statement speaks volumes about the importance of investing in a transportation network that serves everyone, and reminds us of how significantly transportation infrastructure impacts individuals on a daily basis. As city leaders invest more significantly in our transportation systems,  that idea — that transportation is about people and service — will continue to undergird future decisions.

ND headshotAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

With So Much at Stake, Mayors Look to Lead on Education

Mayors and community leaders alike recognize that a high quality education system spurs economic development, reduces crime and lifts families out of poverty.

mayor readingNLC President Chris Coleman, Mayor of Saint Paul, Minn. has made education a priority. Photo credit: chriscoleman.org.

Over the last decade, educators and stakeholders in cities across the country have been engaged in vigorous debate about how to best provide the highest quality education to our children. Controversy over issues such as how to evaluate the performance of both teachers and students, teacher tenure protections and funding formulas have made headlines from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.

Despite the controversy surrounding education reform, cities across the country do share many pedagogical goals. Namely, to provide high quality educational opportunities (in the classroom and beyond) to all children, and to ensure their education equips them with the necessary tools to make good choices about their future.

In our analysis of Mayoral State of the City addresses this year, we discovered that 70% of speeches covered education, and 32% devoted “significant coverage”—at least three paragraphs or more—to the topic. It is clear that cities are working hard to advance early childhood education, eliminate the achievement gap, cut the dropout rate and prepare every student for success in college and career.

In many cities, mayors and other local elected officials have no formal authority over their city’s school system. Mayors are involved in education in a variety of important ways though. As Mayor Michael Coleman of Columbus, Ohio noted in his state of the city address, it is the role of local officials to “bring together extraordinary people from every sector of our community—education, business, labor, nonprofit, the faith community, the school board and City Council to make Columbus the best big city in the nation for educating kids.” Indeed, mayors and community leaders alike recognize that a high quality education system spurs economic development, reduces crime and lifts families out of poverty.

Children are the Future
It may be stating the obvious to say that as we contemplate the future of cities, we’d do well to remember that children are our future. “They represent a source of workforce skills, civic participation, and taxpayer revenue that Durham can ill afford to waste,” Mayor Bill Bell recognized.

Blog 10- 14-14 IYEF-10Many mayors noted their accomplishments in increasing postsecondary access and completion, an area that NLC has a long history of working with cities on. We’re currently working with a diverse group of cities on postsecondary success, including Salt Lake City, San Antonio and Philadelphia. In his address, Michael Nutter, Mayor of Philadelphia noted that “in 2007, the number of Philadelphians with a college degree was only 18%. Today, it is almost 25%.” His enthusiasm was tempered with caution however, as he acknowledged, “its progress, but it’s not enough.”

What is enough?

Many cities across the country have adopted a “cradle-to-career” approach to education. To that end, there has been a renewed focus in recent years on the start of a child’s educational journey – early childhood care and education. And for good reason. A growing body of research shows that children with a quality pre-K education are better prepared to succeed in grade school, in high school and beyond. Thirty-four of the mayors in our sample (11%) included pointed remarks in their addresses on the importance of early childhood education.

“We must start when our children are very young. Most brain development occurs in the first three years of life,” stated George Hartwell, Mayor of Grand Rapids, Mich. “Those must be rich, healthy, stimulating years if we are to produce children ready for school.”

Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle summed up the sentiment shared by many of his counterparts with this comment: “I am committed to making affordable preschool available to all children in Seattle before they reach elementary school.”

Cities such as Seattle, Grand Rapids, Mich., Indianapolis and Hartford, Conn., (to name just a few) are making long-term investments in their young residents by allocating resources to early education programs. Hartford has even set a goal to have 100% of preschoolers in school by 2019.

The returns on these investments – a more competitive workforce, the ability to attract and keep more families in cities, fewer residents living in poverty – are the building blocks for creating better communities. To build better communities is the mission of the National League of Cities and, I suspect, the driving force behind the decision of countless mayors and local officials to run for elected office in the first place.

Providing a Local Voice in the National Education Conversation
NLC President Chris Coleman, Mayor of Saint Paul, Minn. has been a leading voice on education at both the local and national levels. With NLC First Vice President Ralph Becker, Mayor of Salt Lake City, he co-chairs NLC’s Mayors’ Education Reform Task Force. The task force was formed in March 2013 to explore how cities can and should be involved in local education reform efforts, and includes mayors from approximately 60 cities. “The perspectives from mayors of cities large to small are valuable to local and national policymakers,” said Mayor Coleman.

This is the fifth blog post in NLC’s State of the Cities 2014 series.

Emily

About the Author: Emily Pickren is the Principal Associate for Communications in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Emily on Twitter at @emilypickren.

Cities Make Sustainability the New Business-as-Usual

Mayors from cities large and small increasingly recognize that the business of local government cannot be separated from environmental issues.

SLC-SustainabilityRalph Becker, Mayor, Salt Lake City (pictured), dedicated over 80% of his State of the City address to environmental issues.

In June 2013, President Obama released the first federal Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon emissions and better protect the country from the anticipated effects of climate change. This came nearly ten years after the city of Keene, N.H. — population 23,000 — completed a lengthy community engagement process and launched its own climate action plan.

It has recently become something of a mantra, even within Washington, D.C., to acknowledge that most of the innovative policies, programs and ideas related to environmental protection are being generated at the local level. Federal agencies have done commendable work through the multi-agency Partnership for Livable Communities, increased CAFÉ standards for fuel economy, among other initiatives – however, many of the innovative policies and financial tools that incentivize green building, improve recycling and waste diversion, promote renewable energy or expand alternative transportation have been championed by local governments.

Blog 10- 6-14 COOPER-06But is this narrative actually true? And if so, how wide reaching is this local leadership? Based on NLC’s ongoing analysis of Mayoral State of the City addresses, we’ve identified tangible actions taken by local leadership on environmental issues in cities of nearly every size, in every region of the country.

Within our sample, we discovered that 63% of speeches covered environmental topics such as renewable energy, water, climate, or sustainability, while 20% devoted “significant coverage”—at least three paragraphs or more—to environmental topics.

Digging into these speeches more closely, a handful of mayors, approximately 12%, are at the forefront of these issues and have made environmental protection a central part of their agenda. Their speeches include specific references to sustainability plans, climate action plans or other comprehensive and holistic plans that guide municipal activities.

Most importantly, these mayors seem to understand that the business of local government cannot be separated from environmental issues. Mayor Greg Stanton of Phoenix, Ariz. is representative of many other speeches in this regard, explaining to his citizens that:

“No matter how well we have planned in Phoenix to avoid a water shortage, our economy will suffer when reliable water supplies for the region are threatened… We are engaging with leaders in California and southern Nevada to find common ground on shortage scenarios. We should examine our own laws so that as we continue to grow and develop, we do so in a truly sustainable way. We cannot afford to wait.”

The city is not only acting on its own behalf, it is bringing others in the region along.

Water is not the only environmental issue that can have a dramatic impact on a local economy. Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, Utah – who dedicated over 80% of his State of the City address to environmental issues – bluntly related the news that according to the director of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, “the number one reason businesses choose not to come to Utah is because of our bad air quality.”

Leading By Example

Twenty percent of cities demonstrating clear leadership on environmental issues may not appear that significant, but it is important to keep in mind how quickly best practices can spread once a concept is proven. Although local government is a risk-averse business, it is clear from this analysis that many cities are benefiting from the experience of a few innovators.

One example of this is Columbia, S.C., where Mayor Stephen Benjamin announced that the city would be working with private sector partners to build a facility to divert tons of sewer sludge from their waste stream to be recycled and produce high quality fertilizer, compressed natural gas for city vehicles and enough electricity to power 500 homes.

The initiative is described as the “single most impactful green initiative the city has ever taken” and it would likely not be possible without other cities who demonstrated that such technology could be environmentally and economically viable.

Looking to the future, one of the most promising new developments is that two cities in our analysis, Evanston, Ill. and Seattle, Wash., discussed their commitment to pursue the STAR Community Rating. Developed with significant input and cooperation from local government officials, the STAR system rates participating cities on a variety of environmental and social metrics, providing a comprehensive and data-driven benchmark for cities to identify their strengths or areas in which they may need improvement.

This type of consistent, objective, and independently verified rating has the potential to dramatically improve environmental performance.

It will take much more local leadership if we are going to create truly sustainable communities, but this research is indicative of the thousands of communities throughout the country who are at the forefront. It is up to us to measure, replicate, and improve on the examples they have set.

This is the fourth blog post in NLC’s State of the Cities 2014 series.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for Sustainability at the National League of Cities.

How Local Government Hiring Addresses Growing Wage Gap

Public sector employment has consequences for the quality of economic recovery since the majority of local government jobs are mid-wage.

Boston-Police-HiringGetty Images
It’s no secret that although national employment is on the upswing, the type of job growth we’re experiencing is troublesome. Low-wage jobs are growing more quickly than high-wage jobs, with mid-wage jobs trailing even further behind. In fact, while lower-wage industries constituted only 22 percent of recession losses, they are responsible for 44 percent of recovery growth.

As I first alluded to back in 2012, employment in the public sector has consequences for the quality of anticipated economic recovery since the majority of local government jobs are mid-wage. Throughout the recession, many cities implemented some combination of personnel and workforce-related cuts, including hiring freezes and layoffs, in an effort to reduce costs. This resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of mid-wage jobs in public safety, public works, parks and recreation, public health, social services, transportation, and administration, among other municipal services.

As budgets stabilize, though, local government hiring is picking up. In fact, cities are adding jobs at a faster clip than their counterparts in state and federal government, with the majority of recent gains in overall government employment at the local level. Healthier municipal budgets and a stronger workforce means not only more mid-wage city workers, but also better prospects for mid-wage employment in the private sector.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, increased government spending supports private sector jobs—either through contracting or due to increased demand for job-specific supplies (privately-produced automobiles to supply police officers, for example). Local government investment in transportation, water, sewers and communications infrastructure also promotes private sector growth by reducing costs and creating opportunities for additional private sector investments, such as those in workforce.

Getting Back to Business

Strengthening municipal operations through restoring services and the workforce is proving to be a priority for cities. Our research on mayors’ annual State of the City speeches found that 83 percent of speeches touched on Budget/Finance related issues and 35 percent devoted “significant coverage” to the topic. These speeches illustrate that mayors across the country recognize their employees as valuable assets and worthwhile investments for the positive development of their communities.

SOTC-Finance 9-26-14-08In San Jose, for example, Mayor Chuck Reed said,

“Times have been tough, but we have turned the corner and are slowly beginning to restore services. We are training new police recruits and hiring community service officers. We were able to keep 49 fire fighters who had been paid for with federal grants that expired. We opened four new neighborhood libraries that sat vacant for years. We turned streetlights back on.

We’ve also begun to restore pay to our police officers and other city employees. We know that we’ve lost a lot of good people because of the pay cuts – often to cities that are wealthier or haven’t yet felt the impact of their unfunded pension liabilities. It will take time to restore pay to the levels we want (and our employees deserve), but this is an important step in keeping a quality workforce.”

Mayor Steve Williams, Huntington, WV noted,

“Our employees, our single greatest resource, have not had a raise since 2008. In many years, it was an easy decision to say we could not afford a pay raise. This is not one of those years. The budget is tight, but we cannot afford to not provide our employees a pay raise. Therefore, I am recommending a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for all bargaining unit employees and administrative personnel.”

The words of mayors Reed and Williams are indicative of others, and signal the value of our municipal workforce not only to quality services, but to addressing the critical issue of closing the middle-wage gap.

This post is the third blog in NLC’s State of the Cities project.

christy-mcfarlandAbout the Author: Christiana K. McFarland is NLC’s Research Director. Follow Christy on Twitter at @ckmcfarland.

How Cities Balance Urban Development and Affordability

“The recovery of the housing market in many cities is the very definition of a double-edged sword.”

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Earlier this year, President Obama named a mayor to be the new Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s no surprise that former San Antonio Mayor, Julián Castro was appointed to this position – the selection reflects the unique understanding local officials have about the central role housing plays in the health of communities.

Our analysis of mayoral State of the City addresses makes this even clearer. Almost two-thirds (65%) of speeches in our sample “covered” housing and over one-fifth (22%) devoted “significant coverage” to the topic.

Housing is one of only a few issues that everyone can quickly relate to in a visceral way – it impacts where our children go to school, how we get to work, what we do for fun and can also be viewed as a social statement.

housing-data-final

At the core of housing, though, is cost. And this is reflected in our data. The issue of affordable housing was discussed in 41 of the 100 speeches we analyzed. With half of renters spending more than 30% of their income on housing and 28% of renters spending more than half of their income, it’s not surprising that city leaders are giving voice to the growing impacts of this issue on their neighborhoods.

The scarcity of affordable housing is made more difficult by reductions in federal resources aiding cities, such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and the HOME Investment Partnership Fund (HOME). Since fiscal year 2010, CDBG has been cut by 24%, while HOME has been cut by 45%. These reductions have significantly reduced the ability of cities to support the development and rehabilitation of affordable housing.

The recovery of the housing market in many cities is the very definition of a double-edged sword. To capitalize on undervalued properties, developers in many cities are building higher-end projects. Rising home prices are helping to replenish the tax base while cities still feel the lingering effects of the great recession, but this also exacerbates the affordable housing crisis, discouraging or outright preventing first-time homebuyers and placing upward pressure on rents.

These trends are being felt across the country. For example, in Norfolk, Va., Mayor Paul Fraim proudly noted the city’s building permit activity was again at pre-recession levels. Norfolk’s median home prices and their assessed values were up, said the mayor, while distressed sales were down.

The development of luxury condominiums and retail were touted as signs of progress and economic recovery in cities from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Lenexa, Kan. Mayors in cities such as Euclid, Ohio, Jersey City, N.J., Ferndale, Mich. and Lansing, Mich. all heralded the growth in home prices. Many of these cities were some of the hardest hit during the market crash and the price gains come even as cities continue to deal with remaining blight.

Lansing, Mich. is working with Michigan State University to help strategically direct their blight removal and spur economic development. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore, Md., continues to drive the Vacants to Value program, while expanding the city’s Apartment Tax Credit to promote the construction of new apartments.

How Cities Are Addressing Affordability

With cities facing so many interconnected issues surrounding housing, local leaders have stepped up, creating a climate of creative leadership to address longstanding structural issues.

In Valparaiso, Ind., the city is investing in more transit-oriented development to meet changing demographics and affordability needs. Recognizing that both young professionals and empty-nesters are drawn to the city for its social and economic opportunities, Mayor Costas called on the city to “boldly but responsibly” create more critical mass and sustainability to ensure their downtown is positioned to thrive in the decades to come.

More broadly, cities are at the forefront of addressing the nation’s growing income disparity – which has clear implications for housing affordability. San Diego and Seattle are leading efforts to address housing affordability by no longer focusing on subsidies alone.

In San Diego, Mayor Falconer called on the city council to place a measure before voters to raise the minimum wage. “Lower-income workers are more likely to spend their additional wages on basics like food, housing and transportation,” said the mayor. “That is good for businesses. It is good for San Diego. And it is good for all of us. Let’s reduce the need for subsidized housing. Let’s start paying people enough to be able to afford the rents and mortgages in our city.”

Seattle has already moved forward with this approach. Earlier this year, Mayor Murray signed new legislation that raises the city’s minimum wage to $11 by April 1, 2015 and to $15 by January 1, 2017.

While affordable housing remains a challenge, bold experiments happening in cities offer insights on how to ensure all residents have equitable access to all that our cities have to offer.

This post is the second blog in NLC’s State of the Cities project. In a future post, we’ll continue discussing the impact of housing as it relates to improving the delivery of services to vulnerable populations.

 Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.