Over the last couple of months I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about current initiatives designed to help low income neighborhoods in U.S. cities. It’s been a bit of a crash course but one I’m excited about. Sustainable cities require equitable housing opportunities and healthy communities. Right now, achieving those goals in the U.S. seems to require a good amount of federal support.
In April I attended the Urban Affairs Association meeting in San Francisco. There was a fantastic panel called “Urban Policy in the Age of Obama: An Assessment of the First Term.” Scholars from around the country weighed in on the successes and failures of the Obama administration, and specifically the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency, over the last several years. I think sometimes it can be easy to overlook the role of federal programs (and dollars) in shaping urban initiatives. One of HUD’s new programs is called “Choice Neighborhoods” and it awards grant money for neighborhood revitalization projects. It builds on previous initiatives (most notably Hope VI) by expanding the program’s targets to go beyond housing projects and include investment in employment opportunities and education, and prioritizes mixed-income development over highly concentrated public housing. Rolf Pendall from the Urban Institute also pointed out that the Choice Neighborhoods does more to increase urban density, an important driver of resource use in cities.
Todd Swanstrom was also on the panel and made a lot of good points (as usual) but one really stuck out for me: he noted that in St. Louis people spend more on transportation than on housing (mostly because housing prices are so low) and so reducing people’s need for a car is actually an anti-poverty measure. He was using this fact to promote light rail construction in the city, making it possible for families to have only one car (or none!) and save a lot of money.
Finally, my friend Tish Kelly of the Meta Housing Corporation in Los Angeles has very generously introduced me to the ins and outs of low income housing development. Here again the federal government gets involved — states are allocated tax credits for low income housing on a per capita basis. These tax credits are competitively allocated to local development projects. The great thing about Tish’s work is that these projects (at least in Los Angeles) probably aren’t what you would think of when you hear “low income housing.” They really provide an excellent opportunity for people who would otherwise struggle to find safe, secure, affordable housing. I’ll close with a couple of pictures from their projects — I showed a larger set to my class last night and they were a hit.