The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 16, 2015

The evolution of opportunity in urban America

It is not a well-known fact, but the Urban Institute and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have a shared history. In the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched both organizations with a shared mission of strengthening America’s cities and improving the lives of those who live in them. While many of the issues that plagued urban communities at the time of HUD’s founding persist today, other issues have evolved and so have the federal policy responses.

Yesterday, at an event hosted by Urban in honor of HUD’s fiftieth anniversary, we reflected on the historic arch of urban challenges in order to gain new insight into the changing shape of the urban policy landscape. HUD Secretary Julián Castro was joined by Urban Institute President Sarah Rosen Wartell, Salt Lake City Mayor and National League of Cities President Ralph Becker, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, and the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University’s Dr. Alexander von Hoffman for a conversation on HUD’s history, the current issues facing American cities, and what the next 50 years will mean for opportunity in urban America.  

“HUD and the Urban Institute are sister organizations,” said Secretary Castro. “We were both launched at a time of great social unrest, as folks from all different backgrounds came together to demand the promise of equal opportunity be made real in every American’s life.” 

While cities continue to grapple with issues of inequality and injustice, local leaders are also facing new and unique challenges. Mayor Freeman-Wilson leads a city that has experienced sustained job and population loss due to deindustrialization. Mayor Becker leads a very different kind of city, one that is growing and undergoing unprecedented demographic shifts. 

As the issues facing cities have changed over time, so too has HUD. Over the course of its history, HUD has evolved to better address the diverse challenges facing urban communities. In the mid-1970’s, the Community Development Block Grant program was created, which consolidates competitive grant programs to give local communities greater ability to leverage funds to meet their needs. In the same era, HUD designed, tested, and implemented tenant-based rental assistance via the Section 8 voucher program in an attempt to give low-income renters greater housing choice. 

HUD has expanded upon these early efforts to bolster flexibility at the local level. Today, the department has taken on a more comprehensive and collaborative approach than ever before.

“I’m glad to say that HUD is returning, in a way, to … coordinated, synchronized, synergistic policy,” noted von Hoffman, who has written extensively on urban history and community development.  “We’re older but wiser now.”

HUD’s newest programs reflect a shift in the way the federal government is approaching local economic development. Programs such as Choice Neighborhoods, Strong Cities, Strong Communities, and Promise Zones are locally-driven, place-conscious efforts that consider communities’ unique strengths and challenges, and focus on multidimensional solutions.

The department’s commitment to fostering these strong partnerships at the local level, in addition to engaging in the kind of reflection that this golden anniversary has inspired, will help ensure the next 50 years bring about further progress toward expanding opportunity in urban America.

Photo by Adrienne Hapanowicz

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