The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 23, 2015

Neighborhood success needs citywide commitment

Place-based initiatives, which aim to engage and transform a specific neighborhood or community, have been a hallmark of the Obama administration. Its Promise and Choice Neighborhoods, Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grants, Promise Zones, Strong Cities–Strong Communities designations, and Sustainable Communities regional planning grants have sought to improve low-income neighborhoods, bolster city capacity, promote collaboration, and make metropolitan areas more livable. Our newly released study for HUD examining the first five implementation sites for Choice Neighborhoods shows the importance of commitment by top city leadership in the early years of a new program.

Choice, which we studied in Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Seattle, and which now is in place in 12 communities across the country, superseded and extends beyond HOPE VI, which sought to replace distressed public housing with mixed-income developments. Choice’s charge is to not just fix housing, but to improve entire neighborhoods. Such an aspiration is both quantitatively and qualitatively different.

Rarely can a public housing authority achieve neighborhood transformation on its own. Instead, as our report shows, key city agencies, mayors, and city councils have to be committed to and engaged in the transformation. Specifically, we noted that plans made greater progress and showed greater potential to improve neighborhoods when city leadership was involved in the answers to three questions:

  • What’s the plan and who made it? In San Francisco and Seattle, proposals for revitalizing the Alice Griffith and Yesler Terrace developments were embedded within hard-fought, formally adopted plans for citywide and neighborhood development. City leaders, private-sector investors, and community members understood the role of the redevelopments within broader efforts to create inclusive, high-density, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. In New Orleans, by contrast, the Iberville-Tremé redevelopment wasn't well coordinated with other potentially transformative investments in and around the neighborhood.
  • Who’s in charge? Unlike HOPE VI, Choice sites can center on privately-owned but HUD-subsidized developments like those in Boston and Chicago. In both cities, grantees faced complications because city government did not engage and coordinate with grantee team members enough in the first year or two of implementation. After that time, however, Boston’s then-mayor Thomas M. Menino gave the Quincy Corridor plan more attention, coordination improved, and implementation proceeded faster than in the other sites. Even in the other three cities, elected and appointed city-level leadership from beyond the public housing authority helped keep the implementation teams accountable for meeting their goals and supporting residents during the redevelopment process.
  • How do we get the biggest bang for each federal buck? Choice provides federal investments of up to $30.5 million for the five-year implementation plans, but this is far from enough to transform these distressed neighborhoods into mixed-use communities of opportunity. The grantees won the hotly contested awards partly because they received promises of additional investment from government and private-sector partners. But just as a private developer, or even a housing authority, needs direction and leadership from city officials to rebuild distressed housing, private actors and authorities also need city engagement to ensure that promises made to win a competition are honored years later. This is especially important as it relates to coordination and ensuring commitment between the Choice revitalization and other city agencies. For example, in Seattle, the First Hill Street Car line is nearing completion and will include a stop at the Yesler Community Center to better connect residents with Downtown. Boston’s work on the Bornstein & Pearl Food Production Center demonstrates of the importance of city leadership and coordination across sectors to make the best use of federal money.

These five efforts have only just begun, but they’ve already made important differences in their neighborhoods. Moreover they’re helping to define a stronger role for city government in a process until recently left to housing agencies and the private sector.

David Greenberg is Senior Associate at MDRC and led MDRC’s side of Urban’s partnership on the Choice evaluation. 

Photo by Max Herman/Shutterstock

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