- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Obama administration is proposing a new program that aims to transform the nation’s poorest neighborhoods from head-to-toe: taking 10 urban centers with high concentrations of public housing and improving it while adding day care centers and even farmers markets, sidewalks and parks.

The $250 million proposal is a planning experiment and one of the most progressive proposals under consideration for the next budget year, building upon the Hope VI program, which over the past 17 years has torn down nearly 100,000 of the worst public housing projects in the country.

The initiative, if approved by Congress, will operate in the same way by redeveloping public and assisted housing, but it will include community development, and applicants will have to prove the transformation would be catalytic, said Bruce Katz, a senior adviser to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.

It also has a “much tighter link” to school reform, he said of HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative.

Sen. Christopher S. “Kit” Bond, Missouri Republican, said he would advocate for the new program because it expands on the successful Hope VI initiative he has championed since its creation in 1992.

He said in an interview that the idea is “to see if we can do something in a coordinated effective effort to end the cycle of poverty and distress … and empower the local residents to have more control over their life.”

Mr. Bond cited projects in St. Louis and also on Capitol Hill that are now model communities.

Mr. Katz said Hope VI dramatically lowered crime rates and increased property values in the worst neighborhoods. It merited about $500 million per year in funding during the Clinton administration but was on “life support” during the Bush presidency, Mr. Katz said.

HUD estimates 10 cities would be granted the funding after a competitive process, and to qualify, at least 40 percent of a neighborhood’s residents must live below the federal poverty line of about $22,000 for a family of four.

Atlanta, Kansas City, Mo., Philadelphia and San Francisco were cited often during interviews for this story as examples of places with similar programs or where residents could benefit from the “choice” initiative.

The HUD budget request Congress will consider in coming months says the program will seek to transform poor neighborhoods into “functioning, sustainable mixed-income neighborhoods by linking housing improvements with appropriate services, schools, public assets, transportation and access to jobs.”

Officials stressed this program will be more cooperative, linking together ideas and funding from the Departments of Education, Transportation and Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“To grow sustainable metros, the federal government should join up transportation, housing and energy and environmental policies. These policies often work at cross purposes today,” Mr. Katz said in a February speech. “Transportation programs generally invest outside core areas of metros, while housing policy continues to favor concentration of affordable housing. Environmental policies often make redevelopment costly and sprawl easy.”

Mr. Katz came to the administration from the Brookings Institution, which recently argued for the concept.

“We have to rethink neighborhood policy over the longer term,” Alan Berube, senior fellow at Brookings, wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in December. “For too long, government has funded housing, schools and economic development in these communities as though they were islands unto themselves.”

The communities awarded the “choice” grants will need to provide matching funding from state or local authorities or from private funding.

If the money is approved, HUD will craft guidelines for using the funds that will spell out how the money can be spent and metrics for measuring how the grant recipients are performing.

“The goal of the program is to demonstrate that concentrated and coordinated neighborhood investments from multiple sources can transform a distressed neighborhood and improve the quality of life of current and future residents,” the administration argues in the budget, also saying the initiative “would challenge public, private and nonprofit partners to identify neighborhood interventions that would have the largest return on federal investments.”

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, trumpeted HOPE VI’s successes and said many lessons have been learned since its creation.

“Since HOPE VI’s inception, the public housing landscape has changed dramatically,” she said in a statement. “Public housing should be sustainable, affordable, and a central element in all community development efforts — [and it] is as important to pursue as ever.”

The “choice” neighborhoods can become “communities in which lower-income people can both find a place to start and, as their incomes rise, a place to stay,” Mr. Berube said.

He added that people with higher incomes might be attracted to these communities if they are done right.

Angela Glover Blackwell, chief executive of the advocacy organization PolicyLink, said such programs are critical to ending the cycle of persistent poverty.

“One shouldn’t have to move out of one’s neighborhood to have good opportunity,” she said. “This is an exciting example of HUD building on the reality that it takes more than money to keep people out of poverty. The idea is to improve the neighborhoods that have been left behind and not to push poor people out but make sure people can still afford to live there.”

Her vision for a “choice” neighborhood would include high-quality housing that is built with complete sidewalks to encourage walking and is near public transit lines, things that are taken for granted in better-off communities.

The community-development aspect also would seek to attract full-service grocery stores — half of predominantly black neighborhoods don’t have one, Ms. Blackwell said.

The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative also aims to partner with the proposed Promise Neighborhoods effort in the Department of Education budget. That program, which President Obama wants to fund at $10 million, is modeled after one in New York’s Harlem and offers community organizations grants to improve low-performing school districts with day care centers and college-training programs.

Harlem Children’s Zone is a top-to-bottom program that combines regular public schooling with early childhood education centers, after-school programs and college counseling.

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