City Recovery Is National Recovery

Isaiah J. Poole

The incoming Obama administration has promised to bring cities out of the federal policy wilderness to which they have been exiled for the past eight years. And, given the scale of the economic crisis facing the country, it must, for the sake of the country.

Mayors have largely had to make do on their own the past eight years with no real support from the conservative ideologues in the Bush administration and Congress. The results have been uneven. For a time, major cities were able to ride the upside of the real estate boom, and a combination of high gasoline prices, demographic changes and local leaders working hard on quality-of-life issues in their communities helped some cities reverse the population declines of previous decades. But working people—including teachers, police officers and the thousands of service workers in central-city hotels and restaurants—who could not afford skyrocketing housing prices were left behind. So was the rickety infrastructure supporting the newly reviving cities, which could not on their own make up for decades of deferred maintenance on public facilities.

Main Street Recovery Program

PODCAST: Highlights of a conference call with economist James Galbraith, Steelworkers President Leo Gerard and Robert Borosage about the Main Street Recovery Program.

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This week the Institute for America’s Future is asking public officials and grassroots activists to endorse its Main Street Recovery Program, which calls for a two-year, $900 billion investment program to jump-start the real economy.

Also in the past week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has issued two reports that offer a window into the unaddressed needs cities have.

On Friday, the organization released its annual survey of hunger and homelessness in 25 major cities. In that survey, 19 of the cities reported an increase in homelessness over the past year, with 12 of those cities tying the increase directly to the foreclosure crisis. Also, 20 of the cities reported an increase in the demand for emergency food assistance over the past year.

Also, the Conference of Mayors issued a list of $71 billion worth of “ready-to-go” projects that would, if fully funded, produce more than 874,000 jobs over the next two years. The projects span several areas that have been neglected during the past eight years, including streets, water mains public housing, schools, public transportation, public safety and intercity rail. Funding for energy conservation and retrofitting for new green technologies is prioritized throughout.

Metropolitan areas account for 86 percent of national employment,, 90 percent of labor income and 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), the Conference of Mayors notes. It is obvious that we can’t pull the economy out of its current death spiral without a coherent urban revitalization policy. But it is only been since the Obama transition team has taken shape that there have been meaningful moves in that direction, with its announced intention of creating an office of urban policy and, on Saturday, Obama’s appointment of Shaun Donovan, New York City’s housing commissioner, to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In New York, Donovan not only managed the nation’s largest affordable housing program but also, as The Washington Monthly notes, had foreseen the looming bursting of the housing bubble as early as 2004.

On Saturday, Obama indicated that he appreciates the urgency of get HUD out of the backwater to which it was relegated under President Bush:

We need to approach the old challenge of affordable housing with new energy, new ideas, and a new, efficient style of leadership. We need to understand that the old ways of looking at our cities just won’t do. That means promoting cities as the backbone of regional growth by not only solving the problems in our cities, but seizing the opportunities in our growing suburbs, exurbs, and metropolitan areas.

The Main Street Recovery Program gives the Obama administration an opportunity to address some long-simmering problems highlighted by the Conference of Mayors and other urban organizations. It implicitly adds urgency to the need to reshape the fragmented thicket of housing and community development programs, but in a process driven by making the programs more effective, not solely driven by cost. It encourages job creation though public works projects that will leave cities greener and better positioned to support future growth. It allows for mayors and local elected officials to prioritize the projects that make cities more livable, such as better school facilities and safer streets.

Having a president who cut his political teeth in a big city is in itself a big change from the past. But that president will have to fight against conservatives who kept telling cities to “drop dead.” That they have doggedly refused to do so, in spite of the program cuts of the past eight years and the campaign-trail slurs that cities aren’t populated by “real Americans,” is a testament to the tenacity of hundreds of progressive mayors, local elected officials and activists who have struggled this decade to keep cities viable. Now is the time to build on their struggle with policies that address their needs—and acknowledges than when we help cities, we help the nation.


Updated 7 a.m. December 15 to add Obama’s announcement of the Housing and Urban Development appointee and the Conference of Mayors hunger and homelessness report.

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