Urban Update: Neighborhood Revitalization

Ed Note: This is part of a series of blogs that detail the work of developing a national urban policy agenda.

In July 2007, then-Candidate Obama said “if poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence; failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community. And we have to focus on what actually works.”

For too long, structural inequalities compacted by federal, state, and local policies have isolated fragile neighborhoods from sources of capital and economic growth, leading to long-term, localized recessions that pre-date the current economic downturn.

In these neighborhoods, high unemployment rates, rampant crime, health disparities, high prevalence of substance abuse and mental health disorders, struggling schools and other ineffective institutions work in tandem to intensify the negative outcomes of growing up in poverty.  Conditions that would be challenging in isolation become overwhelming when interwoven throughout our most distressed neighborhoods.

To solve these interconnected problems, neighborhoods need interconnected solutions. And given the national scale of the problem, and the significant resources the Federal government already directs to distressed communities – albeit too often in inconsistent and uncoordinated manners – Federal leadership in neighborhood revitalization is necessary.

This is the charge of the Neighborhood Revitalization Working Group, led by the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Education (ED), Justice (DOJ), Health and Human Services (HHS), and Treasury. This group is integrating housing, education, justice and health programs with the overarching goal of transforming neighborhoods of concentrated poverty into neighborhoods of opportunity – neighborhoods that provide the opportunities, resources, and environment for children, youth, and adults to maximize their life outcomes.

But that doesn’t mean we have all the answers. Our strategy reflects an awareness of the limits of Federal programs; indeed, the difficult process of solving interconnected problems in distressed neighborhoods has always happened at the local level, with dedicated, inventive leaders and practitioners adapting their tactics to changing conditions, rewriting rigorous community plans to target their efforts, and diligently managing those plans to achieve their vision. The Working Group is pursuing a new approach to Federal engagement with neighborhoods of concentrated poverty that is more interdisciplinary, coordinated, place-based, data- and results-driven, and flexible.

This new approach is reflected in our effort to coordinate several key programs:

(1) Choice Neighborhoods, a HUD program to transform distressed public and assisted housing into sustainable mixed-income housing that is physically and financially viable over the long-term;
(2) Promise Neighborhoods, an ED program that creates a comprehensive continuum of academic programs and family and community supports, with great schools at the center, that will significantly improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children in the nation’s most distressed communities;
(3) Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation, a DOJ program with a community-based strategy that aims to control and prevent violent crime, drug abuse and gang activity in designated high crime neighborhoods across the country;
(4) Community Health Centers, an HHS program that has for more than four decades provided comprehensive high-quality preventive and primary health care to America’s most medically underserved communities.

While federal programs alone cannot address the challenges faced in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, our hope is that the comprehensive integration of Neighborhood Revitalization programs at the Federal level will ultimately reflect the collaborative planning necessary at the local level.

Failing to address economic distress at the neighborhood level not only limits our pool of human capital and diminishes regional and national economic capacity, it also compounds harms to low-income families in ways that exacerbate disparities in our society.  To tap the full potential of these neighborhoods and their residents, revitalization efforts must connect neighborhoods to surrounding communities, local institutions, and regional economies in ways that make both local and regional economic growth and prosperity sustainable and equitable over the long term. 

Thomas Abt is Chief of Staff to the Office of Justice Programs at Justice
Larkin Tackett is Deputy Director of Promise Neighborhoods at the Department of Education
Luke Tate is Special Assistant to the Secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development

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