Failure to Communicate
On the eve of January 20th, 2009, mayors were optimistic that new president Barack Obama would have the skill to draft a clear urban development policy for the entire nation. Almost immediately upon taking office, Obama issued an executive order that created the White House Office of Urban Affairs, meant to discover, present, and address problems facing the nation’s crumbling cities, especially those that had been hit even harder due to the severe economic recession. This executive order charged the new Urban Affairs office with responsibilities to “provide leadership, coordinate all aspects of urban policy, ensure appropriate consideration is given to cities by Federal agencies, and to engage in outreach and work closely with state and local officials to address problems” (thewhitehouse.gov). Mayors have a right to be skeptical today, since Obama’s new office has not performed its responsibilities, and this dream meant to unify and organize metropolitan America has devolved into a nightmare of paperwork and red tape.
According to online news magazine The Root, the first troubles for the new office occurred only a few short months after its establishment, when Obama began calling it the office of Urban Affairs rather than Urban policy, a move the magazine called “a notable downgrade” (Olopade 1). The office has also run into difficulty due to the massive numbers of executive appointments in other Federal departments related to urban development, but this new Office of Urban Policy has only had two potential candidates, one of whom, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr., faces allegations of mismanaging campaign donations and development projects in New York City (Olopade 2). This organization, originally heralded as a beacon meant to lead cities into a new age of progress and reconstruction has found itself grounded to a halt, and with it, the best chance of obtaining a cohesive national urban policy.
The premature sinking of Obama’s Office of Urban Policy comes as another blow to cities already grappling with an economic recession. This lack of a cohesive urban policy has damaged the ability of most American cities to survive, and the situation has been especially dire since the period after the elder George Bush’s Administration’s Community Uplift Program. Under President Bush, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) established in 1986 became the centerpiece of an otherwise lacking American urban policy (Hendrickson). This credit was created in order to fight the slow process of urban decay by awarding tax deductions to developers who built, remodeled, or refurbished low cost housing. In turn, these contracts were lucrative because businesses benefited not just from the tax credit, but also from the positive public image associated with doing ‘charitable’ work. This series of public works projects became an attractive agreement for developers, as this program provided the “most impressive dollar for dollar offset against other Federal taxes” (Hendrickson). This program however has met its own set of obstacles in the form of massive public service projects such as sporting arenas and other tourist attractions that have either failed completely or simply do not generate enough revenue for the city to be considered successful (Hendrickson). The Community Uplift Program has been left the way it was revised under the Bush Administration, due to the fact that the low income housing projects funded by it do eventually become owner-occupied housing, a boon for cities both in terms of tax dollars and property value.
Other than this rebooted program from the Regan era 1980’s, the Bush Administration lacked any other form of a cohesive national policy. Elizabeth Agius, author of National Urban Policy: Problems and Prospects, writes that “the primary focus of the Bush Administration was not economics, but rather housing” (Agius 73). This deficiency was later addressed under the leadership of President Bill Clinton under his plan entitled the Community Empowerment Agenda, which had three main points, dubbed ‘connections’. President Clinton wanted to “reform welfare (employment connection)…invest in education, training, work force development (human capital connection)…and expand residential and employment options of inner city families in their metropolitan areas (access connection)” (National Urban Policy Report). This lack of focus on economics was also addressed by a second part to the Community Empowerment Agenda meant to obtain investments for urban needs from private companies, hoping to lure them through the attraction of an established infrastructure and the natural talent pool stemming from urban areas. Clinton also hoped to obtain this funding from locally owned businesses in order to strengthen the ties to their communities. This plan hoped to rebuild what the President saw as a series of ‘severed connections’ (National Urban Policy Report) in the hopes of making American urban areas competitive and economically sound once again. In the draft of his report on the state of urban America, Clinton states “the most pressing problems facing older cities and their suburban areas are not the results of periodic recessions or the business cycle, and thus cannot be address through traditional grant-in-aid programs” (Clinton). President Clinton was highly influenced by Jack Kemp former Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development who served with distinction under the presidency of George H.W. Bush, and this influence is most evident given the structure of the Community Empowerment Agenda.