Last week, HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) turned 50. As the department created to manage urban renewal back when most downtowns were experiencing extreme population decreases, where does the agency go now that city-living is once more in vogue? In this three-part series, the CED blog will take a look at where HUD has been, and in future posts, spotlight two of its newest initiatives meant to carry its work into the future.
The America of 1965 was a vastly different place when HUD was created. In the decades following World War II, growth patterns emptied American cities of most upper and middle class families, who followed the promise of suburban life to the urban fringe. And with them, the economy left too. Those who were too poor to move were left to fend for themselves in an urban environment devoid of jobs, and opportunity, and public investment buoyed by a strong tax base.
Governments had already understood the need for urban renewal in these downtown zones and had been attempting to address the problem. Standard urban renewal practice had a very heavy-handed physical approach. Large areas of America’s downtowns were razed to the ground in an effort to eradicate crime and remove substandard housing. Governments had rebuilt some, but not all, housing in these downtown cores with massive, high-rise public housing blocks that concentrated entire former entire neighborhoods into a small areas still within the decaying downtown. By the time HUD was created, many of these urban renewal projects had begun to fail due to high maintenance costs and harsh environments.
From the beginning, HUD sought to learn from the mistakes urban renewal had made in the past and try new approaches. Its first new housing projects were not built as high-rise complexes but as expansive, low-density development. HUD also established a housing voucher program whereby residents could choose their own residences and receive a subsidy, and began to encourage private development of low-income housing through incentives.
However, many of these initiatives still only addressed the physical environment and did not reconnect the neighborhoods in which low-income residents resided with access to economic opportunity. In a recent evaluation of the status of America’s poor in his book Stuck In Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Towards Racial Equality, Brian Sharkey found that more than 70% of African Americans who live in the poorest neighborhoods today are from families that lived in the same conditions in the 1970s. Their physical isolation from opportunity did not improve with HUD’s efforts in their communities.
Now, HUD is beginning to focus more on not only rebuilding the physical environment of low-income neighborhoods that have experienced years of disinvestment, but also connecting these neighborhoods to economic opportunity. HUD’s newest housing policies work to scatter low income families into mixed-income areas with already strong tax bases that provide many of the public services they desperately need, or work to bring those services to their neighborhoods.
Despite the successes of these programs, there is still more work to be done to meet the future needs of America’s impoverished. Yes, the upper and middle classes are moving back to the city now, and bringing the tax base and jobs back with them to the low-income neighborhoods previously left behind. Cities and towns throughout America are capitalizing on this wave and rebuilding their downtowns to provide access and connection. But, as the upper and middle classes move back in, prices rise, and the poor and marginalized are once again forced elsewhere, away from opportunity and without connection to it. While housing vouchers may offset some cost of higher pricing in desirable, connected neighborhoods, often the subsidy is minor enough that housing choice is still limited to lower-income neighborhoods where housing is cheaper and amenities are fewer. Local governments recognize the need to build affordable housing within neighborhoods of opportunity in order to maintain access for those experiencing displacement, yet construction cannot keep up with the rising demand.
Current HUD Secretary Julian Castro addressed the future of HUD at the Reimagining Cities 2015 conference last week, held in commemoration in President Johnson’s home state of Texas. Secretary Castro thinks the current affordable housing crisis is HUD’s greatest challenge for its next 50 years. He believes the future of HUD is in ensuring America’s poor do not get left behind lies in looking at the issues they face with a holistic eye, and working more and more across agencies such as the DOT, EPA, Department of Health, and Department of Education to provide access not only to good housing in safe communities, but connected housing that provides economic access to good education and good jobs.
In future posts this fall, this blog will examine a few of these important new programs working to ensure the ladders of opportunity to middle class are available in some of America’s most at-risk communities. These programs offer holistic strategies for local governments to make sure all of their citizens have access to improving their lives through economic means in the face of the changing urban environment.
Lauren Joyner is a Master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is also a Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.