Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Obama, Cities, and This City

Yesterday I mentioned Barack Obama's plans for an office of urban policy.

Obama transition co-chair Valerie Jarrett mentioned it again later to NPR.

Block: "What would that office do that's not already being done by other departments already?"

Jarrett: "When you said 'other departments' you hit the nail on the head. . . It's really important that we take all of those different agencies and have a comprehensive approach to our urban development. And so having someone in the White House who going to be an advocate for cities and take all the variety of federal programs and target them in a logical and systematic way is part of what President Obama is trying to get at with this position. Those of us that have worked in city governments recognize how invaluable that person will be."

If it hadn't occurred to you yet because you were too preoccupied with obsessively checking poll numbers this whole time, we're actually going to have a President with ideas and initiative.

You might have even realized that of course Obama would be investing in our cities, but you have to admit it's difficult to truly imagine what actual federal investment looks or feels like. It's been a long time since we've had to think about practicalities - a President that cares about cities has always been more of a theoretical proposal.

So I think it might be useful to start considering how the new office of urban policy comes to interact with existing agencies and our priorities on the Gulf Coast.

Immediately, when I think "city" and "federal agency," I come up with HUD, the cabinet-level position governing housing and urban development. Would Barack Obama's urban policy department supersede HUD? Or would there be separate cabinet positions for a stripped down department of housing and a newly minted department of urban policy?

HUD in its current form has few fans. Not only was it turned into a patronage palace under George W. Bush and Alphonso Jackson, but many consider it to have acted as a marginal policy agency even during friendlier, more competent administrations. Conservatives, on the other hand, never really supported HUD in the fist place.

Thus, Obama's department of urban policy signals the death of HUD. It is unclear whether or not a new department would be created to just to handle housing or if housing would be a subdepartment within the new urban policy agency. I suspect the former scenario.

What about the recovery of the Gulf Coast? What about New Orleans?

New Orleans still qualifies as a city. Would the special help it needs become the responsibility of the department of urban policy? Or does Obama maintain the Gulf Coast Recovery Czar position as a separate cabinet-level coordinator?

I see how this can get complicated...

Now, HUD distributes Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money. It is pretty clear that that would fall under the purview of the theoretical urban policy department but how much say will that department have over how cities spend?

In my heart, cities would be able to spend CDBG money as they see fit on projects critical to neighborhood vitality and regional sustainability. In my head, I know that some cities aren't capable of distributing those funds responsibly or even determining which development projects are most important.

During those rare events when we're able to account for how Nagin and Blakely have spent some of New Orleans' CDBG money, you can't exactly be happy with our leadership's priorities.

Barack Obama's department of urban policy, therefore, needs to have the power to set and enforce rules on how development dollars are spent. Not only does it need to set up better monitors on the money so that it doesn't disappear, but it needs to be able to ensure it be used for progressive development policies. What's sad is that many other liberal cities have leaders capable of setting those priorities independent of federal intervention. The federal government, in those instances, would just need to sign the checks and let the city or the region implement.

New Orleans is not ready for that. Our administrative systems do not inspire public trust. Our leaders have not set sensible priorities.

So for New Orleans and for other cities with long histories of systemic corruption, incompetence, and undemocratic practice, Barack Obama's new urban department is going to need to be more proactive than just setting policy guidelines and operating the paper work machine - some cities will need more direct action from the feds.

This is one of them.

Harry Shearer suggests that Colin Powell would make a good Gulf Coast Recovery Czar under and Obama administration. The idea would be that Powell could redeem himself for lying us into the Iraq War by helping to get New Orleans back on track. General Powell could do this, I suppose, because his overflowing gravitas on both sides of the aisle would re-legitimize our plight in Congress while his national name recognition could help us win back the sympathies of our nation.

But I don't think it works like that. I don't think the Gulf Coast Recovery Czar can ever do anything truly productive because it's a just coordinator position. The way it is set up now (correct me if I'm wrong), the role of Recovery Czar is to make sure different federal, state, and city agencies are working together and to report back to the President. That's not much power. That's not much authority.

I don't think Colin Powell wants to be a hall monitor.

On the other hand, if you give Powell or whoever else the power of an agency, the power of a budget, the power to distribute grant monies - politicians understand the power of the purse.

How about scrapping the Gulf Coast Recovery Czar altogether and instead making our city and region's recovery a top priority for the Department of Urban Policy?

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