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Fighting Poverty and Creating Opportunity: The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative

Message From the Assistant Secretary
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Fighting Poverty and Creating Opportunity: The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative

Written in collaboration with Luke Tate, Senior Advisor for Urban Policy


Raphael Bostic, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research
Recent Census numbers present a sobering picture: over 10.6 million Americans lived in neighborhoods with poverty levels over 40 percent in 2007 — a sharp increase from 7.9 million in 2000. And the recession of the last few years has only increased the strain on high-poverty communities.

This is especially troubling because extremely high-poverty neighborhoods cause disproportionately negative outcomes for their residents. Families in these communities face interconnected challenges, including persistent unemployment, high rates of crime, failing schools, capital disinvestment; and large health disparities. Recent research shows that these challenges are large and impactful. Whether or not a child grows up in a high-poverty neighborhood has a greater impact on their subsequent welfare than factors such as their parents’ educational levels or income.

Choice Neighborhoods represents a key Obama Administration initiative designed to address the problems of growing poverty and high poverty neighborhoods. Choice Neighborhoods is a competitive grant program that provides flexible resources for local leaders to help transform high-poverty, distressed neighborhoods into mixed-income neighborhoods with the affordable housing, safe streets, and good schools every family needs.

Choice Neighborhoods represents the next generation of neighborhood revitalization policy, as it builds upon the HOPE VI public housing revitalization program launched in 1993. HOPE VI provided funds for local leaders to redevelop some of the nation’s most severely distressed public housing and create stable mixed-income communities. While housing was the main objective, experience has shown that this redevelopment has also been associated with reduced levels of poverty, crime, and unemployment, increased income and property values, and the creation of investment, business growth, and local jobs. Indeed, the Urban Institute has estimated that, with these gains, a typical 700-unit HOPE VI redevelopment would save taxpayers $22 million relative to HUD’s doing nothing to change the status quo.

Choice Neighborhoods takes HOPE VI to the next level by broadening the properties and activities that resources can be targeted towards. The goal is to ensure that the redevelopment is an even more robust anchor that spurs neighborhood stability and elevated levels of investment. The hope is that this structure will help communities implement strategies that are more comprehensive and better tailored to local context, with the result being even more effective redevelopment and stability.

With the launch of our first implementation grants in September, we will see how the broader, interconnected Choice Neighborhoods approach — ensuring access to high-quality education, safe streets, and opportunities available outside the immediate neighborhood being revitalized — allows Choice Neighborhoods to play a critical role in larger plans to reinvigorate cities.

This goal — housing redevelopment as a catalyst for neighborhood change — places Choice Neighborhoods with a range of other urban redevelopment strategies. All of these strategies acknowledge the opportunities that high poverty and other troubled neighborhood conditions offer. For example, it is not uncommon for highly distressed neighborhoods to be located in close proximity to central business districts and other job centers — a “hole in the donut” of surrounding opportunity. But what we see in the strategies is considerable variation in the degree to which the redevelopment efforts seek to build robust linkages between the neighborhood being redeveloped and those around it that have valuable amenities and opportunities.

Take convention centers and stadiums, two types of projects that have been the focus of many redevelopment efforts across the country. These projects cannot be endlessly replicated throughout cities with distressed neighborhoods — and moreover, research suggests that stadiums often offer little in the way of sustained economic activity and investment relative to the taxpayer investment.

Choice Neighborhoods takes a different approach, one that emphasizes creating essential building blocks of healthy and strong communities — housing, offices and retail, schools, parks, and anchor institutions like universities and hospitals — to fuel revitalization, with a focus on expanding access to opportunity and ending concentrated poverty. We believe this approach is a better one and, unlike the stadium and convention strategy, is one that can be replicated in communities across the nation.

President Obama’s recently released report, Creating Pathways to Opportunity, outlines a model that could be replicated nationwide:

In New Orleans, Choice Neighborhoods will spur the revitalization of the Iberville/Tremé neighborhood, where 52 percent of families live in poverty, with a plan centered on the transformation of distressed, highly-concentrated public housing into mixed-income housing that preserves the historic character of the neighborhood. The partnership, led by the City of New Orleans and its housing authority, will take advantage of the neighborhood’s adjacency to the French Quarter, bringing back the streetcar named Desire, and expanding the reach of New Orleans’ strong tourism economy to include the musical and cultural heart of Tremé. A new hospital, clinic, and biomedical research facility, tied to integrated job training, will create critical employment opportunities for neighborhood residents and expand access to affordable health care. And through the Choice Neighborhoods partnership with the Recovery School District, Louisiana’s fastest-improving school district, children growing up in the revitalized neighborhood will have access to the quality educational opportunities they need to achieve their potential. All of this work is aligned by a $30.5 million Choice Neighborhoods grant that leverages over $1 billion in private, non-profit, and other investments into the community, driving all of the partners to a coordinated effort to end intergenerational poverty.

With the launch of Choice Neighborhoods, we have an exciting opportunity to learn from innovative cities like New Orleans, Chicago, and San Francisco as they use neighborhood revitalization efforts to advance broader city revitalization plans — and show local leaders around the country what is possible. We can also learn from the anchor institutions working alongside those cities to develop innovative supports for the new generation of Choice Neighborhoods — adding political and economic heft to coalitions bridging housing, schools, and private business, with a common goal of ending persistent poverty in their communities.