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Urban Institute Hosts Panel Discussion: Opportunity in Urban America

June 16, 2015 10:36 AM


On Monday, June 15, the Urban Institute marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) hosting a panel discussion, Opportunity in Urban America.

Participants reflected on the shared history of the Urban Institute and HUD, discussed the current state of opportunity in American cities, and looked ahead to the challenges facing urban communities in the next 50 years. 

Welcome and Opening remarks were made by Sarah Rosen Wartell, president, Urban Institute and Julián Castro, secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

OUA2 The panel was moderated by Sarah Rosen Wartell and panelists included:

  • Julián Castro, secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • Ralph Becker, mayor, Salt Lake City, Utah and president, National League of Cities
  • Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor Gary, Indiana
  • Alexander von Hoffman, senior fellow, Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University

The Urban Institute and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) were established at a time of great social challenges. In the 50 years since, HUD has played a significant role in strengthening communities and creating opportunities for millions of Americans. Recent unrest in Baltimore and other cities reminds us that many challenges still remain, including how to use technology as a point of entry for opportunity.

Secretary Castro began his remarks saying, "HUD and the urban institute are partners in the longstanding fight to make our nation more fair and free."

"Our nation is at its best when everyone has a seat at the table and can share in prosperity." He went on to say, "It's not mobility vs place-based, it's mobility and place-based policies."

"We want people to have access to neighborhoods of opportunity, but what happens to the neighborhoods they leave behind? We are losing 10,000 units of public housing to disrepair every single year." 

Secretary Castro emphasized the need to reach a delicate balance between revitalizing current housing and building new housing.

Ralph Becker, mayor, Salt Lake City and the president of the National League of Cities emphasized that city leaders "have to be entrepreneurial with how they serve their communities."

He said that an effective way to increase affordable housing in cities is through partnerships with HUD, cities and the private sector. "HUD's focus on placed-based economies has helped Salt Lake City become vibrant and opportunity-rich."

He brought home the point that, "Federal programs should meet different cities where they are and be flexible to local context."

Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor, city of Gary, Indiana started off her remarks by saying that, "job and educational opportunities are closely connected to quality housing opportunities." Gary is a city that has experienced sustained job and population loss due to deindustrialization.

She described her city's relationship with HUD as an important partnership. She admitted that at first she was a little skeptical when first meeting with Federal officials who told her that they were there to help her. After a period of time she came to appreciate the partnership between Gary and HUD.   

She referenced some of HUD’s newest programs such as Choice Neighborhoods, Strong Cities and Strong Communities as playing a key role in improving the financial health of Gary.

She said that, "abandoned housing continues to be a large problem in Gary and that HUD has worked with the city of Gary to alleviate the blight" and pointed to the city's partnership with HUD in sustainable communities as an example of how cities can work effectively with the Federal government in enhancing housing opportunities for city residents.

Alexander von Hoffman, senior fellow, Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University provided an interesting historical perspective on urban housing issues and the partnerships between city governments and the Federal government over the last 50 years. He said that the early years of HUD were marked by an era of bi-partisanship in Congress. The last 2 or 3 decades can be characterized by ideological infighting.

He then focused on the process by which the Federal government delivered services and products to its urban clients. He was pleased to see HUD returning to their roots of a synchronized, coordinated and holistic approach to delivering services to its clients.

He expressed the belief that all too often in the past, "the entrepreneurial efforts of low income residents in urban centers have been squelched." 

When asked about diversity in urban communities, von Hoffman said that, "diversity is a crucial element for the creation of "livable" urban and suburban places."

All the panelists were in agreement when asked what the next 50 years will mean for opportunity in urban America. All said that America's love affair with cities will be a key factor in fostering the revitalization of urban communities and creating equal opportunities for all citizens in housing and employment. 


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