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Obama's Urban Affairs Office Brings Hope But Not Much Change

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This article is part of a Huffington Post series examining the state of Black America. To read more, click here.

WASHINGTON -- Less than a week after winning the 2008 election, President Obama declared he would create a "White House Office of Urban Policy," signaling that cities once brushed aside by federal policies would be embraced as catalysts for progress.

But more than five years after its creation, many urban policy advocates say the since-renamed Office of Urban Affairs has failed to live up to expectations. It never clearly outlined it goals, they argue, and from the start was never prioritized by an administration grappling with the financial crisis. Adolfo Carrión, the first White House director of Urban Affairs, never crafted a clear vision for the office, and it is still unclear whether its accomplishments in Washington will be far-reaching enough to be felt on the streets of cities across America.

"The Office of Urban Affairs is [an] example of a grand idea that was implemented in a half-hearted way, and then lost its momentum over time," said Patrick Sharkey, associate professor of sociology at New York University.

Today, black poverty and inequality remains a serious problem in major urban areas. In an interview with The Atlantic Cities, Sharkey noted that "two-thirds of black children who were raised in the poorest quarter of U.S. neighborhoods a generation ago now raise their own children in similarly poor neighborhoods," and "about half of all black families have lived in the poorest American neighborhoods over the last two generations."

Just last week, Detroit -- the nation's largest majority-black city, with an 83 percent African-American population -- became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. A 2012 report confirmed that inequality in New Orleans has been exacerbated since Hurricane Katrina exposed the city's racial and socioeconomic divide. And according to the Census' American Community Survey, blacks and African Americans in major urban areas face high poverty rates; recent estimates put the figures at 17.9 percent in Atlanta, 19.3 percent in Charlotte and Los Angeles and 26.5 percent in Chicago. Overall, 25.6 percent of blacks and African Americans in urban areas live in poverty.

Obama has largely been seen as a leader with a different vision of cities. Shortly after his election, the Wall Street Journal called him the country's first "urban" president, one whose experience living in cities exposed him to economic and racial disparities first-hand. Obama is only the second modern president to have strong ties to urban areas; not since Theodore Roosevelt had a president spent his entire life living in cities. First lady Michelle Obama and Valerie Jarrett, one of the president's closest advisers, both have roots in city government, and it has been noted that Obama's experience as a community organizer in Chicago was a defining experience in his life. And advocates have also pushed Obama, the country's first black president, to address issues disproportionately impacting African-American communities, such as poverty and violence.

But the hope was that the office was going to facilitate the transformation of American cities, taking on issues from inequality and crime to transportation and housing.

Some who have worked with the White House on urban policy and programs embraced Obama's sustained commitment to cities, saying it is a stark change from past administrations. These supporters cite an unprecedented level of collaboration between government agencies and focus on how existing resources within the federal government could do more to help urban America. A few novel federal programs remain bright spots, and the stimulus package and Affordable Care Act both contain elements designed to address poverty and neglect in the urban poor.

However, the imminent targeting of urban decay implied by the creation of the office simply has not happened.

In the beginning, there was excitement about the office's potential. A 2009 Washington Post article ran with the headline "New White House Office to Redefine Urban Policy." Days after the election, Obama-Biden transition team co-chair Valerie Jarrett spoke highly of the role that the Office of Urban Affairs head would hold. Even before he was elected, Obama had acknowledged the vital part cities play in the U.S. economy, and emphasized that empowering urban and metropolitan areas would lead to a stronger nation.

“We need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution. Because strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America. That is the new metropolitan reality and we need a new strategy that reflects it," Obama said at the United States Conference of Mayors in June 2008.

Today, experts say an absence of clear results can be attributed to the office never clearly outlining what it intended to accomplish.

"I never a saw a clear list of ideals, actually, beyond real general things," said J. Phillip Thompson, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I think there was early on, an intent to bring a spotlight on cities and I think that's why the office was created. But in terms of having an actual program for how to do that, that was specific for cities, I never saw that emerge from that office."

Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and senior editor at The Atlantic, said, "The Office of Urban Affairs is well intentioned but never had the level of support and heft our cities need."

White House spokesman Brad Carroll defended the office. "Since day one, the President and his entire Administration have been focused on restoring the basic bargain that if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to get ahead. This has been the driving force behind the [office] and the Administration's outreach and policy efforts focused on our nation's cities," Carroll told The Huffington Post in an email. "Many cities and towns across our country have come a long way since the depths of the economic recession, but there is still a lot of work to do."

But some advocates say cities are no longer looking to a federal government that has yet to fulfill its promise.

“There was so much hope for cities,” Terry Mazany, director of the Chicago Community Trust, told the New York Observer in 2012. “Now ... we are back to the sense that if cities are going to thrive, they are going to have to do it on their own. They’re not looking to Washington for the resources anymore.”

OFF TO A SLOW START

Potential problems for the office were evident shortly after it was established. The appointed director, Carrión, was seen as an unlikely choice for the post. A school teacher turned urban planner, Carrión was largely unknown outside New York and had minimal experience at the federal level -- credentials seen as necessary to elevate the stature of the new office.

When Carrión was asked how he would respond to critics who called the office ineffective, he encouraged them to "take a closer look."

"We set up a series of very important initiatives and I think the focus at the time was to rescue the American economy from the precipice of a second Great Depression and health care," Carrión told The Huffington Post. "That was the message coming out of the White House, that was the emphasis of most of the effort."

"Look, we were in the emergency room as a country, as an economy. And I think that everything else was sort of a supporting actor to that," he added.

Still, critics held that neither Carrión nor the president ever clearly communicated to the public what the office itself would do. By July 2009, Politico reported that Carrión had yet to make any major speeches about the administration’s vision of a new urban policy.

This echoed a theory held by Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, that the White House was forced to move the Office of Urban Affairs lower down its to-do list, almost from the beginning.

"It never really seemed like the office was a priority. When you think about the way the last four, five years have played out, there's been so much on the plate," Katz said.

"You can either justify it by saying well, we just got overwhelmed, or the administration got overwhelmed, but the reality is there really was never a signal sent that this is a priority office that had powers and responsibilities that should be taken seriously," he added.

VICTORIES AND SHORTCOMINGS

The Office of Urban Affairs did enjoy some victories.

It had an integral role in conducting a comprehensive review of federal programs, assessing how those programs affected different places across the country. This evaluation was the first of its kind in 30 years, and according to the White House, allowed the administration to "retool existing policies and programs" to adapt to a changing urban reality. That retooling was based identifying the programs with the most promise and allocating the budget accordingly, therefore maximizing impact.

Urban policy academics interviewed for this piece specifically cited the success of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, an interagency initiative that coordinates federal investments to make American communities more sustainable. They also praised the Promise Neighborhoods Program, modeled after the success of New York's Harlem Children Zone, which provides cradle-to-college services.

Perhaps the Office of Urban Affairs' greatest victory has been bringing interagency communication to an unprecedented level.

"I think the biggest thing that we did was to harness the about 17 federal agencies into a White House working group on urban policy," Carrión said.

"It's a significant step for the federal government and its agencies to actually get out of those silos and say, 'if we invest a transportation dollar, it should be aligned with the housing investment, with the workforce development investment, with our regional economic development investment,'" he added. "All of that ... has to be aligned."

Xav Briggs, a professor at the MIT department of Urban Studies and Planning, said that the Sustainable Communities program was groundbreaking in its ability to bring all government departments together behind a specific urban policy objective.

"On the ground, leaders just hadn't seen EPA, DOT, and HUD work together like that before," Briggs said.

But while the office provided a new way of approaching urban policy, that and other achievements were never well-publicized. As City Limits wrote in 2011, part of what urban advocates hoped the office would do was provide a high-profile platform to elevate the urban agenda.

"I think Sustainable Communities was the right step forward. I think some of these education and school initiatives were the right step forward. But these are not the major program initiatives of any of these agencies," Katz said. "So in the end ... the question for many people around the country is will they be sustained at a scale where they have impact?"

Part of the problem, as identified by Sharkey, is that Promise Neighborhoods never had the funding to profoundly affect urban education.

"[Promise Neighborhoods] was proposed as a replication of the Harlem Children's Zone, a program with a truly unique vision of the types of investments that are required in low-income communities. But whereas [Harlem Children's Zone] has a budget of 80 million plus per year for one community, Promise Neighborhoods was originally proposed with a budget of just over $200 million for 20 neighborhoods," Sharkey said, noting that even that funding has since been reduced.

"At this funding level, it had little chance to create transformative change in the targeted communities."

WHAT OBAMA HAS DONE FOR CITIES

While the Office of Urban Affairs may have fallen short of expectations, the administration has had significant accomplishments with respect to urban programs through other agencies and actions.

The primary advancement was made through the stimulus package passed shortly after the president took office. Though not pitched as an urban policy program, the $787 billion bill is seen as having helped rescue cities when they were being pummeled by foreclosures and job losses.

As Sharkey wrote in a New York Times op-ed in April, "abandoned homes did not become hot spots for crime because almost $2 billion went to acquiring, renovating, or demolishing them," and "class sizes did not swell and police officers did not disappear from city streets because stimulus money was used to stabilize state budgets, improve underperforming schools, and rehire officers for community-orienting policing."

Another policy victory with an urban benefit was the Affordable Care Act, which Thompson called "very clearly a massive urban program and the biggest one since the New Deal."

"I don't think a lot of local folks actually grasp the significance of it, and that's been, I would say a frustration and a limitation on the part of the White House Urban office," Thompson said of the Affordable Care Act.

Katz noted that trade and exports legislation has benefited America's cities already. Thompson also highlighted the president's push for manufacturing jobs, financial reform and fixing infrastructure as policies with the potential for enormous benefits for cities.

"The big things that Obama has tried to do haven't been marketed as an urban program, but I think they amount to a very substantial urban program, if successful," Thompson said.

But even when considering the wide breadth of administration policy, urban scholars argue that there is much more to be done.

"One could hope for more on the energy front," Briggs said. "How urban areas source their energy is the big elephant in the room, and we need to move to much cleaner energy, faster."

He also noted the need to finance high-impact, sustainable infrastructure projects.

"It's not strictly an urban issue, but good job creation, much of which could be centered on infrastructure development for metropolitan regions, has to loom large on the unfinished agenda," Briggs said.

POLITICS AS USUAL

When assessing the failures and successes of the president's urban agenda, many experts in the field don't place all the onus on the president himself. Much of the administration's legislative platform was drowned out by partisan politics, and urban policy was no exception.

"This visionary, history-making president ran into the buzzsaw that Washington is. And here we are, still ... trying to pass immigration reform, sensible gun legislation, we're still trying to get a transportation authorization to spend money on transportation infrastructure," Carrión said. "And what we have is gridlock."

With little hope for action, the logic is that farther-reaching priorities became marginalized over time. There were too many other items competing for time, resources, and attention.

"I will say as a country, whether it's Congress or the White House, as a country we are not fully appreciating the economic importance of our cities and metros, like the rest of the world is," said Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities, a group that works for low-income people and their cities.

Today, the Office of Urban Affairs has quietly merged with the economic mobility team and is part of the Domestic Policy Council. Under the council, the office has more policy heft, though it still engages in outreach and works with local leaders. There was no formal announcement of a successor to Carrión, who served as director until 2010, and many -- including Carrión -- don't know who is currently leading the office.

Today, Racquel Russell is the deputy assistant to the president for Urban Affairs and Economic Mobility; she reports both to Cecilia Muñoz and Valerie Jarrett. Russell has extensive experience in government; as an aide to Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), Russell worked both in the Senate and at the National Governors Association. While serving as legislative counsel for Carper, she helped develop provisions of the Affordable Care Act. In a 2013 interview with the National Journal, Russell said she is working to "improve early-childhood education, raise the minimum wage, and revitalize distressed communities."

Nonprofit leaders have said the small role the Office of Urban Affairs has played in promoting urban policy has not affected their collaboration with the White House. Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley (D) agreed, praising the administration's willingness to communicate with mayors, and stressing that the White House is better off having a whole team devoted to urban affairs than just one office.

"This White House has had more engagement, communication with, involvement with mayors, and responsiveness to mayors than any White House that I've had contact with during my time as mayor," Riley told The Huffington Post. "It's like the whole White House became an Office of Urban Affairs. They have developed a mechanism far better than just one office. They've developed a mechanism of a team of people at a very high level who day in and day out are working on urban matters and working directly with the urban leaders of our country."

Katz, meanwhile, said that the Office of Urban Affairs could and should be assuming a more prominent role in leading discussions on urban policy. Among his suggestions included holding international summits, with both government and business leaders from major cities around the world.

Florida, of The Atlantic, called for the president to renew his commitment to advancing cities, citing problems that still remain unaddressed.

"With the looming bankruptcy of Detroit, our decaying urban infrastructure, rampant gentrification and worsening socio-economic divides in our cities –- areas of concentrated advantage and prosperity chock-a-bloc with areas of concentrated disadvantage poverty and crime -- we need a major new commitment to our cities and urban policy in this country," Florida said.

"What better president to do this than Barack Obama?" he asked. "It could and should be his legacy."

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