09/02/2014 04:26 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Revitalizing Cities for All Residents

As a proud expatriate from London, now living in the United States, I welcome my periodic visits to that wonderful city with youthful excitement. However, recent visits to London have forced me to finally yield to a new reality. My beloved city has undertaken a quite amazing transformation. The metamorphosis of London into a dynamic 21st-century metropolis has had the unintended consequence of transforming the dynamic of the city.

At the human level, this transformation is most apparent in the alarming disparities of income and wealth that has converted familiar neighborhoods in South London into communities that are almost completely devoid of the special qualities that made them unique -- character and diversity. Communities south of the Thames stretching from the Boroughs of Lambeth to Wandsworth were once home to thousands of Caribbean exiles, Irish immigrants, and transplants from nations afar. These communities no longer exist.

The revival of London and the many great urban centers has fundamentally changed the look, feel and taste of cities in the 21st century. Working families and those with generational ties to unique neighborhoods can no longer afford to live in these communities. Today, most of my friends now reside in communities that are unfamiliar to me. A visit to London for me is now a test of endurance.

My London experience, however, is no different to those of my many friends in the United States -- friends who grew up in our nation's great cities. Over the last decade, cities like Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., have each experienced transformations of seismic proportions. My friends, like me, have observed the redevelopment of their old communities into places they can longer relate. Development has transformed the ethnic make-up of neighborhoods into cookie cutter urban hamlets for the privileged.

However, like London, cities such as Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., also embody the uniqueness of local cultures. The Blues in Chicago, Jazz in Washington, the literary scenes of New York and Boston, came to life because each location -- in their own way -- provided the inspiration that unleashed the creative genius of its inhabitants. For many of my friends who no longer live in cities of their birth, a hometown return is also a test of endurance. For each, a return home requires hours spent visiting friends and family in places far removed from the old neighborhood. The old neighborhood has changed. The familiar faces are gone.

Twenty-first century cities will serves as the engine that drives the economy of a region, and ultimately, a nation. Cities attract the very best talent; they drive investment capital; and, they serve as the entertainment hub for its residence. However, the essential character of the modern day city must be premised on the ability of our city leaders, planners and developers, to create the conditions that embrace the diversity of its residents and the inclusion of households of all incomes across all neighborhoods.

During my visit to London this summer, I came across a recent study by the London School of Economics titled, "The Case for Investing in London's Affordable Housing." The report was commissioned by the G15 group of housing associations or non-profits, and sought to argue the case for government investment in affordable housing. Reading this, and other reports, on London's affordable housing needs, it became clear that there exist a tremendous amount of political will for government funded solutions to the city's affordable housing needs. Government subsidies, non-profit development capacity, and a 30 percent social inclusion or affordable housing requirement, on all new development, is London's answer to reversing the declining population of working families from communities where generational ties run deep.

Affordable housing in the United States is rooted in our nation's complex and sometimes ugly history of residential segregation. As a result of our nation's uncomfortable past, our cities descended into urban slums for much of the 20th century. This is no longer the case. Today our cities now serve as the fulfillment of our desires. However, the lessons of London should not be lost on our leaders on matters of housing affordability and inclusion.

The success of the G15 group of housing associations in securing a 30 percent affordable housing requirement in new developments provides a dramatic contrast with efforts in the United States. At the municipal level, many towns and cities -- under pressure from housing advocates -- have adopted the tool of inclusionary zoning to legislate the creation of affordable housing in new developments. Through this process developers are required to set-aside a meager 10 percent of new units for low- and moderate-income households.

At the federal level, supply side affordable housing solutions have taken two traditional forms: First, the expansion of mortgage products to credit worthy low- and moderate-income families through the government sponsored enterprise (GSEs); and second, the expansion of rental housing production through the provision of federal government incentives for real estate development teams.

A typical affordable housing project involves the syndication of government issued Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LITHC) that are sold to Wall Street firms. Through this process millions of dollars' worth of equity is generated to finance projects, with the condition that the constructed units remain affordable for a compliance period of 15 years. A typical development will also comprise a mix of additional sources ranging from municipal bonds, conventional loans and, location specific housing trust fund financing. From this process and, with the active participation of the local community, emerge a new community.

However, the rebirth of our cities as places to live for residents of all incomes is not exclusively dependent on access to development financing. The sense of community must also be informed by a dynamic vision of how we envision our revitalized cities. A trip through a notable upper North West Washington DC neighborhood requires me to drive across a bridge named after one of the city's greatest creative talent, the incomparable Duke Ellington. As we think about the future of our cities, it is my hope that our political leadership, business leaders and community activists, will work towards creating communities that best embody the aspirations of all residence and not the privileged few. For it is only within a truly diverse and inclusive city will a modern-day Duke Ellington once again emerge.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.