Commentary: HUD forcing city to change grant process
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: On April 18, James Heard of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's area office and Dee Ann Ducote, from Community Planning and Development in HUD met with members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and announced that the city may no longer distribute federal funds by ward. It must adopt a transparent citywide grant process open to everyone.
The HUD announcement opens a window of opportunity to build a more equitable and effective community development system in the city. If St. Louis does this right, we believe it can be a “game changer” that will enable us to attract millions of dollars in additional funding. However, it all depends on what grant criteria are selected and how the process is run. The details will make or break the process.
We already know what makes for “best practice” in community development. Projects need to be based on:
- A plan arrived at through deep civic engagement by residents and businesses;
- Market analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the area;
- Sufficient scale to “make a difference”;
- Cross-silo planning, connecting housing to jobs, schools, public safety, health, parks, etc.
- Cross-sector collaboration between public, private and nonprofit organizations that leverages sufficient resources to implement the plan.
Consider what could happen under a reformed community development system in the city.
What if … a number of wards collaborated to set up a youth summer jobs program, funded by area corporations, that did home repairs for low-income homeowners. In turn, participating teens would be fed into vocational training programs in the public schools and, in collaboration with construction unions, could be certified to enter apprentice-training programs for well-paid union construction jobs?
What if … one or more community development corporations were able to partner with Metro to do transit-oriented development around a MetroLink station that included affordable housing, enabling low-income families to dispense with a car and save $8,000 in transportation expenses while living a more active healthy lifestyle?
What if … two CDCs got together to support corridor development linking their two communities supported by a Great Streets grant from East-West Gateway that included a bike and walking trail in the median of the street and walkable retail with loft space for artists on the second floor?
The possibilities for path-breaking community development projects in St. Louis are almost infinite. For too many years, city administration of federal funds has not encouraged this kind of community-driven cross-ward/neighborhood planning that combined sectors of concern. The Community Development Administration, which will implement the HUD reforms, should establish criteria that reward best practices. Applicants should get more points if their proposal is based on extensive citizen engagement, crosses ward/neighborhood boundaries, leverages additional funding, etc.
To realize this opportunity for more successful community building, the new allocation process must be implemented with trust and integrity. Funding decisions must be as objective as they can possibly be, and they must be perceived as such. Trust in the integrity of the process can be ensured by appointing a third-party oversight committee, made up of city residents, representatives from neighborhood associations, businesses, community development nonprofits, banks, foundations, and institutions of higher learning.
Many aldermen are concerned that the new HUD rules will cut them out of the process. This is impossible; without the cooperation of the aldermen, community development will go nowhere in the city. Local elected officials have crucial roles to play in the best community development systems around the country. Instead of picking the projects to be funded, aldermen should help to bring communities together to agree on a neighborhood plan and then work to pass supportive policies and raise sufficient resources to implement the plan.
If St. Louis can reform its community development funding system in line with national best practices, we believe the city will be able to attract significant new funding from local banks, corporations and foundations, as well as national foundations. With federal funding sure to decline further in the years ahead, it is crucial that the city positions itself to make a strong case for additional private and philanthropic funding for this important work.
Antionette Cousins is executive director of Riverview West Florissant Development Corp. and president of the Community Builders Network of St. Louis Board of Directors. Tom Pickel is executive director of DeSales Community Housing Corp. and vice president, CBN Board of Directors.