HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx Discuss Pathways to Mobility and Opportunity
Secretary Julián Castro discusses how HUD fosters pathways to opportunity with the Brookings Institution's Amy Liu and DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx. Credit: Brookings Institution
President Obama’s opportunity agenda promotes the idea that regardless of where a person lives, they should have access to employment, vital services, and decent education and housing. Yet lack of quality, affordable housing, deteriorating infrastructure, limited transportation options, and physically isolating road systems often present barriers to opportunity for people who live in high-poverty metropolitan neighborhoods. On February 23, HUD Secretary Julián Castro and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx participated in a moderated discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program in which they discussed the role of federal policy and their respective departments in trying to break down barriers to opportunity. A second panel discussion among experts from three metropolitan areas focused on challenges to implementing federal housing and transportation policies at the local level.
Fostering Mobility while Revitalizing Neighborhoods
Both HUD and DOT are working to break down socially and economically isolating barriers to opportunity and deconcentrate poverty through policies designed to increase mobility and revitalize historically impoverished neighborhoods. HUD, according to Castro, creates mobility through the Housing Choice Voucher program. HUD also revitalizes neighborhoods through Community Development Block Grants, Choice Neighborhoods, Promise Zones and other programs that engage nonprofits and the private sector. Castro cited the recently launched ConnectHome program, in which HUD worked with Internet service providers and nonprofits to connect public housing residents in 27 communities and 1 tribal nation to the Internet, as an example of how HUD creates pathways to opportunity. Foxx stated that DOT has projects across the country that aim to not only move people, but also to revitalize historically underserved areas. He cited a light rail project in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles that is attracting new businesses such as laundry facilities, pharmacies, and grocery stores to this former “desert area.” Foxx also described how transportation policy can literally break down barriers to opportunity with Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants being used to tear down isolating highway infrastructure and restore neighborhood connectivity.
A Regional Approach to Policy
Both HUD and DOT are committed to fostering a regional approach to solving mobility and opportunity issues. The federal agencies provide local and regional policymakers with the tools and support, but allow local partners to take the lead in formulating and implementing policy. HUD’s new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which Castro characterized as “unfinished business” from the 1968 Fair Housing Act, gives local and regional policymakers an “unprecedented opportunity to make smarter decisions” about housing policy and investment by providing user-friendly tools for unstacking and deconcentrating poverty.
Although AFFH also ensures a more robust federal enforcement of fair housing law, Castro indicated that HUD prefers to work collaboratively with communities and let local policymakers lead the way. HUD is offering increased technical assistance to communities to further this collaborative approach, and is increasing staff at its Fair Housing Office. HUD has also launched the Prosperity Playbook to help local leaders think regionally about how to expand affordable housing opportunities and enhance economic mobility in their communities. Foxx emphasized DOT’s commitment to collaboration and regional approaches to problem-solving, stating “We’ve got to have enlightened mayors and governors at the local and regional levels who are thinking creatively.” He said that DOT is putting resources and tools in place “to support the visions that come…from the ground up,” as well as making financial and structural changes that strengthen incentives for Metropolitan Planning Organizations to work on a regional basis.
Regional Perspectives on Policy Implementation and Collaboration
Implementing housing and transportation policy on a regional basis presents challenges at the local level. Robin Snyderman, principal at BRicK Partners in Evanston, Illinois, and Brookings nonresident senior fellow, stated that one key challenge is sustaining interagency and interjurisdictional collaboration. Citing Cook County’s recently approved strategic plan that coordinates housing and workforce development, she noted that persuasive data provided by AFFH provides an impetus for dialogue, but that it must be accompanied by effective communications to address political realities and gain community acceptance. Another key challenge to policy implementation, according to Scot Spencer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, is overcoming racialized policies and structures that have become hardwired in ways of thinking, particularly those built upon “redlining.” Spencer sees AFFH rulemaking as a means to bring these issues into the open and compel positive change.
Frank Lenk, director of research services at Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City, Missouri, spoke of his organization’s success in strengthening regional collaboration by being opportunistic in seeking partnerships, emphasizing equity in its policymaking, leveraging federal money, and getting the business community actively involved in decisionmaking. Lenk also highlighted the multiplier effect of successful projects, describing how one streetcar starter line and other place-based investments in an economically depressed downtown Kansas City neighborhood allowed a charter school to open and merge with a second to form a high school. The panelists suggested that other ways to foster collaboration include loosening the regulatory environment, engaging all communities in the planning process by giving them meaningful decisionmaking roles, and promoting the economic benefits of social mobility and poverty reduction to the economy and individual taxpayer.
Creating Pathways to Opportunity
According to Castro, “we have a lot of work to do when it comes to making investments to ensure that we have high opportunity areas everywhere.” Although the federal government is providing regional planners with tools for creating pathways to opportunity, such as the Prosperity Playbook and AFFH, many barriers remain. If these issues can be resolved, however, there will be benefits for all. As Foxx stated, “Ultimately, America’s prosperity is so much stronger when we have more people in the middle class… more people having a real shot to get into the middle class.”