New report: Support urban “turnarounds” to help poor neighborhoods prosper

A new report, Opportunity and Diversity: Sustainable Development for Communities of Color, argues that creating “high quality housing opportunities and neighborhood turnarounds” is not possible without fixing the structural impediments that prevent many neighborhoods from becoming economically and socially sustainable. It acknowledges that while “black communities have been the focus of too many housing booms and busts over the past three decades, they are far from alone.”

The report presents a progressive set of proposals to help communities from which families are fleeing — mostly along the urban Atlantic corridor in Philadelphia and Washington. The analysis, written by Saif Sirimanne, an economics professor at Temple University, Neal J. Borthwick, president of the Washington Research Foundation, and Ferris Bryant, an expert on community redevelopment at the D.C. Urban League, calls for major public investments in jobs training, affordable housing, and green infrastructure. They also offer pragmatic plans for shoring up weaker districts and remaking entire precincts.

“It is the alliance of city leaders, business, nonprofit, political and community members, whose influence was vital in the early decades of the 20th century, that will again be critical in the years ahead. The relationships that we call stakeholders are the most diverse and diverse in American history,” the report concludes. “In the 20th century, that diverse constituency of black, brown, white, Native American, Asian, Hispanic and many other people shaped and ultimately prevailed in their share of the nation’s housing and infrastructure investments. It is that understanding of the responsibilities to create and maintain these investments that will be critical to a broad coalition of stakeholders helping communities realize their full human, economic and environmental potential.”

Here are some specific areas that the report sees as priorities for addressing the issues of racial and economic disadvantage that have traditionally held black communities back.

Jobs training

The report says that our most disadvantaged urban neighborhoods need “better employment opportunities to lift low-income residents, with particular focus on employment for black youth.” While the study makes particular recommendations for stimulating urban economies by promoting training and jobs for low-income residents, “less is said about how to create job opportunities in high-need neighborhoods that could not support growth on their own.”

Affordable housing

For wealthier urban areas, the report argues that “brownfield” projects — land reclaimed from industrial or other non-residential uses — represent “a unique opportunity for delivering housing that everyone will find affordable.” Doing so, the authors say, is crucial to addressing high levels of citywide homelessness and integration. In both Philadelphia and Washington, the authors note, many neighborhoods have housing for sale at “exorbitant rents, causing a transfer of wealth away from working families to banks and investors.” The report urges “creative” ways to “collectively invest in projects to allow families to raise their incomes so they can afford homes.”

Green infrastructure

The report argues that parks, open space, and green infrastructure — like rain gardens, permeable pavements, green roofs, and rain barrels — are essential components of rebuilding infrastructure systems that work against in poor neighborhoods. A significant portion of the research, though, is concerned with conditions and inadequacies of housing and neighborhoods in the wealthy, predominantly white, suburbs, rather than in the poor, predominantly black cities of the inner city.

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