USI turns 40 this year and in this installment, we look at the success of the past and the work of the future.
Anyone who has ever turned the big 4-0 knows, it is an unprecedented time in life; bringing with it a mixed bag of emotions and responses. Among those are celebrations, nostalgia and some degree of questioning. The celebration of the accomplishments made in the first half of life and the nostalgia for the people, places, and choices that moved us from where we started to where we are. Questioning in the form of “How can I use what I know to support where I go?” Organizations hitting this milestone are not all that dissimilar from individuals. In fact, as Urban Strategies, Inc (USI) approaches our mid-life, this is a fairly accurate summation of our experience.
We look back with nostalgia over more than 20 years of work with HOPE VI revitalization efforts, where we honed our skills to work effectively with people and place. We know definitively that this experience allowed us to develop the knowledge base and expertise necessary to successfully support Choice Neighborhood Initiatives. We celebrate having had the opportunity to use our expertise to secure more than $220 million in Choice Implementation Grant Awards in 9 cities. Roughly translated that has led to over $40 million in support services funding for families in CNI program areas, which has leveraged over $200 million through in-kind services and direct resources from community partners across the nation.
Looking back at communities like Alice Griffith of San Francisco and Bienville Basin of New Orleans, two of our first awarded Choice initiatives, we can see the difference when combining a commitment to people and neighborhood revitalizations with leveraged resources can make. The combination of those two factors equates not only to housing stability but also in moving people to work, improving health outcomes, changing educational trajectories and creating safer communities.
Not one to rest on our laurels, in 2016 we began the hard work of looking forward. Part of that looking forward included USI making the dramatic shift to incorporate a results-based framework in the way we approach all of our work in all of our communities. Getting our agency staff to agree on a common result was the easy part of what we needed to do. It took little convincing to get our staff to agree that every day we are working to ensure that All Families are Stable and Thriving.
Inevitably, the harder part of driving results means taking a deeper dive into the factors that contribute to the poor outcomes that communities across the nation have in common. Our experience tells us that effective change requires working at the individual and community level, but also something more than that. To create sustainable change in the next half of our life, USI understands that we must begin to challenge the policies and practices that are leading to inequitable outcomes. The focus of our work must include the transformation of people in place as it has in the past, but also on the transformation of policy that has contributed to the unacceptable conditions that persist.
One such example of a policy transformation that could make a dramatic difference, is around provisions for low-income tax credit developments in Qualified Census Tracts (QCT). These provisions were designed to make Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) more effective but may have unintended consequences working counter to the best interest of the people in communities targeted for development.
LIHTC, when developed in Qualified Census Tracts (QCT), allows a 30% boost to help offset construction costs associated with redevelopment. A 30 percent basis boost in simple math means every eligible dollar spent generates $1.30 of eligible basis. This will generally result in up to a 30 percent increase in the amount of LIHTC and equity. 1 To qualify, QCTs must have 50 percent of households with incomes below 60 percent of the Area Median Gross Income (AMGI) or have a poverty rate of 25 percent or more.2
This level of investment encourages development in distressed communities with concentrated poverty, which on the surface is good for communities. However, as Hollar and Usowski point out in their 2007 policy brief, Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Qualified Census Tracts, “the additional incentive to locate low-income housing into already low-income areas may have the perverse and self-reinforcing effect of concentrating low-income households in the lowest income and highest poverty neighborhoods, rather than providing low-income housing throughout a larger area.”3 This can exacerbate issues with employment that limit access to people living in these communities to jobs below a living wage.
On top of that, as is unfortunately not all that uncommon, the provisions above came with an unfunded mandate to serve families. The very nature of including a mandate to which there is no attached funding means that it will not get equal investment to the bricks and mortar side of development. If USI has learned anything from our many years of experience, it is that failure to develop people along with place means that improvements are not sustainable over time.
“How can we use what we know, to support where we go?”
The answer to us is evident. It is evident in the work we did with Hope IV. It is equally evident in the work that we are currently doing in our Choice Neighborhoods. The only way to counter the unintended consequences of the policy outlined above is through a policy shift; one that includes a 30% social investment fund to match the 30% boost already enacted.
Using social investment fund dollars, organizations such as USI could continue the important work of creating the type of holistic service coordination continuums which serve as the foundation of our case management model.
Providing service coordination and case management services over an extended period allows USI to drive results toward improved health, education, and economic mobility simultaneous to the physical and neighborhood revitalization meant to expand the availability of affordable housing. What experience has taught us is that investment in affordable housing helps move families to stable. Moving families to thriving takes intentional investment in the creation of social equity.
As USI enters this next decade of life, our priorities have never been more clear. We have hindsight. We have determination. We have renewed urgency. To effectively move results, we have to involve ourselves in systems change. After all, our time here is limited and this work is far too important to get it wrong.
About the Author: Kristie G. Stutler is a Regional Director for Urban Strategies, Inc. She has a Masters of Science in Social Work, 16 years of experience working with system-involved youth, and 3 years of experience working in juvenile justice reform. She is a Class 10 Fellow in the Annie E. Casey Children and Families Fellowship, a trainer, a writer, and a lover of all things that rhyme…
- Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, Volume 9, Number 3, 2007 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research