What Happened to the Office of Urban Policy?

After 100 days, Obama’s shiny-new dream for our cities is looking more like a bureaucratic nightmare.

The Office of Urban Affairs, which reports to Jarrett in Washington and which aims to have interagency representation, was formed to address the urgent, interlocking problems detailed in a recent New York Times report on cities: “an archaic and grotesquely wasteful federal system in which upkeep for roads, subways, housing, public parkland and our water supply are all handled separately.”

Administration officials say the office will tackle the whole spectrum of concerns relating to “human geography”—from the problem of truancy among homeless youth to urban air quality and public health. “We’re looking at a results-driven and data-driven approach,” says Douglas, special assistant to the president for urban affairs. “It doesn’t make sense if you’re doing transportation policy in a separate department from housing policy, because where you do the transit lines, for example, you need to make sure that there’s housing that has access to the transportation, and when you do the housing you need to make sure it’s affordable housing, so that you don’t have these pockets of concentrated poverty.”

But while Urban Affairs has grand ambitions, it is operating as part of a complex bureaucracy that makes its real influence hard to observe. Douglas has an appointment in the Domestic Policy Council, but the office itself is not part of the council. Carrion works outside of the policy shop, under Jarrett, but primarily as a liaison to local governments. The office’s key issues span nearly a dozen agencies—among them, Transportation, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection, even Homeland Security—agencies already hard at work on the problems facing urban America. The faith office is connecting many urban communities of color with resources. The Domestic Policy Council’s Office of Mobility deals with poverty, and its Office of Opportunity and Social Innovation deals with private-sector investment. Moreover, Obama’s Cabinet is full of city dwellers with big ideas of their own, from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, to Nancy Sutley, former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and head of the Council on Environmental Quality. So while the mandate of Urban Affairs includes “breaking down the traditional jurisdictional boundaries,” according to Douglas, its regulatory authority appears as limited as its challenges are great.