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.
In some ways, Obama’s trailside promise to promote urban policy was the perfect political move—weaving together the narratives of the candidate as cosmopolite, as policy wonk and as good-government reformer. And it was long overdue: Since 1990, a majority of Americans have lived in large metropolitan areas. Eighty percent now live in cities or directly in their suburbs. Some cities that have been particularly hard hit by the recession, such as Detroit and Las Vegas, are shrinking. But as the big cities of the last century expand, new centers such as Charlotte, Atlanta, Austin, and Denver join what Obama has called “the new metropolitan reality.”
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.
The office faces challenges aside from Beltway bureaucracy—namely coordination on a national scale. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has lobbied repeatedly—and “unsuccessfully,” he said last week—for Recovery Act funding to bypass governors and statehouses and go directly to city officials better attuned to constituent needs. Twenty-five mayors, including Bloomberg, have sent a letter to the president asking for a federal “Urban Innovation Fund” that would strategically invest and rigorously evaluate outcomes when it comes to urban policy. But there has been no indication that the White House or the office will lobby for more city-friendly appropriations; in fact, Recovery Act negotiations stripped $40 billion in aid that would have directly helped city budgets. And, when asked about the mayors’ letter, Douglas said that the two-person leadership team “is tossing around” a similar idea but is not working with the group.