Affordable housing. Clean drinking water. Transit and mobility.
Those are just a few of the issues that newly-elected mayors from across the country went to the White House late last week to tell the Biden Administration they’d like help with once they take office. In total, some 14 mayors representing cities as distant as Long Beach, Calif., Brooklyn Park, Minn., and Providence, R.I., convened with the secretaries of Labor, Housing and Transportation as well as the White House’s American Rescue Plan coordinator, the director of intergovernmental affairs and the national climate advisor.
With Democrats losing control of the House after the new year, the likelihood that the Biden White House can pass any new measures to help cities is slim. But three of the mayors The Root spoke with exclusively, in between their D.C. meetings, said they hoped to take advantage of initiatives already put in place, like the $1.7 trillion infrastructure plan, to remedy long-standing issues that have detracted from the quality of life in their cities.
“Augusta is no different than most metropolitan areas and you know we’re tackling some of the same issues as it relates to crime, as it relates to affordable housing, as it relates to workforce development,” said Garnett Johnson, the mayor-elect of Augusta, Ga., who takes office on Jan. “So, I’m here to learn more about how we can get the resources to tackle some of those issues.” Johnson said he hoped to land federal funding to help Augusta, which is 56.5% Black according to the U.S. Census Bureau, attract and retain law enforcement as well as funds to upgrade a dam along the Savannah River, which is critical to the city’s shipping and tourism industries.
Philip Jones, who’s already been sworn in as the new mayor of Newport News, Va., said the Biden administration’s plan to address longstanding racial inequity in federal policy dovetails with one of the top priorities of his administration: addressing transit and mobility. As in many cities, several of Newport News’ Black communities were cut off from essential services and economic activity by the building of interstate highways decades ago. Jones wants a grant under the federal Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program to kickstart a proposed bus rapid transit route that would connect those communities to Amtrak’s recently-opened intermodal transit hub in the city.
“There were things that were done, you know, decades ago that we’re still feeling the effects of,” Jones said. “If you live in the central part of Newport News, you only have a five minute commute, so why if you live in the north or the south should you have a 45 minute commute? And I think we look at the underserved communities. I’m a man of faith, so I believe that the least of us, they should have access to reliable and secure public transportation that is going to allow them to have high paying jobs.”
Meetings at the White House for new mayors are nothing new; under administrations of both parties there’s always been a dance between local elected officials with funding needs and a White House with political messaging it wants taken back to the local electorate. While last week’s meetings were pretty status quo along those lines, what wasn’t was that Congress had already approved large chunks of new funding for projects that previous mayors could only have hoped for.
For Pamela Goynes-Brown, the mayor of North Las Vegas, Nevada, the hope is for funding to help get new affordable housing built in a market where such units are scarce.
“If you can get that money to be readily available, then you can start planning those developments and you can, you know, put that money into the hands of the people that need it, and you can move that dial,” she said, noting that HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge had recently visited North Las Vegas.