In November 2008, less than one week after winning the votes of city dwellers by a margin of 28 points, President-elect Barack Obama announced he would reward them by creating the first-ever “White House Office of Urban Policy.” Like other new aspects of Obama’s executive branch, appointing a city czar was intended to fast-track communications among city governments, federal agencies and the White House. With great fanfare, Obama dispatched his friend and fellow Chicagoan Valerie Jarrett to tell America that he was making good on his campaign pledge to “stop seeing cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution.”
When the office was officially formed in mid-February, urbanists rejoiced: “It’s past time,” said Elnora Watson, president of the Urban League in Jersey City, N.J., as she walked the halls of Congress recently. “Way past time,” added Ella Teal, another Urban League president from the neighboring city of Elizabeth. “Cities will lead America,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker said at an April speech on city government in Washington. “When it comes to industry, innovation, education and the arts … cities are where it’s at.”
But celebrations about the potential triumph of urban policy may be premature. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has begun referring to the office as “urban affairs,” rather than “urban policy,” a small but notable downgrade. And while other offices and Cabinet agencies have been staffing up—the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has representation in 12 government agencies—100 days in, urban affairs has announced only two senior staffers: Derek Douglas, who was special adviser to New York Gov. David Paterson, and former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr., who faces allegations of mismanaging campaign donations and development projects in New York City.
As money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act started going out to cash-strapped states and municipalities, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Pikeville, N.C., this month to specifically address how the stimulus would affect rural America. “As we write a new chapter in our history, the small towns of America … will have to be some of the most prominent of its authors,” he said.
The comparative silence from urban affairs has not gone unnoticed. Diana Lind, editor of Next American City, a journal that covers urban policy, frets that “this isn’t going to be as serious and as powerful a role as many urbanists had hoped.”
That’s not to say nothing has been done. Despite the skeletal staff in urban affairs, the White House has hosted mayors, dispatched five Cabinet secretaries to the National League of Cities conference, and, in March, held a daylong symposium for local administrators to interface with government officials. Biden will attend a Chicago conference on cities this week.
But the urgency of dealing with the recession in these first 100 days has made the slow rollout of the office worrisome for some local officials. Caroline Coleman, federal relations director of the National League of Cities, says cities have been pummeled by the economic downturn. For the first time in the 24-year history of the organization’s City Fiscal Conditions report, the three primary sources of revenue for urban centers—property, sales and income taxes—all experienced a quarterly decrease. “What we’re seeing reflected in the national news is hitting hometown urban America every day,” says Coleman.
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.
Another part of the problem, some suspect, may be the experience level of Carrion, the director of the office. A former teacher with a record of general success in the Bronx—including a commitment to green building in low-income neighborhoods—Carrion is still essentially a local politician, now tasked with a massive nationwide renovation. While his deputy worked on federal policy for Paterson, this is Carrion’s first foray into national administration. “[He] doesn’t have a lot of experience in dealing with federal policy,” says Lind. “How could you give somebody like Adolfo Carrion control over, say the transportation laws in Milwaukee? It’s a hard leap to make.” Despite the campaign funding allegations (the White House declined to comment on the controversy, and requests to interview Carrion for this article were denied), Carrion beat out other, higher-profile officials whose names were floated for the position, including Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin; L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; and Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Katz, who is now working as a senior adviser to HUD. Picking a “celebrity” to run the office might have inspired more confidence that it will make a difference to urban America.
At times, the mere existence of Urban Affairs is used as proof of its efficacy. “People have tried before to crack the skulls and break the silos,” says Douglas. “What’s different this time is that there is a new office that was created to do that…. So I think that speaks to the priority.”
Symbolism alone will not solve all of the pressing issues facing American cities. But many urban interest groups retain high hopes for the new office. “We’re all waiting and watching,” says Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, president of Green for All, which promotes green jobs for people of color. “For issues like retrofitting and weatherization, we need that office to be successful.” Team Obama is rarely shy about advertising its own successes. And the White House will undoubtedly hype several legislative and diplomatic victories during the 100-day sprint. So it’s worth waiting and watching to see if cities are indeed “the solution”—or if substantive, transformational change remains an urban legend.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.