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Cascade: No. 58, Summer 2005

Houstoun's Four Targets for Regional Equity

Feather Houstoun joined the William Penn Foundation in March 2005. She served in state government as secretary of public welfare in Pennsylvania and treasurer of New Jersey. She was chief financial officer of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, executive director of New Jersey 's housing finance agency, and acting deputy assistant secretary for policy development with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. More recently, she spent a year as a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania researching gubernatorial leadership in state housing policy and was an executive with AmeriChoice, a health-care company serving Medicaid clients in 13 states.

Looking out over In front of an enthusiastic audience at the Second National Summit on Equitable Development, Social Justice, and Smart Growth in Philadelphia this May, Jeremy Nowak of The Reinvestment Fund (TRF) wryly observed that “regional equity is in danger of becoming a cottage industry of conferences. ”He may be right, and his comment offers a challenge to the field: How do we move from talking and thinking to action that shifts realities on the ground?"

For decades, the elements that make up equitable regions — housing choices for all households, high-quality schools, accessible transportation, sustainable land use, well-conceived economic development, and workforce development — have been part of policy debates at the local, state, and federal levels. Most often, they often they have appeared emerge as goals within the programmatic silos of domestic policy debates lexicon, but more recently, these ideas have been woven together For decades, the ingredients of what we now call regional equity — affordable housing, good transportation, great schools, sustainable land use, economic development, and workforce development — have been recurrent themes. under the phrase “regional equity advocates from many fields have sought acceptance of this somewhat abstract notion.” Demonstrating the interdependence of these programmatic themes is worthwhile, but it risks moving advocacy to a level of abstraction without traction. As a public official, I long ago concluded long ago that ever-more sophisticated talk among the converted achieves little. Issues of regional equity play out in the trenches of policymaking around housing, land use, transportation, jobs, education, and economic development.

I believe that energy of advocates for more equitable regions should be focused on actionable policy targets that can affect decisions by individuals, communities, local governments, and the private sector. It is possible to select targets that resonate with the public and support sustainable, equitable regions. These targets must be framed around themes that broaden rather than narrow public understanding and political support.

In Massachusetts, the Romney administration has woven housing choices and opportunities with a broader theme of sustainable development. They've gained political traction for these efforts by building a vision of the kind of community most people want: If we think about it, most of us would like to live in a place where our children can grow up and afford to buy their first home, and where our parents can retire in their homes. Most people want to live where police officers and teachers can be part of their community. They understand that huge spatial gaps between housing and jobs make for a poorer quality of life and lead to environmental degradation. These are powerful public sentiments that should guide advocates toward policy priorities that create progress toward more affordable, livable communities.

Based on what I've learned from experience in the public sector and from research on current trends, I see four areas where advocates of regional equity could focus their energy to build momentum for tangible policy changes. Some are highlighted by examples from the William Penn Foundation's grantmaking in Greater Philadelphia; some are illustrated by examples of progress outside our region.

  • Support programs that embrace housing choices across income and age. This takes different shapes in different political environments, but the breadth of potential support for affordable, livable communities should give us encouragementis encouraging. There is also support for housing that responds to the needs of residents with a mix of incomes and ages - not only established families but also older residents and young families pursuing their first homes. In Utah, the Quality Growth Commission offers support to communities that plan for growth, offering a wide range of housing types and price levels for residents who work in the community. The commission's seal of approval on projects triggers state funding opportunities, creating an incentive for communities and builders to develop mixed-income housing. In Pennsylvania, TRF has advocated for comprehensive state housing policies that go beyond the supply of affordable housing to a set of strategic principles that will result in more inclusive communities. TRF argues that state policy should be backed by an objective incentive system that rewards development consistent with these principles.? TRF's housing policy report will be followed by a companion study that advocates for better integration of economic development and housing strategies.
  • Prioritize capital investments that link jobs, housing, and transportation. New Jersey's Transit Village initiative brings together seven state agencies to support mixed residential and commercial infrastructure in selected municipalities that proactively plan for sound development. California prioritizes transportation investments in communities that are providing for housing development in conjunction with job growth. Where there are spatial disconnects between jobs and housing are prevalent, states, including Pennsylvania, have used welfare block grants to jump-start reverse-commute initiatives. The value of connecting jobs, transportation, and mixed-income housing is demonstrated in the Allegheny West neighborhood of North Philadelphia where the community is rebuilding from decades of disinvestment with the help of a collaborative effort by public and private employers and investors. The initiative has spurred economic development, bringing new jobs and a mix of housing choices for new and existing residents to an area that is transit-rich but job-scarce. Projects like Allegheny West have greater chances of success within a policy environment that builds public consensus for their values they represent. The William Penn Foundation supports a number of organizations approaching these issues from different vantage points, including the Pennsylvania Economic League, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and the Philadelphia Neighborhood Development Collaborative.
  • Welcome private investment in urban neighborhoods and leverage it to protect and preserve affordable housing for current residents. In the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia, People's Emergency Center CDC (PECCDC) is loosening the grip of poverty with entrepreneurial, proactive efforts that take advantage of private-sector investments by welcoming middle-income residents. Their innovative community development strategies help accommodate diverse households in ways that produce a healthier neighborhood with better services and but also protect the interests of low-income residents. PECCDC's efforts support the idea that private investment in mixed-income neighborhoods can be advantageous not only for investors but also for residents.
  • Be clear about the strategic importance of schools. Education is essential to the creation of a more equitable region. Access to quality educational opportunities is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty across generations and necessary for building and sustaining a competitive workforce. And, while many middle-income urban households do not have children, sustained urban reinvestment requires educational options for young families so they remain in urban centers. Systemic school reform in communities where lower- and mixed-income housing exists are the best way to address this inequity. But as the William Penn Foundation has learned through years of investment in public school reform, particularly in our region's urban centers of Camden and Philadelphia , changing schools for the better is certainly a long-term proposition. In the short term, targeting affordable housing investments to areas where quality schools already exist can help ameliorate concentrated poverty. It is important, however, not to lose focus on the long-term objective of improving all schools.

It is a fundamental American value that anyone willing to work hard deserves the opportunity to live in an affordable community with access to employment, good schools, transportation, and amenities such as commerce, parks, and the arts. Those who believe in this vision should focus on opportunities to build broad consensus, effect policy change, and demonstrate achievements that tangibly improve communities and lives.

For information, contact contact the William Penn Foundation at (215) 988-1830 or visit

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