Cities around the country are working to reimagine what should be done with underinvested neighborhoods and find new ways to connect low-income people to economic opportunities wherever they exist in a region. Living Cities is working with leaders in cities to drive efforts that simultaneously tackle issues of people, place, and opportunity, including through our Integration Initiative.

On October 4-6, teams from Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark and the Twin Cities gathered in Washington, DC for the third Integration Initiative Learning Community. Forty leaders who work in philanthropy, nonprofits, government and economic development engaged in learning with peers as well as relevant experts. At past Learning Communities, speakers provided insight on topics ranging from adaptive leadership to message framing to the smart use of financial subsidies (you can read the highlights from the first and second gatherings).

Ten months into The Integration Initiative, this third Learning Community built on the lessons from the past sessions and delved into three topics: 1) linking the sites’ strategies focused on connecting low-income people to opportunity to their regions’ economic development ecosystems; 2) exploring how agencies in the Federal Government are supporting integrative work; and 3) using data as a tool for strategic decision-making. The agenda yielded rich insights from speakers and participants alike, and surfaced challenging questions for discussion:

1. Connecting Low-Income People to Opportunity through Equitable Regional Economic Development

  • The demographics of the US population are changing, and the rate of educational attainment is lowest among the fastest growing communities . According to PolicyLink’s Sarah Treuhaft, in the United States today, 92% of population growth is among people of color. (Watch PolicyLink’s time lapse video of the country’s demographic shifts.) The fastest growing populations—blacks and Hispanics – also have the lowest rates of bachelor’s degree attainment (18% and 13% respectfully) and the highest rates of poverty. This reality underscores the importance of transforming key systems to support the connection of all people to opportunity to ensure a prosperous future for the country.

  • Regional economies need equitable strategies to drive economic growth across the U.S. U.S. regions need new models for growth because for decades economic development has focused on what the Brookings Institution’s Amy Liu refers to as “Starbucks, Stadia and Stealing Businesses.” The focus, in recent years, on growing economies through localized industries such as retail, real estate and health care is not sustainable for the future. Given our nation’s demographic and economic trends, it is clear that regions must be more strategic in their economic development work in order to grow. And, for a region’s growth strategy to succeed, the advancement of equity needs to play a central role in economic development and vice versa.

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  • Growing tradable industries is a win-win: they drive economic growth and provide opportunity for low-income people. One of the most promising emerging economic opportunities is in tradable sectors, businesses that can export their goods and services such as in emerging green and clean industries and advanced manufacturing. According to Amy Liu of Brookings, on average, these industries employ more workers who have only a high school degree, provide more on-the-job training and pay better wages than the national average. Growth in the tradable sectors not only will be good for the economy in general, it also has great potential for connecting low-income people to opportunity. The U.S. and regions need to identify and prioritize win-win economic strategies which are market-driven and equity-creating.

2. Driving the Federal Government to Support Integrative Approaches and Local Innovation

  • The Federal Government is not organized to support integrative work that cities are doing on the ground (yet). Representatives from the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Transportation (DOT), and Education (DOE) as well as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), spoke about the Obama Administration’s cross-agency and cross-sector partnerships that are supporting local communities in addressing complex problems and driving innovation. One of the most striking insights—especially at an event where participants live and breathe the connections between systems—came from Beth Osborne from DOT who noted that many leaders in Washington don’t recognize a connection between housing and transportation, and even fewer see the connection between transportation and economic development. Tracey Nichols, Director of Economic Development for the City of Cleveland surfaced a salient example of Federal government disconnects, noting that Cleveland is using HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) funding to right-size the city’s housing stock for the current population. However, HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding formula takes into account the percentage of pre-1940 housing—the types of houses that Cleveland has been knocking down–to determine the city’s allocation. She voiced her concern that Cleveland’s CDBG funding would be cut because the NSP programs’ impact hadn’t been accounted for. In the coming months, Living Cities wants to recommend changes to Federal regulations that impede integrative on-the-ground work. If you have other examples like Tracey’s, email agold@livingcities.org or tweet with the hashtag #TIILC.

  • Some Federal Agencies are bridging divides and collaborating to support local innovation, but some key agencies are not in the mix. Notoriously challenged by cross-agency collaboration, it’s a significant step for the Federal government to have a set of notable programs–the Partnership for Sustainable Communities; Strong Cities, Strong Communities; Promise Neighborhoods; and ArtsPlace—that are building bridges within and outside of the government to strengthen communities. The leaders at the center of this bridge-building recognize there remains a lot of work to be done. One government official noted that despite a small group of examples, it is challenging to make Federal agencies nimble and able to work together. Another official made reference to culture differences among agencies that need to be understood before barriers could come down. The discussion focused on Federal Agencies working to strengthen communities and their infrastructure, but also revealed notable absences in the collaborative frame. As Libby Starling from the Corridors of Opportunity initiative team in the Twin Cities asked the Federal panelists, “Why aren’t more people-focused agencies like the Departments of Labor involved in these collaborations?”

3. Using Data to Drive Strategic Decision-Making

  • Data – analyzed and raw – can be powerful tool for ensuring results, and for revealing problems, ideas and trends. On the final day of the Learning Community, the site teams grappled with the concept of Results Based-Accountability, the process of regularly collecting and analyzing data to continuously refine strategies in order to achieve clearly articulated goals. The framework challenged the site teams to articulate their intended results, as well as to re-frame their strategies as means to the results and not results in and of themselves. By working case studies based on real situations in Detroit and the Twin Cities, the site teams had the chance to test their data analysis powers. But, as Tonya Allen from the Skillman Foundation revealed during the group discussion, there’s power to unanalyzed data too. She has found that sharing raw data with diverse stakeholders, such as community members, encourages free and flexible thinking that can reveal problems, ideas and emerging trends.

  • Data can help determine if you need to employ people-based strategies or place-based strategies. During the final session of the Learning Community, the site teams explored an in-motion scenario from the Twin Cities focused on where to place affordable housing along an emerging transit corridor in order to create mixed-income communities. The crux of the case was whether is it better to locate new affordable housing in higher-income neighborhoods where it will create a mixed-income environment sooner, or in lower-income neighborhoods to maintain affordability for the future when the communities are more likely to become gentrified as a result of their transit access. Ommeed Sathe of Prudential and Newark’s Strong Healthy Communities Initiative made a strong case for developing the affordable units in the higher-income neighborhoods, noting that in the lower-income neighborhoods the rents would likely be higher than the current market rate. Paul Williams, Deputy Mayor of St. Paul, MN asserted that it was critical to implement both strategies and more, noting that a mixed-income approach in higher-income area is a people-based strategy which has to be built over time. But, in an area with a higher concentration of poverty, a place-based strategy focused on pre-emptively ensuring affordability displacement occurs the mixed-income opportunity may be missed altogether. The Twin Cities team vowed to incorporate their peers’ insight into their work back home, and keep the other site teams informed on their progress.

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Join conversations with The Integration Initiative on Twitter by following us at @TII_LC, and using the hashtag #TIILC.

Share your feedback on the Learning Community Highlights by emailing agold@livingcities.org.