The Federal government has, at times, shown a commitment to developing effective and practical policies that provide for the promotion of social equity and sustainable communities throughout America. For this reason it is important to examine the policies and how they can potentially stimulate communication and collaboration among federal, state, and local governments. The basis for all policies developed should be to provide for more efficient use of land and other environmental resources in an attempt to limit urban sprawl. Also, it is imperative that economic development is encouraged in all areas of the communities including low income and blighted areas. Policies developed and implemented with these goals in mind will strengthen the social fabric of individual communities as well as our nation as a whole. This paper attempts to take a brief look at national housing policy and some of the major influences on shaping those polices. Then we will take a look at the broad scope of today’s housing policy, the major concerns facing urban areas, and how these policies are being manifested in the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Area.
Urban life has become increasingly complex as people attempt to adjust to the changes brought about as this nation enters into a true world economy. Technological advances over the last 150 years have put society in a position where it must cope with seemingly ubiquitous and instantaneous changes which have drastic effects on a people’s way of life. When the foundation upon which a society rests is shaken, the resulting confusion and instability can lead to the deterioration in the quality of life for everyone. In times of transition and unrest the policies of the government (local, regional, and federal) must become proactive and take a holistic approach to the situation in order to provide as much of society as possible with a stable foundation with access to resources. By doing this, the government helps to build a nation that is adaptable and resilient.
Presently, the often-mindless expansion that many urban areas have been facing over the past few decades has become the number one problem in metropolitan America. The problems created by urban sprawl are increasingly straining resources and often pitting one community against another. Creative and cooperative measures must be taken to alleviate some of the problems sprawl is creating.
Economic development policies should not only take into consideration the views of the business community but view it from the perspective of creating a community that is a viable, self-sustaining economic engine. A profitable economic policy would be one that leads to the efficient use of resources and provides opportunities for individuals to build a stable life.
As often is the case, the most important area of concern is the one area that policy is the least effective against. The family unit has become almost an impediment instead of a source of strength in modern society. Much of this stems from federal policies of the 20th century which had long-term and pervasive consequences that has led to the deterioration of the social fabric of communities especially in low-to-moderate income communities. However, social policy is a fool’s gold in which the cure is often far worse than the disease. This does not mean that government should shun its responsibility; on the contrary, government should pursue policies that provide a stimulus for social change instead of trying to prescribe the cure.
Today the lasting effects of industrialization as well as the housing and banking policies of the early and mid 20th century can be seen throughout the urban landscape. The pro-business policies of the federal government led to developments geared towards profitability not livability. Rich captains of industry would often encourage people to move to peripheral developments because of the higher profit margins or to ensure customers for their primary business such as railroad lines (Jackson 1985).
This began the process of isolating communities as the distances between them grew greater and greater. At the same time demands on resources and infrastructure began to increase in order to serve these far-flung communities. The federal housing policies of the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) of the 1930s and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) of the 1940s and 1950s further accelerated this trend and began the mass suburbanization of America. These policies also increased the stratification of American communities along economic and racial lines (Massey & Denton 1996).
What Needs to be Done
With this in mind, urban sprawl has become a key area of concern which has to be addressed with policy initiatives that do not take a top down approach. The organizational structure through which policy will be developed and implemented must be sound if there is going to be any chance of success. First, agencies should be staffed by a diverse staff (i.e.: skill set, origin, race, etc.) so that all pertinent areas of concern can be identified and addressed as policy is developed and implemented. Also, once a policy is implemented it should be monitored and adjusted as needed. It must always be kept in mind that the people in the community are the concern not the problem (Lindbolm 1959).
The vast geographic size of metropolitan areas creates political and communication concerns that are often unique to a particular location, this makes the sharing of information between governments on all levels crucial. Not only does information have to get from the local to the federal level (and vice versa) in order to monitor policy effectiveness, information must be made available to surrounding communities. In essences, once local communities work through their political and ideological differences the program developed will be held to standards that the communities themselves have established (Krumholz 1999).
To help facilitate such interaction, Regional Planning Commissions were established to aid geographically bound communities in developing healthy cities. The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham was formed in 1963 with the mission to help leadership in the five-county area of Blount, Chilton, Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair, and Walker counties better plan and develop their respective communities. It is funded through a mix of federal, state, and private grants along with voluntary membership dues assessed on a per capita basis as well as fees for services provided. The RPC aids ninety-six communities in the five-county area by providing expertise to local governments and community groups that might not otherwise have access to it. The resources provided fall into six main areas which include: intergovernmental cooperation, transportation and transit planning, community planning, economic development, information management/GIS, and human resource services. It is through these areas that the RPC provides comprehensive and transportation planning, revitalization programs, mapping services, and development of local ordinances.
The RPC helps local governments to develop programs that are more tailored to their concerns instead of requiring communities to adhere to or try to mold themselves to government stipulations, helping them to meet broader goals such as urban infill or regional transportation systems which increase social equity. Efficient use of urban systems provides accessibility to all groups including the marginalized thus attaining some level of social equity (Talen 2002).
Urban sprawl is caused by a hodge-podge of issues that vary from place to place. Any attempts to control sprawl must first take into consideration the unique set of circumstances pertaining to a particular community. Regardless of the circumstances of an area, however, economic development is often one of the primary avenues that are explored in an attempt to make changes for the betterment of the community.
Intergovernmental cooperation is necessary to encourage communities to participate in multi-jurisdictional planning which better increases efficiencies by reducing wasteful practices and redundant services. The RPC of Greater Birmingham plays a key role in this area because one of its main points of concern is intergovernmental cooperation along with planning and economic development. Community planning and economic development go hand-in-hand with intergovernmental cooperation in that they are the means through which this cooperation is facilitated. Community planning focuses on efficient land use by developing maps, ordinances and regulations to that end while economic development is geared more to increasing businesses, and thereby the tax base, in the area. The RPC of Greater Birmingham is also tasked with the development of senior citizen and employment assistance programs in the region that it covers and this constitutes the majority of the human resource services that are provided. Transportation planning coordinates long range programs including safety studies, corridor plans, and urbanized area plans which are also very important to the economic well-being of an area.
Economic development in its various forms is the main mechanism of change that communities attempt to use. By studying this area, strategies can be developed that help shape economic development tactics into tools of positive change. Another tool used locally that is geared toward private businesses, in particular banks, is the credit reinvestment act.
The CRA has greatly increased fair-lending among banks with minimal requirements. The CRA was initially believed to be too lenient on corporations but has proven to be quite effective in stimulating bank investment in marginal areas of development while not causing a financial drain on the institutions themselves (Grogan & Proscio 2000).
Collaborations between the public and private sector provides the best of both worlds when trying to deal with the complex nature of housing and urban development. Alone both sides fail miserably at any attempts to “fix” the problem. That is why it is necessary to try and provide an environment in which the two sides are placed in a cooperative scenario. This can be done with a little prodding, as is the case with the CRA, or by allowing local governments to create a competitive development market.
An example of this would be the use of historic preservation by some cities to spur on economic development. Revitalization of these formerly blighted areas leads to more efficient resource usage by recycling buildings and at the same time it provides another economic engine to the city. Efforts in communities such as these have to be allowed to germinate so that a viable, sustainable solution can be achieved.
Through the Alabama Historic Commission, Birmingham, as well as smaller cities, have started to set up CLG’s, or Certified Local Governments, which gives these communities access to technical assistance and small grants that help them to re-develop the older, downtown city centers.
For instance, in 2009 the City of Birmingham has currently allotted $2,000,000 for an interim float loan program that is geared towards economic development in historic commercial areas of Birmingham. Along with this, Birmingham has a Main Street program which is a public-private partnership specifically geared to create development in historic neighborhoods and commercial districts. Main Street provides resources to entrepreneurs, developers, and merchants in an attempt to stimulate growth in the depressed, older areas of the city. These programs also bring the spotlight to the unique culture and history of an area that would otherwise be forgotten. One such project in Ensley is initiating the development of the Nixon Cultural Center of Tuxedo Junction which will hopefully lead to further development in the area. Through the efforts of the Main Street Program areas such as Ensley have a chance to preserve the rich jazz history of the area which was once the proving ground for some of the most renowned jazz musicians of the 20th century and is immortalized by Erksine Hawkins in the song “Tuxedo Junction.”
The Role of Information
Distribution of information has become increasingly crucial to cities as they try to compete in the information age. Again the RPC of Greater Birmingham plays a key role in helping cities compete in the modern world. The RPC’s ability to provide services across such a wide range of activities spread over a fairly large geographic area is mainly due to its uses and management of information. One of the main tools used to manage such a vast amount of information is the use of GIS software, or Geographic Information Systems software. GIS allows the RPC to compile and correlate varying data and present it spatially in the form of maps and other graphics. This can greatly aid a community that is in the process of redistricting school districts, for instance, by allowing the consideration of all pertinent facts at once. In fact, it could be argued that the gathering of information and developing it into a knowledge base is the main purpose of the RPC of Greater Birmingham because without the capability to continually gather relevant information the RPC would be unable to fulfill its stated mission.
GIS allows data from a variety of formats to be compared with minimal re-formatting of the original data. It also allows for continual monitoring of a particular project or situation (such as increase in crime in a community) so that government resources can be most efficiently used. But perhaps more important than all, GIS helps to level the playing field between the “haves” and “have-nots.” For instance, the RPC can use GIS to analyze and provide information in an easily understandable, graphic format to communities lacking the technical wherewithal to produce the materials on its own; also GIS gives the RPC the ability to effectively and continually serve far more communities in its region of operation.
On Down the Road
The policy direction taken by our local governments over the next few years will help to establish the infrastructure from which local communities can become more proactive in the direction they take. It is at the local level where problems have to be dealt with and the problems faced rarely have simple solutions. The changes made in the basic goals of federal housing policy over the last two decades should help by providing people with access to the necessary resources to equip local governments so that they can be responsive to their communities.
Federal and regional governments have to shift more into a support role than one of leadership. These governmental entities have the knowledge base and resources that are needed by local communities, but it is the local communities that have a real grasp of the situation. Both sides must come to the realization that there are no simple solutions to the problems faced by urban America. These problems are going to require everyone to roll-up their sleeves and get their hands dirty over the long haul. This process will be one of continual change and adaptation in order to deal with the complex issues involved.
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