Essays on People, Place & Purpose

Investing in What Works for America's Communities

Fighting Poverty through Community Development

by Shaun Donovan, Arne Duncan and Kathleen Sebelius


Recognizing the disproportionate needs in America’s highest-poverty neighborhoods, the Obama administration has pursued a groundbreaking, “all hands on deck” approach to neighborhood revitalization.

In the past, the federal approach toward neighborhoods of concentrated poverty was disconnected from new actors in the third sector. Rarely were efforts to transform public housing, invest in community health centers, or turn around local schools coordinated or aligned. It was not uncommon to see rebuilt public housing surrounded by failing schools or even other troubled housing, rife with lead hazards and asthma triggers.

In response to this history, the Obama administration formed the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (NRI), bringing together five agencies (Education, HHS, HUD, Treasury, and Justice) to support the work of local leaders from the public and private sectors to attract the private investment needed to transform distressed neighborhoods into sustainable, mixed-income neighborhoods with the affordable housing, safe streets, and good schools every family needs.

A centerpiece of the administration’s initiative is a comprehensive neighborhood revitalization tool called Choice Neighborhoods, which builds on the HOPE VI public housing revitalization program that is planned to create more than 100,000 homes in healthy, mixed-income communities.8 The program has already leveraged twice the federal investment in additional capital and raised the average median income of redevelopment sites by 75 percent or more.9 Choice Neighborhoods provides local leaders with innovative, flexible tools to rebuild rundown housing in high-poverty neighborhoods, while expanding educational and economic opportunities for residents.

In San Francisco’s Eastern Bayview neighborhood, where 40 percent of residents live in poverty and which suffers from high vacancies, poor schools, and inadequate access to job centers, we can see how the NRI is incorporating strategies designed by local leaders to meet the specific needs of unique, locally designated neighborhoods, creating the conditions for private capital to flow into disinvested communities.

There, a public-private nonprofit consortium composed of McCormack Baron Salazar (a private development company), the San Francisco Housing Authority, Lennar Homes (a publicly traded real estate development company), the city, school district, and Urban Strategies are using a Choice Neighborhoods implementation grant to build more than 1,200 mixed-income units, replacing 250 units of public housing and creating a new master-planned community with market-rate and workforce housing. The consortium has also identified a clear plan and goals to address their local needs, building on the School District’s progress to improve the school quality and educational opportunities, setting employment targets, and working with the Job Readiness Initiative and the local Citybuild program to provide job training and placement. In addition, the team is bringing in needed everyday services and jobs by improving streetscapes to attract retail, removing blighted housing, and pursuing new commercial assets, fresh-food stores, and a new bus rapid transit with direct connections to key commuter rail lines.

Choice Neighborhoods recognizes that a healthy neighborhood depends on more than successful, stable housing and must ensure that children in newly built, mixed-income housing also have access to high-quality educational opportunities. That’s why the administration has tied Choice Neighborhoods to another centerpiece of the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which emphasizes local, innovative partnerships to put education at the center of efforts to fight poverty.

Where Choice Neighborhoods’ focus is on troubled housing, Promise Neighborhoods, inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, works to significantly improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children and youth in our most distressed neighborhoods, and to transform those neighborhoods by building a complete continuum of cradle-through-college-to-career solutions of educational programs and family and community supports, with great schools at the center of each community. The continuum of solutions in Promise Neighborhoods includes high-quality early learning programs and services designed to improve outcomes across multiple domains of early learning; ambitious, rigorous, and comprehensive educational reforms; programs that prepare students to be college- and career-ready; and family and student support indicators. Promise Neighborhoods’ success is measured by not only educational outcomes, but health and safety outcomes as well.

One of the five fiscal year 2011 Promise Neighborhoods implementation grantees, the Minneapolis Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), operates as one integrated program across 50 organizational and school partners, with NAZ families and students at the center, and a shared goal to prepare all NAZ children to graduate from high school ready for college. NAZ helps parents to believe their children will succeed, and provides the right tools to improve their achievement in school and in life. NAZ families and children move through a cradle-to-career continuum of comprehensive supports from prenatal through adulthood, through three areas of impact: family engagement and opportunity alignment; an educational pipeline; and whole family support.

Since 2010, NAZ has shown promising results. Parents are setting and achieving education-focused goals (many for the first time); enrolling in and completing parent education classes at unprecedented rates; participating in high-quality early childhood education programs; stabilizing their housing; and setting their own improved career pathway plans.

As a Promise Neighborhood, NAZ is scaling up its successful strategies with a goal of reaching 1,200 families with 3,000 children all successfully on a path to college, and each experiencing a transformation in their lives. When Shira first met her NAZ Engagement Team “family coach,” she had tears in her eyes.10 She could not afford to keep the apartment she shared with her children and was becoming increasingly desperate. Shira’s Engagement Team member connected her with the NAZ “cradle-to-career” continuum of services, starting with the NAZ Housing Action Team.

With her home stabilized, Shira now focuses on supporting her children’s academic success. She has graduated from both an eight-week parent empowerment training class and a twelve-week early childhood parent education class through the NAZ Family Academy—courses that provide a strong foundation to help her to build a culture of achievement in her home.

With the support of NAZ, Shira continually sets goals for herself and her family. She has returned to work and is taking college courses. Her daughter is enrolled in high-quality preschool, and her son attends a NAZ Anchor school, and he has been matched with a mentor through Big Brothers / Big Sisters.

Every child deserves the opportunities that NAZ is building in Minneapolis, and ensuring that all children have those opportunities requires innovative partnerships that stretch across government, private, and nonprofit sectors. At a time when federal funding is constrained, the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative has been critical to stretching taxpayer dollars further, leveraging an array of untapped assets in those communities, from transit lines that connect housing to jobs, to nearby hospitals and universities. Indeed, the $122 million in Choice Neighborhoods implementation grants made thus far have already leveraged a combined $1.6 billion—more than 13 times their total grant award—with more to come as the redevelopment work accelerates. And Promise Neighborhoods has leveraged more than $36.5 million in local matching funds and resources through $38.5 million awarded.


A decade ago, it was widely believed that the men and women who slept on our street corners, struggled with chemical dependency and mental illness, and often cycled from shelters to jails to emergency rooms would always be homeless and in some cases, even wanted to be.

But local leaders from rural Mankato, Minnesota, to urban San Francisco refused to believe the chronically ill, long-term homeless could not be helped. Partnering with local and state agencies and the private and nonprofit sectors, hundreds of communities committed themselves to proving otherwise.

In reducing chronic homelessness by more than one-third inside of five years by combining housing and supportive services, these communities proved what just a few years ago seemed nearly impossible: That we could actually end homelessness.

The tool these communities were using is known as permanent supportive housing, which recognizes that while every homeless person living on the street lacks affordable housing, just as often, they lack access to health and social services as well.

One study, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, centered on Seattle’s 1811 Eastlake supportive housing project. Researchers examined 75 of the center’s chronically homeless residents, one-half of whom had serious mental illness and all of whom struggled with alcohol addiction. In the year before participants in the program entered supportive housing, the 75 residents collectively spent more than 1,200 days in jail and visited the local medical center more than 1,100 times at a cost to Medicaid of more than $3.5 million. In the year after entering 1811 Eastlake, days spent in jail were cut almost in half. Medicaid costs dropped by more than 40 percent because hospital visits dropped by almost one-third.11

Another study in Chicago reached a similar conclusion. Housing assistance provided to homeless patients suffering from HIV/ AIDS, or other chronic illnesses made medical services so much more effective that days in the hospital dropped 42 percent, days of required nursing home care dropped 45 percent, and most critically of all, the number of emergency room visits dropped 46 percent.

These examples remind us that using resources more effectively isn’t only about doing more with less. Just as often, it is also about small investments that yield big savings.

Certainly the most ambitious partnership is Opening Doors, the first federal strategic plan to end homelessness, which was released by the Obama administration in 2010. Harnessing the talents and resources of 19 different federal agencies, Opening Doors provides a roadmap for ending chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015 and homelessness among families, youth, and children by 2020, while setting the country on a path to eradicate all types of homelessness. The plan proposes realignment of existing programs based on what we have learned and the best practices that are occurring at the local level, so that resources are focused on what works. From years of practice and research, the plan identifies successful approaches to end homelessness. Evidence points to the role housing plays as an essential platform for human and community development. Stable housing provides an ideal launching pad for the delivery of health care and other social services focused on improving life outcomes for individuals and families. It also redoubles our focus on expanding access to high-quality educational opportunities for homeless children and adults, helping to decrease financial vulnerability and the likelihood of homelessness later in life.

With the active participation of other cabinet secretaries and the White House, we have had unprecedented collaboration among federal agencies and with state and local governments and nonprofits.

Armed with this proven success, the number of beds for permanent supportive housing has increased by 34 percent since 2007. Building on these efforts, HUD, with support from President Obama and Congress, has made an unprecedented commitment to permanent supportive housing to end homelessness for people with severe disabilities and long histories of homelessness.

Another proven solution to ending homelessness that we have embraced is the combination of prevention and rapid re-housing. In 2009, the Recovery Act created the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP), which has saved 1.2 million people from homelessness.

HPRP has helped homeless men and women transition into permanent supportive housing, often providing those at risk of homelessness with something as simple as a security deposit. For the majority of the people assisted by HPRP to date, it was the program’s ability to help them find or stabilize housing arrangements quickly and effectively that made the difference.

Grantees report that fully 90 percent of people assisted by HPRP in its first year successfully found permanent housing. In a state like Michigan, 94 percent of homeless persons in rapid re-housing didn’t fall back into homelessness.

We have seen similar successes across the country. These funds have helped speed progress in states like Utah, which in the last few years has invested in permanent supportive housing, helping to reduce chronic homelessness by nearly 70 percent since 2005. By targeting its HPRP resources to rapid re-housing, Utah was able to reduce chronic homelessness an astounding 26 percent over the last year alone.

While the lives of those who were homeless or at risk of homelessness have been helped dramatically by the HPRP approach, just as significant is how HPRP is “fundamentally changing” the way communities respond to homelessness, as the U.S. Conference of Mayors put it.12

For instance, Cleveland’s Continuum of Care program is using HPRP funds to create a central intake system that provides customized services to those entering the shelter system. This helps the community not only manage beds and services more effectively but also ensures that households are transitioning to permanent housing as quickly as possible.

Cleveland provides a good example of how a federal program like HPRP is helping communities move from fragmented, duplicative programs to a comprehensive twenty-first century system that targets resources to those most in need—not with top-down rules, but with flexible tools from the ground up.

These successes have paved the way for critical reforms such as the HEARTH Act and helped several successful partnerships to emerge and flourish. In 2010, HUD partnered with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to establish joint goals and monitor progress in the fight to end veterans’ homelessness. Using the HUDStat performance system to identify promising practices and problems, the number of veterans housed under the “HUD-VASH” partnership increased by nearly 20 times in just two years. By June 2011, HUD and VA assisted nearly 30,000 veterans, surpassing the program’s target by 50 percent. This progress is a big reason homelessness among veterans declined by 12 percent in 2011, and why we were able to secure another 10,000 vouchers for HUD-VASH in our FY2012 budget.

Another partnership, led by HHS, is improving services for people with disabilities. Using HHS’ “Money Follows the Person” resources, HUD and HHS are working together on a significant capacity-building effort in five states to learn how to create a more seamless partnership between public housing authorities and state Medicaid agencies to help people with disabilities transition from institutional care to community living.

We know these sorts of partnerships work, as illustrated by the experience of Kay, from Cleveland, OH. Because of her psychiatric disability, Kay had gone between shelters and nursing homes for the majority of her life. She was discharged from a nursing facility to a temporary shelter, but could not afford a permanent home and was at risk of being re-institutionalized. With a Housing Choice Voucher provided through HUD and the help of Ohio’s Home Choice Program, funded by HHS, Kay got the support she needed to transition into her community.

New partnerships can be challenging at first, but communities have shown us they can be overcome and are leading the way. For example, the Greater Kansas City area is developing a Housing Sustainability Plan that integrates many of the strategies in Opening Doors—forging partnerships at the metropolitan level among governments, local businesses and nonprofits, philanthropies, and the investment community.

As Opening Doors highlights, the federal government—or government at any level—cannot end homelessness alone; it needs partners and community developers across the spectrum.


If the economic crisis has taught us anything these last several years, it is that America needs strong cities and regions to create an economy built to last. And of all the elements that comprise a city, its leaders and institutions are the most fundamental; they impact the populace, the local economy, and all assets available in the region. But until now, Washington has not traditionally supported and partnered with local leaders and institutions to support their capacity and growth.

This administration recognizes that no city can succeed without strong local leadership and institutional capacity, no matter how big the federal grant or how well-crafted the federal policy. We have reflected that recognition through a customized pilot initiative called “Strong Cities, Strong Communities,” which is providing on-the-ground technical assistance and resources to local leaders in six distressed cities and regions. Using no new federal dollars, SC2 recognizes that what distressed cities need from a federal partner is the flexibility to pursue their own visions—and the support to realize them.

While a federal partner that understands the importance of local capacity is important for every city and region in America, it is absolutely essential for those places that were facing long-term structural challenges long before the recession hit.

The six pilot cities and regions (Memphis, TN; Cleveland, OH; New Orleans, LA; Chester, PA; Fresno, CA; and Detroit, MI) were chosen not simply because they face common challenges—population loss and long-term economic challenges, high levels of poverty and unemployment, and low property values and deteriorating infrastructure—but also because of the assets they bring: anchor institutions; comprehensive visions for economic development; and political leadership and will of regional, city, and philanthropic leaders.

Modeled on the transformation of cities like Chicago, Seattle, and Pittsburgh, which successfully transitioned from one-industry powerhouses to the hubs of the dynamic, diverse, resilient, regional economies, SC2 is piloting several critical tools to the six economically and geographically diverse communities and regions.

The first tool consists of the Community Solutions Teams in each city, comprised of highly skilled federal officials who are working full-time on-site to help these cities navigate and harmonize existing federal programs. Together, they are identifying barriers to growth and helping these communities strategically put to work millions in federal dollars already awarded.

More than 90 percent of the members of Community Solutions Teams on the ground right now are not political appointees but career federal employees who will bring this knowledge and experience back to their agencies.

These cities also will benefit from the second tool: a Fellowship Placement Program, funded not by government but philanthropy, and “deepening the bench” of these pilot cities. The Fellowship Program makes sure there is capacity and strength within the local government not just to carry on when the federal teams depart, but to lead.

To ensure these lessons and tools can assist local governments across the nation, SC2 also created a National Resource Network that can act as a “one-stop-shop” for technical assistance. The Network will convene groups of national experts with wide-ranging skills that can provide the kind of cutting edge support and counsel cities need to maximize public and private dollars. And by ensuring this public-private partnership lives outside of government and is coordinated by philanthropy, our hope is that it can become the kind of critical capacity-building resource to communities that Living Cities is to the nonprofit sector.

One Comment

  1. James Monroe Holland Jr. Reply

    This activity of engagement mirrors the implementation of (Section3). This Housing and Urban Development Act incorporates employment,training and contracting opportunities for low and very low-income persons in HUD funded Choice Communities.

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