Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
“I'm loath to reduce his work to just a grade. But if I were, I would probably say a B-.”
In 2008, Barack Obama ran for the presidency on a message of hope. And urban America felt it. They helped put him in the White House, and when he got there, they waited, expectations swelling.
City residents and urbanists had reasons to believe Obama would usher in a new urban era. Just like them, he was cosmopolitan: He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, and spent time in many different parts of the U.S. He had started his career in Chicago, a city that in many ways epitomizes the best and worst of urban life. As a community organizer on the South Side, he rallied the African-American community there around issues like contaminated water and asbestos in public housing, familiar problems in neglected neighborhoods around the U.S. And of course, he was black.
In these ways and others, Obama seemed more equipped than perhaps any other president in U.S. history to talk to and about cities. He was in what seemed to be an ideal position to address problems like residential segregation, lack of access to public transportation, discriminatory policing, economic decline, and environmental racism. And he was just in time. Municipalities in the throes of the fiscal crisis desperately needed a lift.
"This is not your father's White House," Adolfo Carrion Jr., whom Obama appointed to lead his White House Office of Urban Affairs, told The Washington Post back in 2009. "This is a new way of looking at the new city-metro reality."
Now, as he leaves the White House, Obama’s legacy is being evaluated on many fronts, including within the realm of urban policy. In a new book called Urban Policy in the Time of Obama, academics appraise his successes and failures. CityLab spoke with the book’s editor, James DeFillippis, an associate professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.
So, did President Obama meet the high expectations he was beset with when he took office? What grade would you give him for his urban policy?
I'm loath to reduce his work to just a grade. But if I had to, I would probably say a B-. There were a lot of interesting ideas, but there was very little follow-through. Most of what we got were a set of fairly small pilot-y kinds of projects: lots of planning grants, but very little implementation money.
You also really see it in the response to Baltimore. After what had happened in Ferguson, after everything that's been going on with Black Lives Matter, the response from the Feds was a collective shrug.
I recognize the constraints he was working with. The Republican Party clearly understands its constituency is not urban and couldn't care less about black and brown constituents in cities. Even so, where was the expenditure of political capital to force the issue from the administration? To push for a whole set of policies that would make things more equitable now? To build the organizational infrastructure for a more progressive, urban regime going forward? We didn't see it.
The book places Obama’s urban agenda in historical context. Can you talk about how his urban policy was a continuation of the ones instituted by previous Republican and Democrat administrations?
You see very strong continuities in public housing, for instance. The Choice Neighborhoods initiative is essentially HOPE VI from the Clinton administration, but with wraparound services and greater community engagement. Essentially, what it comes down to is private financing for mixed-income housing developments.
Some of that reflects political reality. Where's the money for public housing in the capital budget going to come from? The outgoing Congress wasn't really going to allocate that money. I get that. But it's bigger than just that. There's a presumption that the market is not just more efficient, but a better allocator of resources in the public sector.
Is the involvement of private entities always a bad thing, though?
There are times where public-private partnerships are the most logical way to organize things. But the difference is in the starting assumption. Instead of using the market as a helpful tool in a desired policy intervention, whether or not policy interventions become desirable depend on whether or not they can get private financing. Rather than looking for investment capital for things that we've already deemed necessary, what is ultimately done is what there's investment capital for. We've increasingly inverted the means and the ends. So, it's not that private partnerships are all bad, it's that we start with the assumption that private is going to be good.
But there were successes too, right? In the book, contributor Hillary Silver, an urban sociologist at Brown University, talks about how the federal takeover of government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac led to an injection of capital into the National Housing Trust Fund. She also points out that there was “urban stealth in the federal stimulus.” Could you talk about that?
A lot of the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)] monies went to uses that did benefit our cities and suburban areas. A lot of money for infrastructure came from there. You had a whole set of green technology money attached that was disproportionately going to metro areas. You had a range of interventions around transportation.
Part of what it was able to do was to mitigate the brutal fiscal crisis that so many municipalities faced in 2009. If you look at not-for-profit funding budgets, they really held up in 2009 and 2010 because of the federal money that was being funneled in. All that probably deserves more recognition than it has gotten.
What other progress did Obama make?
There was real meaningful progress in the fair housing space, aided by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision limiting “disparate impact.” More generally, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing efforts of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have been meaningful and useful. To have an administration take fair housing seriously was definitely something.
The efforts around [Transit Oriented Development (TOD)] and regional planning were both really welcome. And there was a great deal of interagency collaboration with respect for these. From the point of view of environmentally sustainable metros, those were real strides. We haven’t had a federal government interested in regional planning in any real way since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
We also have over 20 million new people with health insurance, but we’ll see how that plays out. It’s hard to overstate the significance of having tons of working-class people get health insurance. We had a Department of Labor that actively pursued the issues of overtime, wage theft, and not paying minimum wage, and much of that had an effect on people living in our urban areas. And that hadn’t been the case in prior administrations. That was new, different, and important.
Homelessness is another one. In New York, the homeless population doesn't seem to be visibly shrinking, but nation-wide, the numbers have come down significantly. That was a very conscious policy intervention, and I believe it will be a more durable legacy of the Obama administration. There were a lot of things that were commendable.
The definition of “urban” changed during this administration. The book notes: “Governance innovations broadened the scope of what now passes in Washington as ‘urban’ policy, encompassing environmental, transportation, education, justice” and other domains.” In other words, it wasn’t just policies in urban areas but those that had large impact on urban populations. Of these, immigration policy fell by the wayside, Christine Thurlow Brenner, public policy professor at University of Massachusetts Boston, argues.
I often think that the most durable and transformative of the Great Societies legislation from 1964 to 1968, when it comes to urban issues, was the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. Maybe it’s because both my parents are immigrants and I grew up in an immigrant community in Flushing, Queens. It's very difficult for me to look at the trajectory of American cities and not see immigration as a central driving narrative. Immigrants are the ones that drove population growth in urban areas in the latter part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, and it was their kids and grandkids that were moving to the 'burbs. And there were no new immigrants coming—or very few—from the ‘30s to the ‘70s. I always push that immigration in particular is an urban issue, much more so than anyone ever talks about it.
The Obama administration went with healthcare instead of immigration reform. That does seem like a significant missed opportunity. It feels like you’re trapped in a Samuel Beckett play, you're kind of walking around in a circle, waiting, and saying to each other, “When is Godot coming?” That would have been the moment.
There’s a lot of speculation about what a Trump presidency means for cities. What do you think it means for Obama’s legacy?
With Ben Carson, you have a HUD secretary who doesn’t really know or care about housing and urban issues. I was going to community meeting, and a really smart organizer from the South Bronx said, "Look, I'm tired of people saying we don't know what's coming. All we have to is take the white papers from the Heritage Foundation website and read them. That's what we'll get." And I think this woman was pretty spot-on in her analysis.
What we'll get is vouchering out the project-based stock, time-limiting vouchers, and doing for housing assistance what was done for welfare in 1996 in the Welfare Reform Act. In terms of the more specific policy initiatives from the Obama administration, the little pilot stuff: those will all go away. Promised Neighborhoods, Promise Zones, Choice Neighborhoods. Some of the fair housing stuff is almost certainly going to be rolled back. And whether or not HUD will be enforcing the affirmatively furthering fair housing? It seems unlikely.
On the other hand, it's really important to say that people who want more progressive, more equitable, and more just cities have to use this moment to argue for something more and different from what we’ve been getting from the Feds for a long time, because that hasn't been good enough. We have to construct a policy agenda that is more forward-looking, that’s more than just about defending legacies of the New Deal and the Great Society programs.
I find myself now in a very frustrating position of having to defend policies that I'm uninspired by. I don’t want to defend the status quo, because it’s a status quo that I see as wanting in very basic ways, but the attack on the status quo is coming from places that are far worse.