Neighborhood Transformations: Measuring Success
Ed Schwartz, President, Institute for the Study of Civic Values
Testimony: Office of Housing and Community Development Hearings
Year 2000-2001 Annual Plan
April 27th, 2000
How do we wisely invest the resources of local government to improve the quality of life of our neighborhoods? That is the fundamental question raised not only by this Community Development annual plan-but by every annual plan produced by this office. Indeed, it a basic question raised by citizens about everything that City government does. They may have particular interests related to individual departments, but their overall assessment is of "the City" itself. If the City's collective efforts are seen to be helping neighborhoods become clean, safe, economically viable, and a decent place to raise our children-they are satisified. But if the City's response to problems seems misguided-or if despite its best efforts, neighborhoods remain dirty, unsafe, economically at risk, and terrible places to raise our children-people vote with their feet and move. And from this vantage point, Philadelphia remains in serious trouble, because-as was said again and again in last year's Mayoral campaign--despite our best efforts, thousands of people continue to move, not only out of particular neighborhoods, but out of the City itself.
In its public pronouncements, OHCD has projected a broad vision of community improvement as the ultimate goal of everything it does. In Neighborhood Transformations, published in 1996, the agency tells us that "In the 21st century, Philadelphia has to present its neighborhoods as places where an individual or family can feel comfortable renting or buying a place to live; where residents of an apartment building, a block or community can find it easy to get acquainted with one another and to get together to complete a task or respond to a problem; where children can play, learn and grow in a safe, interesting, environment; and where older people can remain as long-term residents, benefiting from supportive neighbors and from easy access to retail and service facilities. Philadelphia neighborhoods need to be viewed-and can be effectively presented-as a new kind of `hometown,' bringing traditional values of community and mutual support into the 21st century."
This is a beautiful statement-as powerful a vision for Philadelphia's neighborhoods as anyone has ever offered. The problem is that OHCD, acting by itself, cannot possibly achieve this sort of result, given its own limited assignment and the resources at its disposal. John Kromer makes this point early and in his book, Neighborhood Recovery, in his discussion of the Mayor's responsibilities versus his own. "A good mayor," he notes, "has to use all available time attracting businesses and jobs to the city, improving the public school system, promoting public safety, and marketing the city in a variety of ways. These first-priority activities are far more important to neighborhoods than a strong mayoral role in managing neighborhood reinvestment policy on a day-to-day basis." (p. 16)
I agree completely with this formulation, but it makes all the more necessary a second point: namely, that for neighborhood reinvestment to produce neighborhood "recovery" or-even more-"transformation," the reinvestment projects must both reflect and reinforce steps taken by every agency of government to address the variety of problems that these neighborhoods face. Put differently: for neighborhood reinvestment to succeed, the measure of its success must be either to reinforce a larger effort of government, or to leverage a larger effort as a precondition of undertaking the specific projects themselves. Whatever success OHCD has had in achieving its own developmental goals, this clearly has not happened in any meaningful way-not when I was Director of OHCD, and not in the entire life of the Rendell administration. And it is this fragmentation of effort that we must help the Street administration overcome if any meaningful progress in "neighborhood transformation" is to be achieved.
What is the difference between the measurements of success established by OHCD-many of them set forthduring my tenure here-versus the standard that the average citizen would apply to neighborhood improvement, so eloquently phrased in "Neighborhood Transformations?"
The core OHCD objective that resonates fully with the larger community is, simply, making the neighborhood look better. That's what we proclaim in the ribbon cuttings and the photographs reproduced in every OHCD publication. See how great this development looks? See how much better these blocks look? And indeed they do.
The second set of objectives are quantitative. How many housing units did we produce this year? How many people benefitted from our programs and services? How much private investment did we leverage? Those were standards that we established during my term as Director, and I am delighted that OHCD continues to live by them-and to have excelled in every area. We set a few records back in the early 1990's, but the office has exceeded them-and more power to you. Records are made to be broken.
But the "transformation" implied in the goal of creating neighborhoods "where children can play, learn and grow in a safe, interesting, environment; and where older people can remain as long-term residents," presume measurements of success that fall well outside the limited standards set for our community development agencies. Two questions that come to mind immediately are, "Is the neighborhood safer?" and "Are the schools improving?" And when we start asking these questions about the areas where OHCD invests most of its resources, the picture is everything but bright. OHCD has neither benefitted from a broader strategy for neighborhood transformation coordinated throughout the government-nor have its projects leveraged one. The result is that even when its own goals for physical improvement are met, a full-fledged neighborhood "transformation" remains out of reach.
Consider the major development project initiated in my term as OHCD Director and completed during the Rendell administration: Cecil B. Moore. How proud we all were-and still are-to have been able to rehabilitate two entire city blocks in the middle of North Central Philadelphia, especially given all the years in which North Philadelphia was totally written off as an area for neighborhood revitalization.
But-six years later-has rehabilitating these houses on 15th Street and Gratz Street `transformed' Cecil B. Moore into a neighborhood "where children can play, learn and grow in a safe, interesting, environment; and where older people can remain as long-term residents?" According to crime reports now readily accessible via the Philadelphia Inquirer web site, there were 53 major crimes committed on those two blocks between 1996 and 1998, ranging from burglary, robbery, and theft to aggravated assault and rape. The elementary school serving the neighborhood-the George Meade School-has managed to reduce the percentage of students performing at a "below basic" from 78% to 67% over this three year period, but at nearby Vaux Middle School, 80% of the students were still "Below Basic" as of 1999-and they actually lost ground under Children Achieving over the course of the year.
The same problem applies to the commercial revitalization efforts supported under the Community Development Block Grant. Nothing is more important to a viable neighborhood than a stable, attractive retail strip. These often are neighborhood main streets, and what happens on them has a pervasive-if not perverse-impact on everything around them. So year after year, a list of commercial strips is presented to us as being "targeted" for reinvestment.
Take Germantown Avenue. I've lived within a few blocks of various sections of Germantown Avenue for nearly 30 years. The Philadelphia Commercial Development Corporation (PCDC) has designated the 2500-2900 blocks of Germantown Avenue, the 3400-3800 blocks of Germantown Avenue, and the 5000-5900 blocks of Germantown as "targeted" Neighborhood Commercial Strips. Indeed they are. Well over 500 major crimes were committed on these blocks in 1998 alone-burglaries, robberies, aggravated assault, up to and including homicide. So how do we measure success here? In terms of business loans and new facades and how we allocate the grand total of $75,000 for a "security rebate" program in a given year? Who are we kidding? These strips remain disaster areas in many neighborhoods-and they will remain disaster areas until the same focused attention and commitment is paid to securing them as now exists in center city, thanks to the Center City District. That's well beyond the scope of PCDC's authority-but it will determine the ultimate success of everything that PCDC is trying to do.
So whether we are talking about housing development or commercial revitalization, OHCD cannot possibly achieve its own vision of `neighborhood transformation' without the coordinated support from the entire government. Either its work must reflect some broader strategy for improvement-or its efforts must leverage a broader strategy for improvement. Otherwise, it will fail. And that is precisely what is happening right now, except in a few limited areas like Norris Square and Lower Germantown where a cdc is undertaking a broad range of revitalization efforts that encompass these various goals. And, ironically, even here, OHCD seems content to boast about the specific housing projects that these organizations have completed, instead of taking pride in their ability to move from these specific developments to much broader initiatives addressing the problems of their entire neighborhoods.
Faced with this troubling situation, I have now recommended to Mayor Street as part of my work with his Transition Team that he create what might be called a Neighborhood Improvement Division directly under the Office of Strategic Planning to oversee the sort of comprehensive planning and revitalization program that most neighborhoods require. I attach the paper that I have developed for the Mayor that elaborates on the need for this new division-and how it might function. I might add that if such a Strategic Planning Division were created, this is where I think OHCD should report, not the Commerce Department.
As its first step, moreover, I believe that this new Division should set forth clearly defined goals, against which to measure the success of everything we do. Mayor Street is quite direct in his basic objectives, and they are shared by citizens throughout the City. It is the same vision set forth in Neighborhood Transformations Neighborhoods should not only physically attractive, but safe, and economically strong, and decent places to raise our children.
Achieving this vision, however, means facing up to the specific challenges that it implies:
1. Can we transform the boarded up vacant houses that now blight our neighborhoods into attractive buildings in which people live?
2. Can we reclaim our vacant land from the trash dumpers and turn them either into community gardens or appealing sites for new residential and economic development?
3. Can we reduce crime in every neighborhood and ultimately win the war on drugs?
4. Can we turn our blighted and dangerous retail corridors into neighborhood main streets where residents can congregate and shop at any hour of the day or night and feel safe?
5. Can we build a neighborhood opportunity system that insures that every resident of the City can meettheir personal economic needs-and, especially, that every TANF recipient, regardless of educational level vocational focus, has the means to support themselves after March 3rd, 2002, when the federal support for more than 21,000 of these recipients begins to expire?
6. Can we achieve the long range goal for our public schools set under Children Achieving that 90% of the students in every school will be performing at a "proficient" level?
7. Can we create a strong system of child care and after-school programs in every neighborhood to further strengthen the development of our young people?
8. And most important, in my judgment-because it is a precondition for just about everything else-can we strengthen the civic capacity that exists in every neighborhood to insure that every block has a block captain and that every neighborhood has a community organizations with broad-based residential support-and that all of these organizations are fully knowledgable on how the City can help them make progress toward the vision of neighborhood transformation that we mutually share?
These are the challenges we must meet if we are to have a chance to produce the "Neighborhood Transformations" that OHCD is seeking to achieve through its reinvestment programs. Each of them can be translated into measurable goals-reducing the number of serious crimes, expanding the number of students who meet the School District's performance standards, broadening the participation of TANF recipients in effective welfare-to-work programs. These might be called, "neighborhood improvement indicators," against which our collective efforts should be judged. And while individual public agencies would be held accountable to achieving the goals related to its precise mission, the entire government would be held accountable to the broad-based improvement sought for the neighborhood as a whole.
I submit that developing this kind of comprehensive system is long overdue. Isn't it obvious that OHCD cannot possibly achieve its own vision on its own-that it must work in partnership with every other level of government in the process? Isn't it equally obvious that every single revitalization project listed in this plan is at risk unless and until these broader partnerships are formed? It is obvious to the citizens of Philadelphia. It is what they said-and how they voted last year. And they have made it abundantly clear that unless we achieve this kind of coordinated effort, they will vote with their feet-as hundreds of thousands of Philadelphia residents have been doing for more than 40 years.
I know better than most that the people who work for these community development agencies are deeply committed to this vision and fully capable of making a terrific contribution to its success. That is why most of them came to work for OHCD and its subsidary agencies-whatever their jobs are now.
We have a new Mayor, with a fervid commitment to the neighborhoods of Philadelphia, and with as rich and detailed an understanding of the work of these agencies as any Mayor has had.
The opportunity is now ours to get this system together. Let's do it.