The Biden presidency provides more than a glimmer of hope—and Congress has an incredible opportunity to join his vision— for an infrastructure package that will create generational investment in our communities, families, and children. Investing in housing, transit, and community institutions can be a promise and a commitment to begin to repair not just the damage of the previous presidency and the pandemic but also the cumulative impacts of other historical wrongdoings—such as redlining and segregation, income inequality, and environmental injustice.
The $2 trillion American Jobs Plan and its companion $1.8 trillion American Families Plan unveiled by Biden have lofty goals and are much needed: they include rebuilding 20,000 miles of roads, highways, and rail; confronting the climate crisis; curbing income inequality; improving community care facilities for seniors and people with disabilities; generating millions of new jobs; and making a focused set of investments in health care, child care, and education.
Congress has an opportunity it must not squander to acknowledge the racial inequity built into our failing infrastructure and put into operation the promise of equity in Biden’s infrastructure plans. To accomplish that we need to do two things: (1) invest in underinvested communities by pairing large-scale capital infrastructure and social investments with funding to develop a nimble and well-supported ecosystem that can translate those investments into real change in specific communities, and (2) guard against the kinds of unintended consequences that have beset previous initiatives.
Models for an Infrastructure Plan
Five historic, game-changing bills—the Community Reinvestment Act, the Violence Against Women Act, the Ryan White CARE Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Community Development Block Grant—could provide a model for building community infrastructure and networks that increase community capacity to respond to pressing crises. All four created durable funding streams that allocated resources to communities of all sizes across the country.
Before the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) was passed in 1977, most inner cities in the United States were in distress. Disinvested from for decades through racially discriminatory policies like redlining, they held deep pockets of poverty whose residents lacked access to capital and even basic amenities. CRA was momentous because through mandating safe and continued banking services and fostering collaboration among governments, developers, nonprofit organizations, and banks, it helped weave a rich tapestry of ecosystems for these struggling low- and middle-income neighborhoods.
The community development corporations that sprouted throughout the U.S. at that time leveraged investments made possible by CRA to advance large-scale community development infrastructure for the most affected census tracts—increasing people’s access to affordable housing, providing community services, promoting economic development, and stabilizing communities overall.
Other large-scale victories have had similar effects: The Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, for the first time took a comprehensive approach, primarily through funding, to decrease victimization and prevent further instances of gender-based violence. For example, funding through the Services, Training, Officers and Prosecutors (STOP) grants, which was increased to $1.4 billion between 2007 and 2012, led to an overall improved and well-coordinated baseline service infrastructure for victims.
Similarly, the Ryan White CARE Act (Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act) of 1990 created the largest federal program to provide dedicated care and treatment services to people with HIV. The collaborative of community networks it created and the dramatic expansion of services for prevention and response it enabled reversed the trend of HIV/AIDS. Today its services reach approximately 50 percent of people diagnosed with HIV in the United States each year, and 87.1 percent of the total clients receiving medical care are virally suppressed, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, also passed in 1990, not only prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities but also provides them with reasonable accommodations and access to services and programs. It required for the first time that all levels of government—local, state, and national—consider the needs of people with disabilities, setting into motion a new way of doing business that reframed societal mandates on investment priorities.
The federal Community Development Block Grant that was created in 1974 to remove federal control over housing development and had bipartisan support for its strategy of giving local cities funding and autonomy to support low-income communities.
We need the physical brick-and-mortar infrastructure of homes, successful business districts, and schools and hospitals for the disproportionately burdened that could result from investments equivalent to the CDCs of the 1970s. But we also need an infusion of resources to build the soft infrastructure—the community development equivalents of the Violence Against Women acts and the Ryan White bills—that would generate ongoing funding streams to create connections between people, which could then act as catalysts to scale physical investments exponentially.
Community development works when people identify problems and more importantly, their solutions. This happens in coalition spaces similar to what we saw emerge in several municipalities during the pandemic, when movement building led to eviction moratoriums and outreach around small business support. Right now, this is not the kind of capacity we are adequately funding in community development, but is exactly what we need to change the way of doing business.
We have in the United States a distinct geography where some persistently distressed areas in rural and suburban belts have fallen behind their urban counterparts in receiving federal, banking, and philanthropic dollars over the years. Because CRA was focused on where banks already did business, CRA investments followed suit, bringing resources to many communities in need, but leaving others even farther behind.
We need community development approaches that can finally complete what began with CRA. The Biden administration can take the same strategic and intentional approach to connections between people that as CRA provides for the built environment in order to develop the tools, expertise, and resources needed to truly support the country’s most vulnerable groups. And do so in ways that include geographies that have historically been in the “blind spots” of investors. The people-to-people organizing networks can certainly help address that gap.
We should be particularly wary of repeating past mistakes. Attempts to eradicate racist exclusionary practices have sometimes inadvertently compromised racial equity. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in Race for Profit uncovers how several programs launched by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that were intended to encourage mortgage lending for Black homebuyers resulted instead in a new practice of “predatory inclusion.” Banks and the real estate industry were incentivized to extract deep profits from the government-guaranteed urban mortgages. They profited heavily while also transferring risks to participants, particularly Black women, who were most likely to fail in making house payments. Predatory inclusion ultimately led to tens of thousands of foreclosures for Black households across the country.
Similar potential pitfalls are also being discerned for specific aspects of the Biden Infrastructure Plan—getting rid of exclusionary zoning and neighborhood dividing highways, for instance. As David Imbroscio brilliantly laid down in Shelterforce, while exclusionary housing has inherent racist tendencies, the “Anti-EZ project” as envisioned in the Biden plans could turn out to be “much more virulent and insidious” because its pro-market approaches will inevitably weaken the ability of inhabitants to exercise their democratic rights to design, shape, and determine the future of their homes and communities. Similarly, transportation advocates are warning about a potential backlash in some communities if transit-focused infrastructure removes highways built under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Even though those highways have fractured and divided neighborhoods along race and class lines. residents are wary of lengthy delays and extra costs, snarled traffic, and being left behind or displaced if the highway removals result in new market interest and rising prices.
To prevent this, policies and investments must account for local conditions and vulnerabilities and engage directly with residents’ perspectives as opposed to applying a one-size-fits-all approach to every community. They also must be implemented and held accountable by people-to-people organizing networks of the sort that have been largely effective with COVID vaccination drives, defund-the-police advocacy campaigns, and eviction moratorium wins.
The Vallejo Housing Justice Coalition (VHJC) in California is one example of the kind of network that could be supported under a bill that promotes community development infrastructure that focuses on racial equity. VHJC worked with other community groups to pass a successful anti-rent-gouging bill and the strongest eviction moratorium in the region in Solano County during the peak of the pandemic. VHJC has been convening a group working to realize a community-controlled permanently affordable housing (community land trust) pilot—arguably the closest thing to a time-tested anti-speculative housing solution that is available to us today.
From its work with families in Vallejo, VHJC has identified many specific needs within the community. One of the biggest is the need for legal services for undocumented residents. “Current services are only provided to folks that have legal status and it leaves out a significant amount of families that come to us for help,” says Cristal Little, the Vallejo housing justice organizer with Urban Habitat, which is working in tandem with VHJC on several of these needs. “We often act as a middleman but can’t sustain that as a practice as we think about the level of need and the eviction wave that’s to come post-COVID,” says Little.
Similar coalitions have also emerged in Concord, Richmond, and other cities in the Bay Area, in California, and in the South in cities like Memphis, Tennessee, which like our examples in the Bay Area have also remained historically under-resourced. Similar to Vallejo, however, these pilots also remain largely boutique interventions because they do not yet have the backing of a scaled public funding source that addresses the systems-level gaps that are leaving people behind. Overall, lack of dedicated public funding has been a serious impediment for advancing broader equity outcomes in the U.S.
Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative (BARHII), a regional coalition of public health departments that advances health equity, and for which we work, is advocating and recommending for other sorts of soft infrastructure that would allow federal investment to have a positive equity outcome. Substantial federal investment could, for example, allow organizations like BARHII and its members to institutionalize community-based taskforces, composed of populations most affected by inequities, tailored to local needs, and with fair compensation for participants. It could funnel resources to programs that ensure health and safety of work sites for frontline workers or to community mental health programs for communities experiencing high rates of isolation and trauma. Consistent federal backing could even allow public health departments and coalitions to take on mobilizing communities to work toward reparations and to meet our climate and health goals.
Time to Get This Right
We urgently need at-scale public mandates for non-revenue-generating capacity infrastructure in addition to subsidies for physical infrastructure. As Devin Culbertson, senior director at Enterprise Community Partners, says,
“Philanthropy is rarely willing or able to do this at scale, and capital markets expect a return of their capital.” By investing in community-based coalitions, however, we could avoid some of the unintended consequences of previous infrastructure projects.
The American Jobs Plan is an opportunity to be bold, strategic, and expedient. It is also imperative that dollars are apportioned in the American Families Plan for softer infrastructure and capacity to hold together our broader places and regions by supporting those most in need. Otherwise, we will be attempting to achieve lofty metrics but without serious accountability. Homes and bridges and transit are needed but will be meaningless unless they improve access and quality of life for our most burdened groups.
For that we need a categorical shift toward prioritizing the organizations and coalitions that serve as “people-to-people mortar.” Because, as with CDBG and Community Services Block Grants, this funding would support the autonomy and control of local communities, and may even achieve the kind of bipartisan support that those block grants have had in the past.
The wins could be significant. The opportunity cost of missing this defining moment is steep. There is inherent audacity in the Biden plans. We want them to reach their potential.