Federal Task Force on Sandy Rebuilding Cites Need for Community Engagement

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HSRTF_cover_imageThis is our third and final blog post reviewing the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force report Rebuilding Strategy, Stronger Communities, A Resilient Region released last week. Today we critique the report through the lens of community engagement and impacted communities.

The Task Force, chaired by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, compiled disaster recovery and rebuilding recommendations from two dozen federal agencies and departments to help prepare for future weather-related disasters.

Our previous posts were about the Task Force’s recommendations on transparency and regional economic development and community development.

Community Engagement and Impacted Communities

We are pleased to see the report’s numerous mentions of capacity building and community engagement in Sandy-impacted communities. However, we still would have hoped for requirements, not just recommendations for how local officials should incorporate democratic planning procedures into rebuilding efforts and how a community can best influence the allocation of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). The New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program, cited in the report as an example of community engagement in the rebuilding process, may be a worthwhile starting point, but more needs to be done if the Task Force’s goal for community engagement is to be met.  For example:

  • The Task Force’s recommendation for expanding and reinforcing existing workforce and training programs for impacted communities is good. Yet, unless there is significant collaboration and improvement with the notoriously underfunded and confusing landscape of workforce development in New York City this could be difficult to make happen. A good point of reference for improving the system can be found in Re-Envisioning the New York City Workforce System, released in March.
  • Simply encouraging officials to comply “to the greatest extent feasible” with HUD’s Section 3 provision (Section 3 requires beneficiaries of HUD funding to make best faith efforts that funds benefit low-income communities through job opportunities or training) does not improve the existing employment situation for people that need work, or in the case of New York, address the spotty record of implementation at agencies like  the New York City Housing Authority.

A case in point regarding capacity building: The Bloomberg Administration held numerous meetings in Sandy-affected communities via the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) project that subsequently released a report to help guide the rebuilding after the end of the mayor’s Administration this year. According to the city, SIRR held more than 24 briefings with elected officials and community-based organizations officials and ten meetings to “solicit input on resiliency priorities.” While these meetings may have been well intentioned, they were insufficient to have been the foundation for the city’s plan to allocate CDBG grants. As mentioned in our earlier post, community engagement shouldn’t be seen as slowing down the allocation of funds, but instead considered as a partnership to ensure funds get to New Yorkers impacted by the storm. Joan Byron of the Pratt Center summed up Mayor Bloomberg and the SIRR report best in this quote in The New York Times:

“His [Bloomberg’s] response to Sandy at the human level was appalling,” said Joan Byron, an urban planner who is director of policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development. “But the infrastructure stuff is brilliant.”

This brings us back to the need for broad community engagement to ensure disaster relief funds are allocated at the human level. And the best way to do that is for HUD to expect stronger engagement policies. Absent this, we are greatly worried that billions of dollars in disaster aid will bypass those that need it most.

A good place for HUD to start would be to expand the requirement for localities to provide more than seven-day write-in comment periods for submitting or amending Partial Actions Plans. It’s unfair to expect communities to analyze and respond on a short time frame about how local officials should spend billions of dollars. Without a stronger signal or outright requirement for additional time, (which is also being urged by groups in New Jersey) we will continue to see instances like last month, when the Bloomberg Administration failed to broadly publicize its comment period for an amendment to the city’s first plan to allocate CDBG funds. And if past disasters nationwide are any indication, Action Plans are regularly amended, (the majority of 9/11 CDBG grants to New York were amended or revised) creating many missed opportunities for the public.

Many low and moderate-income communities had long standing inequality issues before the Hurricane and that were then exacerbated. In order for resiliency efforts to move forward efficiently, local officials must better communicate with their constituents. The old adage about there being a silver lining holds profoundly true after Sandy: Federal officials have a chance to diversify the type of stakeholders who will be at decision-making tables around the region as neighborhoods rebuild in the face of climate change. The long-existing processes of allocating CDBG funds that too often excludes hard hit communities should have been more clearly addressed by the Task Force.

Thanks to GJNY’s Research Analyst Elizabeth Bird

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