When Barack Obama moved into the White House last year, his presidency was heralded by urban planners and policy wonks who hoped that the community-organizer-in-chief would put new emphasis on cities, long a blind spot for the federal government. Candidate Obama promised as much when he met with the Conference of Mayors in 2008, and a month after his inauguration, formed a special Office for Urban Affairs within the White House.
Fifteen months later, the head of that office, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión, is leaving his post to become the regional director for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s New York and New Jersey office. His departure has called into question what the Office of Urban Affairs has achieved during his tenure, leaving many of those once excited urbanists with few answers.
“I’ve tried very hard to figure out what’s going on, what the office’s exact role has been,” said Harry Moroz, a policy analyst at the Drum Major Institute who has followed the office closely. “As far as I can tell, it’s mostly been speeches and tours.” According to the office’s website, its mission is to communicate the president’s vision for cities and identify best practices for them, though observers say there has been scant evidence of either.
This is not to say that the administration’s urban ambitions have fallen short in other ways, something everyone interviewed for this article stressed. There have been major successes, such as the Sustainable Communities initiative launched by HUD in partnership with the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Moroz even wonders if the successes of officials at these agencies and others in shaping the urban agenda have undercut what the Office of Urban Affairs could achieve. He points to mundane yet highly impactful changes, such as the Office of Management and Budget now scoring items for their effect on cities, a change that could produce a massive windfall when it comes to allocating federal largess. “I know there are people very committed to urban affairs in the White House,” Moroz said. “Attention will be paid to urban policy, but will it be in this office? I think that’s an open question.”
Aaron Naparstek, founder of Streetsblog, believes the administration has been making important headway on this front, but also that Carrión was not a part of it. “I do actually think Carrión was a problem,” Naparstek said. “He just didn’t seem to be able to articulate a vision for the office or a vision for what cities could or should be.”
Granted, the office only has a staff of four and a minimal budget, but its critics still believe it could have been used as a bully pulpit to help push the administration’s urban agenda. Part of the issue could be those four staffers, all of whom worked heavily on Obama’s campaign, with Carrión being a key point man for Latino outreach, though their urban policy credentials are questionable.
While Carrión does hold a masters degree in urban planning from Hunter College and is credited with building tens of thousands of affordable housing units in the Bronx, that experience was never quite borne out in his office. “I think you could definitely make the case that he looked good on paper, very good on paper, and just didn’t work out for a position that needs to be very policy driven,” Naparstek said.
Another problem could simply be the difficulty in addressing urban issues at the national level, which not only tend to be of a local, diffuse nature but also rather contentious. The office must contend with the uncomfortable memories of urban renewal while also negotiating a red state-blue state, bi-coastal divide that oftentimes looks askance at urban issues.Not to mention all of the other issues swirling around the administration, such as healthcare, the economy, two wars, and now the catastrophe in the Gulf.
Creating the bully pulpit that some have called for could actually be counterproductive, as others, including some inside the White House, prefer a behind the scenes approach. The administration, according to a White House spokesperson, is satisfied with the offiice’s work so far and fully anticipates its continued existence. Carrión was not made available for an interview.
In a May 3 release announcing his departure for HUD, Carrión applauded the president’s “bottom-up approach” and collaborative spirit in terms of urban affairs, though there was also a hint that he was headed to where the real action is taking place. “Now that the foundation is poured and we are beginning to implement this strategy, I'm delighted to join my long time friend and colleague, Shaun Donovan, to fully implement this comprehensive urban development vision in my home region and across the country,” Carrión said.
Despite their criticisms, many urban thinkers still hold out hope for the office. “The Obama administration will be great for cities and I have faith in the people who are there and hope the Office of Urban Affairs will continue to be a part of it,” Moroz said.
Diana Lind, publisher of Next American City, which has worked with the office on events, said she believes the administration may have been caught off guard by the intensity of interest in the office, though this is also a prospect that gives her hope. “Perhaps this is an opportunity for the administration to recognize this office deserves more funding and more agency than it is currently allotted,” she said.