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CDBG Turns 40

Image of Todd M. Richardson, Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary
Todd M. Richardson, Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary
The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program turns 40 on August 22, 2014. Established through the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, CDBG was created by consolidating several programs into a single block grant. Cities, counties, and states use the CDBG program to undertake community development activities ranging from housing and neighborhood revitalization to economic development and infrastructure improvement. Grantees are given tremendous flexibility in the activities they choose to undertake provided that these activities meet a “national objective” such as benefiting low- and moderate-income residents or addressing blight. HUD allocates CDBG funds each year according to a formula that uses U.S. Census Bureau data for variables that in the 1970s correlated well with community distress. Since the program’s inception, the number of cities and urban counties receiving direct entitlement funding from CDBG has grown substantially, from fewer than 600 in CDBG’s first year to more than 1,180 in 2013.

To mark the program’s anniversary, our friends and colleagues at Housing Policy Debate have assembled a set of articles about CDBG. Special thanks go to guest editors George Galster of Wayne State University and Bill Rohe of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for their work on this project. I highly recommend that interested readers start with Mike Rich’s paper, which provides a full history of the program from its creation to the present along with compelling charts that show the evolution of the program over time.

Current and former staff of the Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) are well represented among the series’ contributors. Three former assistant secretaries offer their own perspectives on CDBG’s history and future direction. John Weicher (1989–1993, George H.W. Bush Administration) and Charles Orlebeke (1975–1977, Ford Administration) share their stories of the program’s creation, while Raphael Bostic (2009–2012, Obama Administration) nicely summarizes the important issues involved in moving the program forward. Xavier de Souza Briggs (1998–2000), PD&R’s acting assistant secretary during the Clinton administration and U.S. Office of Management and Budget lead for HUD during Obama’s first term, offers several policy ideas for CDBG’s future.

These contributions reflect the importance of PD&R’s research for CDBG. Both the article about the Section 108 Loan Guarantee Program by Priscilla Prunella and the article about CDBG Disaster Recovery grants by Jonathan Spader and Jennifer Turnham are based on PD&R-funded research. In addition, PD&R research has been the driving force behind the CDBG allocation formula, beginning with the original 1976 paper by Harold Bunce that led to its creation. That seminal report has been followed by additional reports by Bunce in the 1980s, Kevin Neary in the 1990s, myself in the 2000s, and now Rob Collinson in the 2010s, all offering ways to improve the formula to better meet current community development needs.

Rob Collinson’s article is worth reading for two reasons: first, because it reinforces the message that scarce resources need to be targeted more equitably, and second, because it demonstrates that community needs do change over time. Communities can make dramatic improvements. Collinson finds that three cities with a population over 200,000 — Atlanta, New York City, and Washington, D.C. — cut their relative community distress scores in half between 1990 and 2010. The study also shows, however, that several large cities have remained distressed for more than 20 years, including Detroit, St. Louis, Newark, and Cleveland. The silver lining here is that, with the notable exception of Detroit, few large cities have grown significantly worse since 1990. The overall message of the study, then, is that we are making progress at reducing community distress in our largest cities. We can learn from this progress. Continued CDBG funding, cross-program technical assistance, and the Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative are key components in our mission to extend this success to more cities and counties.

The CDBG base program has in some years been dwarfed by special appropriations of funds for specific purposes. These special programs use the basic rules of the CDBG program with some important modifications to target the funds at specific needs – the Neighborhood Stabilization Program has received over $7 billion since 2008 to address vacant and abandoned properties associated with the recent foreclosure crisis while more than $45 billion has been allocated since 2000 to support disaster recovery after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, hurricanes Katrina, Ike, and Sandy, and several other large disasters. Two of the articles discuss the CDBG Disaster Recovery grant program.

My HUD colleagues and I have been consuming these articles with delight; they are our idea of terrific brain candy. Although we don’t always agree with the researchers, we certainly do thank them for this body of work.

Happy 40th birthday, CDBG.