The mayors of America's cities are sounding an alarm. Federal officials, including members of Congress, are considering cuts ' or elimination ' of the Community Development Block Grant program.
That would be terrible news for St. Louis.
Since the mid-1970s, CDBG has been the linchpin of the City's revitalization efforts. The City now receives $19-$20 million each year in CDBG funding, down from a high of $35 million in the early/mid 1980s. That funding supports significant parts of a wide variety of ongoing efforts - the City's Problem Properties Initiative, the façade program (intended to improve the marketability of the City's neighborhood business districts), a wide variety of day care centers, neighborhood housing corporations, primary health care facilities, and homeless services, as well as the Planning and Urban Design Agency, St. Louis Development Corporation, and the Community Development Administration. In addition, CDBG funding, leveraged with other resources, makes one-time major redevelopments possible. These major redevelopments have included the transformation of the City's failed high-rise public housing projects (Darst Webbe, Cochran Gardens, and Blumeyer) into quality mixed income residential neighborhoods, and more recently Crown Square, Arlington Grove, and Dick Gregory Place. The City has had success in recent years in using other incentives, including TIF and historic tax credits, to stimulate redevelopment in areas of the City that have begun to develop fledgling markets for abandoned and deteriorated property. But many parts of the City cannot yet use these types of incentives because they require a demonstrated market. (Even if that market is not yet fully developed, private investors need reason to believe that with more investment success is possible.) These neighborhoods - the Ville, Wells-Goodfellow, and Old North St. Louis, among others - need "real" money to begin to develop the critical mass necessary to attract more private investment and for revitalization to take root and grow. The Community Development Block Grant is the only "real" money available to the City to stimulate investment in these highly dis-invested areas. Without continuing CDBG funding, redevelopment of these critical neighborhoods is almost certain to stall, even as hope has begun to blossom among neighborhood residents.
The CDBG program has been a success for nearly forty years. Without continuing CDBG funding, many organizations that provide services to low and moderate income people will be forced to go out of business. Since 2001, the City of St. Louis has lost roughly 30 percent of its CDBG funding, placing a strain on our ability to support these services and engage in revitalization of our neighborhoods.
Rather than cutting CDBG funding further (or eliminating it!), Federal officials and legislators would do better to look at increasing it - and at streamlining the program so that more of the limited funds available can go into services and "bricks and mortar". Cities like St. Louis throughout the country have suffered from decades of disinvestment. We need flexible funding, like CDBG, to address our own unique needs in ways that we can target to meet them.