Whatever Happened to the Office of Urban Affairs?

Created four years ago, the federal office was supposed to engage cities and metro areas in all major policy decisions. Today, the Obama administration has “little to show for its efforts.”
by | March 29, 2013 AT 12:00 PM
Detroit ended the 2012 fiscal year with a $327 million deficit. (Photo: David Kidd)

Four years ago, city officials were thrilled when President Obama announced the creation of the White House Office of Urban Affairs. Led by former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr., the office -- in the words of the president -- would focus on “wise investments and development in our urban areas that will … make our country more competitive, prosperous and strong.” Today, many of the stakeholders who interacted with the office at its outset say it never lived up to its promises.

While state and local government officials are generally reluctant to criticize specific people or offices in the federal government for fear of hurting their relationship, some spoke more candidly about the Office of Urban Affairs when granted anonymity. “I don’t believe that it lived up to anybody’s expectations -- the White House’s or anyone else’s it was designed to serve,” says a lobbyist who’s worked with the office in the past. “I have not worked with them or been able to find a physical name or person in that office in quite some time,” says another. “It just started slowly dissolving.”

Read the April issue of Governing magazine.

Bruce Katz, the founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, agrees. “It’s hard to assess what it achieved or what the value added was,” says Katz, who helped lead the housing and urban transition team for the Obama administration as it took office four years ago. In a 2009 speech, Katz trumpeted the new office, saying it represented an important commitment from the president to consider cities and metro areas in all the major policy decisions. “That’s what the office was supposed to do,” he says, “and I think it failed miserably.”

To be clear, the office still exists. It’s led by Racquel Russell, a former legislative counsel to U.S. Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware. But urban leaders say they haven’t interacted with the office in years, and when urbanist Richard Florida recently suggested that the administration create a federal department of cities, he specifically cited the shortcoming of the office, which has “little to show for its efforts.” (The White House never replied to requests for an interview.)

It’s a mystery how, exactly, an office once credited as being innovative lost its luster. Four years ago, Newark Mayor Cory Booker was reportedly offered the job as the office’s director, but declined. Some observers felt that the office needed a marquee figure in charge to boost its clout, and Carrión -- largely unknown outside of New York -- didn’t cut it. Still, stakeholders who worked with the office say it was most active during Carrión’s leadership and started to become less so when he was moved to a position in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) just 14 months later.

On the whole, says Katz, the administration’s approach to urban issues has been mostly positive. In particular, he applauds programs like Sustainable Communities, a partnership between HUD, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation. And he says the administration’s efforts on education reform and exports are a benefit to metro areas.

Several stakeholders say the Office of Urban Affairs came to function like an extension of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Relations -- a liaison to state and local leaders. “We never really figured out exactly what the goal was for [the Urban Affairs office], although we were excited to see it,” says a lobbyist. “For whatever reason, it never took off.”