St. Paul's Christopher B. Coleman

Elected officials are often drawn to goals that can be realized within a single election cycle. Committing to a long-term agenda is always challenging, but it is especially critical in the current environment. Last year, Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman exhibited his leadership and commitment to long-term solutions when he launched Invest Saint Paul.
October 6, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

The recent federal takeover of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, along with the impending federal absorption of the most toxic loans on Wall Street's books, signal that the housing crisis is far from over. There is no quick fix, no easy solution to the conundrum created by hundreds of billions in bad debt. However, one thing is clear -- the path to economic stability and growth depends upon a recovery in the real estate market. And, that recovery will only happen if the strength of local communities is leveraged as much as the power of global capital markets.

At the local level, the crisis demands that cities urgently rethink housing policies and frame proactive, comprehensive strategies for neighborhood recovery. Elected officials are often drawn to goals that can be realized within a single election cycle. Committing to a long-term agenda is always challenging, but it is especially critical in the current environment. Last year, Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman exhibited his leadership and commitment to long-term solutions when he launched Invest Saint Paul. This comprehensive initiative targets public and private investment in housing and community development in four key neighborhoods. Already, Mayor Coleman's plan has begun to transform his city. Below are some of the critical factors that have given Invest Saint Paul is strength and viability:

Watch Stephen Goldsmith's interview with Mayor Coleman. More interviews are available on the Ash Institute YouTube Channel.

Build local support by creating community ownership.

These goals cannot be achieved simply by generating public dollars and projects. Saint Paul is increasing the livability of the city by providing citizens and families of its most troubled neighborhoods with a comprehensive battery of services. Furthermore, determining which services to provide to an area is based largely on the input of residents. In turn, this inspires a sense of ownership and commitment to the long-term stability among the residents of these neighborhoods. Invest Saint Paul helps people find a reason to invest in themselves and their neighbors, moving their community further along the pathway to urban revitalization.

Make meaningful investments.

Despite having to resolve a significant operating budget deficit in 2008, Mayor Coleman and the city council supported a $25 million bond sale to allow for an immediate infusion of capital into community-based efforts to rehab the housing stock, redevelop key city blocks and construct long-awaited public facilities. The demonstration of public commitment and evidence of urban renewal leveraged significant private capital to support projects. Projects include new mortgage products to generate a market for housing stocks and resources to help protect owners from foreclosure.

Take on the tough issues with a focused and comprehensive approach.

Invest Saint Paul resists a singular focus on affordable housing or other urban infrastructure. However, it did choose to focus on four neighborhoods that represent about 25 percent of the city's population and where a series of indicators revealed disinvestment to be the most severe. The decision to focus on only four of the city's seven wards was not uncontested, but Mayor Coleman's strong leadership convinced constituents that focusing on the most underserved areas first makes good sense in the long term for all neighborhoods. A city is only as strong as its most fragile neighborhoods, and as the most troubled areas are revived, more jobs, investment, and residents will be attracted to the city as a whole.

Invest Saint Paul's comprehensive approach to help struggling neighborhoods emphasizes that a traditional bricks--and--mortar strategy is a necessary, but insufficient, response. Saint Paul saw the need to enlist a broad range of partners, and to ensure that their partners' investments were aligned with the city's in target neighborhoods. These partners, large and small, include schools, health-care clinics, arts- and faith-based organizations, and housing and nationwide neighborhood-development foundations.

One example of the city's comprehensive approach to tackling the challenges facing its constituents is the 3,000 children who received dental services in school-based clinics in Invest Saint Paul neighborhoods during its first year. In addition, with a small city grant, a local theater engaged young people known to loiter outside a branch library -- keeping these kids busy learning new skills and helping to reduce the number of gang-related incidents in its recreation centers and libraries to zero that summer.

However, it can be argued that the forces with the greatest -- and most disproportionate -- impact on Saint Paul's distressed neighborhoods are beyond the reach of even the most wide-ranging efforts. The mortgage-foreclosure crisis represents a serious challenge that no local initiative can be expected to resolve. Mayor Coleman, fully cognizant of this reality, has emphasized the imperative for mayors across the country to explore legal strategies in order to hold predatory and neglectful lenders accountable, as well as to advocate for long-term national policy changes to protect communities from future foreclosure crises.

Balance listening and leadership to gain the support of community leaders.

The strength of Mayor Coleman's leadership is clearly shown by his recognition of how critical it is to identify the leaders in the Invest Saint Paul communities, to build relationships with them based on mutual respect, and to ask them to help craft appropriate investment strategies. This focus on neighborhood-level engagement and leadership development in designing solutions may at times slow the rollout of new programs; however, it is essential to achieve long-term stability. New neighborhood markets already dot the landscape of aging commercial districts, thanks to the partnership of the Latino Economic Development Center. Other partners, based in the African-American community, offer culturally based homeownership training and mutual support program to promote homeownership as a means of expanding generational wealth.

With $4 billion in Community Development Block Grants on the way, local-government officials across the country would do well to keep their focus on the fundamental livability issues that make families and neighborhoods safe, stable and strong. When dealing with struggling communities, mayors must find the right place to inject public capital and do it in a way that leverages local participation.

"Our goal," reflects Coleman, "Is not to import a middle class into our struggling neighborhoods, but to grow a middle class among the people who live there today. It is not easy. But, we, in Minnesota, take to heart what the late Senator Paul Wellstone was fond of saying, 'We all do better when we all do better.' That is the essence of Invest Saint Paul."

Series introduction: Lessons from Our Best