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How Cities Can Use ARP Money to Heal the Wounds of the Past

The federal funds provide an opportunity for cities to address and make tangible progress toward addressing the systemic inequities that have lingered for far too long.

Public housing complex in Richmond, Va. (Richmond Housing Authority)
In 2020, I oversaw the removal of Richmond’s monuments to the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause” that represented oppression and inequality from generations ago. As mayor, I know that many Richmonders looked at this moment not as a way to review and rewrite the sins of our past but as part of moving us forward to a brighter future. And doing so requires more than symbolism.

When President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan (ARP) into law a year ago today, state and local leaders were given a historic opportunity to turn the rhetoric of our nation’s latest racial reckoning into tangible progress. Elected officials would have the chance to address systemic inequalities that have lingered for far too long. The state and local recovery funds from the legislation were to help localities “build back” from COVID-19. The pandemic did not create disparities in our communities, but it did highlight them and, in many cases, exacerbated them.

A year after the bill’s signing, I am proud that Richmond, guided by the city’s first-ever Equity Agenda, has focused the overwhelming majority of its ARP funding on responding to ways residents in our city have been historically underserved.

To begin with, we are investing $81 million — more than half of our ARP funding — to support systems for children and families, which includes funds for child care and parental support, a family crisis fund, and improvements to our park systems and community centers.

We are also using ARP funds to work toward our city’s ambitious goal of building 10,000 affordable housing units in the next 10 years, and we are investing $12 million in redeveloping public housing, including $6.8 million toward the transformation of Creighton Court, one of the city’s oldest public housing complexes.

And as we recover from the pandemic, we will use $5 million to establish the city’s first-ever Health Equity Trust Fund which, in addition to our COVID-19 response, will support food access and security, substance use disorder and treatment, mental and behavioral health, and infant and maternal health.

Richmond is not alone in seeing ARP as a mechanism to address inequalities. I’m part of a national organization called The NewDEAL, which supports a national network of innovative, pro-growth, progressive state and local officials. Many of them are illustrating the opportunity that exists across the country to make similar progress on equity that is tangible — not empty rhetoric.

In Brownsville, Texas, for example, Mayor Trey Mendez is working to bridge the digital divide by building out 95 miles of broadband infrastructure. In Columbus, Ohio, City Council President Shannon Hardin is ensuring that child-care workers receive bonuses while also prioritizing scholarships for low-income families. Pittsburgh's Avenues of Hope invests in the city’s centers of Black arts and culture to create transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly corridors. The NewDEAL recently released a report of case studies highlighting these and other early successes of ARP funding.

As a nation, we are at a crossroads. The murder of George Floyd raised the voices of Americans in every corner of the country demanding real change from leaders. In Richmond, removing hateful symbols of the past could only be part of the answer. For justice to truly “roll down like waters,” as the prophets of old declared, leaders across the land must meet their moment.

States, counties and cities will continue spending funds from ARP for another four years. I call on my fellow elected officials to use this opportunity to rise to the challenge. Let’s join together in tearing down barriers. Let’s use this time of healing from the pandemic to also heal old wounds of racism, discrimination and inequality.

Richmond, Va., Mayor Levar M. Stoney served as Virginia's secretary of the commonwealth from 2014 to 2016 and is the president of the Democratic Mayors Association.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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