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Unraveling the Mysteries of Urban Governance

When it comes to improving development and transit services, why do some urban communities fare better than others? Sociologist Jeremy Levine examined the traits for success and found some surprises.

Inbound_train_at_Talbot_Avenue_station,_July_2019.jfif
The Talbot Avenue train stop along Boston’s Fairmount Line, which has undergone improvements to better serve the working class communities it passes through.
(Picasa/Wikipedia)
Boston is one of the few American cities that has begun to reimagine its commuter rail system to better serve non-white-collar riders. Although more changes are underway, reform began years before the pandemic on the Fairmount Line.

In the latter half of the 20th century, this transit service cut through many lower income, racially diverse neighborhoods without stopping. Commuters were ferried from the edge of the city to downtown, while Boston residents watched them whiz past. But a political campaign won a series of transit stops in these underserved neighborhoods, cheaper fares, and a schedule that was slightly more convenient for those who didn’t work 9-to-5 hours.

University of Michigan professor Jeremey Levine studied the Fairmount Line reform process, attending dozens of public meetings and talking with power brokers, bureaucrats and residents. His 2021 book Constructing Community found that the policy entrepreneurs who won better service were more connected to nonprofits and charitable foundations than the public sector.

Less a study of transit policy than of how ambitious changes get made in an American city, and who really wields influence, Constructing Community is especially relevant as policymakers grapple with the infrastructure bill, the housing crisis, and a post-pandemic transport-scape. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Governing: Your work centers on the classic question of urban political science: Who governs? You paint a complicated picture that doesn’t simply show power accruing to the wealthy or officeholders. You argue that politicians have become less important as the public sector has atrophied and traditional urban political machines have all but vanished. So, who governs contemporary American cities?

Levine: A lot more people than we might think! My big point is that there are many more players vying for seats at the table than we imagined. Primarily those extra people are coming from the nonprofit sector, which fills this weird interstitial space that is private but pursuing a public good. They’re outside of formal government control, not in city or state bureaucracies, but they’re trying to perform functions we might think of government doing.

What we end up with is a mass of organizations and institutions, all trying to act in their own little corners. A lot of these organizations and institutions are operating behind the scenes. When people show up to public meetings to look at development projects, they don’t always know this is a project with state subsidies, developed by a nonprofit community development corporation, with additional funding from 15 private foundations.

Governing: If many responsibilities that once fell to the public sector have been farmed out to nonprofits, what are the strengths of that model?

Levine: I focus a bit on the unintended consequences in my book, but we can’t deny the positives. A major strength is more money that isn’t coming out of constrained public agencies. There was a famous paper decades ago called Washington Abandons the Cities about declining public funding for things that matter for urban residents, particularly poor residents.

But foundations are coming to the table and the assets that are coming out of foundations are massive, growing, and bigger than they’ve ever been before. It is more money than otherwise would be there. A lot of the discussion on philanthropy focuses on wealthy people, philanthropists avoiding taxes, and then giving money through charity. But if we think of community foundations, of which there are hundreds, they are bringing more money to the table.

Rob Reich, the political theorist from Stanford, has an amazing book called Just Giving. [He argues that] one of the great things about not having to be constrained by voters and political considerations is that foundations can do risky interventions. They can be the R&D for the public sector and that’s one place where there can be a lot of value.

When we have a system that says private nonprofits can represent neighborhoods and compete for grants to bring resources, for certain neighborhoods that’s a net positive. They have a stronger voice than they had during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s urban renewal era. The problem is the unintended consequences that come alongside those benefits.

Governing: What are the weaknesses of the model? 

Levine: The first problem is the expectation that each neighborhood has its own organizational infrastructure and they are competing amongst one another for resources. Neighborhoods where those organizations are doing well are at a consistent advantage. The other neighborhoods where you don’t have the same capacity, there’s no way to get over that hump. It’s impossible for them to be competitive for grants and get access to lines of credit.

In the neighborhoods I studied, like [Boston’s] Codman Square, they had lines of credit with community development intermediaries. These are nonprofits that are collecting money from [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] as well as other foundations and distributing it to organizations that do implementation work. They give lines of credit, millions of dollars, to do the technical work that goes into building new affordable housing, putting things together to compete for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. It takes a lot of capital to even get in the game.

But then, in neighborhoods like Mattapan, they couldn’t get in the game. They would do partnerships here and there, very ad hoc, but there was no appetite to help them. It was too risky. There’s Reich’s idea that philanthropy can fund risky ventures, but the reality is that these organizations have incentives too. To survive they need to show success. These community development intermediaries wouldn’t give a line of credit to the community development organization in Mattapan before it went bankrupt. That’s the reason why it went bankrupt.

So [weaker] organizations are in a Catch-22. They have to show success to be able to get access to those lines of credit and grants. But they can’t show those successes because they can’t get the money in the first place. The problem with the system is that some neighborhoods just never get over the hump.
Constructing Community book cover.

Governing: You can also see an argument that this is an anti-democratic arrangement. 

Levine: The more foundational point is that none of us in the public, or the people who live in those neighborhoods, really have a say over what happens. There’s some indirect ways that the broader public can influence the process, but when it comes to the planning, where the money’s going, none of that is public money. It’s private money. It’s foundation money. Yes, they’re doing public good, but they’re doing it without any real public oversight.

Foundations at this level, in poor neighborhoods, they’re not trying to screw people over. They’re not trying to play God. They are trying to make a difference. But even if the result makes things better for people struggling in poverty, those people don’t have any say. It’s all behind closed doors. Most of the decisions are made by private organizations that aren’t voted into their positions and you can’t vote them out. 

Governing: How does this play out at the regional level? There are more high-capacity nonprofits, more well-endowed funders, in big cities and wealthy metro areas than in rural communities or a small city like Chester, Pa. 

Levine: We can make the same distinction not just across neighborhoods, but across cities. Compare Ann Arbor, Mich., to Ypsilanti, Mich., or other lower capacity cities. Or rural places and downwardly mobile suburbs. These are places that do not have the organizational infrastructure to compete for grants in a system that privileges the ability to put together a great plan and show success. Just like organizations in Mattapan or Hyde Park had a trickier time being able to make the case that they are deserving of resources, and have the capacity to implement projects, we similarly see an inequality nationally between, say, Boston and Toledo, Ohio.

Governing: How do you think this dynamic will play out in the Biden administration’s bills, especially the infrastructure bill that has so many competitive funds. 

Levine: You see it in the wording of the Notice of Funding from the infrastructure bill: There’s two aspects that they’re looking for. First, do the people that we are giving money to have the capacity to actually do it? If the federal government gives you a few hundred thousand or million dollars, can you do something that’s going to realize the potential of your application?

The second piece of it is that they don’t want to be the only piece of money. This goes back to one of the benefits of having philanthropy involved. A lot of the grants that I studied, particularly federal grants, that are smaller than the big infrastructure bill programs, had a requirement of matching funds. They want to spur more investment with this money, to spark your entrepreneurial spirit to hustle up more money.

In many ways, those logics are sound. The federal government wants to make our money go further than the dollars we politically feel we can extend. They want to give money to places that show results. There’s nothing bad about that when you have a constrained amount of money.

But the problem becomes that potential applicants in very poor states do not have the ability to have a lot of matching funds. Some regions do not have a lot of philanthropic money. In many ways, those places are the most deserving of more federal resources. Yet, the way that the system is set up, for perfectly rational reasons, it is not going to benefit them as much. In fact, we’ll be systematically disadvantaging them.

But it’s also not like the people that are getting the money don’t deserve it and won’t benefit from it. The problem, in many ways, is a false sense of scarcity. At the end of the day, the real problem is not enough money that can be spread around to everyone that really needs it.

Governing: You have also studied the perennially vexed question of public participation, and attended a truly impressive number of public meetings for your book. How representative or effective do you think they were?

Levine: The persistent finding is that it is predominantly homeowners rather than renters who show up. More white people, more affluent people. If you try to get affordable housing built, the people that would benefit — renters — are being drowned out at these ostensibly open forums. In my book, I wasn’t looking at the fight for affordable housing in an affluent suburb, but development in poor neighborhoods. And there were still inequities proportionately in terms of who lives in those neighborhoods versus the racial, class, and professional background of those that are showing up and talking.

Two aspects of these meetings are detrimental to doing anything. The first is the constant “community” talk. Whoever hosted the meeting talks about “the community,” but everyone’s talking about something different. Some people are talking about the place, some about a racial group, others about residents overall. It’s a sleight of hand that allowed public officials to push through what they wanted at the expense of what actual participating community members were talking about. It allows parallel conversations to happen that feel like we’re doing something good, [but are actually obscuring how power works].

The other thing about the meeting that is fundamentally problematic is that where people show up and voice yay or nay opinions about a project is fundamentally weighted towards the people who oppose something. It is not structured in any way, shape or form to be productive. What happens when you expect consensus at a public community meeting? To get something to “yes,” you have to get basically everyone on board. To get a “no,” you only need one or two people to throw a rhetorical bomb in the meeting.

I have been moving towards a somewhat radical view of getting rid of the entire public meeting process altogether. The community meeting is all about getting people together to talk about what they want or don’t want. What if instead we thought about the process of participation as getting more people to have more ideas, to look at other people’s ideas, maybe vote on them. Perhaps some sort of system of ranking different ideas outside of a single space, or a single Zoom room, that has a particular time period attached to it. How might we improve upon the meetings that we know are inherently inequitable?

Governing: We don’t want the return of the top-down, urban renewal model that resulted in people being forced from their homes, their neighborhoods bulldozed for a highway. However, the current model doesn’t empower most residents, while vastly increasing the costs of new housing and transportation infrastructure in ways that harm all of society. 

Levine: It’s all about them striking the balance. It’s very different when you talk about poor people being empowered to resist the top-down destruction of their neighborhoods, compared to the classic wealthy NIMBYs resisting new affordable housing coming into their neighborhoods. Those are very different qualitatively. Structurally, however, both of those positions gain traction in a public community meeting type of framework.

When we talk about valuing community control, we are seeing in our heads low-income people resisting gentrification or avoiding urban renewal. But those exact words of community control are consistent with wealthy people resisting affordable housing. We need to find a balance that empowers disadvantaged people without replicating a system that is going to have downstream consequences for those very people.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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