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Cities Say Infrastructure Is Top Priority in 2021

Housing and crime round out top urban concerns and mayors are scrambling to use much-needed federal funding as austerity issues recede, according to the latest State of the Cities report from the National League of Cities.

Aerial view of downtown Bozeman, Mont., in summer.
Aerial view of downtown Bozeman, Montana.
(Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock)
Bozeman, Mont., is one of those scenic little cities that saw a rush of beleaguered big city residents during the pandemic. Even as research suggests that the great urban exodus did not take place to any measurable degree nationwide, small changes can make a difference in a municipality of under 50,000 souls. Especially when it comes to housing prices.

“We are finding that because of more liberal remote work policies that people are choosing to move and live in this very desirable location,” said Cyndy Andrus, mayor of Bozeman. “We are experiencing a significant in-migration of people escaping the large cities on the coast and moving into our community,” Andrus told reporters on a recent National League of Cities (NLC) conference call. “Unfortunately, this has significantly increased the cost of housing in Bozeman and created a shortage.”

The median home sale price for a single-family home in Bozeman is now over $700,000, an increase of 30 percent in less than a year. Many municipalities across the country have seen similar price surges in this highly sensitive sector, as the nation’s housing market experiences an unprecedented boom despite larger economic turmoil.

It may sound odd to say that an isolated city 90 miles north of Yellowstone National Park is representative of larger trends among American municipalities, but new research from NLC shows that Andrus’s experiences are widespread. Surging property values — and declining affordability — made housing the fourth biggest priority among mayors surveyed by the organization. Infrastructure is Andrus’s No. 1 priority, just as it was for a majority of other respondents across America.

“This is a constant tension,” says Richard Schragger, professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book City Power. “Mayors and city administrators like to see increased property values because it generates increased revenue. But increased property values suggest increased housing prices, so that undermines affordability.”

These results were highlighted in the 2021 State of the Cities report, which NLC publishes annually. Usually, researchers scour annual State of the City speeches to ascertain what mayors are prioritizing, but this year (with fewer annualized public check-ins due to the pandemic) it is based on a survey of 600 cities, towns and villages. The report’s findings are divided into urban, suburban, exurban and rural, with a graphic included to show how different types of municipalities valued different issues (see figure 1).
(National League of Cities)
Beyond infrastructure and housing, the remaining top five priorities included municipal budgets, public safety, and economic development. (The last concern across all municipal types was listed as “demographics,” despite the fact that the pandemic-induced freeze on immigration threatens to undermine population growth in urban areas across the country.)

In some cases, the responses to the report contrast with prevailing narratives. Although public safety is the No. 1 priority for big city mayors, it fell to third in all other communities. That’s partly because almost half of respondents reported that crime levels were unchanged in the last year, while 11 percent of mayors said they actually fell. Even among urban mayors, only four in 10 reported an increase in crime during the previous year. This complicates the narratives around a nationwide crime surge. There has been a very real surge in gun violence and homicide, and not just in big cities, but research suggests its toll is highly concentrated and that America is not suffering an overall crime wave (most forms of non-homicide crime fell last year).

There have arguably been few years worse for American mayors than 2020, as chief executives have been on the frontlines of major social flashpoints from COVID-19 restrictions to police brutality. But one of the major concerns expressed by mayors last year has not come to pass. There has not been the kind of massive fiscal austerity many feared, and hard budgetary decisions have been forestalled (at least for now).

That’s because the federal government has stepped in with unprecedented support for local governments, first in a deal between the Trump administration and a Democratic Congress and then under unified Democratic rule in early 2021.

“The big story here is stabilization funding from the feds,” says Schragger. “There’s a lot of money flowing to different sizes of city. There’s a lot of resources coming in from the federal government.”

Austerity did loom as a threat at first. Federal support only shored up municipal budgets after initial cuts were made earlier in the pandemic. The report found that about a quarter of cities saw fewer infrastructure upgrades over the past year, as investments paused or were put off during the worst of the outbreak. Also, 39 percent of respondents reported deteriorating quality of roads and bridges during that time.

For Bozeman, the infusion of federal money from the Biden administration means that infrastructure priorities the city planned to invest in over many years have instead been moved forward to start in 2021.

“We are using our funds to prioritize our capital improvement projects,” says Andrus. “These are big projects that include water, sewer and broadband categories. They were scheduled for years in the future. But we are moving them up because of the [American Rescue Plan Act] funds.”

For many cities, the pandemic highlighted the importance of infrastructure to their residents and to community cohesion. Fifteen percent of city officials surveyed said that broadband viability posed one of the most significant challenges to their community in the last year. (Twenty percent identified it as a leading driver of positive change, further highlighting how necessary broadband was for economic thriving during the pandemic.) The report also cites a Trust for Public Land finding that 100 million American residents are without a park within a 10-minute walk of their home, a lack thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic.

For cities like Bozeman, and especially for less fortunate areas, NLC argues that further federal assistance is needed to address the huge backlog of infrastructure projects that city leaders identify as their No. 1 priority.

“While infrastructure debates in Washington right now feel like partisan politics, the data shows that delaying infrastructure investment hurts every single community in this country,” said Clarence Anthony, CEO and executive director of the National League of Cities.
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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