Serena Neal-Sanjurjo had a sense of déjà vu as she joined 26 other job-creation and anti-poverty workers in racing toward a deadline to convince the federal government to give New Haven a boost in helping the poor.
Neal-Sanjurjo led one of three groups in a City Hall meeting room Wednesday afternoon honing aspects of an application—due Nov. 21—to have the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) declare much of New Haven (most neighborhoods outside Westville, East Rock, and downtown) a “Promise Zone.”
HUD is designating those zones in 15 cities by 2016. Winning cities get a leg up in qualifying for 35 federal grant programs; AmeriCorps volunteers; tax incentives to lure businesses (assuming Congress OKs the money); and “help in addressing federal regulatory or other barriers.” Besides Wednesday’s meeting, organizers are inviting the public to participate in the process by attending a session Thursday night at 6 at City Hall (165 Church St., 5th floor conference room) and/or filling out this online survey (Spanish version here).
In 1994 Neal-Sanjurjo sat in similar rooms as New Haven convinced the feds to approve a job-creating, poverty-fighting “enterprise community” here, which she ran, and which subsequently grew into a federal “Empowerment Zone” organization five years later.
“This takes me back 20 years,” Neal-Sanjurjo said.
She wasn’t alone. The consultant (and former city official) hired by the city to convene Wednesday’s planning session and quarterback the Promise Zone application was Jim Farnam. Farnam played the exact same role for the 1998 Empowerment Zone application. Matthew Nemerson, then a local business leader, was back in the room Wednesday in his new role as city government’s economic development chief.
The latest iteration of federal anti-poverty assistance New Haven has chased since the days of mid-20th century urban renewal, the “Promise Zone” is President Obama’s signature anti-poverty initiative. It has a central similarity to the Clinton-era “Empowerment Zone” program: Communities must convince HUD that their social service, business, and government leaders will work together on a central strategy—encompassing all their individual programs—to fight poverty, create jobs, and boost poor neighborhoods, with benchmarks for progress. In return, HUD helps them improve those programs and land new employers. The Empowerment Zone, like the Promise Zone, was a 10-year designation.
One important difference between the two eras’ programs: The Empowerment Zone designation came with $100 million over those ten years. In theory. In fact, New Haven’s Empowerment Zone organization ended up receiving only $25.6 million of that money, according to the program’s final director, Althea Marshall Brooks (pictured).
The money was supposed to spur existing groups to innovate together. Instead, Empower New Haven became its own program, at times racked by politics; at one point Sherri Killins left her post as Zone director to run for mayor in 2003 in protest of what she called City Hall interference. By its last year in 2009, the agency had established working relationships with community efforts ranging from the Diaper Bank to the anti-foreclosure ROOF project and the Westville Village Renaissance Association. (Click here to read more details in its last annual report to HUD.)
This time, the Promise Zone does not come with specific money attached. The collaboration-innovation intent remains the same, along with business tax breaks.
Then-Mayor John DeStefano said inflexible, bureaucratic rules on how to spend the money partly led to the failure of the Empowerment Zone to live up to its original intent.
A lot people from different New Haven groups “came to the table” at first to help win the money, but that collaboration wasn’t sustained, DeStefano noted in an interview Wednesday. (He is not part of the current grant-planning session.) Meanwhile, “the way the funds could be used were not particularly applicable to the opportunities and challenges we faced, and where people’s passions were, and what people were doing. So much changes in five or 10 years. The opportunities on the ground are different form what they are in Washington.” By contrast, he said, the city’s housing authority has improved its performance in part because the feds have relaxed rules for how to spend money, leaving room for innovation in programs like Moving to Work.
Nemerson said New Haven learned from the Empowerment Zone disappointment. Other cities had more success with their Empowerment Zones because they didn’t “create new programs,” but rather coordinated existing efforts better with a common vision. This time around, the Harp administration is looking to do what those other cities did, he said.
Farnam (pictured) said researchers have learned, too, about how to create “collective impact.” Click here to read an article that Farnam has been distributing to participants in the process.
At Wednesday’s City Hall session Farnam told the 27 assembled participants —representing city government economic development and social-service agencies; Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Hill and Fair Haven health clinics; New Haven Legal Assistance, the Workforce Alliance, the Economic Development Corporation, the New Haven Family Alliance, New Haven Works, the Citywide Youth Coalition—that New Haven has a story to tell HUD: This is a critical moment of opportunity to tackle the city’s endemic poverty.
For starters, $1.5 billion of private investment has begun or is about to begin around town, building projects that offer promises of jobs and ladders out of poverty.
Meanwhile, a host of ambitious efforts have sprung up in neighborhoods and at different agencies to prepare people for jobs, strengthen their neighborhoods, improve their health. Some examples: the recent $5.4 million “Healthy Start” federal grant to fight infant mortality; a $1 million federal grant to help make Newhallville safer; the creation of the New Haven Works job-prep and placement agency; formation of a Newhallville “resiliency” team.
In other words, New Haven can accomplish a lot. Especially with some federal help.
Before the participants got to work in break-out sessions Wednesday, Farnam had them “vote” on a proposition that crystallized the challenge this effort faces given the Empowerment Zone history: “We will have a successful collective impact initiative in New Haven in 2014-2015.” Each participant received a “sticky” dot on which to write a number to rate how much they agree (up to 10) or disagree (down to 1) with that statement.
Most people put dots in the 7-10 range up on a ballot sheet Farnam affixed to a wall.
“Any time that people come together and commit to working together, something positive can come out of that,” housing authority chief Karen DuBois-Walton said in explaining her “7” vote. “I’m optimistic when when we gather around a set of shared interests.”
New Haven Family Alliance chief Barbara Tinney (at right in photo) wasn’t ready to vote above a 5.
New Haven already has plenty of “collective impact efforts going on in different places,” she said. “My fear is, even with our efforts to be collaborative, we’re still silo-ing, which we have a pattern of doing in New Haven.”
She added that she “will be happy to be wrong” and noted that civic leaders in some cities, like Cincinnati, have figured out how to break through silos.
Mayor Toni Harp’s point person in this effort, human services chief Martha Okafor (at center in photo), responded that whether or not New Haven succeeds in winning a “Promise” designation, this process of applying is already bringing people together on “common strategy, common goals.” That’s the larger point of trying, she said.
Meanwhile, if the Nov. 21 application fails, the city will have two more chances to apply, beginning next year.