Building the Opportunity Coalition

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At our last IHI Board meeting we discussed the Baltimore uprising of late April and the poverty, inequity, and disinvestment exposed when the national lens zoomed in on Baltimore. Freddie Gray’s death in police custody was one more in a series that has roused anger and bitterness at racialized policing and beyond that, institutionalized racism. Baltimore’s circumstance is similar to a number of old industrial cities in America. Formerly a blue collar titan in manufacturing and export, de-industrialization, racial segregation and suburban sprawl have hollowed out the city and inner suburbs leaving behind impoverished neighborhoods and dysfunctional political relationships.

At the federal level, early in the Obama administration, there was a growing realization that cities and their regions are critical to economic growth and global competitiveness. This was coupled with a conviction that existing patterns of racial and ethnic segregation must be addressed to lessen inequity and improve access to opportunity. The mantra, “A child’s future must not be dictated by his zip code,” which I first heard from HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Sims, has become a talisman of the Obama presidency. Repeated by former HUD Secretary Shawn Donovan, current HUD Secretary Julian Castro, and by President Obama, announcing the Promise Zone initiative, “A child’s course in life should be determined not by the zip code she’s born in.”

One of the programs that resulted was the federal Sustainable Communities Initiative, which made grants to regional partnerships throughout the U.S. to develop regional plans and address issues of competitiveness, sustainability and inclusion. The Baltimore region received one such grant, in the 2011 funding round, and over the last four years developed the plans of the “Opportunity Collaborative.” The Collaborative was made up of representatives of all the regional governments, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and a large number of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) including local universities, foundations and non-profits.

In addition to being a participating NGO, IHI was the lead consultant in the development of the regional housing plan, “Strong Communities, Strong Region,” which was released at the end of 2014. The Regional Plan for Sustainable Development (RPSD), intended to knit together the silos of Transportation, Housing and Workforce Development, was released in early June of this year.

After a brief flurry of publicity accompanying the release of the plans, there has been little public notice of them. A Housing Committee continues to meet at the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and has had some success in addressing housing authority cooperation and HUD fair market rents. BMC sponsored our recent inclusionary housing tour and roundtable in Howard County, but as a creature of the regional governments is not able to take strong advocacy positions on the elements of the regional plans.

Recognizing this vacuum, and inspired by the release of the White Paper by the Opportunity Fellows, I convened a meeting in June to bring together the NGOs and the Fellows. There was strong interest in taking up the challenge of ensuring the regional plans are implemented, and we have had a total of eight meetings to date, to build what is now called the Opportunity Coalition.

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