Summer of Brotherly Love

It may sound strange, but I moved to North Carolina so I could move back to Philadelphia. I settled in South Philly in 2008 and immediately fell in love with the city. I came to Duke so that I could continue living in Philly while doing meaningful policy work to help the city I now call home.

For that reason, I doubt that I could have found a more perfect internship. Working at the Mayor’s Office of Grants, I’ve met high-ranking officials across the city – heads of departments, deputy mayors, chiefs of staff, seemingly more and more every day. My work spans education, housing, public safety, health, economic opportunity – our office touches literally every aspect of local government in one form or another.

My main project is facilitating the city’s application for Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhoods grant. The Choice program aims to help local governments transform struggling neighborhoods, centered around public housing developments, into neighborhoods of choice – that is, places where people move to instead of from. The main policy levers are heavy investments in public housing, schools, safety, early education, and so forth. (If you’re interested in learning more, New Orleans and San Francisco, two of the 2010 Choice winners, have fantastic websites dedicated to their projects.)

Our particular neighborhood is centered around the Norris Homes public housing project in North Philadelphia, just off the campus of Temple University. Despite being home to a well-respected educational institution, the neighborhood has significant problems, not the least of which are its high shooting and homicide rates. The 22nd Police District, of which Temple is a part, has the highest murder rate in the city.

If our application is successful, and the project goes as planned, the hope is that public safety will increase, educational outcomes will improve, and middle-class residents will move in to the neighborhood without displacing current public housing residents. (A major part of the grant is ensuring this does not happen.)

And if it’s not successful? Well, we’ll pick up the pieces, examine what went wrong, and rest assured that we have a plan in place for the next time there’s a funding opportunity. Disappointing, to be sure, but there’s always another shot. This year’s plan is partially based on our failed application last year, when the city came in fifth out of four winners.

Local government is where the rubber hits the proverbial road. National and state policies combine to produce a funny amalgamation of priority outcomes, preferred mechanisms, regulations, revenue streams… It’s a mess, as you can imagine, and local governments are tasked with making sense of it all. I won’t pretend it’s not frustrating jumping through hoops created by Washington and Harrisburg in pursuit of the grant funding that keeps the city moving. (“The term ‘families’ has the meaning provided in section 3(B)(3) of the United States Housing Act of 1937 (42 U.S.C. 1437a).”) Still, the accomplishments of the dedicated public servants I work with every day are a constant inspiration to keep working for a better Philadelphia.

It’s no secret these are tough times for this city. But I choose to live here because I believe it is a great city, and can be an even greater one. Hopefully I can continue to help make that happen when I return next year.

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