The Importance of Local Government in 2020 (and always)

This summer I have had the opportunity to once again work within the field of local government as a Keefe fellow. The sector of local government I have been able to work as a part of this summer is a specific type of agency called a “redevelopment authority.” In Pennsylvania state law, redevelopment authorities are specifically designated as quasi-governmental organizations that were created to help more efficiently organize development projects and divert funding to best build safer, cleaner, and more equitable cities throughout the state. These authorities were established in 1945 and have grown and changed over the decades since their inception. Each respective organization in different cities and counties across the state serving slightly different purposes according to the needs of their different communities. Today the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), where I currently am interning virtually, functions as the economic development wing of the City of Pittsburgh government and is tasked with creating programs and guidelines that serve to promote more equitable development, housing policies, and job growth in the city of Pittsburgh.

Working in any government position requires an understanding of the diverse needs and perspectives of the wide variety of people that they represent, especially positions that are local or that deal directly with constituents at the federal or state levels. This is never more true than in the case of redevelopment authorities or local agencies in charge of economic policy. Any failure to take into account the needs of traditionally marginalized communities will create economic legislation that fails to assist in the places that are most often left behind by historical discrimination and private investment and therefore lean on public programs the most. This open-mindedness and required diversity of perspectives is crucial to being part of any public economic development agency. Without these credentials the legislation would most likely serve to reinforce the same historically entrenched development that favors certain groups of people instead of its true purpose of assisting and protecting the communities who have often been overlooked by past development and government programs. This has become patently more important in the light of the COVID-19 crisis that has hit close to home for everyone, but especially for traditionally marginalized populations. 

During the COVID-19 health crisis and the economic downturn it has caused, the URA’s normal expectations and goals as a redevelopment authority have broadened to include ensuring safety and enhancing assistance programs for the many Pittsburgh residents affected by the global crisis. In this vein, one of the URA’s traditional goals of ensuring safe and affordable housing for Pittsburgh residents, which usually means things like home inspections and funding for emergency repairs, has changed completely and required very different resources and funding than in the past. This has meant focusing on important factors during this volatile economic downturn and public health crisis such as making sure that Pittsburgh residents do not have to worry about being evicted or foreclosed on if they have lost a job or are unable to work due to COVID-19. This has meant lobbying for an extension on the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures from the Pennsylvania state government as cases in Allegheny County have risen dramatically. The extension was ultimately successful and has been extended to August 31st and has allowed the URA to continue to divert money and resources to helping Pittsburgh residents stay safe at home, instead of worrying about being evicted and losing that safe space.

Another important way that the URA has been able to shift and extend its goals to help during the crisis has been its organization of multiple emergency funds from public and private investment to assist renters, homeowners, and local business owners, as larger state and federal funds have run out of money. The URA has also been working diligently during the dispersion of these funds to make sure that assistance reaches all the diverse communities within Pittsburgh’s population by keeping weekly statistics that show how many reach minority and women owned businesses and heads of households.

It is no secret that the inequities all over the United States have been exacerbated severely and have become much more visible during the COVID-19 crisis. In situations like economic downturns and crises of any nature, the dispersion of short-term support for those in need often comes from local authorities like the URA. Knowledge of the hurdles that different communities may face when applying and receiving that aid is crucial to making sure that all sectors of the population receive as much support as public funding can provide. This is the unique position that local authorities hold in a federalist system because federal, state, and local funding will all be applied for and distributed by local government officials so the equity of the dispersion of those funds is determined by city or municipal governments. This means that in addition to a knowledge of the demographics and needs of the populations that they serve, local officials in charge of economic policy must also have a knowledge of federal and state programs that they can utilize to best serve the residents of their cities or municipalities.

Outside of knowledge of community needs and government programs to help serve them, another large competency that working in economic development requires is being able to understand the balance between public and private interests. This is crucial to create development that is overall beneficial to all parties, not just the highest bidders or the most well connected. The last question I was asked when interviewing to intern at the URA was “what does equitable development mean to you?” This question is an important touchstone for the URA as an organization because its answer encompasses everything they do and everything I have touched on so far, even beyond crises like COVID-19. Equitable development implies that the development that occurs through the URA will take into account more than just the profitability of the project that is developed and instead gives a voice to all parties involved, thus striving for equity for the community at large. This approach lends to development that not only creates new businesses and streams of revenue for the developers but, by including community stakeholders in the conversation, it allows for development projects that serve to improve the community that it will be built into. This means taking into account its effect on residents and requires an understanding of the culture and history of the neighborhood that proposed development would be a part of so that the project serves the best interest of all involved, therefore equitably distributing the gains of that development.

Equitable development does not occur without organizations like the URA because they serve to find balance between the interests of private companies and the welfare of the community, therefore creating a more symbiotic relationship between the two that lends to longer lasting success for the development project. Without public mediators like the URA to advocate for community groups and residents, it is easy for large development firms to ignore the needs or requests of the community they’re building within, regardless of how good the intentions of those firms are. Having a public, quasi-governmental organization in charge of economic development within the city of Pittsburgh also helps to make sure that the needs of communities are met that may not be for profit. Examples of these are investments to build public goods like parks, to maintain the arts, and so many other things that are crucial to every community but may not be achieved through the interests of private developers alone. This is another large competency required to work in public economics in comparison to private economics because the costs and benefits weighed are not always in dollars and cents but also include intangibles like community culture and welfare.  

Being a small part of the URA’s response to COVID-19 in the few weeks that I have been able to intern there has shown me so much about the mechanisms that are used to best serve and assist the needs of the Pittsburgh community during this crisis and beyond. It has also allowed me to work with the incredible people that work tirelessly to serve their communities in its highs and lows, all of whom come from a wide variety of backgrounds but are united by their compassion for the individuals they serve and willingness to write and rewrite programs to reach everyone they can.

Above all, one of the most important things that I have learned about the field of local government over the past few years, and especially this summer, is that local authorities wield enormous power that is often overlooked in political discussions. Anybody that takes a civics class and learns about federalism understands that localized government ends up with the final say on the actions on the ground in their community, but this seemingly trivial fact becomes of vital importance during times of crisis and when looking at how to systemically change the way our society functions. This means no matter how many of your favorable candidates are elected into federal positions and how good their platforms are, much of the specifics of what they will attempt to change will fall to local authorities. With this in mind and in a year of an apparent political awakening, I implore you to research your local candidates, interact with your local elected officials, look into the resources and policies in place in your hometown, and (most importantly) vote down ballot this November.

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