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What comes first: education and a good job, or affordable, healthy housing?

Cranston, Providence and Newport are the three winning cities in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Cities Challenge in Rhode Island

Photo by Richard Asinof

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, right, with Joanne McGunagle, president and CEO of the Comprehensive Community Action Program, at the May 12 celebration of the Working Cities Challenge.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/15/17
The awards of $400,000 to Newport, Cranston and Providence in the Working Cities Challenge promote a collaborative framework to address issues of economic and social disparities. How housing and health care fit into that equation remains a puzzle to be worked out.
In addition to integrating the work of health equity zones, are there opportunities to include the development of neighborhood health stations in Central Falls and Scituate as a new kind of innovative approach to community health care solutions? How will Cranston, the home of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who won a close re-election in 2016, address political issues around concerns about “illegal” immigrants? How will Providence address ongoing public transportation issues within the context of its new collaborative conversation? When will Rhode Island create a statewide quality of life index, to create longitudinal benchmarks to measure the good, the bag and the ugly?
The example of the progressive leadership of California Gov. Jerry Brown – in supporting stricter environmental regulations, in increasing taxes on the wealthy, in promoting climate change initiatives – sets a high bar for other governors across the nation in challenging the current policies of President Donald Trump.
The Working Cities Challenge promotes the model of corporate philanthropy and charitable giving within the context of community investment to address social and economic disparities through a collaborative framework, which as the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Prabat Chakrabarti, focuses on issues of inclusion around diversity.
But are there other kinds of corporate responsibility that should be promoted as a community conversation?
What does it mean that “two gallons” of PCBs were spewed into the Providence environment as a result of a natural gas pipeline rupture on land owned by National Grid? Why were PCBs being used in the pipelines? What are the health risks? When there are other reported gas leaks, is the potential release of PCBs a concern? Why has The Providence Journal apparently failed to report information about the PCB dispersal? Is there a way to map out how the PCBs were dispersed, given that pipe rupture caused the gas and its contaminants to be spewed into the air?
Beyond ConvergenceRI, ecoRI News and RI Future, which news media is actively following the story?

PROVIDENCE – It was a difficult week for elected officials. A state budget shortfall of $100 million had just been discovered, based upon lower corporate income tax revenue collections, jeopardizing budget plans for elimination of the car tax by R.I. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and proposed college tuition breaks by Gov. Gina Raimondo.

Providence City Council President Luis Aponte was indicted on charges of misusing campaign cash, a stark reminder of the state’s predilection for corruption, reinforcing the negative image portrayed by the popular Crimetown podcast series about the history of the connected underworld of politics and organized crime in Providence.

In Washington, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, but the actual reasons for the firing kept changing, like a bad alibi. The real reason, it turned out, was that Trump apparently was unhappy with Comey’s pursuit of the inquiry into the Russian efforts to undermine the 2016 Presidential election and its possible connection to the Trump campaign, which Trump called fake news. Can you spell obstruction of justice?

Yet, despite all these downers, everyone was in a good mood at the Providence Public Library on May 12, where the Working Cities Challenge initiative of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston celebrated its three Rhode Island winners: Newport, Cranston and Providence.

How jolly was it? Even Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a potential Republican candidate in the 2018 governor’s race, praised Raimondo, his probable Democratic opponent in that election, for her leadership in bringing the Working Cities Challenge to Rhode Island.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza praised the initiative for investing in the innovation model that cities such as Providence are pursuing, adding jokingly, “No offense, Governor.”

And Prabal Chakrabarti, senior vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, encouraged the audience not to follow the rules: “Do not be quiet in the public library,” Chakrabarti said, suggesting that those attending loudly celebrate the winners with applause.

Indeed, when the winning teams from Providence, Cranston and Newport were asked to come up to the podium, a loud, resounding applause greeted them.

Good public manners were also on display: everyone made sure to say thank you not only to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the private sponsors of the initiative, but especially to the Rhode Island Foundation, which had played a key role in shepherding the initiative.

Five years, a total of $1.2 million
Each of the three winning cities will receive $400,000 over five years to invest in building cohesion in its community in a collaborative fashion, attempting to overcome the economic doldrums of first two decades of the 21st century by improving upward mobility of its residents, focused on education outcomes, workforce training and reducing cultural divisions.

The three winners had been culled from seven cities that had been awarded $20,000 design grants in August of 2016 to hone their applications. The four “unsuccessful” cites had been East Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Westerly. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

The seven had been chosen from 11 applicants out of the 13 cities originally deemed eligible to participate, which had included North Providence, Johnston, Woonsocket, Burrillville, Warwick and West Warwick.

[To qualify for consideration, the 13 cities identified had to be small to mid-size, with populations between 15,000 and 250,000, have significant low-income populations, have median incomes below $82,000, and have high poverty rates for families (above 5.9 percent) and individuals (above 8.9 percent), according to the Working Cities Challenge requirements.]

Managing expectations
Among the watchwords of the initiative at the May 12 celebration were: innovation, education, equity, collaboration and diversity.

The winners were no secret: Eric S. Rosengren, the president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, had taken an orchestrated, well-publicized tour of the winning cities the day before, on May 11, and even found time to tape an Executive Suite session with WPRI’s Ted Nesi.

Earlier last week, foreshadowing the “official” announcement of the winners, The Providence Journal reported on the manifestations of the east-west divide in Cranston. Was that coincidence, or a well-executed communications strategy?

At the celebration at the Providence Public Library, Rosengren joked about some of the lessons he had learned about Rhode Island geography as a result of his tour: the north-south divide in Newport had proven to be as difficult to overcome as the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War; and the east-west divide in Cranston where there was no barrier such as the Mississippi River.

Having now won the $400,000 awards, Rosengren advised the winning cities: “You have a lot more work ahead of you.”

The money behind the initiative did not come from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, as Rosengren made clear. The resources came from a variety of charitable givers, state agencies and private sector companies, including: the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the RI Commerce Corp., the R.I. Department of Labor and Training, Rhode Island Housing, the Rhode Island Foundation, Delta Dental of Rhode Island, Bank of America, NeighborWorks America, Washington Trust Company, AT&T New England, Living Cities, Verizon, and Webster Bank.

The Working Cities Challenge Steering Committee included: Angela Ankoma, director of Minority Health at the R.I. Department of Health; Brittany Ramos De Barros of Living Cities; Jessica David, senior vice president, Strategic Programs and Investments, at the Rhode Island Foundation; Barbara Fields, executive director, R.I. Housing; Dan Jennings, senor community development advisor, CommerceRI; Steen Melaragno, director of Public Safety, Roger Williams University; Janet Raymond, senior vice president, Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce; and Michelle Volpe, loan fund president, Boston Community Capital.

Collaboration vs. silos
In a brief address, Raimondo framed the work of the Working Cities Challenge within her own economic messaging: “At the base of economic resurgence is innovation and education,” she told the assembled crowd. It had been her persistence, Rosengren said, that had led the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to choose Rhode Island as the first state to expand its initiative outside of Massachusetts.

Each of the winning cities, in their brief talks from the podium, stressed that the emphasis was placed on collaboration, within a place-based strategy. But within the winning strategies, there still appeared to be some apparent silos, particularly around two major drivers of persistent economic disparities: housing and health.

While health equity zones were an important part of the initial equation of the Working Cities Challenge, only Newport and Providence have them. And, only Newport appeared to fully integrate its health equity zone into the Working Cities Challenge.

As Jessica Walsh, director of prevention at the Women’s Resource Center, the backbone agency of the Newport Health Equity Zone, explained in a recent video, the primary focus of the agency is the prevention of domestic violence, what Walsh termed a public health issue. [See link to video below.]

Joseph Pratt, the executive director and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Newport County, and a member of the Newport Working Cities team, told ConvergenceRI that the Women’s Resource Center had played a key role in helping them put together the model of collaboration.

Yet, except for what seemed an impromptu shout-out from the podium for health equity zones and the R.I. Department of Health, none of the materials prepared for the celebration mentioned that fact.

The problem, as one community organizer at the event suggested to ConvergenceRI during the networking reception that followed, is that there existed what she described as a funder’s “silo” – the money for health equity zones was “branded” federal money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while the Working Cities Challenge investments were “branded” by the Federal Reserve as privately raised dollars.

“It is annoying when you’re the local partner,” the organizer said, but it is often the nature of the beast.

Silos in planning and zoning
Affordable housing – the idea that the path to prosperity begins at your front door – also seemed to be a secondary concern in the way that the initiatives were described.

Mayor Fung, in a brief interview before the ceremonies began, conducted by ConvergenceRI and reporter Kate Bramson of The Providence Journal, addressed the changing demographics within his city, saying he saw the initiative as a way to bridge the gap around different values and differing cultures.

“We are putting together a cohesive plan to promote cohesion for all of our residents, and tie the services to that future need,” Fung said, breaking down the barriers that existed between eastern Cranston and western Cranston.

How does that play out in terms of home ownership? ConvergenceRI asked.

“The eastern side is the more urban part of the city,” Fung said. “The western side is more suburban, even farmland. The eastern side is [where] people are moving into the city as their first homes. A lot of the affordable homes are there, a lot more apartments are there.”

“As the population transitions into our city,” Fung continued, “they are looking for that next home [to move up to], possibly in the western part.” Fung admitted that he did not know if that dynamic would change, but added, “Breaking down the barriers, east vs. west, is a big part of bringing the cohesiveness of our city together.” [Will the high schools be renamed?]

What if housing choices and housing options – the ability to build affordable housing in western Cranston – were to become part of the conversation to bring more cohesion to the housing market? Or would it serve as a lightning rod working against cohesion and collaboration? These were questions that occurred to ConvergenceRI after the interview.

The doors to development in western Cranston has been well protected, according to one Cranston resident. As a result, most  new development has been in the greater Garden City area.

Connecting housing and health
In addition to the Working Cities Challenge celebration of the winning awards from Providence, Newport and Cranston, two significant events occurred last week, related to the nexus of affordable housing and community health.

The first was a presentation by Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorksRI, before the State Innovation Model steering committee on May 11, which addressed: how housing costs affect Rhode Island residents; how does housing affect health; how can the health care and housing sectors work together; local examples of cross-sector initiatives; and barriers to cross-sector collaboration.

For whatever reason, housing was a late addition to the ongoing discussion around the future transformation of health care being addressed by SIM.

In her presentation, Clement stressed the following points:

High housing cost burdens make it difficult for lower-income workers to save money or cover the expenses of other basic supports, including food, education and health care. About 80 percent of Rhode Island’s lowest earners are cost burdened.

In 2015, households earning $30,000 or less could not afford to buy a median priced single family home or rent an average 2-bedroom apartment in any city or town in Rhode Island.

The Center for Outcomes Research & Education assessed the impact on health care costs when low-income individuals move into affordable housing and found: a 12 percent decrease in total Medicaid expenditures; 20 percent increase in primary care utilization; and an 18 percent decrease in emergency department visits.

In terms of barriers, Clement talked about what one respondent to a recent HousingWorksRI study had identified as a problem in perspective: “What you find is that if the housing and community development people are doing a health program it’s like 95/5 housing to health people. And if the health community is doing a housing related program, it’s 95 percent health care [compared] to [5 percent] housing.”

Further, Clement identified the difference in terminology used by the two sectors and how that complicates the conversation: “Both health care and housing are steeped in acronyms and related terminology that have different meanings in each field. From essential ideas of ‘health,’ ‘health care,’ or ‘housing interventions,’ each sector has slightly different definitions.”

It is the kind of presentation that each of the Working Cities Challenge winners in Rhode Island might consider hosting as part of the efforts to build a collaborative conversation.

First down
On the same day that the winners of the Working Cites Challenge were celebrated, Rhode Island Housing announced the launch of its “First Down” program, which provides $7,500 in down payment assistance to eligible first-time homebuyers purchasing a home in one of the Rhode Island communities hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.

It is the kind of program that could resonate with efforts underway in Cranston, Newport and Providence to build cohesion, collaboration and economic innovation – connected with supporting home ownership and growing the economy.

The program is structured as a forgivable loan and targets the six Rhode Island communities most affected by the foreclosure crisis: Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Warwick, Cranston and East Providence.

“For many prospective homebuyers, the biggest challenge is saving for a down payment. This forgivable loan eliminates yet another barrier to homeownership for working Rhode Islanders,” said Barbara Fields, executive director of Rhode Island Housing, in a news release.

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