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Renewing the American Dream – Investing in our Communities’ Well-Being

Mercedes M. Márquez, Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, reflects on the importance of the American Jobs Act and HUD's mission to help every American, especially Hispanics, acheive the American Dream.

As Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development (CPD) at HUD, I frame our work by asking – what is it only the Federal government can do?  By investing in communities and building their capacity to address neighborhood needs, CPD works every day to help communities promote integrated approaches that provide decent housing, a suitable living environment, and expanded economic opportunities for low and moderate income persons.  CPD’s investment in communities is carried out through our partnerships with all levels of government, and increasingly with the private sector, including for-profit and non-profit organizations.  

At the same time, we are managing programs that respond to the current economic climate, including stimulus funding, homeless prevention and rapid re-housing, and neighborhood stabilization.  The current foreclosure crisis started with bad loans, subprime mortgages and mortgage-backed securities.  Now, we are seeing the effects of long-term unemployment on the housing market.  Unfortunately, Latino families have been disproportionally affected by this crisis.  According to the National Council of La Raza, 17% of Latino homeowners (1.3 million) have already lost or will lose their homes to foreclosure, while at the same time many Latino families have experienced a 50% decline in home equity values (from $99,983 to $49,145). 

HUD’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) has invested $7 billion to help local governments and non-profit organizations turn tens of thousands of abandoned and foreclosed homes into the affordable housing communities need instead of dragging down property values. Of the $7 billion invested so far, 60% was invested in communities of color.  To date, more than 16% of the NSP 1 and NSP 2 households benefitting from acquisition, new housing construction, homeownership assistance, and rehabilitation were Latino households.

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the West End Flats development underway at the corner of West Colfax Avenue and Zenobia Street in West Denver, one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. 

The development is a prime example of what an NSP investment brings to a community.  In partnership with the City of Denver, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and its subsidiary Renaissance Housing Development Corporation is constructing a five-story mixed-use mixed-income housing development.  While NSP requires that a minimum of 25% of NSP funds be used for the benefit of families below 50% of area median income, HUD projects NSP1 grantees will expend at least 35% of funds for this purpose.  West End Flats specifically meets the housing needs of both extremely low-income and homeless families and individuals with 50 of the 101 units serving as Permanent Supportive Housing.  By creating jobs, investing in community redevelopment, and building housing for the homeless, the project is meeting a triple bottom line. 

NSP funding will support nearly 90,000 jobs by the time it is fully expended.  Many of those jobs are in construction, supporting individuals like the workers I met in Denver and their families.  In 2007, before the recession hit, Latinos made up 14 percent of the labor force.  However, they held nearly 30 percent of the nation’s 10 million construction and extraction jobs, such as operating engineers and carpenters. There were 344,000 fewer Latinos employed in carpentry or construction labor after the recession, among the sectors hardest in the recession following an historic decline in housing.  During my visit, I had the opportunity to hear from construction workers on the site.  They spoke about how thankful they were to be working and able to support their families. 

But NSP is not just creating jobs; it’s creating communities where people would choose to live.  HUD’s investment in communities like West Denver has ripple effects throughout a community.  According to research by The Reinvestment Fund, comparing communities with NSP investments to similar communities without NSP investments shows that:

  • 67 percent saw better home sale price changes. 
  • 73 percent saw better vacancy rate improvements.
  • 47 percent saw better home sale and vacancy rate improvements.

Targeted federal programs, like NSP, not only increase the value of formerly vacant lots or abandoned homes, but also show neighbors and businesses that it is smart to invest in those communities. 

As part of President Obama’s American Jobs Act, Project Rebuild proposes to scale up NSP to rebuild the nation’s economy by investing in local communities to create jobs, stabilize neighborhoods, and reduce vacancy.   If enacted by Congress at the $15 billion level, Project Rebuild will support nearly 200,000 jobs while renewing America’s neighborhoods and rebuilding our economy by improving property values and producing affordable housing.  With Project Rebuild funding, more projects like West End Flats can be developed to create the jobs and affordable housing that this country needs. 

“Ganarte la Vida” – to earn one’s living – this is the aspiration that came through loud and clear from my recent visit to Denver, Colorado.  As the granddaughter of farmworkers, my family instilled a strong work ethic in me, and I understand the powerful desire to earn one’s living in this country.  Serving as Assistant Secretary at HUD, I am proud of the work that NSP and our other programs are doing in Hispanic communities and across the country.  The American Dream, the opportunity to provide more for our children, is being renewed in West Denver and many other places.  By investing in these neighborhoods, we are telling residents, “We’ve heard you, we believe in you, we are investing in you.  Plant roots here and raise your family.”

Mercedes M. Márquez, a Chicana born and raised in San Francisco, California, is the Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.