In Philadelphia, housing crowds out arts in competition for federal funds

    Federal stimulus money is flowing, and everybody wants to dip their cup in that stream. Arts and culture groups are no different. Their quest illustrates one of the central tensions of the stimulus plan: Talk of new ways of doing business bumping up against entrenched systems for spending federal aid.

    Federal stimulus money is flowing, and everybody wants to dip their cup in that stream. Arts and culture groups are no different. Their quest illustrates one of the central tensions of the stimulus plan: Talk of new ways of doing business bumping up against entrenched systems for spending federal aid. From WHYY’s Arts and Culture Desk, Alex Schmidt reports.

    Transcript:
    Gayle Isa has been looking for money all over Philadelphia. Two years ago, the Asian Arts Initiative, which she leads, was forced to move out of the path of the Convention Center expansion. After two interim spaces, they made it to a home on Vine Street last July.

    Isa: “We’ve definitely been asking all our legislators, peer organizations, advocates to help do what one of our board members charged me with, which is to leave no stone unturned. And it’s just in the past few weeks that I’ve heard about the possibility of CDBG funding.”

    CDBG, or Community Development Block Grants, are federal funds that flow into cities to support housing and community development. Philadelphia is getting a $15 million CDBG bump from the stimulus package. Advocacy groups like Americans for the Arts are pushing CDBG as the best way for their constituents to get money out of the stimulus. In fact, many cities across the country already allocate CDBG funds to arts groups who do community development work. But in Philly, that would be unusual.

    Kromer: “During most city administrations that have managed the CDBG program, funding for the arts has not been an eligible use of CDBG dollars.”

    John Kromer is a consultant at The Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. Back when Ed Rendell was mayor, he ran the office that divvied up CDBG funds. Before, during and after Kromer’s time, he says, the focus of CDBG was strictly on low-to-moderate income housing, and in all those years, the priority hasn’t been meaningfully revisited. Jeremy Nowak is president of The Reinvestment Fund, which tries to bolster lower-income communities. Housing, he says, is only one piece of the community development puzzle.

    Nowak: “There are instances where you could say that the right kind of arts and culture investments in a particular context make more sense than other things, and there are situations where housing investments or business investments make more sense.”

    In North Philly, just about a mile from Center City, Nowak points out a new development of subsidized, suburban-looking houses. The lawns and backyards don’t have sod in them yet. Nearby, there are no supermarkets, theaters or other amenities – the stuff of community. On all sides, the new houses are surrounded by decaying homes and empty lots. Nowak says putting public funds in developments that are essentially islands should be up for debate.

    Nowak: “You  could say, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, or you could say is that the best use of subsidy… maybe that money would be used in some better way.”

    Like job training. Or college scholarships. Or an arts center. Nowak says Philadelphia has never developed a multipronged strategy for community development, one that goes beyond building new housing. Changing that, he says, would begin with the mayor.

    Gary Steuer is the new head of the City Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. He used to worked with Americans for the Arts, the organization that’s pushing arts groups across the country to access CDBG funds.

    Steuer: “I think my strategy would be to first determine what’s the decision making process of the city govt here and clarify that we can come up with a structure whereby cultural groups would be welcomed as potential projects.”

    Perhaps arts groups won’t earn a piece of CDBG money in the end. But Steuer says the point is they haven’t been allowed to compete. Jeremy Nowak worries that stimulus money is being funneled to cities through streams that have legacy ways of operating and aren’t open to change.

    Steuer: “The new vocabulary in America is shovel ready. Because of that, you could argue that there is no motivation to do any kind of new planning or strategic thinking.”

    There also may not be enough time, given the pressure to spend the stimulus within the next couple of months. CDBG funds here are just one test case of whether the stimulus program will challenge outmoded thinking, or simply reinforce it.

    Listen:
    Click on the play button below or right click on this link and choose “Save Link As” to download.

    [audio: arts20090313cdbg.mp3]

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