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2015 Policy Summit: Here to Learn

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At this year’s Policy Summit, which attracted more than 340 people, practitioners and researchers dig deep into the need for safe and affordable housing, better education, and more, all while discussing how they achieve equitable change.

Contributors to this year’s Policy Summit—convened outside of Cleveland for the first time in its 12-year history—highlighted the interconnectedness among workforce development, affordable housing, and access to both education and technology infrastructure.

The central theme of this year’s summit was how equitable development can benefit low- to moderate-income communities. Representing 25 states, more than 340 people attended the 2-day summit held in thriving downtown Pittsburgh, among them nonprofit leaders, academics, and government and regulatory-agency representatives from the nation’s Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast regions and beyond.

The talk of economic challenges faced regionally and nationally resonated with community practitioners and researchers alike and provided further evidence that the nation is attuned to the need for collaboration across, not just within, individual sectors in order to meet equitable development goals.

While Pittsburgh Mayor William (Bill) Peduto noted that the basics to fighting poverty have been the same during the past 100 years—education, and early—he and other speakers reminded attendees that true solutions to equity issues aren’t found within single sectors. It isn’t just about safe and affordable housing or steady employment, educational opportunities or access to quality healthcare. Taken singly, none of these areas provides a solution to equity issues in the United States.

Policy Summit 2015

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poverty simulation

The summit, sponsored by the Federal Reserve Banks of Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Richmond, facilitated considerable conversation across sectors and stakeholders, who exchanged ideas and examples of community development strategies, challenges, and successes in their respective regions.

“I’m here to learn from other cities from around the country, their strategies and policies around economic inclusion and equity,” said Darrell Cobbins, a commercial real estate executive.

But attendees weren’t just here to listen and swap stories. They came to find actionable information, too.

“This conference provides a platform to explore issues and understand tools and strategies and collaboration methods that have been proven as best practices that we can employ where I live,” noted Cobbins, who also sits on the board of directors for the Greater Memphis Chamber and serves on the finance committee of the Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis and Shelby County.

Human capital: Building a better workforce

The ways cross-sector collaboration and initiatives can contribute to disrupting the cycle of poverty were discussed at length, including during the opening plenary featuring Mayor Peduto and former Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell. Cities across the nation are being tasked with pursuing social mobility and economic growth that promotes opportunities for all residents, not merely a few.

Essential to that growth are educational opportunities and collaborative efforts to coordinate talent and skillsets with the needs of employers—without each student’s racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

Josh Benton, executive director for workforce development at the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, offered summit attendees a functional example of just such a collaboration: KY FAME, the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education.

Students in KY FAME participate in a combination education/training program to earn certification as an AMT, or advanced manufacturing technician. Course credits can also be used in the pursuit of a 4-year degree in business or engineering, further incentivizing student participation, as students aren’t, then, tied to a single career path. Splitting time between the classroom (2 days per week) and hands-on learning (3 days per week), students in KY FAME are able to learn both the hard skills—multi-skilled technical skillsets and industrial troubleshooting—and soft skills—interpersonal communication, safety, and problem solving—desired by manufacturing industry employers, all while earning an income.

Also essential? Tying skills pathways to a region’s economic drivers.

The skills gap, the difference in on-the-job skills required and the skills employees possess, was discussed at length, including in the keynote speech offered by Cleveland Fed President and Chief Executive Officer Loretta Mester. She noted that technological change has driven demand for skilled workers relative to unskilled workers.

“Even industries often viewed as less skill-intensive have increased their demand for skilled labor,” said Dr. Mester. “The manufacturing plant of the 1970s has transformed itself into a high-tech operation, requiring workers who can operate computerized machinery and even robots.”

Jobs that used to require a high school diploma now require skills far beyond those learned in most high school classrooms, though some STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) academies are working to narrow this gap.

Brian Cummins, Cleveland City Council member representing Ward 14, said that the most surprising summit takeaway for him is this focus on the connections between education and workforce needs. The new federal workforce law taking effect this year, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA), “is something that’s very important and very timely in terms that we’ll begin integrating our workforce initiatives with their educational components,” he noted.

Affordable housing, sustainable neighborhoods

But education and skills training aren’t the only necessary components to building a more equitable and upwardly mobile society.

Start with a neighborhood, not just a street, said Rob Stephany, director of community and economic development at The Heinz Endowments.

Stephany supported his point on a panel titled “Reversing Decline”: a case study of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, which underwent significant reinvestment and revitalization, making it, by some standards, one of the nation’s neighborhood success stories.

Embracing the culture of the neighborhood is essential for successful revitalization, he remarked, as is a community-driven plan with participation from and collaboration within all levels of government. Panelists noted that the East Liberty development has added to the neighborhood more than 1,900 jobs; 750,000 square feet of commercial mixed-use space; and 1,500 housing units, 800 of which are affordable housing units.

But no redevelopment project is perfect.

“Our biggest mistake in East liberty,” remarked Ernie Hogan, former deputy director of East Liberty Development, Inc., “was not really understanding the values of land trusts and inclusionary zoning opportunities.”

When asked what land trusts add to the redevelopment picture in terms of affordable housing, he noted, “If we could have, where we built all this new affordable housing, put that in a land trust so that we were preserving quality housing in perpetuity to maintain that community and that diversity long term, it would have been a much easier and much more transparent infrastructure.”

Hogan’s advice? Explore those tools that are available, including the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. And create a truly undivided mix of housing.

He also praised Mayor Bill Peduto’s efforts on this front: Mayor Peduto is “very open to an inclusive community and stands with this commitment to really embrace these recommendations from this diverse taskforce” working in East Liberty, he said.

The Policy Summit also gained the attention of some East Liberty residents and community supporters, who took issue with the summit’s designation of the neighborhood as one of the most up-and-coming neighborhoods in the United States. The residents rallied in East Liberty during the summit conference in disagreement with East Liberty’s portrayal as a model of equitable development. Not all residents received vouchers, but those who did, they said, can’t use them at the center of the development but must reside on the perimeter, far removed from the neighborhood’s amenities.

Displacement is an issue faced by any revitalization project, agreed Malik Bankston, executive director of the Kingsley Association, and Rob Stephany, both speakers on the East Liberty panel.

Summit sponsors and participants, including the mayor, welcomed and encouraged the expression of diverse views throughout the 2-day event.

“There were certainly gaps, and clearly mistakes were made,” admitted Bankston.

Any project is a learning experience, and Bankston, Stephany, and their colleagues intend to learn from East Liberty.

Looking ahead

Equitable access was a primary theme of the summit, as was the necessary interconnectedness between people and livable, workable space; among technology infrastructure and education and workforce-skills development; between health and environment; and across all these areas of concern.

The expectation might be that the federal government will take care of equity and social mobility issues, as large and tangled as they seem. But Campbell, former mayor of Cleveland, noted that “mayors have the power to convene, create, and get stuff done.” Mayor Peduto concurred, observing that many solutions will come from smaller-scale, more local initiatives.

Kwanza Hall, a councilmember representing District 2 in the City of Atlanta, said that “to be invited to talk and hear about housing, economic inclusion, and innovations is very humbling . . . [as is] being a part of this cohort and a part of this conversation. Often elected officials get to this point much later in the game.”

He, like many others who attended, is looking forward to taking the ideas gleaned from other conference participants and attendees and converting them to action in his home region. “To know practitioners as well as researchers,” Hall said, “gives me an open book to new friends that I can call on whether they be in my home district or not.”

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