[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Citizenship]: Coppola on DeFilippis, 'Urban Policy in the Time of Obama'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Wed Jul 31 13:38:01 MDT 2019

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From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Wed, Jul 31, 2019 at 2:55 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Citizenship]: Coppola on DeFilippis, 'Urban Policy
in the Time of Obama'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>

James DeFilippis, ed.  Urban Policy in the Time of Obama.
Globalization and Community Series. Minneapolis  University of
Minnesota Press, 2016.  368 pp.  $30.00 (paper), ISBN
978-0-8166-9659-8; $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8166-9656-7.

Reviewed by Alessandro Coppola (Gran Sasso Science Institute)
Published on H-Citizenship (July, 2019)
Commissioned by Emily Mitchell-Eaton

Too Little and Too Much of the Same: Obama's Urban Policy, Great
Expectations for Great Delusions

The Obama administration is now part of the past, and the time has
come to assess its political and policy heritage. _Urban Policy in
the Time of Obama_, edited by James De Filippis, gathers a large and
diverse group of scholars to do precisely that. This collection is a
multidisciplinary evaluation of what Barack Obama and his
administration achieved in the area of urban policy. Urban policy is
intensely political, because, either explicitly or, more often,
implicitly, urban policy discourses and programs come with an
articulated conceptualization of what citizenship is and, more
specifically, of how public action should be reshaped to facilitate
social organization and integration--and therefore citizenship--in
cities. Expectations in this area of policy were particularly high.
The exceptional profile of a president who had been a community
organizer in the South Side of Chicago and who was promised to be the
first truly "urban president" in national history, one who "would see
the world from the vantage point of the modern American metropolis,"
was the primary driver of such expectations (pp. 149-50).

If expectations were high, the judgment of Obama's legacy in this
field based on the sixteen contributions comprising this book is
generally negative. This policy legacy--as the editor argues--is not
only mostly made of "little pilot projects with small pots of money"
but also characterized by "a striking degree of path dependency" from
the long-established policy consensus (p. 296). This consensus around
urban policy, which has hegemonized the Democratic Party since the
end of the 1970s, is based on two ideas: first, that urban problems
can be solved through the mobilization of market forces; and second,
that the not-for-profit sector has to play a strategic role in
attracting, if not building, these forces, especially in
disadvantaged parts of cities. Combined with the creed in the
engineered social mixing of people and ethnicities and in the
operational implications of poverty deconcentration and planned
(partial) gentrification, these two ideas have transformed the
political culture and policy agenda of the party that, since the New
Deal, has entertained the most profound relationship with cities,
their evolving issues, and constituencies. The longevity of this
consensus is also the reason why assessing Obama's legacy in this
field is especially important to understand if his presidency
represented (or not) a significant break in this legacy and, more
specifically, a break with one of the last democratic
administrations, that of Bill Clinton.

To frame and define the object of this urban policy is in and of
itself intensively political, in a nation where cities and their
problems have long been racialized, and consequently stigmatized and
marginalized, in policy agendas and discourses. To be sure, urban
policy is made by policies that explicitly carry that name, but also
by policies, writes De Filippis, that variably "impact people in
large, dense, and diverse places," starting with the ones that "shape
the rules, logic, or patterns of the larger flows that produce
urbanization" (p. 5). It is for this reason that De Filippis
addresses not only policies that have been defined as "stealth urban
policies"--for example, much recovery spending was ultimately urban
in its effects--but also pivotal structural policies that regulate
fluxes of investments and people. This inclusive framing allows De
Filippis to include contributions covering areas that are often left
at the margins, such as education, immigration, labor relations, and
health. These are all policy areas where cities mostly act as
recipients of change produced at larger scales, while simultaneously
acting as arenas for collective actions focusing on the claim of
rights and entitlements. Even if some areas have not been addressed
as thoroughly as they could have been--the environment, the climate
and energy nexus, and finance--this is ultimately a book that takes
urban policy seriously, offering both careful assessments of
individual administrations' actions and critical readings of the
political discourses promoted to justify these actions.

The response to the great recession was central in Obama's early days
in office. On the one hand, substantial public spending was oriented
to cities through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)
that, together with the issuance of Build America Bonds, funded
public works, education, and health projects in metropolitan areas.
On the other hand, the administration responded to the immediate
effects of the foreclosure crisis through initiatives touching on the
broad and complex nexus of housing and community development
policies. While not ignoring its shortcomings, contributing author
Hilary Sylver stresses how Obama's intervention in this field was
unprecedented, with the launch of successive rounds of the
Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), which allowed states,
localities, and community development corporations to acquire and
dispose of foreclosed homes to prevent foreclosures through the
Making Home Affordable (MHA) program. This was a program that
supported homeowners in readjusting mortgages and avoiding
foreclosures but, overall, whose effectiveness was limited by the
quantitative reach of these measures--4.8 million involved out of a
total of 6.1 million--and the often temporary character of the relief
provided. Has all this mobilization implied a substantial change in
the housing policy and regulation realm? No, according to Rachel
Bratt and Dan Immergluck: the largely bipartisan character of this
policy area--with a shared creed in homeownership as something
naturally beneficial economically and socially--was confirmed under
Obama. His response to the crisis was in fact deemed "too weak, too
tentative, and too confusing" (p. 94), with a bias toward corporate
solutions (shown by the fact that most nonperforming loans and
foreclosed properties were actually sold to financial actors and not,
as originally announced, to nonprofit organizations). However, at the
edges of this orientation, there were some attempts to change. The
institution of a National Housing Trust Fund--funded with Fannie Mae
and Freddy Mac's profits to fund rental housing for those with very
low incomes and undermined by Republican opposition and the policies
against homelessness--increased funding to "housing first" solutions
already experimented with in cities.

Also in the field of area-based policies, several authors stress
again the fact that evidence mostly shows signs of continuity over
change. Janet Smith and Amy Khare discuss one of the most critical
pilots of the administration, Choice Neighborhoods, underlining the
persistent bias toward the role of the market, the search for the
social mix, and a physical approach to larger structural problems.
Kathe Newman points to the reproduction of the established community
development industry underlying some signs of potential evolution,
such as foreclosure prevention initiatives, land banking, and
partnerships with health institutions.

In this context of path dependency, one area of change was
governance. The Obama administration tried to optimize federal
spending through a fairly unprecedented dose of evaluation
activities, federal interagency coordination, interjurisdictional and
regional approaches, and capacity building. While the record of the
White House Office for Urban Affairs is somehow unclear, the
Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI), a collaboration between the
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Department of
Transportation (DOT), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),
which supported collaborative regional planning projects open to a
wide range of local actors, has presented several areas of interests,
embodying a (pilot) test bed for the metropolitan turn in urban
policy long advocated by Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution. At
the core of many of these planning exercises was a closer
coordination of housing and transport policies, mostly built around
the idea of transit-oriented development (the concentration of
housing around mass transit nodes) that have generated discussion
around poverty deconcentration centered by previous discourses about
so-called neighborhoods of opportunity.

In the area of social policy, Philip Thomson discusses the urban
implications of Obama's most important political legacy: the
Affordable Care Act (ACA). The strengthening of federal requirements
for community benefit activities for nonprofit hospitals was
associated with the opening up of significant potential for locally
based organizing drives for ensuring the uninsured. Pauline Lipman
stresses how Obama's education policy, Blueprint for Education
Reform, Race to the Top, accelerated "the neoliberal restructuring of
public education" (p. 132). The ACA took the opportunity of the
fiscal crisis of states and cities to implement, through competitive
grants, the usual recipe of more testing, competition, privatization
(in the form of charter schools), and a reorientation of curricula
toward training. The role of "an interlocking network of corporate
consulting groups, neoliberal think thanks, [and] billionaire venture
philanthropies" in the shaping of new policies and related markets is
evident in Obama's embrace of new tools, such as Pay for Success
(PFS) contracts and social impact bonds (SIBs) (Lipman, p. 133). At
stake here, argues Robert W. Lake, is the subjection of social policy
to the remuneration expectations of financial markets. The selling of
SIBs allows the rise of capital on financial markets to fund policy
actions pursuing measurable outcomes in terms of government budget
savings (a specific program able, say, to save on incarceration costs
preventing it) that, once materialized, will then flow back to the
initial investors. The Obama administration's role in promoting such
tools was one more proof of its support of a neoliberal policy
framework pursuing new government technologies that, while focusing
on behavioral modification and the disciplining of marginal subjects,
enhance the remuneration of capital, removing the broader structural
context from public discussion.

Another chapter involves policies that, while not having an
explicitly spatial management dimension, actively involve urban
constituencies and their potential for collective action. Obama
strengthened the administrative basis for fair housing and expanded
the number and type of discrimination cases pursued, sued financial
institutions for so-called reverse red-lining, established the
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (and within it the Office for
Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity), and sued local governments for
discriminatory housing practices. In the field of immigration
policy--a field where promises of comprehensive reform were made--the
administration proceeded mostly through executive orders, with an
overall shift, writes Christine Thurlow Brenner, toward a more
selective policy aimed, in Obama's words, at "attracting the
highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers who will help create good
paying jobs and grow the economy" (p. 128). Moving toward this
direction was the growth in employment-based visas (with a decrease
of the family-based visas that, however, still largely prevail) and
in so-called investor visas, coupled with more funding for training
for immigrants while deportations continued, coming to be a highly
controversial issue throughout the Obama presidency. On the one hand,
there was a shift from workplace raids, common under George W. Bush's
administration, to a focus on employers hiring undocumented workers.
On the other hand, there emerged a regime of exception that
protected, through the device of "deferred action," specific
categories of migrants from deportation for a period (for example, in
the case of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA]
initiative). One more undelivered comprehensive reform, discusses Nik
Theodor, is the union-sponsored labor relations reform Employee Free
Choice Act, an act seen by its supporters as the achievement of an
over twenty-year-long season of innovative organizing that left a
legacy of new actors, such as workers centers. Beyond a very early
initiative on pay gender equality and some late initiatives, the
administration failed to deliver what was promised: "right to work"
legislation put in place in states under Republican control.

As shown, the collection offers extensive material to assess Obama's
urban policy through the perspective of the citizenship discourse it
mobilized and through the concrete, actionable political spaces it
opened. Overall, despite some signs of revival for place-based
approaches focusing on the integration of social services and
schooling, policies mostly reproduced inherited, consensual
understandings of urban citizenship. The role of communities and the
centrality that homeownership plays in shaping their forms of
sociability and organization, associated with the persistent emphasis
on poverty deconcentration and social mixing as ways to handle
increasing socio-spatial inequalities, have confirmed that
integration of subordinated social and ethnic groups has to be
produced through the engineering of individual pathways to social
mobility. This judgment is further confirmed when Obama's discourse
on the pivotal issue of race is examined, showing what Preston H.
Smith II defines in his contribution as the "Faustian pact" between
Obama and the white majority based on the avoidance discussions on
race. When he did speak on race, his call for the need to strengthen
traditional social norms in African American communities (his use of
the long-established theme of fatherhood is significant here) would
have strategically appealed both to that majority and to African
American middle and upper classes. If not much really changed on that
side, it would be hard to deny that some of the policies that were
described offered some limited organizing gateways that could
energize grassroots, creative political experiments in the urban
social movements model discussed by Lorainne Minnite and Frances Fox
Piven. The approval of labor and immigration reform would have turned
these limited gateways into large avenues, and if we look at urban
policy in the perspective of citizenship, this is the failure that
most dramatically affects the legacy of Obama's urban policy and also
the long-term fate of the Democratic Party.

Citation: Alessandro Coppola. Review of DeFilippis, James, ed.,
_Urban Policy in the Time of Obama_. H-Citizenship, H-Net Reviews.
July, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49588

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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