After submitting an application late last month urging the federal government to recognize New Haven as a “Promise Zone,” the Elm City’s anti-poverty workers now await a decision from Capitol Hill.
The Promise Zone initiative — an economic development initiative announced by President Barack Obama in 2013 — recently opened its second round of applications for communities not exceeding 200,000 people, after choosing mostly large cities, including Los Angeles and San Antonio, in the first round in January. The program, which requires that at least 20 percent of the population in the proposed zone live below the poverty line, gives designated urban, rural and tribal areas special consideration for grants and resources, and, pending approval from Congress, employer tax benefits to encourage in-zone hiring.
Despite some criticism, many in the community who work with poverty alleviation think the Promise Zone initiative has the potential to succeed where past programs have failed.
In 1999, New Haven completed a similar application for then-President Bill Clinton’s Empowerment Zone initiative, a program under the supervision of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. As an Empowerment Zone, Congress promised $100 million in federal grants to the city, given in $10 million increments over a 10-year period.
But the amount of Empowerment Zone funds fell short of federal promises. According to Althea Marshall Brooks DIV ’01 — who signed on as Executive Director of Empower New Haven 11 years ago — the vast majority of the $100 million did not reach New Haven.
“Some years, we didn’t even get a million-dollar allocation,” Brooks said. “The highest allocation we ever received was maybe $6 million, and the total contribution was $25.6 million over the total 10 years.”
Empower New Haven also suffered from a lack of continuity in leadership. When she accepted the position as executive director in 2003, Brooks became ENH’s fourth leader in four years.
While some members of the New Haven community have been wary of the Promise Zone program because of its apparent similarities to Empowerment Zone, supporters of the application, like Brooks, have underlined key distinctions, such as Promise Zone’s more holistic approach to addressing issues of poverty.
The Promise Zone initiative attempts to deal with education, crime, job growth and other factors associated with poverty, spreading its attention across a wider variety of issues than Empowerment Zone, which placed a heavier emphasis on increasing home ownership in the city.
Former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who was in office during the time when the city had Empowerment Zone designation, said that programs like Empowerment Zone tend to promise more than they can deliver.
Although he said he has no specific knowledge of the details of the Promise Zone initiative, Empowerment Zone’s focus on home ownership was one of the program’s key fallbacks, because it failed to understand the nature of New Haven’s changing demographics.
“You’re never dealing with a stagnant population — it’s a constant movement of people,” said DeStefano, who underscored the nature of New Haven as a city many poorer families come to for the affordable housing opportunities. “It’s not like the rest of Connecticut is going to build affordable housing. Recognizing that this work is always going to be here is really important. It’s all about developing reasonable goals of what you can do.”
Executive Director of DataHaven Mark Abraham underscored that while homeownership rates in New Haven are on par with other urban centers across the country, what sets New Haven apart in Connecticut is the city’s relatively high neighborhood turnover. In a DataHaven report published in 2011, researchers found that in lower-income areas of New Haven, nearly 30 percent of residents moved to a different house within the past year alone. The report states that neighborhood turnover is one factor in measuring social capital, which can predict crime rates, economic investment and neighborhood satisfaction.
Alongside its broader focus, the Promise Zone program also differs from the Empowerment Zone initiative in that it has no dollar amount associated with it.
“Promise Zone is a very different approach,” Dr. Martha Okafor, New Haven’s community services administrator and point person for the November application process, said in an email. “It is based on partnerships with the federal government to focus a diverse array of grants and tax benefits on the zone in support of a more locally generated effort.”
But others, including Jim Farnam, a local lawyer who worked both on the Empowerment Zone and Promise Zone application processes, said that some have become skeptical about the program considering the lack of monetary value attached. Farnam said some have questioned the significant effort required during the application process, with no federal money guaranteed to Zones.
City Hall Spokesperson Laurence Grotheer pointed to the lack of federal money attached as one of Promise Zone’s strengths. Contrary to the Empowerment Zone’s upfront promise of $100 million, the new program operates by placing Promise Zone at the front of the line for federal grants and funds that have already been approved.
“There is no question that Promise Zone learned from Empowerment Zone,” Brooks said.