March 18, 2011; Source: The Hill | Every federal agency seems to have developed at least one signature program under President Obama's leadership. At HUD, it is the Choice Neighborhoods initiative, a replacement for the HOPE VI program devoted to redeveloping public housing projects.

In FY2010, Congress gave Choice Neighborhoods $4 million for planning grants and $61 million for implementation grants. Last week, HUD announced 17 winners of roughly quarter million dollar planning grants and designated 6 cities as finalists for a share of the implementation funds.

While the Choice Neighborhoods program is financially smaller than the HOPE VI program, its scope was expanded to address public housing (and subsidized housing) with efforts to improve education, jobs, and transportation, and, sometimes against housing authority trade association wishes, to include moneys for nonprofits if they applied as part of a collaborative venture with public agencies. Some of the planning grant descriptions (PDF) seem to list nonprofits as "key partners" without much or any indication that the nonprofits have substantive roles to play. They emphasize the expensive planning and architectural firms that will be hired to put together the neighborhood plans, but some seem to have nonprofits in formal, important roles.

For example, the Choice Neighborhoods grant for Baltimore is $213,000 directly to Jubilee Housing working with Enterprise Community Partners to redevelop the 203-unit Pedestal Gardens in West Baltimore. A collaborative between the Providence Housing Authority, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), and the Olneyville Housing Corporation will use $250,000 to plan for the transformation of the Manton Heights housing project. A $250,000 grant to the San Antonio Housing Authority is intended to link to a $312,000 Promise Neighborhoods grant "for a two-year planning project to engage residents and community stakeholders in strategizing the revitalization of the Wheatley Courts public housing complex" on the Eastside of San Antonio. The Community Action Project of Tulsa County is the lead in a $250,000 to redevelop the 200-unit Brightwaters Apartments complex in the Eugene Field neighborhood of the city.

HUD should be attentive to the other Choice Neighborhoods planning grant winners to ensure that the nonprofit partners listed really get to exercise partner functions as opposed to being listed as 501(c)(3) window dressing.—Rick Cohen