A bipartisan gripe focused on state governments — particularly legislatures — interfering with how cities spend their money, a long-running tension magnified by the huge influx of federal pandemic relief dollars and, in some places, a spike in budget surpluses. Many said they would rather see the federal government wire money directly to local governments.
“We must also increase direct distribution of federal funds to cities, and remove states as the middlemen,” said Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat. “Mayors understand what it means to be accountable and are focused on action, making us the ideal stewards of federal investment.”
Wrestling with the policy fallout
Nearly two years after Covid-19 sent leaders at all levels of government into emergency mode, mayors are still juggling their ambitions with urgent needs like protecting residents’ health, keeping hungry families fed and keeping basic city services running.
Mayors are making headway in getting their economies and their big projects back on track. But each pandemic wave brings renewed challenges. Mayors opened up about what plans are still paused as the public health crisis continues.
In your city, what is the biggest issue or agenda item that got lost during the Covid-19 pandemic?
“Control of our finances.” — Pat Furey, Torrence, Calif.
“Reducing violent crime. We have seen staggering increases in violent crime in Kansas City — last year, there were nearly 8,000 incidents of violent crime (a 10% increase from the previous year). And for each incident, there are ripples throughout our community that harm all of us.” — Quinton Lucas, Kansas City, Mo.
“We had to pause on some of our infrastructure spending, but that has come back and has increased to record high levels. Now our biggest issue is workforce.” — Thomas Henry, Fort Wayne, Ind.
“Improving career opportunities and job quality for our tourism-based industry and cultural economy. We have been continuing to support these workers and culture bearers throughout these difficult times, but a larger conversation about what these jobs provide (or don’t provide) was overshadowed by the need to focus on survival of our people, businesses, and traditions.” — LaToya Cantrell, New Orleans, La.
“The continued improvement of instruction in our schools.” — Jon Mitchell, New Bedford, Mass.
“We were on the cusp of a major investment to redevelop our waterfront and bring Major League Soccer to Sacramento. Both were delayed indefinitely.” — Darrell Steinberg, Sacramento.
“Passing a local minimum wage.” — Greg Fischer, Louisville, Ky.
What keeps you up at night? What worries you the most about your cityʼs future?
It’s not just the pandemic anymore. Mayors are losing sleep over everything from crime to jobs to fears of a crumbling republic.
“The possibility of our democracy failing.” — Aaron Brockett, Boulder, Colo.
“How do we prioritize the calls to [simultaneously] address Covid-19ʼs health and economic impacts, affordable housing and homelessness, climate change and environment, systemic racism and increasing violent crimes, and the expected wave of mental and behavioral health needs we expect in the month to come? As a city, we have finite resources to address this broad variety of essential needs.” — Victoria Woodards, Tacoma, Wash.
“The lack of help from the federal government and state to address the intractable nature of addiction, homelessness and the mental health crisis.” — Joseph Petty, Worcester, Mass.
“The risk of significant changes in our local economy.” — Christina Marie Muryn, Findlay, Ohio
The demand for housing
Cities were struggling to maintain or expand affordable housing options before the pandemic rattled the economy, and the challenge has only worsened over the past two years, particularly as eviction moratoriums are lifted and rents climb. Those costs are also a big contributor to rising inflation. Mayors were explicit about how serious the problem is: Nineteen out of the 25 mayors who responded said their cities are experiencing a housing crisis.
They also have plenty of ideas about what’s needed from the federal government, nonprofits and the private sector to help provide more Americans with a safe, affordable place to live.
What can cities do to help create more affordable housing?
“The issue needs to be addressed both within and without the geographic boundaries of cities. The responsibility needs to be shared in the wealthy surrounding communities who largely favor single family homes and exclusionary zoning process.” — Joseph Petty, Worcester, Mass.
“The affordable housing crisis is best regarded as a subset of the broader challenge of housing undersupply. Cities can play a key role in addressing this priority by encouraging transit-oriented development in compact, walkable areas. … Forward-looking planning and zoning are powerful, effective tools for fostering housing growth, especially when paired with inclusionary affordable housing requirements.” — Noam Bramson, New Rochelle, N.Y.
“Leverage existing assets. Like many older cities, Kansas City has a variety of vacant or underutilized properties right in our urban core. We have been exploring strategies to return the value of these resources to our residents — from targeted infrastructure development, to redevelopment of vacant and abandoned lots, and converting hotel rooms to emergency and transitional housing.” — Quinton Lucas, Kansas City, Mo.
“Our affordable housing is not safe and is owned by absent landlords. New housing being built is not affordable for all. Our biggest issue with the housing first model is we don’t have enough housing.” — Thomas Henry, Fort Wayne, Ind.
“Increasing wages for our current workforce increases affordability too, and we cannot forget the importance of a living wage on the housing crisis.” — LaToya Cantrell, New Orleans
“Hotels-to-housing has been very effective in Phoenix. In partnership with U.S. VETS, the city purchased a former hotel which has now been refurbished and provides housing, food, and services to formerly homeless military veterans. The city also partnered with a local nonprofit to create Haven House — hotel rooms that were made available to seniors facing housing insecurity.” — Kate Gallego, Phoenix
“[W]hat cities need most is an engaged and committed federal partner. Adjusted for inflation, the City of Philadelphia spends 80% more on non-homeless affordable housing than it did in 1980. The federal government provides us 73% less funding than it did in 1980. … Local governments can and do create initiatives tailored to their specific needs. And those programs make a real difference. But we need a federal partner too.” — Jim Kenney, Philadelphia
“The question is really what will other communities do to increase affordable housing. The cities already have the highest concentration of affordable housing, and thus the highest concentration of generational poverty. Generational poverty leads to crime and violence and trauma. … Full neighborhood developments with amenities and services and transportation to employment should be built in the suburbs and rural areas where kids can experience fields and trees, and not be stacked on top of each other. … Continuing to concentrate low-income individuals into the already most densely populated areas is a sure formula for failure.” — Michael Helfrich, York, Pa.
What’s the biggest issue we didn’t ask about?
A third of the mayors who responded to POLITICO’s survey volunteered that shootings or violent crime among their top concerns.
The pandemic — alongside its isolation and economic challenges — spurred a spike in homicides and violent crime in many cities across the country. Gun violence in particular dominated local discourse last year from city halls to campaign trails.
Gunfire keeps mayors up at night.
“Quite literally, itʼs the gunshots that my son and I hear when we go to bed. I am the first mayor in two decades to be born, raised, and still live on the North side of the City of St. Louis, where decades of intentional, racialized disinvestment allowed the drivers of crime — poverty, housing instability, and the like — to fester.” — Tishaura Jones, St. Louis
“I worry that our most vulnerable young people, flooded with easy access to guns and without direction or hope, will continue to shoot and kill each other in sickening numbers.” — Tim Kelly, Chattanooga, Tenn.
And mayors have put curbing gun violence high on their agendas.
“Louisville, like many cities across the country, is experiencing an unacceptable increase in gun violence, a challenge weʼre addressing with a whole-of-government approach that goes beyond law enforcement to include community mobilization, prevention, intervention, organizational change & development, and reentry. We are investing in each area and quadrupling our investment in violence prevention to address the root causes of violence and create opportunities for everyone to reach their full potential.” — Greg Fischer, Louisville, Ky.
“We have seen staggering increases in violent crime in Kansas City — last year, there were nearly 8,000 incidents of violent crime (a 10% increase from the previous year). … Addressing the violence requires better public safety tools and tactics to diffuse heated circumstances and build community trust.” — Quinton Lucas, Kansas City, Mo.
Thanks for the cash. Now butt out.
Many mayors want to be left alone.
Across the map, city leaders told POLITICO they know what’s best for their communities and that they want to cut some of the strings attached to state and federal aid.
Some mayors lauded their states’ governors. Some decried their legislatures, who they accused of preempting local priorities, handing down unfunded mandates or governing more by politics than science during the pandemic.
Others, like Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, cited the influx of federal aid as a boon for their communities. And some even asked for more, particularly when it comes to infrastructure investments.
“The last year has been a watershed for cities, with direct support through CARES and ARPA, plus the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” Holt said. “We could hardly ask for a better environment.”
How can your state government better support cities?
“Reduce the frequency and scope of state preemption of local ordinances; especially unfunded mandates.” — Buddy Dyer, Orlando, Fla.
“The State should disperse Covid relief money directly to the cities and not to county government. There has been an incredible amount of mismanagement in my county and county government officials elected to keep a disproportionate amount of money for their own agency.” — Robert Patrick O’Dekirk, Joliet, Ill.
“[T]he Commonwealth has been slow to spend its allocation of State Fiscal Recovery Funds from the American Rescue Plan, even as urgent needs go unmet. These funds could be used to support critical efforts such as Covid-19 response and containment, expansion of affordable digital access programs, or rental assistance, among others.” — Jim Kenney, Philadelphia
“State pre-emption of local government is at an all-time high. Covid-19 is a painful example: Cities that have well thought out programs to reduce risk, and encourage or require vaccination — both with a large margin of public support — have been thwarted by state executives who attempt to insert themselves into issues that are clearly matters of local control.” — Kate Gallego, Phoenix
How can the federal government better support cities?
“Provide less restrictions on the funding they provide us. If we could have flexibility of funding (existing and new) to best invest it in our community I believe we would see higher rates of economic return within our communities.” — Christina Marie Muryn, Findlay, Ohio
“In general, the more they leave us alone the better we do.” — Dan Pope, Lubbock, Texas
“Allow us more flexibility to tailor federal funding to meet local needs. … Housing, violence prevention and transportation are three areas where more funding, and more flexible funding, is particularly needed.” — Quinton Lucas, Kansas City, Mo.
Participating mayors included Noam Bramson, New Rochelle, N.Y.; Aaron Brockett, Boulder, Colo.; LaToya Cantrell, New Orleans; Buddy Dyer, Orlando, Fla.; Greg Fischer, Louisville, Ky.; Pat Furey, Torrance, Calif.; Kate Gallego, Phoenix; Michael R. Helfrich, York, Penn.; Thomas C. Henry, Fort Wayne, Ind.; David Holt, Oklahoma City, Okla.; Tishaura O. Jones, Saint Louis, Mo.; Tim Kelly, Chattanooga, Tenn.; Jim Kenney, Philadelphia, Penn.; Quinton D. Lucas, Kansas City, Mo.; Robert H. McConnell, Vallejo, Calif.; Jon Mitchell, New Bedford, Mass.; Christina Marie Muryn, Findlay, Ohio; Robert Patrick O’Dekirk, Joliet, Ill.; Joseph Petty, Worcester, Mass.; Dan Pope, Lubbock, Texas; Robert Restaino, Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Libby Schaaf, Oakland, Calif.; Darrell Steinberg, Sacramento, Calif.; George Van Dusen, Skokie, Ill.; Victoria Woodards, Tacoma, Wash.