Voters across the nation stream to the polls today in our annual democratic exercise, weighing the promises from candidates in how best to address some of our pressing challenges.
At the local level, I doubt there is much variance among the top concerns shared by residents and families: taxes, jobs, crime, and blight. As a former local official in a Rust Belt city in upstate New York, I heard this same list of top concerns repeated over and over, regardless of income-levels, race, age, or party affiliation. Though I now serve as Associate Director of National Technical Assistance with Community Progress, the tune hasn’t changed at all. Local officials from communities that couldn’t be any more different, rattle off these same four issues as top concerns: taxes, jobs, crime, blight.
Frank Alexander, co-founder of Community Progress and one of my esteemed work colleagues, explains there are three key factors needed to implement effective approaches to combating vacancy and abandonment: Leadership, Problem Diagnosis, and Solution Design. No doubt the same factors are needed to effectively address the other top local concerns, but Alexander is quick to point out that the most important of these is Leadership. I couldn’t agree more.
The negative impacts of vacancy and abandonment are profound and costly, and there is no quick or easy fix. There are plenty of tools and reforms a community can implement, and many communities are doing a heroic job in the face of endemic and systemic blight. However, the path to eliminating systemic blight won’t come from cautious incrementalism, or a few tweaks around the edges. In order to truly rebuild healthier, more vibrant, and equitable neighborhoods in which blight no longer exists, communities must be ready and willing to carry out bold systemic reform. And that takes leadership.
Leadership is needed to guide diagnosis and drive smart reforms of our broken tax enforcement and foreclosure systems that can contribute to blight.
Leadership is needed to properly evaluate and strategically reform our broken code enforcement practices that currently fail to prevent irresponsible owners from compromising the economic and social health of entire neighborhoods.
Leadership is needed to disassemble the silos in government, demand collaboration, and drive innovative reforms to data collection and information management systems that yield a more efficient and cost-effective delivery of services.
Leadership is needed to convincingly articulate the tremendous costs of doing nothing in the face of vacancy and blight, and for building consensus and support around major short-term investments that promise huge, long-term returns.
Leadership is needed to restore trust and integrity in government, and to foster genuine and diverse partnerships across the public, private and civic sectors, united around a shared positive vision for the community’s future.
I’ve seen places where smart solutions to vacancy and blight have been implemented by passionate and thoughtful public servants, only to see them go unused or rolled back by guardians of the status quo because there is no strong and effective leadership.
Of these three—leadership, problem diagnosis, and solution design—leadership is the most important. No question.
So don’t stay on the sideline, today. Take the time to participate in our annual democratic exercise, make your voices heard, and may this election day offer up a whole new cast of leaders who are ready to rethink what’s possible, and inspire us all, together, to chase it down.