President Donald Trump came into office this year with a long list of campaign promises, including a vow to cut domestic spending in order to increase defense sending.
And his first proposed budget, released in March, did just that, recommending a cut of $6 billion out of the $46 billion budget to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Among the programs to go, the bureaucratic-sounding Community Development Block Grants, for a saving of $3 billion.
But one community's "pork" is another community's lifeblood.
Community Development Block grants, called CDBGs, have provided $6.6 million to the City of Beaverton over the past decade to acquire and renovate buildings, and to provide down-payment assistance to low-income families.
In Tigard, the block grants have meant $4 million over the past several decades, with the money going to the Tigard Senior Center, sidewalks and streetlights, city parks and more.
For Tualatin, it's meant $1.6 million over the years for, among others, the Juanita Pohl Center.
Thanks to the block grants in Beaverton, low-income homeowners get to "age in place," according to Alan Trunnell, CDBG coordinator for the city. "Our housing rehabilitation program prioritizes critical and emergency repairs and aging-in-place adaptions on owner-occupied homes," he said. The program also regulates apartments and mobile home parks, "which we are very happy to include, as these parks provide the low-cost, non-subsidized affordable housing in the area," Trunnell said.
The federal money also is leveraged; that is, matched by local or private funds. Trunnell said 92 percent of all CDBG-funded programs and services rely on other funding and volunteers. For that reason, in 2015, every $1 of block grant money coming from HUD received a match of $4.07 from the local community.
Suburbs benefit from block grants
Denny Doyle, mayor of Beaverton, ticks of a list of programs that have benefitted from the federal block grant program.
"CDBG funds help support early education for kids, provide essential health care services, rehab homes for seniors and provide struggling families rental and down payment assistance," said Doyle, who regularly travels to Washington, D.C., to advocate for Beaverton. "We are watching this issue very closely and will do all we can to explain to the administration the success stories we've had for decades through this program. We're very happy that our federal representatives completely understand how vital CDBG is to our community."
Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood, too, have taken advantage of CDBGs.
The Tigard and Tualatin city councils adopted proclamations recently to recognize Community Development Week and urge the federal government to increase funding for the block grant program.
Tualatin City Councilor Frank Bubenik sits on the policy advisory board for Washington County that helps select where CDBGs should be allocated. He spoke in defense of the program at a March 27 council meeting.
"On the Community Development Block Grant side, these are programs, these are the things that ... fund infrastructure improvements, the social services and safety net programs," Bubenik said.
He added, "Community Development Block Grant money is critical to the county. ... Hopefully, the administration will think twice about cutting these programs."
Lou Ogden, Tualatin's mayor and a prominent local Republican, agreed with Bubenik, calling the grants a "very important bit of federal money."
"Understand that we all pay our federal income taxes to those in Washington, and we're just looking to try to get bits of it, bits and pieces, to come back here and serve folks who really need it," Ogden said.
Tualatin has received close to $1.6 million in CDBG funding over the years, according to city officials. However, that figure is somewhat misleading, because it does not scale those dollars to their 2017 equivalent. For instance, a $499,125 award in 1981 to help build what is now called the Juanita Pohl Center, formerly the Tualatin-Durham Senior Center, is the equivalent of well over $1 million today.
"We're looking at old, old dollars in many cases," said Paul Hennon, Tualatin's community development manager and one of its longest-serving city employees.
Hennon said that when the county decides where to allocate its block grants, part of its criteria is figuring out where that money will go the farthest.
"Typically, the successful projects have a match," he said.
Hennon said the city has received block grant funding for its senior center, maintenance and renovation work in its parks, and even improvements to a section of Sagert Street. Additions to the Juanita Pohl Center and a fire sprinkler system in the facility were paid for in part by those federal dollars.
"The big thing is they're focused on low- and moderate income and improving living environments for people who are low- and moderate-income," Hennon said.
He concluded, "It helps the city get work done to help its citizens that it otherwise could not afford."
Tigard, which is nearly twice the size of neighboring Tualatin by population, has received close to $4 million in its history in CDBGs, according to the proclamation its City Council adopted.
Those block grants have gone toward a plethora of projects: the Tigard Senior Center, sidewalks and streetlights, enhanced accessibility at city parks, and more. The senior center and Bonita Park are among the public features in Tigard constructed with community development block grants.
In Sherwood, Community Development Block Grants have been an integral part of upgrading efforts at the Sherwood Senior Center. Since 1979, the center has received six grants totaling $1.05 million, according to Kristen Switzer, community services director for the city of Sherwood.
Four of those grants since 1999 have been for senior center upgrades. The most recent upgrade was in 2013 when new flooring, bathrooms and a fireplace were added to the center with $152,512 of the estimated $251,835 price tag paid for through Community Development Block Grants.
Meanwhile, between 1979 and 1995, Sherwood received 11 block grant awards for street, sidewalks and lighting projects totaling $1.1 million, most in the early days of the program. Also, a total of 53 CDBG grants or loans have been given to Sherwood households for homeowner rehabilitation for homes.
Urban revitalization and the 1970s
The block grants came about because of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, at a time when many American cities were crumbling and residents throughout the nation were fleeing cities to relocate to suburbs or rural areas.
The funds flow from the Bureau of Housing and Urban Development to states, counties or cities, and can be used to repair infrastructure, such as roads and sewers; to build public facilities, such as community centers; to rehabilitate housing; and for homeowner assistance, to name a few areas.
"Communities across Northwest Oregon rely on Community Development Block Grants to make sure their residents have stable housing options, safe neighborhoods for their children and functional infrastructure," said Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, whose Oregon headquarters is in Beaverton.
The grants have helped Washington County cities to renovate senior centers, like Tualatin's Juanita Pohl Center.
"Low-income renters have gained access to home ownership and maintenance assistance programs in Beaverton," Bonamici said. "Cornelius is schedule to break ground on a new library this summer. The grants provide local investments in affordable housing, anti-poverty programs and community revitalization efforts."
The Oregon Democrat said she will fight to restore funding to the block grants, as the president's first budget comes to Congress. "Cutting this vital lifeline is shortsighted and would devastate local city budgets and renege on federal commitments," she said.
The block grants go directly to cities that are large enough to administer them; those so-called entitlement cities include Portland, Beaverton and 11 others throughout Oregon, according to Wendy Johnson, intergovernmental relations associate for the League of Oregon Cities. By 2018, that list also will include the City of Hillsboro.
The State of Oregon, through an organization known as Business Oregon, receives and administers the grants for smaller towns around the state. Washington County is the CDBG recipient for the smaller communities here. That's because Washington County is an entitlement county, and administers its own programs, Johnson said.
Elimination of the block grants would be felt statewide. Congressman Greg Walton recently received a letter from the cities of Elgin, Haines, Irrigon, Monument and Umatilla, outlining the impact they, too, would feel under the president's proposed rollback of HUD programs.
School districts benefit from the block grants, too, in the form of Head Start, the federally funded program that promotes school readiness of children younger than 5 from low-income families through education, health, social and other services.
In the 2014-15 school year, there were 57,366 children under age 5 living in poverty in Oregon, and 49 percent of them benefitted from Head Start.
Beaverton School District also used block grant funding to open a school-based health center on the Beaverton High School campus in 2015. The health center is open to all BSD community members ages 4 to 20, and is flexible with accommodating patients without insurance.
The health center provides physical exams, immunizations, urgent care, specialist referrals, dental care, mental health therapy and substance abuse screenings, and is a LGBTQ+ safe zone.
"School-based health centers are crucial," said Kasi Woidyla, public relations officer for Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, which operates Beaverton High's health center. "It provides a place of confidentiality, where students can come, they can talk to people, they can receive necessary immunizations that they otherwise may not have received, and they receive the care regardless of whether or not their parents have insurance. And it's very easy to get to, since it's right there on school grounds."
Woidyla said that when kids don't have access to school-based health centers, it can be a catalyst for an unfortunate "domino effect."
"When your kids can't get the health care they need and become sick, that means that parents have to take time off work to take care of the kids," she said. "And the cycle continues of poverty, no healthcare and illness."
A program to make a home affordable for a low-income family is laudable. But the City of Beaverton, through a consortium known as Proud Ground, has managed to benefit both current and future homeowners, thanks to the block grants.
Alan Trunnell, the CDBG coordinator for Beaverton, explains it like this:
A starter home sells for, say, $320,000. A low-income family — we'll call them the Smiths — can raise $260,000. That leaves a gap of $60,000.
Using the federal block grants, the Proud Ground program essentially buys $60,000 worth of the land under the house, eliminating the gap. The Smiths now can afford the house and move in.
But Proud Ground bought the land on a 99-year lease. When the Smiths move out, the property value doesn't suddenly increase. When the next low-income family comes along, that same house remains more affordable. As it will for the next family, and the next family.
It's true that the Smiths didn't receive the full equity they would have — the difference between what they bought and sold their house for, minus closing costs — had the land not been held in trust. On the other hand, the program likely allowed them to be homeowners in the first place, rather than renters.
Land trusts like this are popular on the East Coast and gained traction in the state of Washington around the turn of the century. The idea is just now catching on in Oregon, Trunnell said.
The proposed cuts to block grants and the HUD were part of President Trump's so-called "skinny budget" in March — that is, a rough outline of the budget without a lot of details.
The president's first full budget proposal is expected to be delivered to Congress later this spring.