Tough Economy Hits Big Cities Where It Hurts

Major U.S. cities struggle as the economic crisis deepens. Many report an increase in homelessness and hunger, according to a new report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz is President of the mayoral group and explains the report's troubling indications.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, is a gift certificate from Planned Parenthood a common-sense solution to a real-world dilemma, or a crass and insensitive gesture? We'll talk to the leader of the organization about a gift-giving idea that has sparked controversy. But first, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released its 2008 Hunger and Homelessness Report last week. The findings confirmed what many suspected. As the economic crisis deepens, major cities across the U.S. are being hard hit. Manny Diaz is the mayor of Miami and the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and he joins us now to talk about the report as well as the other challenges facing the nation's cities. Mayor Diaz, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mayor MANNY DIAZ (Miami): Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, the Conference of Mayors released its 2008 Hunger and Homelessness Report. Are you seeing a - the report said that almost every city surveyed reported an increase in the number of people who need help with food. What's the reason for that?

Mayor DIAZ: There's several reasons given. Primarily poverty, unemployment, and affordable housing tend to be the top three that cut across the board in all cities.

MARTIN: That's not an issue that just arose over the course of this one year, is it?

Mayor DIAZ: No, that's correct. In fact, this is a report that the Conference of Mayors has been doing for 23 years because we obviously place a high priority on these two issues, and we've been tracking it for the past 23 years. What we've seen in this report, for example, is in 83 percent of cities, the reporting showed an increase in homelessness -about 12 percent in total on average, across-the-board increase per city. And a lot of what - apparently, what the report is indicating, that we're seeing at the local level, is that the foreclosure crisis has been particularly impacting on renters. You have landlords - owners of the buildings - who own rental apartments and are getting foreclosed, and then the families that are living there have no place to go.

And that's another point that the report makes, is that while the homelessness among individuals is actually holding steady, or in many cases actually decreasing, homelessness among families is actually increasing. It has increased in the past year, which is obviously - the issue is a sad one to begin with. But when you're talking about families now, you're talking about little children on the streets of our cities.

MARTIN: What's the chicken and what's the egg here, though? Is it that the job losses, which seem to have accelerated recently, is driving the foreclosure issue, or is the foreclosure issue driving these other factors?

Mayor DIAZ: Well, you know, it's almost the perfect storm. You have unemployment, you have foreclosures that are - with the rental units - and then, at the same time, you have the ability of governments to provide the services that are necessary to help the homeless population - well, certainly the new homeless population - get back into the mainstream and provide, if training is necessary, to provide new jobs. I mean, it's just all of the factors that are at play are all negative right now. We're fortunate because at the end of the day, a lot of this has to do with resources. For example, in Miami we're very fortunate because I still believe that we're the only jurisdiction in the country that actually taxes itself to help the homeless. And as a result, we raise millions of dollars a year, and we are able to continue with the kinds of services that we've been providing. And in fact, that's why you see that Miami is one of the cities, one of only four cities, that actually saw a decline from last year in homelessness.

MARTIN: If you would talk a little bit more, though, about the situation in South Florida. Because South Florida has been particularly hard hit, it seems to me, by the foreclosures. You know, there are a lot of reasons for that. Some people say the area was overbuilt. But could you just talk about how things are working in Miami? Are you seeing an increase in people who need food assistance, for example?

Mayor DIAZ: Well, we served 150,000 meals last year. We have an indoor meals program that has been very active and very successful. I know that Miami is often used as a poster child for the current housing crisis. The fact of the matter is, though, that the Herald just issued a report within the last - our local newspaper - within the last two weeks, indicating that we had actually, of the - I think it was 17,000 units or so that have come online in the last four or five years - 70 percent had already closed. So, Miami had a lot of build-out in the last four or five years because we had no build-out before. And so it all sort of, you know, the window opened and it all came together at one time.

But I think that there's no question that we will get over the situation that we're in now. And Miami has a - in addition to a fairly good domestic market - has a very strong international market. So, there's no question that those units will be absorbed, and we have in effect, in the process, created what we wanted to do and have wanted to for a long time, which is create an urban core. We did not have a single resident living in a central business district. I mean, we had no residential in our central business district until recently. And when you build as much as we've built here over the last few years, there's going to be a period of absorption, but it will happen. And as a result of all the new residential, we've seen a tremendous increase in commercial development and retail development, also, in downtown. So, when this is all said and done, we will get as close as we can to creating a real urban center and a real 24/7 city, which we never had.

MARTIN: And if you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with the mayor of Miami, Manny Diaz, about the challenges of the cities at this time of economic crisis. We're also speaking to him in the capacity of his role as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Mr. Mayor, when we last talked in August, you - I don't know if complained is the right word, but you said that one of the concerns that the mayors have is that there really doesn't seem to have been much of an urban strategy.

Mayor DIAZ: Correct.

MARTIN: In the last eight years.

Mayor DIAZ: Right.

MARTIN: President-elect Obama has proposed to dramatically increase federal infrastructure spending. How would this help the current situation? Many people wonder whether there are enough projects that can actually be implemented quickly enough...

Mayor DIAZ: True.

MARTIN: ...To actually get the spending moving enough to have enough of an impact.

Mayor DIAZ: Sure. You know, first of all, we're all extremely pleased about the statements that the president-elect made while he was running and since getting elected, with respect to his focus on the urban agenda. First of all, the fact that in June, here at our Conference of Mayors meeting, he announced that he was creating an office within the White House to deal with urban issues, was something that was music to our ears.

And then, with respect to the infrastructures you and I discussed the last time we spoke, this country had failed for many years, not just the last eight years, but really for many years, to invest in its infrastructure. And our infrastructure, quite frankly, is broken, and it is crumbling. And if you compare ours to the rest of the world, we spend very, very little in trying to build up our infrastructure. And the infrastructure's important not just because we want a pretty-looking bridge, but because it's part of our nerve system. It's what moves people, what moves goods, what moves this economy.

And so, we were talking back then in terms of the importance of investing in infrastructure to keep America competitive as we go forward. Now, it's taken on a new level of importance because now, it's very much a part of an economic recovery plan, very much a part of getting government to put money on the street - like many of us do at the local level, by the way, to create projects that will create jobs. We've lost over a million jobs since the beginning of this year, and the quickest way to get money out on the street, to get money circulating in the economy, to create the jobs that we need, to recover the jobs that we've lost, is through infrastructure projects. And the quickest conduit for that is local government because that's what we do on a daily basis.

MARTIN: I think that the macro question, though - is it, how quickly can these infrastructure projects translate into jobs?

Mayor DIAZ: Sure.

MARTIN: Because generally, if you're doing things in a way that most people consider to be a best practice, you know, it takes time to bid these projects out, it takes time to plan them.

Mayor DIAZ: It does. But you see, at the local level, we've been doing that already. When this all first started, we had projects that were ready to go and we were concerned that, you know, taking six or nine months to get shovel in the ground. And so many of us have already adopted expedited procedures to make sure that they can get, you know, out in 60, 90 days. What we've done at the Conference of Mayors is, we polled our cities. Because we didn't want to just walk into Washington and say, you know, give us money and we'll get projects done. Because we know the skepticism that exists in Washington and the very question that you're asking now.

So what we did is we polled our cities, and we said give us a list of your projects right now that are ready to go, that in '09, '010, you can start these projects, and you can be well on your way to completing these projects over the next two years. At this point, we've had 427 cities who have responded with a specific list of projects. Not just a general send me money, but a specific list of projects that details the cost of that project as well as the number of jobs to be created in that project. And out of 427 cities that we've received responses from up to now, there's about 12 - over 11,000 projects, about a $73 billion investment, and a creation of about 850,000 jobs. That's 850,000 jobs.

By the way, 427 cities is about a third of our total membership. So, we're still collecting the information from the cities that have not responded. And so, it's there. I mean, they're there. These projects are ready to go. It's just a function of having the funding, which at the local level for many of these projects we do not have. But if we got this injection of federal money, we could turn those around very quickly.

MARTIN: Finally, your name had been mentioned as one of the potential nominees as secretary of housing and urban development. President-elect Obama announced that the position will go to New York City Housing Commissioner Shaun Donovan. Are you disappointed?

Mr. DIAZ: No. As a matter of fact, I think he's putting together a great team and - I don't know Mr. Donovan personally, but I know from reading about what he's done and certainly working with Mayor Bloomberg, who's a good friend and active with the organization, that he's an excellent choice for that position.

MARTIN: What's most important in that position, from your perspective as a mayor?

Mr. DIAZ: Working with other mayors. I think that, you know, right now, times call for, I think, sort of re-looking at the role of an agency like that one to sit down with mayors to make it more effective. Many of the agencies in Washington have been there for a very long time, and are used to doing business in a certain way. And obviously, the times, more than ever, the times today call for a fresh look at how we do business and how we create a stronger partnership between the federal government and the local government.

MARTIN: How long do you think it'll be before we see a turnaround? I mean, how worried are you about how bad things are going to get?

Mr. DIAZ: Well, I am worried. I don't believe that we've hit bottom yet. I think, as the president-elect has said, I think we're going to - things are going to get worse before they get better. But I think that, notwithstanding that, I think we need to start doing the kinds of things that we're doing. This investment, these ready-to-go jobs and infrastructure projects with cities, I think, is a clear way. Again, just on these numbers, if we can generate 850,000 jobs over the next two years, those are major steps, major steps in the right direction. And we will because America is resilient, America is strong. And if we rekindle our confidence, faith in ourselves and make the right kinds of investments, we'll come out of this.

MARTIN: Manny Diaz is mayor of Miami. He's also the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He was kind enough to join us by phone from his office. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for speaking with us, and happy holidays to you.

Mr. DIAZ: Absolutely. Thank you. Happy holidays to you as well.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.