Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Revitalizing our rural communities

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently announced the recipients for the $28 million Rural Innovation Fund (RIF), a new initiative to help rural communities tackle their unique housing and poverty challenges. The RIF addresses the need for a holistic approach to tackling concentrated housing distress and community poverty by helping communities use federal dollars to meet multiple needs.

Ed Jennings Jr., a regional administrator for HUD in Atlanta said:
Despite our agency's name, HUD's work has reached across almost every neighborhood in our country - including rural neighborhoods. As President Obama has made clear, America will win the future by out-innovating our global competitors - and unlocking that innovation depends on revitalizing our rural communities.
The Notice of Funding Availability on HUD's website, which sets out the criteria for receiving funds, states that projects with a substantial positive impact on the housing needs and community poverty would be awarded funding. Additionally, HUD looked for projects that would demonstrate a measurable improvement in the quality of life within the project area.

Project applicants are required to use an online rural mapping tool, called the Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America. The Atlas allows applicants, and other interested communities, to more accurately measure housing distress and poverty by pulling data from several federal sources (including employment data from BLS and agricultural statistics from the USDA) and overlaying it with the first release of county-level data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. This joins socioeconomic indicators with Economic Research Service county data, giving communities a better view of the opportunities and challenges in their county.

The RIF received over 300 applications from 48 states, with over half of the applicants being tribes or tribal affiliates. One grant, awarded to the Chippewa Cree Tribe in Box Elder, Montana (population 713), will fund construction of a water storage and delivery system that will provide potable water for a justice center, health clinic, and about 200 homes. In Lake County, California (population 64,756), Habitat for Humanity will hire local workers to repair and renovate 30 homes for low-income homeowners as part of its Jobs-for-Home Project.

Now that RIF has selected which rural communities will receive funds, the question is: what is the criteria for monitoring use of funds to ensure the projects achieve the intended outcomes? How will HUD follow-up with award recipients? According to the Notice of Funding Availability, the selection committee awarded projects additional points for a rating factor called "Achieving Results and Program Evaluation." Projects that defined program outcomes and performance indicators received more points and were subsequently more likely to receive funding (awards were based purely on which projects received the most points overall).

Although RIF encouraged projects to develop metrics for measuring project success through point allocations, I am not convinced these metrics are enough. Defining success metrics was not required to receive funding; it is possible that projects were approved that have no measures in place to ensure the funds are actually helping revitalize rural communities.

After projects receive the funding, however, RIF does require they follow a success measurement model. The model includes both quantifiable measures (e.g. number of new businesses created) and benefits (e.g. percentage change in earnings as result of new employment opportunities). This appears to be the only method of ensuring the projects have a beneficial impact on the communities where these projects are located. Even with this required model, it is not clear from the application or other available materials who will be auditing the projects to ensure the model is being used and at what frequency.


JWHS said...
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JWHS said...

I'd like to know how they plan to inform people of these programs. My experience/thought is that most rural poor who qualify for programs like these don't know that they exist or how to apply.

JT said...

I share your concern as to whether the project is enough. What's interesting is that they use quantifiable values to indicate success measures, but some measures of success might be more qualitative in nature. Additionally, some measures of success can't be quantified according to the categories.

If the numbers don't measure up to the success metrics, would they just pull the plugs on the project? In theory, this seems like a start in the right direction, but in practice, there might still be some logistics required to channel the good intentions more effectively.