How to Start Thinking About What a Trump Presidency Means for Cities

November 22, 2016

There are more questions than answers for now, but let’s begin here.

Mike Segar/Reuters

We know that many of the president-elect’s big policy moves are likely to have a ripple effect in America’s cities, including immigration, health care, global trade, criminal justice, and gun control. But let’s take a look at something more nuts and bolts: the day-to-day business of municipal fiscal health, as it relates to the provision of basic services, infrastructure, and housing.

Few would guess that Donald Trump, despite being a New Yorker, is likely to be a champion of cities—for one thing, the rural vote that appears to have propelled him to office outmatched returns out of traditionally Democratic places such as Detroit or Philadelphia. Nor did Trump ever get down to policy specifics about cities; it’s not like he ever threw around terms such as Community Development Block Grants.

But Trump could actually end up helping cities function better. It was lost amid a lot of other headline-grabbing comments, but on the stump, Trump spoke intermittently but consistently about fixing “inner cities” and investing in infrastructure, and he did so again in his victory remarks in New York City at 3 a.m. Wednesday.

"We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, schools, hospitals," Trump said. "We will rebuild our infrastructure. Which will become second to none, and we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it."

There’s not yet detail regarding implementation, but Trump has proposed a $1 trillion, 10-year infrastructure plan that could include billions in tax credits to leverage private investment. There’s already talk of an infrastructure bill being one of the potentially marquee first-100-days legislation (though uncertainty about financing continues to raise questions and concerns, particularly with respect to the future of the tax-exempt municipal bond market under Trump).

Will it be enough, and what type of infrastructure would be funded? At one point during the campaign, we were asked to help fact-check a statement by Trump, that “Hillary … wants to spend hundreds of billions to resettle Middle Eastern refuges in the U.S.,” and that “for the amount of money Hillary Clinton would like to spend on refugees, we could rebuild every inner city in America.” This required some unpacking, since Clinton never proposed spending “hundreds of billions” on refugees, but we took a look at what it would take to “rebuild” struggling cities.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will cost $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring the nation’s infrastructure up to a high standard. Since 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, the urban infrastructure gap might be seen as roughly $3 trillion. Repairing the lead pipes just in Flint has been estimated to cost $1.5 billion, repairing pipes nationally could cost $275 billion, and the American Water Works Association estimates it will cost $1 trillion over the next 25 years just to maintain U.S. drinking water systems. It could cost close to $1 billion just to demolish abandoned structures in Detroit. New York’s Public Housing Authority says it faces a $16.5 billion unfunded capital shortfall for existing public housing stock. Facility needs for schools in the 50 largest U.S. cities is an estimated $85 billion. And so on.

A national urban policy never got discussed in the campaign, despite the party conventions being held in two struggling post-industrial cities, Cleveland and Philadelphia. An analysis of fiscal conditions in those two places confirmed what has become the new normal: cities working hard to fend off insolvency year after year, with little assistance, and sometimes hindrance, from the federal government.

The election of Trump certainly adds a new twist on the tortured history of the federal-city relationship. Ever since the Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” the thinking among policymakers and elected officials has been that cities are on their own. That is certainly true in terms of federal funding; cities rely on state funding and “own source” revenue such as via the property tax, to do things as fundamental as keeping the lights on. In The Metropolitan Revolution, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley argued that mayors and civic leaders must tackle economic challenges that “Washington won’t, or can’t, solve.”

President Obama was thought to be the first urban president in a long time, and promised an office dedicated to urban affairs, which never quite became prominent. The president’s FY 2017 Budget provides the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with $48.9 billion in gross discretionary funding and $11.3 billion in new mandatory spending over 10 years, primarily for housing. There was also technical assistance and targeted funding emerging from the HUD-EPA-DOT partnership—which includes initiatives such as Sustainable Communities and TIGER grants. Earlier this year, HUD also launched the Prosperity Playbook, looping in nonprofits to develop a community of practice on economic mobility.

A Trump presidency may very well wipe the slate clean, foregoing established institutions and funding mechanisms. Although he has not specifically proposed eliminating HUD, a notion he raised for the EPA and Education Department, he spoke of scaling back HUD’s influence on local communities, including the possibility of rescinding the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, and downsizing the federal government in general. A HUD secretary is notably absent from Politico’s rundown of possible cabinet picks. At a minimum one can imagine an outside-the-box leader in the mold of Jack Kemp, HUD secretary from 1989 to 1993.

One last item that doesn’t bode well for cities is climate change—not only the role of alternative energy innovation in urban economies, but plans that cities around the country are making to prepare for the inevitable impacts of global warming: the burgeoning field of resilience and adaptation. Girding for sea-level rise is yet another task that is going to cost a lot of money, and require innovation in climate infrastructure finance.

Trump has expressed doubts about climate change, and vowed to pull out of the Paris COP 21 agreement. The question now is whether a President Trump might one day acknowledge that these planetary changes are underway, and help cities prepare accordingly.

The morning after, that’s just another world-turned-upside-down question that may or may not be answered in the weeks and months ahead. The nation’s cities will watch and wait.

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