Congressional City Conference: Learning from Leaders

Although we had spent a day in the nation’s capital, this was our first day of the conference, and we were a bit unsure of what would follow. But we were greeted by friendly Colonial figures, putting us in a light mood.

NLC Opening General Session

The National League of Cities Conference (NLC) exists to educate and inform the public about the work of cities, but it also serves as an in-house informational resource for the cities across the country. And no gathering is larger than the Congressional City Conference in Washington, DC, where hundreds of local officials gather to learn, educate, and cooperate. A theme of this conference is the Biden Administration’s “American Rescue Plan” (ARP) and how cities can use it to make their localities better.

We were greeted by numerous officials from some of the largest cities in the United States. Mayor Victoria Woodards of Takoma, Washington, as NLC’s first vice president, set the stage by emphasizing the importance of local officials–which, as interns for the City of Huntsville, we were aware of!

The introductory speakers, many from the Executive Branch, described how hard the White House had worked to ensure ARP funds made it to the cities directly. Julia Chavez Rodriguez, for example, went even further, noting that rescue acts under the previous administration didn’t go as far as ARP, but with the distribution of ARP funds, more cities would be benefitting.

Gene Sperling, Senior Advisor to the President, also extolled the virtues of ARP, noting that unemployment had declined to 3.8%, but he took a more assertive tone with some in the media and to states giving tax breaks–“which were only possible because of the funds coming in from ARP”.

The conference did a good job of making one and half-hour time slots go quickly–different panels were moved quickly in and out to provide diversity in topics, intro and outro music greeted each speaker, and the sessions were punchy and direct, sometimes reverting to soundbites.

The caliber of speakers, however, was top notch. One brief panel, for example, included Andy Berke (US Department of Commerce; former Mayor of Chattanooga), Carlton Waterhouse (Deputy Administrator of the EPA), Samantha Silverberg (Deputy of Infrastructure Implementation with the White House), and Victoria Woodards (Mayor of Tacoma, WA and VP of NLC). In fact, we enjoyed being in one of the world’s largest selfies with Mayor Woodards!

Homelessness in Focus: Local Government Roles in Intervention and Prevention

Jessica Cuevas

Some of the ambassadors chose to attend a session led by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Senior Advisor Richard Cho, Case Manager Jeff Olivet, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness CEO Nan Roman. They spoke on homelessness and the roles of local government following the opening session.

Homelessness has always been an issue, but the amount of homeless people has increased greatly following COVID. Cities such as Boston that had little to no homelessness cases are now seeing alarming rates of them and are currently grappling with this issue.

The funding in a city’s budget to address homelessness is limited and some are struggling with providing them the help and resources needed. Many organizations, programs, and funds have been created during the pandemic and this may help. The intention of newly established programs are designed to help fill in the gap of the missing funds, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).

These resources have allowed the community to work together to provide aid and shelters. Also, many governments enacted temporary moratoria on evictions, and governments may also have alleviated pressure through child tax credits.

All three of these insightful speakers came to agree that the key element in reducing homelessness is housing. And once housing is available, cities, according to the speakers, should focus on providing the newly-housed with the resources they need, such as health care, to aid them in being able to sustain their new home.

This has been implemented in cities of which have been or bought motels and hotels to remove the homeless of the streets. By offering them a safe space, these cities have seen a reduction in the number of homeless. Of course, this costs a lot of money, which goes back to resources…

Closing the Digital Divide

Morgan Robertson

Professor Yawn and I chose to attend Closing the Digital Divide: Leveraging Federal Resources for Broadband, Digital Equity. The topic was heavily based on the importance of providing broadband for the underserved and underdeveloped.

The panel included five experts who are making great strides within this area: Julia Pulidindi, Kirk Burgee, Van Johnson, Christopher Mitchell, and Olivia Wein.

The first to speak was Julia Pulidindi from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Pulidindi presented an overview of the Infrastructure Act that allowed $65 billion for broadband funding intended to be administered in four different avenues: Bead, Digital Equity, Tribal, and the Middle Mile.

The Chief of Staff for The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Kirk Burgee, split his speech into two parts: digital mapping and data flow. The update on the progress of broadband and how it has developed was very insightful for my understanding of the topic. The data flow is split into groups, for instance, the FCC receives data from providers, tribal data, and local data which is beneficial because of the specificity involved.

Christopher Mitchell is a Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and much like his company’s name suggests, his primary goal is for everyone to have reliable and affordable internet. Mitchell spoke on the importance of the use of partnerships particularly for small cities.

The last panelist to speak was Olivia Wein, a Staff Attorney with National Consumer Law Center (NCLC).

Wein emphasized on the importance of broadband, why it is a necessity, and went into more detail regarding the Eligibility Criteria for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). There are a few of different benefits that households can receive through ACP, but they are limited to one of each kind. One ACP service, one ACP connected device and one lifeline benefit.

The topic got pretty detailed, but the key message was clear: in a rapidly advancing technological society, the gap between the digital haves and digital have nots grows, and it grows fast. Implementing programs, especially in rural areas for those who don’t have, is key to reducing inequality in the nation.

President Joe Biden

Erin Juarez

One speaker during the day wasn’t like other speakers. When President Biden was scheduled to speak, things changed considerably. Everyone was ordered out of the Marquis Salon, the room was swept, and then all the attendees lined up to go through security, allowing them to re-enter the room.

The conference hall was electric with excitement as the crowd was anxious to see President Biden. He entered the room to a standing ovation and a loud chorus of cheering as he took the podium to address the audience.

 He touched on current ongoing issues, such as the rising cost of gasoline, as well as some of his goals for the United States including a $35-per-month health-care plan for all Americans, and reducing–or even eliminating–taxes for those who make less than $400,000 a year. The President indicated he had reduced the budget by 360 billion, while also overseeing a dramatic reduction in the unemployment rate.

President Biden left on inspirational notes, calling on the city leaders to assist him, and specifically noting that the young are key to his administration’s–and the country’s–success.

It was an absolute honor to have “met” and been within a few feet of President Biden!

Moving Forward with Affordable Housing

Morgan Robertson

Later in the evening, I attended Moving Forward with Affordable Housing: Strategies for Developing and Preservation. The session was led by three panelist who all had slightly different approaches, but all great ideas on ways to combat the issue.

Tony Pickett, the CEO of Grounded Solutions Network, introduced a couple of different ways to help homeowners maintain equity in their property. The first of which was a Community Land Trust. This nonprofit organization is governed by community residents and public representatives to help maintain equity opportunities and community assets. The main idea was centered around offering more mobility opportunities when buying and reselling houses.

Jason Jordan is the Policy & Public Affairs Director for the American Planning Association for Transport, (APA). Jordan presented many different examples on zoning reform that included feedback from the public. With very new statistics from March 2022, Jordan advised to take the newness into account, but also to understand how citizens and the public view zoning reforms.

Amy King is the founder and CEO of Pallet which provides rapid response shelter villages to reduce the number of homeless people on the streets. King’s company acts as a pathway for homeless people to establish a physical address, and after three to six months helps relocate them to permeant housing. This solution has made a major impact along the west coast, but as King stressed, it still has a lot more work to do.

The issue of the lack of affordable housing is not one that has an easy answer.  However the work being done by these individuals and their companies and agencies are great strides towards helping resolve this issue.

Pi Pizzeria

Once the last session of the day was finalized, the ambassadors took to the streets of Washington D.C. to a nearby restaurant, Pi Pizzeria. Upon entering we noticed it was a nice, cute little restaurant.

We began with an order of Garlic Knots with marinara sauce as an appetizer and had their delicious Delmar Deep Dish and their thin crust Pi’Napple Pizza, basically Hawaiian with jalapenos.

Today was also their 14th birthday and Pi Day (3.14)!

As we walked back to our hotel, we went through a mini shopping mall area and wandered into Dolcezza Gelato and Coffee for Dessert.

They offered many kinds of Gelato and Sorbet flavors that we had difficulty choosing. After sampling a few flavors, we collectively ordered their Coffee and Cookies, Dark Chocolate, Champagne Mango, Pineapple Honey Lime Sorbet, and Lemon Ricotta Cardamom.

We enjoyed our delightful and flavorful gelato and sorbets that satisfied our sweet tooth as we made our way back to our hotel.