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Advocates: Brown’s Budget Plan Hampers Healthy Communities

No matter the outcome of Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) proposal to abolish redevelopment agencies, many observers predict the landscape in California will change drastically for the 400-plus redevelopment agencies around the state.

Passed in 1945 to help provide affordable housing for post-war California, the state’s redevelopment laws allow cities and counties to use taxes differently and borrow money differently in areas defined as blighted or underused.

Brown’s plan to dissolve redevelopment agencies would contribute about $5 billion toward the governor’s effort to close a $26 billion deficit in the state’s budget.

Some city and county officials have threatened lawsuits if Brown and the Legislature put an end to six decades of using redevelopment tools to shape communities. But even if they win a reprieve from the budgetary axe, redevelopment agencies face significant changes in the way they do business in California. Critics — who argue that redevelopment agencies in California have less oversight and more power than similar bodies in most other states — say that even if redevelopment agencies survive proposed budget cuts, policymakers and legislators will work to rein them in and provide more scrutiny. Advocates acknowledge that change is in the wind.

The changes come with direct ramifications for health care in those areas where hospitals, clinics and other health care providers are involved in redevelopment projects. But the changes also come with wider — if indirect — repercussions for the health of Californians, according to redevelopment advocates.

“Good health for individuals is tied to healthy planning of communities,” said Robert Ogilvie, director of the Planning for Healthy Places program at Public Health Law & Policy.

“Planning for healthy places includes making sure there is access to health care, but it also includes providing for physical activities, for access to good food, for safe environments.”

Ogilvie and others say that losing redevelopment financing tools could undermine local government’s ability to plan for healthy communities.

“It could be very problematic for health and climate change issues to lose those tools. They both need these types of financing mechanisms to be effective. And if you look at health in a broad view, climate change is very much part of the health outlook,” Ogilvie added.

Looking at Health From Broader Perspective

Government officials at every level — city, county, regional and state — are grappling with the potential fallout if redevelopment agencies are eliminated. Hundreds of projects worth billions of dollars — including some public and private health care facilities — could be shifted into a state of limbo.

Several municipal redevelopment agencies, including those in Merced, Sacramento and San Jose, have worked closely with public health officials to improve the likelihood that residents have the best opportunity to live healthy lives. Lisa Bates, deputy executive director of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, said sometimes that effort involves direct health care investment in the form of hospitals, clinics or other provider facilities. But it also involves health from a broader perspective, Bates said.

“Redevelopment intentionally invests in disadvantaged communities that have struggled with years of disinvestments and neglect. By geographically focusing public investments to bring new private dollars, redevelopment provides our poorest and most impacted neighborhoods with improved health outcomes through access to affordable housing, healthy foods through location of grocery stores, economic and social relationships with investments in businesses and community centers, safe streets, enhanced transit choices, and new public parks and community centers that could not otherwise be provided,” Bates said.

“No child or family will do well in school or at work if they are not safely housed or able to live in a safe community with access to life-enhancing resources,” Bates added.

Redevelopment Tools

Redevelopment agencies have two distinct financing mechanisms unavailable to other government entities: a dedicated source of revenue from increased taxes within the redevelopment area and the ability to issue infrastructure bonds without a public vote.

“Those two tools have made it possible for communities all over the state to make public health improvements for years and years,” Ogilvie said, listing a series of projects that helped local grocers add refrigeration units to bring fresh produce to neighborhoods where fast-food outlets were the main dietary option. He also cited pedestrian and bicycle corridors, parks and mass transit — “all projects that contribute to healthy communities,” Ogilvie said.

“Getting a lot of those projects done without redevelopment financing tools would have required a two-thirds vote of the electorate, which is hard enough to achieve in good economic times. In our current situation, it would be impossible,” Ogilvie said.

Compromise Proposal  

Last week, the state Legislature came one vote shy of endorsing Gov. Brown’s proposal to abolish redevelopment agencies. This week, John Shirey, executive director of the California Redevelopment Association proposed a compromise that he said will help the state meet its budget goals while retaining and reforming redevelopment agencies.

Shirey’s proposal includes a dedicated revenue stream from the state and increased state oversight of redevelopment agencies, something Ogilvie said has been lacking.

“Shirey’s compromise is a move in the right direction with enhanced oversight,” Ogilvie said. “Right now there’s no real oversight of redevelopment agencies and that has created part of the problem. But I think they’ve done much more good than harm, and we need to do all we can to keep those tools available to build healthy communities.”

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