Commentary: Invest stimulus aid in Albany's neglected neighborhoods

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The Albany neighborhoods identified in your recent series “A City Divided” — Arbor Hill, North Albany, Sheridan Hollow, South End, West Hill and West End — may be stressed, but we are also among the most active in the city. Many of our community organizations and active citizens are currently deeply involved in Albany’s work on how to spend the estimated $80 million in federal stimulus funding coming to the city.

We have one overriding consensus — that a significant portion of the available stimulus funding should be targeted to low-income minority neighborhoods that were redlined during the 1930s and ‘40s and still suffer the effects today. We share this concern with local housing providers who have already proposed that $20 million be set aside for new housing, homeownership and support for existing homeowners in the affected neighborhoods.

However, members of these communities have also been clear that housing alone will not reverse the decline of formerly redlined neighborhoods. Among the concerns:

 The not-for-profits that form the front line for services in our neighborhoods are underfunded and over-regulated. Many have small budgets and staff, are volunteer-driven and citizen-led, and yet must scramble for funding as if they were multi-million-dollar corporations with staff dedicated to grant writing and fundraising. Even more frustrating, funding options, both governmental and philanthropic, do not look to address the broad community needs that demand collaboration to truly effect change.

 We are environmental justice communities, with long-term air and soil pollution and pressing concerns around health and access to care, particularly among people of color. Yet we are virtually ignored by our major health care providers, something that the pandemic has clearly revealed for all to see.

Our youth are underserved and are often left to their own devices. We have a few exceptional after-school programs, but their capacity is limited. Our local schools are stressed with a disproportionate low-income student body. Older youth have few opportunities and limited or no “safe space” within the neighborhood to meet up, have structured activities and interact with adults.

Infrastructure in our neighborhoods is crumbling, and the few viable large buildings that could be used as community spaces or sites for programs are not finding the necessary funding for rehab or sustainable programming.

Employment programs are fragmented and poorly coordinated. We need programs that find people actual living-wage jobs and make sure they stay employed. We need to revive our commercial areas and build businesses that bring wealth into the neighborhoods rather than send it out.

Our neighborhoods are on the wrong side of the “digital divide,” with much less access to broadband. As more information and feedback is given online, our communities have much less opportunity to participate in the civic discourse. Lack of internet access also affects our children, as the pandemic has clearly shown.

Equity and common sense tell us that Albany’s best and most-needed investment is in these low-income communities. While we recognize that this range of issues cannot be “solved” with $80 million, significant targeted funding is a critical starting point. As our mayor has said repeatedly, without vibrant, livable neighborhoods, all the investment in new housing and amenities downtown will come to naught.

Our communities have the capacity and drive to plan for our own futures and advocate for our own needs. However, a comprehensive plan integrating the roles of the city, the county, the state and many other entities will be crucial. We do not need an even-handed process that seems destined to spread the wealth throughout the city. We believe a focused, strategic and equitable approach directing this funding to those communities in greatest need will have the most significant and transformational impact elevating our entire city.

Tom McPheeters, Rev. Alphonse Meadows and Laura Travison are co-moderators of the South End Community Collaborative. This commentary was co-signed by 28 community leaders. A full list can be found at bit.ly/TU-Letter2Ed.