In the summer of 2018, communities in Albany saw a significant increase in violence, including gang activity and ongoing neighborhood disputes, an occurrence that repeated itself in summer 2019. Community leaders understood this increase to be an expression of residents’ ongoing feelings of hopelessness and lack of economic opportunity, and a result of decades of government underinvestment in communities of color. This understanding served as the catalyst for the Equity Agenda Legislation, led by Dr. Dorcey Applyrs, which looks at upstream factors and centers social determinants of health with an emphasis on the built environment.
The goal of the Equity Agenda is to address the implications of systemic racism and its impact on concentrated neighborhoods throughout Albany. It does this by analyzing public works projects and quality of life issues across the city and using this data to inform decision making.
The Equity Agenda framework requires the Department of General Service to rank the quality of streets in each ward. If the data shows a disproportionate number of low-ranked streets in one neighborhood, that community receives a larger portion of the funding for repairs. Prior to the implementation of this legislation, resources for street repair were distributed equally across 15 wards. Consequently, the overall quality of streets located in marginalized and under-resourced wards never improved. Now, with new data the city is able to prioritize investing in previously neglected wards.
Another piece of the legislation is the Campaign for Equity, which holds the city accountable for providing training and professional development for city workers on issues of diversity, inclusion, and race. It also institutionalizes the role of the Albany’s Human Rights Commission for making annual equity policy recommendations to the administration; holding annual forums on race, equity and inclusion; creating a comprehensive communication strategy to reach communities in need of jobs; and workforce training opportunities.
Equity is also a core component of budgeting and funding. This legislation has language that prioritizes marginalized neighborhoods, specifically Black, Latinx and indigenous communities, for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding. Because CDBG is federal money, there are already regulations tied to the money outlining eligible activities and specifying: “not less than 70 percent of CDBG funds must be used for activities that benefit low- and moderate-income persons.” The city then added an additional emphasis to use an equity lens and prioritize communities impacted by system racism.
The language from the City’s legislation reads
“While the Office of Housing and Urban Development requires that all community block grant funding be allocated to high needs communities, the Albany Community Development Agency will take special care to ensure that CDBG funds be prioritized for organizations that serve communities historically disadvantaged due to racism and discrimination, including African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.”
The last major component of the Equity Agenda is violence prevention. The city will convene a task force each fall to come up with new strategies to achieve public safety through widespread community engagement. Additionally, the city will transfer a yet to be determined amount of funding from the Albany Police Department budget into a participatory budgeting fund. The community engagement process will allow the community to decide which community-based organizations receive funding to work towards public safety. City departments are in the midst of operationalizing this legislation.
How people feel in their built environment impacts the way they interact with their community. It also impacts how people feel about where they live; a place that is rundown speaks volumes about how the government thinks about the people and communities that live there. This includes everything from funding for sidewalks and street repaving, or street lighting and trash receptacles. As stewards of city funds, it is the responsibility of elected officials to bring life to the built environment in communities across the whole city.
Community members were encouraged to provide input via the following activities:
- Public meetings were convened by the Common Council
- Ongoing meetings were organized with members of the Human Rights Commission
- City Auditor Dr. Dorcey Applyrs emailed the legislation to community partners/leaders for review and input, and these leaders were invited to also participate in public meetings
- Once the legislation passed, and even now, Dr. Applyrs continues to present the legislation to community groups and neighborhood associations
- Social media and the media were used to help promote the legislation and encourage community participation. A press conference was held the day the legislation was being introduced.
One of the major considerations in developing this legislation was what exactly to use as a core focus. Many people put forward ideas on policing, environmental work, and other important issues with significant impacts on equity within Albany. issue areas that forced the question of what isn’t about equity. However, attempts to expand the breadth of the legislation would have had significant consequences for passage. Ultimately, community members and council leaders seized this moment as an opportunity to get the legislation passed while having a core focus on equity in health and the built environment. This outcome creates a solid building block to address additional issues from an equity perspective in the future.
The legislation challenged long-standing internalized racism perpetuated by local government. Dr. Applyrs pushed for council members, other elected officials, and constituents to move past their discomfort around the words “systemic racism” in the legislation. She believed it was imperative to use that language, and that in order to move forward they had to acknowledge the entrenched and institutionalized racism within government.
Others pushed back against the idea of equity for just one group, which forced conversations about which communities have what privileges and from a historical perspective, as well as why and how they have benefited from the systems.
Those leading the push for the legislation stood up strongly in support of reimagining how the community looks at issues, and the importance of thinking holistically about what investments set people and communities up for success.
“This is a contact sport; you cannot be timid with issues of race and equity. You have to put yourself out there and get in “good trouble” when the moment calls.” – Dr. Dorcey Applyrs
- Preemption: Municipalities have wide ranging budget authority. However, beyond federal grants, states do regulate municipal taxing authority that impacts their ability to generate local revenue.
- Local government dynamics: The council members were varied in their level of support and on the specifics of the legislation. Ultimately, a majority voted yes and for those who voted no, the primary reason was that they preferred additional time for discussion.
- Policy impact: Focusing on the built environment is a long-term and important approach to addressing neighborhood inequities. Moving forward, enforcement mechanisms and oversight are critical to ensuring that money is successfully reallocated in a way that reflects community priorities.
This case study was last updated: January 19, 2021.