Tag Archives: Block Grants

Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed*

One of our favorite marketing sloganspie-1over the years has been, “We help you get your piece of the grant pie.” Well, Congress is cooking up the mother of all grant pies with the “infrastructure” component of President Obama’s stimulus package. If you’re wondering how your agency can get a bite of this tasty treat, you’re not alone. Peter Sanders and Christopher Conkey of the Wall Street Journal report in Mayors Struggle to Get Piece of Stimulus that even Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been unable to figure out how to get his fork in. I think Mayor Villaraigosa actually knows perfectly well how to step up to feed at the federal trough but was just being coy for a reporter not steeped in the ways of government largesse. After all, Mayor Villaraigosa was Speaker of the California House of Representatives and knows more than most about this topic. Essentially, the Mayor is unhappy that President Obama has said to no to earmarks, so he can’t just hang his favorite projects on the bill like Christmas ornaments. Instead, he and his minions will have to work for the money—no wonder he’s unhappy. For those readers not in the know, here is how the stimulus funds are likely to find their way to you . . .

Despite all the breathless reporting on the stimulus package, no story I’ve seen explains how thunder in Washington, DC will make it rain Pennies from Heaven** in Los Angeles. The answer depends on how the feds decide to get the money on the street, which will be in the bill that eventually emerges from Congress. Here are the four basic possibilities, assuming no earmarks:

1. Congress can fund programs, new or old, to be administered at the federal level through some sort of competitive RFP processes. In this case, any eligible entity can pitch any eligible project by submitting a proposal, which is more or less the way most discretionary grant dollars are distributed.

2. Congress could use the existing Economic Development Administration (EDA) Public Works and Economic Development Program to fund infrastructure and facility projects. Unlike any other federal agency, however, EDA uses a byzantine system of regional Economic Development Representatives (EDRs), which have to agree to pass your project up the food chain by inviting a “pre-application.” To get this invitation to the big dance, the project generally has to be listed in the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), which replaced the earlier Overall Economic Development Plan (OEDP) process. We’ve threaded our way through this particular maze many times, resulting in lots of funded EDA grants; although it’s daunting at first, it is eminently doable.

3. Congress can block grant funds to the states, who can then use existing systems to distribute the funds. For example, highway transit funds could be sent to states’ transportation departments, which could then fund projects ranked on the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) (see here for the California version of this). It’s not quite that simple because some regional TIPs feed into statewide TIPs, but the main point is that the project has to be on the relevant TIP(s) to get federal transportation dollars.

4. Congress can block grant funds to the states and/or large cities and counties, who can then run RFP processes to dole out the money, more or less in the way that Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds are distributed. For that matter, Congress could simple dump money into the CDBG pipeline, since every eligible jurisdiction already has a Consolidated Plan with dozens of prioritized projects they lack money to fund. I don’t think this will happen, because it is too simple, and where’s the fun in that?

Confused yet? Actually, all of this is fairly straight forward in the sense that the feds have to use one or more of these methods to get the money on the street. Your question involves the the best way to get in position for to catch the funds that are about to be pitched for infrastructure and facility projects. To do so, follow these easy steps:

1. Finalize the project design for any infrastructure-style project you have simmering and get as many of the permits and approvals as you can in the time you have. For example, having all environmental approvals and a building permit is ideal. Remember that federal funding typically triggers National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and, for those of you in California, California Environmental Policy Act (CEQA) requirements.

2. If you are a nonprofit, school district or college, see if you can entice the local city or county to be the applicant and fiscal agent for the project.

3. Develop submittal plans for all of the above options. The agencies that move fastest with the most “cooked” projects are likely to be funded.

After you’ve baked your project, lie down in a comfortable place with a good book*** while waiting for the legislation to emerge. Since we are not lobbyists, we never look at pending legislation early-bird-color-j-pegand instead wait for the sausage to be extruded. Until the stimulus bill is actually signed into law, no one can say exactly how an agency can apply. But it will be the Oklahoma Land Rush as soon as the ink is dry, so, “Start Your Engines!” As always, like Maimonides, Seliger + Associates is ready to offer a guiding hand to help you get your piece of the stimulus bill pie.

EDIT: See additional posts on this topic: Looking at the Stimulus Bill from a Grant Writer’s Perspective and Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass.


* My apologies to Maimonides for lifting this line.

** This is one of my favorite, if somewhat disturbing, movies from the early 1980s—another time of recession. The movie harkens back to the Depression, making it great viewing for the current economic meltdown. To paraphrase another song from the ’30s, “Brother, can you spare a trillion.”

*** I’ve been reading Love in the Time of Cholera. Nothing like Gabriel García Márquez to get me in the mood for the magical realism of the federal grant making process.

Reformers come and go, but HUD abides

Sudhir Venkatesh*, a Columbia University Sociologist, wrote “To Fight Poverty, Tear Down HUD,” and in it he suggests imploding HUD (like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project) to increase regional collaboration. Having just finished a HUD proposal, it made me think about HUD’s evolution and previous attempts to reform the agency. Venkatesh gives a brief overview of HUD’s emergence in 1965 and its mission to carry on the Progressive Era’s notion that slums are the root of urban problems, rather than the inhabitants—see here for detail. Still, Venkatesh argues that HUD had outlived its usefulness and needs to be eliminated or reconstructed.

He uses the HOPE VI Program as a supportive example. Jake briefly covered Hope VI in “On Gangs and Proposals,” and the program more or less pays housing authorities to tear down public housing and replace projects with “mixed-income” developments, resulting in outcomes like those described in “American Murder Mystery.” Regardless of whether Venkatesh thinks HOPE VI and other competitive** HUD programs can be used to dismantle the agency, he’s wrong about the potential for reform because of the Godzilla of HUD, The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program.

CDBG agglomerates dozens of competitive HUD programs as they existed in the early 1970s into a single grant, awarded without competition to eligible cities and counties. Being designated as “CDBG-eligible” is the local jurisdictional equivalent of being elected Prom Queen. CDBG jurisdictions can spend the money however they want, provided that the use can somehow be justified under one of the eight statutory CDBG requirements—meaning that just about anything can be made CDBG eligible through the jurisdiction’s “Five-Year Comprehensive Plan” and associated “Annual Action Plans.”***

Thus, local officials often use CDBG funds as “walking around money” for favored nonprofits in the name of “developing viable communities,” which is the stated purpose of CDBG. The witch’s brew of local politicians, other people’s money, hand-in-the-till nonprofits and a plethora of interest groups involved in CDBG means that there is zero chance of HUD going away. I’ve watched the “let’s get rid of HUD” movement for years, starting in 1980 with the Reagan Revolution**** (he gave up), Jack Kemp’s appointment as HUD Secretary by Bush 41 (failed at achieving promised reforms), and most recently, HUD being on Newt Gingrich’s hit list in 1994 (HUD survived to fight another day, while Newtie ended up bloviating on Fox News and writing historical novels of questionable literary merit).

Not only has HUD lived on, with the help of its legion of CDBG-engorged supporters, but it actually continues to grow, throwing off new programs like the small monsters sloughing off the Big Guy in my favorite recent Big Animal movie, Cloverfield. We’ve come full circle: the CDBG program was created to unify a bunch of categorical programs to give local officials the ability to address their pressing local needs, and now the CDBG program, along with a couple dozen assorted competitive programs, hangs on the HUD funding tree like Christmas ornaments.

While Venkatesh can speculate on dismantling HUD or using the block grant approach “to provide incentives for municipal and county governments to collaborate,” HUD is a permanent fixture of the grant landscape because it was created to solve some of the problem he identifies, and the result of a supersized CDBG program is likely to be even more walking around money and self-interested entities at the CDBG trough, not more collaboration between cities and counties. To paraphrase, “Reformers Rail, but HUD Abides.”


* Venkatesh wrote a terrific book on life on the streets in Chicago’s Southside, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, which mirrors my experience growing up and later working as a community organizing intern in the North Minneapolis ghetto. Would-be grant writers should read it.

** Grant writing tip: government agencies mostly make two kinds of grants, formula (the grantee does nothing to get them money other than open its mouth like Jabba the Hut) and competitive (applicants submit proposals that are evaluated against one another). One will occasionally see a hybrid version, a competitive process in which the grant amount is based on a formula of some sort, but most grant writers won’t encounter this chimera.

*** I’ve read dozens of Comprehensive Plans from all around the country over the years, and, despite supposedly being individually written to reflect the jurisdiction’s unique problems, they are basically all the same—a rehash of census data, oddball stats on homeless issues and the like, and a pastiche of platitudes designed to get HUD to okay the plan and uncork CDBG funds. In other words, the local CDBG planning process is at best a cookbook exercise.

**** See Stockman’s The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, which is a great political read and covers the first failed attempt to disassemble HUD. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men complements it.