The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative: Model Cities by Another Name, or Truly Transformative?

Volume 26 No. 2


Peter W. Salsich Jr. is the McDonnell Professor of Justice at Saint Louis University School of Law, St. Louis, Missouri.

The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative seeks to apply the lessons of the past, in particular those learned from the HOPE VI program, to transform public and assisted housing and the neighborhoods that surround them.

For 75 years, public housing has provided the deepest subsidy for and, since the 1950s, has served effectively the lowest income quadrant of society—households that truly cannot compete effectively for housing in the private market. With poverty levels increasing sharply as a result of the Great Recession and with discretionary funds being cut in response to deficit concerns, preservation of existing public housing has become a critical issue. All of the 1.1 million public housing units in existence (down from 1.4 million two decades ago) are at least 45 years old, and most are in need of substantial repairs and renovation.

For more than 60 years, governmental authorities have undertaken major efforts to transform distressed urban neighborhoods, as well as high-rise public housing ghettos. A variety of federal programs have been tried—Urban Renewal, Model Cities, Enterprise Zones, Empowerment Zones, and HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere). A distressing side effect of these efforts has been the displacement of countless numbers of low-income households. The latest effort, the Obama Administration’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, seeks to apply the lessons of the past, in particular those learned from the HOPE VI program, to transform the neighborhoods that surround distressed public and assisted housing developments.

Three successive administrations (two Democratic and one Republican) have sought to move the federal government away from ownership and management of housing, arguing that these responsibilities can be handled better by the private sector. For 15 years Congress has resisted efforts to give up on the public housing concept, while acknowledging through the HOPE VI program that the original urban high-rise model fostered isolation rather than integration and helped trigger serious declines in the quality of urban life.

HOPE VI has been the principal public housing transformation strategy for the past 20 years. This program made $6.1 billion available to 132 public housing authorities through 254 separate grants made between 1992 and 2010 for developments using a mixed-financing, mixed-income model. In so doing, it “shift[ed] the emphasis of housing policy from output (units built and managed) to outcomes—housing quality, safety, resident outcomes, economic opportunity, and the vitality of the surrounding neighborhood.” Choice Neighborhoods: History and HOPE, Evidence Matters 1 (Winter 2011), available at, citing Mindy Turbov & Valerie Piper, HOPE VI and Mixed Finance Redevelopments: A Catalyst for Neighborhood Renewal v, 8 (Brookings Institution 2005).

But a continuing study of the effect of HOPE VI on residents of five public housing developments receiving HOPE VI funds concluded that, while residents “improved the quality of their housing, . . . [and] felt significantly safer and less fearful of crime,” they did not experience significant improvement in employment prospects or self-sufficiency. HUD officials believe the research findings “speak volumes about the most intractable barriers to fighting the consequences of concentrated poverty.” Choice Neighborhoods, supra, at 2, citing Susan J. Popkin, Diane K. Levy & Larry Buron, Has HOPE VI Transformed Residents’ Lives? New Evidence from the HOPE VI Panel Study, 24 Housing Studies 486 (2009).

Responding to those findings, the Obama Administration created an extension of the HOPE VI program called the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. Rather than focusing exclusively on distressed public housing projects, the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative expands the HOPE VI concept by applying it to distressed neighborhoods in which public or assisted housing developments are located. The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative originally was designed to replace HOPE VI, but in HUD’s 2010 appropriation Congress retained HOPE VI, provided $200 million in funding for it, and allocated $65 million of that amount to the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-117, 123 Stat. 3034 (2009); Donna White, Press Release, HUD No. 11-032, HUD Awards First Choice Neighborhood Grants (Mar. 18, 2011), available at A competitive grant program, the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative has two stages: planning grants (the first 17 planning grants, totaling $4 million, were awarded in March 2011 to cities in 14 states) and implementation grants (the first implementation grants, totaling over $122 million, were awarded in August 2011 to five cities—Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Seattle). Donna White, Press Release, HUD No. 11-181, HUD Awards First-Ever Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grants (Aug. 31, 2011), available at

The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative was established to respond to the limitations of the HOPE VI program, including displacement from public housing and lack of employment and self-sufficiency gains for HOPE VI residents.

Choice Neighborhoods incorporates insights gained from HOPE VI and recognizes the importance of reaching beyond a public housing redevelopment strategy to one of neighborhood transformation. It expands eligibility to other assisted housing and it requires leveraging resources for neighborhood revitalization beyond the public or assisted housing stock. The initiative explicitly requires an approach that considers employment access, education quality, public safety, health, and recreation. To do this, Choice Neighborhoods enlists the institutions of the affected communities, including neighborhood residents, in all phases of planning and implementation.

Choice Neighborhoods: History and HOPE, supra.

In requesting funding for the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, HUD described three “core goals” for the program:

  1. Housing: Transform distressed public and assisted housing into energy-efficient, mixed-income housing that is physically and financially viable over the long-term;
  2. People: Support positive outcomes for families that live in the target development(s) and the surrounding neighborhood, particularly for residents’ health, safety, employment, mobility, and education; and
  3. Neighborhood: Transform neighborhoods of poverty into viable, mixed-income neighborhoods with access to well-functioning services, high-quality public schools and education programs, high-quality early learning programs and services, public assets, public transportation, and improved access to jobs.

HUD, Public and Indian Housing: Choice Neighborhoods, FY 2012 Summary Statement, available at

The five Implementation Grants support complex public-private partnership developments that go well beyond the traditional focus on redeveloping housing. For example, in New Orleans, the Housing Authority is joining forces with the city of New Orleans; two for-profit real estate development companies, HRI Properties (HRI), New Orleans, Louisiana, and McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc. (MBS), St. Louis, Missouri; the Recovery School District; the New Orleans Police Department; the Tulane Community Health Clinic; and several nonprofit agencies engaged in workforce development, community organizing, and early childhood education, to transform the historic Iberville/Tremé neighborhood. That neighborhood includes the 70-year-old Iberville Public Housing project. The $30.5 million Choice Neighborhoods grant for the New Orleans redevelopment effort pales in comparison to the $1.15 billion in private and public commitments from the Housing Authority’s partners, but it serves an important leveraging function. Richard Baron, CEO of MBS, a partner in both the New Orleans and San Francisco developments, stresses the significance of the leveraging effect that the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grants will have. Telephone interview with Richard Baron, Chief Executive Officer, McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc. (Sept. 14, 2011). The federal funds will provide seed money and gap financing for the public housing phase of the developments, he noted.

Under the Iberville/Tremé Transformation Plan, 24 of the 74 low-rise brick buildings in Iberville will be renovated and the other 50 will be demolished. A total of 913 new and rehabilitated units will replace the original 821 obsolete and distressed units. Of these new and rehabilitated units, 304 will be public housing available to current Iberville residents. The balance will be allocated evenly to low-income housing tax credit-eligible and market rate families. The plan also calls for development of an additional 1,518 rental units, one-third of which will be public housing or project-based Section 8 units. Fifteen sites have been identified for units that will be sold to homeowners.

In addition to housing, the development team “will implement a results-oriented case management model to help adults achieve self-sufficiency, place-based job training and readiness programming and to help children access targeted education/training and literacy strategy.” The New Orleans Police Department “will collaborate to implement a sustainable violence prevention program,” which will include “organized neighborhood watches, youth mentoring programs and a renter/homeowners association.” Choice Neighborhood Project Summaries FY 2010/2011, available at http://portal

Other grant cities are pursuing similarly comprehensive and complex neighborhood transformative efforts. Boston’s Quincy Corridor Transformation Plan received $20.5 million. The plan is a $92 million effort to replace a blighted, scattered site containing a 129-unit HUD-assisted housing development, with 49 new and 80 renovated units. Existing vacant and foreclosed properties will be redeveloped to provide new affordable housing, housing for elderly residents, and workforce housing. The education portion of the plan emphasizes early learning quality and accessibility. It will be carried out in conjunction with Boston’s Circle of Promise Initiative, which is “a comprehensive community integration plan to transform public education.” The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative coordinates the comprehensive community effort. It has received a Promise Neighborhoods Planning Grant from the Department of Education to develop a plan for integrating educational reform efforts with transportation and economic development.

MBS and the San Francisco Housing Authority received $30.5 million as seed money for a $245 million Eastern Bayview/Alice Griffith Comprehensive Transformation Plan. That plan targets the Alice Griffith public housing development and its surrounding neighborhood in southeastern San Francisco. A total of 1,126 units will be developed, including replacements for all 246 units of the two-story townhouses in Alice Griffith. Job readiness, training, and placement programs will be offered to Alice Griffith residents. Health-care access will be improved through expansion of the Southeast Health Center and the development of a senior center and aging campus. Educational programs, including principal leadership, teacher effectiveness, data-driven instructional improvements, and wraparound services provided by family support nonprofits will be added. An early learning center will be added on the Alice Griffith site.

Chicago’s $30.5 million grant features a partnership among Preservation of Affordable Housing, Inc. (POAH), a nonprofit development company; the city of Chicago; the Jane Adams Hull House; the University of Chicago; LISC Chicago; and others to redevelop Grove Parc Plaza. Grove Parc Plaza is a blighted 504-unit Section 8 development. The surrounding Woodlawn neighborhood on the city’s south side will also be redeveloped. The University of Chicago will open its Laboratory High School to neighboring residents and will extend the range of its security operations to the neighborhood. The Chicago Police Department will carry out several major anti-gang initiatives that have been used successfully in other similar urban environments. Hull House will coordinate social services and provide case management to residents of both Grove Parc and the surrounding neighborhood. An education collaborative, the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community (WCPC), is assisting the Chicago School District and individual school principals in providing teacher training and accountability programs, extending learning environments, and fostering the involvement of parents in the education of their children.

The Housing Authority of the city of Seattle received $10.27 million to support a 15-year, $63 million plan for the transformation of the Yesler neighborhood. The Choice Neighborhoods grant will support the first phase—the demolition of 40 public housing units at Yesler Terrace, a 561-unit public housing project. The grant also will support the construction of 97 replacement units, as well as 141 new market rate and affordable housing units. The overall plan calls for demolition of the entire Yesler Terrace project and the development of up to 6,000 mixed-income units along with “retail, educational facilities, health clinics, urban agriculture, parks, new transportation infrastructure and other community amenities in the neighborhood.” In addition to the Housing Authority, partners in the Yesler neighborhood plan include the city of Seattle, King County, Seattle University, Seattle Public Schools, Historic Seattle, Neighborcare Health, Neighborhood House, the Workforce Development Council, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and Perry Rose Development, a Denver-based company that specializes in green urban infill development.

At first glance, the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative resembles the Model Cities program of the 1960s. Part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the Model Cities program initially was created by Congress as a demonstration of the possibilities of coordinated federal action to revitalize urban ghettos. The original legislation was titled the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966, Pub. L. No. 89-754, 80 Stat. 1255, but after the urban riots of 1967 and 1968, the program title was changed to Model Cities. John H. Strange, Citizen Participation in Community Action and Model Cities Programs, 32 Pub. Admin. Rev. 655, 656 (Oct. 1972) (the word “Demonstration” was said to have “unsavory connotations in the White House”). Rather than continue the traditional practice of a series of uncoordinated “categorical” grants to cities for various types of physical development and social services programs, the Model Cities program provided federal funds to enable recipient cities to prepare local plans for targeted areas (“model neighborhoods”). The cities were to use the grants to develop “project proposals, including budget summaries, for such functional areas as housing, social services, education, health, manpower training and employment, transportation, recreation, and economic development.” A total of 150 cities received one-year planning grants. Dep’t of Housing and Urban Development, The Model Cities Program: Ten Model Cities: A Comparative Analysis of Second Round Planning Years 11 (1973).

Consistent with the philosophy of the War on Poverty, the Model Cities program required participating cities to include citizens and their representatives in the local planning process. Congress, however, gave local governments rather than private, nonprofit community action agencies “ultimate responsibility” for local programs; “participation of the poor (or neighborhood residents) was to be limited rather than maximized, and governmental and business participation was to be guaranteed.” Strange, The Impact of Citizen Participation, supra, at 459.

But cities were new to the idea of citizen participation and its corollary, advocacy planning, a “[t]erm coined by the American planner Paul Davidoff in 1965, meaning architectural design and planning for powerless, inarticulate inner-city groups.” Oxford Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, In a concentrated period during the 1960s, the idea that nonprofessional residents of low-income neighborhoods could plan and run local neighborhood development and social services programs manifested itself in several settings: (1) the citizen participation requirement in the federal Community Action Program (CAP) of the Kennedy-Johnson War on Poverty (1964), see Daniel P. Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (1969); (2) the advocacy planning movement (1965), which became incorporated into (3) the Model Cities program (1966); (4) the advent of the Community Development Corporation (CDC) in 1967 with the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation of Brooklyn, New York (this CDC celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2007 with an oral history project), Sady, Coming Up in Bed Stuy (July 29, 2009), available at The Brooklyn Historical Society Blog,; and (5) the tenant management movement, which originated in response to the 1969 public housing rent strikes. See Richard D. Baron, Community Organizations: Antidote for Neighborhood Succession and Focus for Neighborhood Improvement, 21 St. Louis U. L.J. 634 (1978).

The early days of the citizen participation/advocacy planning movements often were chaotic. For example, the author’s first client in private practice was the newly created St. Louis Model City Agency. The city designated as its Model Neighborhood Area a large swath of the near north side of St. Louis containing five neighborhoods: Carr Square Village, Jeff-Vander-Lou, Montgomery Blair, Murphy Park, and Pruitt-Igoe. Two of the neighborhoods were public housing developments—Carr Square and Pruitt-Igoe—and the other three contained subsidized housing developments. With the Model Cities funds, the city was to prepare a comprehensive plan for the Model Neighborhood Area.

A young architect was hired to engage neighborhood residents in a weekend charette through which a resident-based plan would be developed. By Sunday afternoon, the residents and their advisors had prepared a plan addressing the neighborhoods’ child care, employment, health care, housing, and social services needs. But, when city and federal officials analyzed the plan, they determined that the implementation price tag was higher than the entire annual appropriation for the national Model Cities program. The plan would have to be cut back severely. The author sensed immediately that the residents were going to be disappointed and that the Model Cities program was not going to have a lasting effect

[B]ecause the Federal programs providing the money for local planning and development efforts were top-down designed programs, and the officials in charge of these programs, as well as local elected officials, had little experience in collaborative decision-making with low-income residents, the CAP agencies and the [M]odel [C]ities program soon foundered on unrealistic expectations and insufficient resources.

Peter W. Salsich Jr., Grassroots Consensus Building and Collaborative Planning, 3 Wash. U. J.L. & Pol’y 709, 713 (2000). The Model Cities program lasted only eight years (1966–1974). It was absorbed by the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. Housing & Community Development Act of 1974, tit. I, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 5301.

But the idea of citizen participation endured, although the CDBG citizen participation requirements “only allow one-way communication of information to the public; any response of approval or disapproval by the community need not impact the final outcome of the decision.” Audrey G. MacFarlane, When Inclusion Leads to Exclusion: The Uncharted Terrain of Community Participation in Economic Development, 66 Brook. L. Rev. 861, 881 n.77 (2001). In the decades since the War on Poverty and the Model Cities program, citizens and local officials became used to the idea that a forum would be made available for citizens to communicate ideas about, and respond to, local development initiatives.

Although the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative resembles the Model Cities program, it differs from it in several important ways. Choice Neighborhoods is a competitive grant program at both the planning and implementation phases. Model Cities was a competitive planning grant program, but implementation funds had to be cobbled together from categorical grant programs. The Model Cities Program: Ten Model Cities, supra.

In the first year of Choice Neighborhoods awards, 17 successful applicants received planning grants ranging from $167,000 (Jackson, Tennessee, Housing Authority) to $250,000 (13 of the 17 grantees). Five other grantees received implementation awards of $10 million (Seattle), $20 million (Boston), and $30 million (Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco), respectively. Local housing authorities received the bulk of the planning grants (13 of 17), but grants also went to the Community Action Project of Tulsa, Inc., Jubilee Baltimore, Inc., Mt. Vernon Manor, Inc. in Philadelphia, and the Northwest Louisiana Council of Governments. In announcing the grants, HUD stated that it was “focused on directing resources to address three core goals—housing, people and neighborhoods.” The funds are to be used to build capacity “to undertake a successful neighborhood transformation,” and to “enable [grantees to] create a comprehensive ‘Transformation Plan,’ or road map, to transforming distressed public and/or assisted housing within a distressed community.” In addition to housing, grantees are to be committed to “leveraging investments to create high-quality public schools, outstanding education and early learning programs, public assets, public transportation, and improved access to jobs and well-functioning services.” The recipients of the first group of Implementation Grants “have already undertaken the comprehensive local planning process” and have established partnerships to which millions of dollars have been committed. Donna White, Press Release, HUD No. 11-032, HUD Awards First Choice Neighborhood Grants.

The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative is designed to build on the strengths of HOPE VI—mixed income, mixed use development, private investment—and its weaknesses—displacement and an inability to affect surrounding neighborhoods. The Model Cities program, by contrast, was part of the groundswell of the mid-sixties Great Society. As one of the first serious efforts to coordinate federal urban revitalization programs, it had very little precedent from which to draw ideas or approaches.

As the St. Louis experience suggests, Model Cities in many ways was starting from scratch. Citizen participation still was a new idea—the Community Action Program was only two years old and was quite controversial. For example, before the author’s brief stint in private practice and experience with Model Cities, the author worked for the Missouri state agency responsible for implementing the Community Action Program in Missouri. The author’s territory was the five-county “boot heel” of the state. When he returned to his office in Jefferson City, Missouri, the day after his first meeting in the boot heel—an organizational meeting of a not-for-profit community action agency that began at 6 p.m. and lasted until after 2 a.m.—he was called to the governor’s office to explain what he was doing in the boot heel. The governor, the late Warren Hearnes, a native of that part of the state, told the author that some of his friends had called inquiring about the reason for the meeting. They expressed particular concern that state and federal officials had organized the meeting and were planning to provide federal funds to a private, not-for-profit corporation whose leaders included low-income residents, all without input from local public officials.

Citizen participation in the 1960s was a new idea. Neighborhood leaders and citizen organizers had little in the way of national advocates and backup research support in those days. Today, citizen participation is an accepted part of federal, state, and local relationships, although sometimes honored only in the breach. A host of national advocates and research centers provide national advocacy and research support for local planning and citizen participation efforts. Examples are the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), the National Housing Law Project (NHLP), the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), the Enterprise Foundation, and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).

The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative has the makings of a successful program if it can survive the vicissitudes of Washington political and legislative life. The HOPE VI/Choice Neighborhoods appropriation for fiscal year 2011 was cut in half to $100 million, and a House Appropriations Subcommittee eliminated the Obama Administration’s $250 million request for Choice Neighborhoods for fiscal year 2012. See Jason Jordan, APA Policy News, HUD Sustainability Grants Survive in Spending Compromise (April 14, 2011), available at

As of this writing, supporters were attempting to have the request restored.

For a more in-depth analysis of the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, see Peter W. Salsich Jr., Does America Need Public Housing?, 19 Geo. Mason L. Rev.  (forthcoming 2012).


Choice Neighborhoods incorporates insights gained from HOPE VI and is starting slowly, which is both good and bad—good because ideas and approaches can be tailored to unique aspects of target communities and can be tested and evaluated before “going national”; bad because the need for transformative activity across the country is so great and the resources to support such activity are so thin at the present time.

The keys to its success are likely to be its ability to garner greater public support while avoiding the urban renewal legacy of displacement and gentrification that has hurt the HOPE VI program and its predecessors. Can the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative truly transform distressed communities without replacing the people who live in them? If the answer is yes, the program will deserve the transformative label HUD has placed on it. If the answer is no, the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative is simply Model Cities by another name.


Memorandum for Authors

(Last Updated July 2015 - PDF)


Frequently Asked Questions By Prospective Authors


Frequently Asked Questions By Prospective Editors


Reprint Permission Policies

The Section's Executive Committee approved these updated policies in November 2011.