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Flex-Ability

ANCHORAGE – On August 22, 1974 less than two weeks after succession to the presidency, Gerald R. Ford did something that would change the face of American cities and towns and fundamentally re-shape the working relationship between the Federal and local governments. Gathered in the East Room of The White House with Members of Congress from both Houses and both parties he signed the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974.

The Act, he explained, authorized a “move from the narrow programs of the past in community development to programs that are very broad gauged” and the “consolidation” of programs that “give a real impetus to local decision making, local action, and local responsibility.”  He expressed full confidence that “mayors, the Governors, the other local officials will assume that decision making, that action, and that responsibility.” 

The President noted that the Act contained “some innovative efforts.”  Probably most notable was the Community Development Block Grant – or CDBG – program to provide much-needed Federal resources to local governments – states, metropolitan counties and cities and towns of all sizes. But CDBG wasn’t intended to be a blank check.  Instead the Act clearly specified that CDBG funds could be used for one of three and only three purposes - to principally benefit low- and moderate-income residents, to eliminate slums and blight or to meet urgent community development priorities. 

President Gerald R. Ford signs into law the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974

President Gerald R. Ford signs into law the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974

The rest was left to local communities.  Sure, the Congress and the President had  set the parameters for how CDBG could be used and HUD would enforce the rules and regulations CDBG grantees stayed within those parameters.  But deciding the what’s, where’s and how's would be left to the community. 

All of which has made CDBG one of the Federal government’s most flexible, adaptable and nimble programs.  And popular too.  Forty years later it’s clear that top-down funding, but from-the-ground-up decision- making is exactly the way the 1,200 communities CDBG serves like it.

Just ask a local official.  Like Julián Castro, recently-confirmed as HUD’s 16th Secretary and, before that, the three-term Mayor of America’s 7th largest city, San Antonio.  “CDBG is a program that actually matters where we live,” he wrote recently.  “It enjoys bi-partisan support primarily because it is inherently flexible, allowing states and local communities (and their residents) to decide for themselves how to invest in their local priorities.”

For proof turn to Alaska.  Anchorage, for example, decided to use CDBG to renovate  eight major parks across the city, from Fairview to the North Star to Government Hill,  Russian Jack,  Midtown to Mountain View  neighborhoods.  It’s helped fund construction of The Salvation Army’s McKinnell Family Shelter.  It helped the Museum of Natural History to acquire and adapt a 12,000-square –foot warehouse as its new home.  It helped fund the transformation of a Mountain View office building into a branch library.  Indeed, Anchorage’s CDBG investments in a diverse range of projects helped earn the Mountain View neighborhood’s revitalization the American Planning Association as 2014 HUD Secretary's Opportunity and Empowerment Award .

The other CDBG grantee in Alaska is the state Department of Commerce., providing CDBG funds to towns and villages across the state.  It’s supported construction of a family shelter for the Tundra Women’s Coalition in Bethel, a youth shelter in Fairbanks and a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Juneau.  It’s warded CDBG funds to help remote villages like Eek, f Nondalton, St. Mary’s  and Nelson Lagoon address waste treatment and water system issues, to help Selawik and Kotlik to build new boardwalks,   to help Scamman Bay, Dillingham and Valdez construct senior or community centers, to help improve fire safety in Aniak, White Mountain and Nikolaevsk  and to help Koyokuk, Coffman Cove, Aleknagik and Nulatos build health clinics..

And that’s just a small sampling of the many waysCDBG resources have been put to work by  Alaska communities, only a hint of how they use CDBG’s flexibility to meet what they – and not faraway Federal officials – deem to be their biggest challenges and opportunities..

Over the 40 years since its creation CDBG has delivered almost $100 million in Federal resources to scores of Alaska boroughs, cities and villages.  And CDBG has done exactly what, 40 years ago, President Ford said it would do. 

Happy birthday CDBG!  May you – and America’s communities – celebrate many more.

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