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Going Local

PORTLAND - On August 22, 1974 less than two weeks after his 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, look to Oregon. Rogue River, for example,  decided to use CDBG to revitalize its downtown.  The Dalles used CDBG to cut the waiting time for its three-county home repair program while Dallas used it to start a home repair program.  Newport and Astoria used CDBG funds to remodel senior centers, Talent to build a community center and Lakeview to build a new Head Start Center.  Gresham used CDBG to develop its Center for the Arts Plaza, Eugene used CDBG to fund a an affordable loan program for small businesses while Grants Pass launched a fund for microentrepreneurs.  Curry County is using CDBG to help rehabilitate or replace its manufactured housing stock.

Portland chose to use CDBG to finance a campaign that kept more than 900 apartments in downtown affordable and preserving the flow of hundreds of millions in Federal rent subsidies for decades to come.  Salem used CDBG to expand the Marion County food bank while Springfield transformed a former church into a farm-to-table food hub in downtown.  Hillsboro used CDBG to renovate Walnut Park, Albany built a new emergency shelter for young people and Cornelius installed signals to make it easier – and safer – for pedestrians to cross heavily-trafficked 14th Avenue. Drain, Canyonville, Yamhill and Cascade Locks used CDBG to upgrade for their waste treatment systems while Lane County, Powers, Independence, and Stanfield upgraded their water systems. And Redmond – one of the newest CDBG grantees in Oregon – hopes to use CDBG to acquire and prepare sites for affordable housing and to assist homebuyers with down payment and closing costs.

And that’s just a small a sampling of the many ways CDBG resources have been put to work by  Oregon 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 $1.3 billion in Federal resources to help scores of Oregon counties, cities and towns address.  It’s exactly what President Ford said CDBG would do way back when he signed the Housing and Community Development Act into law.  It’s always nice to see a government program keeps its promise.  Thanks to hard work of our partners and HUD, that’s exactly what CDBG is doing.

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