Michael Nutter, a fellow at the Institute of Politics, tackled everything from the Great Recession to youth violence as mayor of his native Philadelphia from 2008 to 2016. Listen to this Wiener Conference Call where Mayor Nutter speaks with Dan Harsha, associate director for communications and government relations at the Ash Center, about urban innovation, public leadership, and more.
Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Mari Megias: Good day everyone. I am Mari Megias, assistant director of communications for Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard Kennedy School, and I’m delighted to welcome you to this on-the-record Wiener Conference Call. Today, we are joined by Michael Nutter, who served as the mayor of Philadelphia from 2008 to 2018. He is a fellow this year at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. During his terms as mayor, he tackled the effects of the Great Recession, including having the city’s credit rating upgrading to Level A by all major credit agencies, the first time this has happened since the 1970s. He is a past president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and is on the Homeland Security Advisory Council. He is also the David N. Dinkins Professor of Professional Practice and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He will be interviewed by Dan Harsha, the associate director of communications and government relations at the Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Formerly, Dan worked on Capitol Hill as communications director for the Democratic staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He was also a senior legislative assistant to Congressman Howard Berman, a Democrat from California. We’re so please that Dan and Michael have joined us today to talk about partnerships in progress in Philadelphia and beyond. Dan and Michael.
Dan Harsha: Well, thank you so much for having us and thank you for everyone who’s joined the call. It’s a real pleasure to be here. Again, my name is Dan Harsha. I work at the Kennedy School Ash Center and I’m joined by Michael Nutter, who is a fellow jointly appointed by the Ash Center and the Institute of Politics and the Taubman Center. He’s been a fellow with us for this academic year. We’ve been pleased to have him on campus for a number of visits where he’s run a very successful and highly attended study group with students from throughout the University. Mayor Nutter, thank you.
Michael Nutter: Dan, thank you. Mari, thank you very, very much. Certainly a big shout out to Margaret and Betsy who are here with us this afternoon. And, to all of you, Harvard University alumni.
Q: What do you think the biggest challenges facing America’s cities are today?
Michael Nutter: Wonderful question. There are many and I think at the heart and soul of the challenges are, mayors and cities dealing with issues of income and quality. In many, many cities, certainly including Philadelphia, the entrenched poverty that we find in many of our cities and the continued disconnect between cities and the federal government. Many of us are very, very worried about where cities sit, often at odds with the federal government, federal agencies, the current administration, current occupant of the White House. So, in many instances cities are virtually on their own.
I was at the Forum last night with Mayor Gillum and Mayor Keisha Bottoms from Atlanta and they were expressing some of the same concern. A stark contrast to those of us who were in office with the previous administration, President Obama’s administration.
So, cities in many instances are to some extent almost on their own. But, out of that, working much more closely together. Whether through the US Conference of Mayors, National League of Cities, those organizations bringing more and more mayors together. Then, internationally mayors are working together on a variety of issues and challenges. We’re not the only ones who are struggling to some extent with national government that are kind of stuck, or in gridlock, or in chaos.
Q: Now, you mentioned this declining interest in cities by the federal government. This has been going on for some time. You look at sort of the levels of direct federal aid for cities and they’ve been declining for close to 30 years. That’s most manifest in things like HUD support for public housing, the cease of DOT grants for capital expenditures on public transportation projects and so forth. As a mayor, as a two-term mayor in the fifth largest city in the country, how did you cope with this decline in direct federal support for cities?
Michael Nutter: Well, you become that much more creative. If the Great Recessions taught us anything, and oh man, that was either, depending on your perspective, the high point of exposing the at times lack of relationship with the federal government or the low point, you become that much more creative. Public-private partnerships become that much more important. You are absolutely asking people to literally do more with less. At times, you also take that moment to rethink some of the things that you have been doing or historically been doing, or legacy programs and projects, and really put an additional eyeball on it and say, “You know we don’t need to do this anymore.” Or, “We don’t do it that well, someone else should do it.”
You get a lot of citizen engagement. The world has obviously changed over the last 30 years. You can say something and literally three seconds later, pretty much the rest of the world knows it. That was not the case way back when. So, the speed of interaction, the ability to communicate across the country, to have teleconferences with mayors from across the country and around the world, sharing information all the time.
Then, there is that other part of the job, which is just making tough decisions. Unlike the federal government, we really don’t have printing presses in the basement. We don’t make the money. There’s really only one source, citizens and businesses. So, you have to get used to saying “no” in this job, which is not going to make you very, very popular. But, I’ve often said, if you have this deep-seated need to be loved and admired, this is probably not the business for you. You should go work in a pet shop.
Dan Harsha: Now, I want to talk to you a little bit about the lack of the printing presses in the basement. Right? I mean, because . . .
Michael Nutter: I was looking for it for a long time.
Dan Harsha: You never did find them?
Michael Nutter: No.
Dan Harsha: I mean, but to fund the operations of the city, you've got to rely on revenue.
Michael Nutter: Yeah.
Dan Harsha: On the revenue derived from income tax.
Michael Nutter: Yeah.
Dan Harsha: Revenue derived from property tax. You were hailed for really rebuilding the city's tax assessment operations.
Michael Nutter: Yeah.
Q: Could you paint for our listeners just how bad things were and what you did to turn things around and make the process of paying taxes as equitable, if un-pleasurable.
Michael Nutter: Right. Everyone wants service, they just don’t want to pay for it. You know, our system was so broken, so corrupt, so archaic. You literally could have property owners on the same block, with virtually the same house, with two different assessments. So, the system, I mean you talk about bad information in, bad information out. You’ve got a two-story house with a garage and the system might say you have a three-story house with no garage. Your property is 1,800 square feet, we may have you at 3,000. I mean, it was horrible.
The Board of Revision of Taxes, which was the main organization, was basically kind of judge, jury, and executioner. They were the people who made the assessment. They were the same people you appealed your assessment to. Folks would call in to a friend and get their assessment changed or their appeal approved. The staff had virtually no training. The director, no disrespect, I think had not completed high school. This was a political dumping ground for all manner of folks who had no idea, in many instances, what they were doing.
There would be scandals from time to time. We just basically kind of took advantage of one of the more egregious ones. Somebody literally got in trouble and we said, “We’ve got to, we have to change this.” At some point, even Philadelphians, you know, just can’t put up with so much. People demanded change. The Council was nervous. They were worried that if we actually.... We called it the Actual Valuation Initiative, AVI. The government couldn’t run without acronyms you know. People were worried that everyone’s taxes were going to go up.
The end result was, we did fundamentally fix the system. Seventy percent of taxpayers either stayed where they were or went down. We also exposed the fact, and this is what really drove the change, that higher-income property owners were actually paying less than they should have and much lower income property owners were paying more. So, we highlighted those flaws in the system and the public demanded change, and we were able to get it.
Dan Harsha: It's not a particularly sexy issue, but it's had an impact, literally every property owner in the city.
Michael Nutter: There's no sex in property assessment.
Absolutely. Residential, commercial, industrial, small house, big house. Philadelphia’s kind of your classic, mostly row house neighborhood houses, 16 to 18 feet wide. Folks are working hard. Their taxes are whatever they are and they’re struggling to pay, but what they want is fairness. You want to know that, if I’m paying my fair share, are the people over in some other neighborhood, are they paying their fair share? Why am I subsidizing really rich people? That kind of thing.
Generally, no one really likes paying taxes. But, if I’m going to pay, let me fair, let it be open, let it be honest. We ran on the transparency platform. Again, some of the shenanigans that people engaged in actually helped us in our efforts to clean the place up.
Q: Now, another one of these headline-grabbing, more technocratic reforms that you helped tackled in Philadelphia was zoning reform. Can you tell us what you did in Philadelphia and really how impactful that was?
Michael Nutter: Right. Well, one of the things, even when I was running was that A, our zoning code was so confusing and archaic, layer and layer and layer. You know, Philadelphians, we either want to be first or last do something. We have no interest in the in between. We were like the last city to reform its zoning code. It was 50, 60 years old and had been amended 9 million times.
No disrespect to the Harvard Law School alums that may be on the call. You had to hire a high-price lawyer just to, literally almost, put a deck on the back of your house. I promised people that if you helped us with this reform, you would actually be able to complete a project in your own lifetime. You wouldn’t have to pass it on to your children to complete.
It was crazy. It was difficult. Other cities had done it. We used a lot of models from other cities and ultimately City Council approved it. The development community recognized the changes, the citizen community. I come from a perspective, every piece of property doesn’t have to have a building on it and every old building is not historic, it’s just old. So, that balance, the public wants stability in the system. Developers, they want to know what the rules are and they’ll try to adhere to them. So, we did get that reform and there was an explosion of development activity subsequent to the zoning code being reformed.
Again, not the most exciting thing. Nothing sexy about the zoning code, certainly. But, what it really is, it represents jobs, and economic opportunity, and stability in neighborhoods, and putting people to work. Those were, again, some of the selling points of having code that was close to, if not actually into the 21st century.
Dan Harsha: Now, with this explosion in development, were there concerns about gentrification in neighborhoods that previously hadn’t seen a lot of economic investment?
Michael Nutter: Absolutely.
Q: How do you balance the needs of those longer-term residents who stuck it out when things were tough versus the developers and new residents who are moving into these neighborhoods?
Michael Nutter: Well, you know many of these things were going on, if not simultaneously, in close proximity to each other. So, reforming the zoning code, fixing the property assessment system, we had the largest percentage increase of millennial population of any major city in the United States of America all happening at the same time. Neighbors would see, first you’d see the coffee shop. Then there’s the yoga place. Then before you know it, they’ve said, “Well, there goes the neighborhood. Here come the hipsters and the young people.”
In the meantime, some folks, own their houses 40, 50, 60 years stuck it out. Made the neighborhood what it is. They were there in the good times. They were there when they hit rock bottom and now on the way up. My grandma used to say, “You can be house rich and cash poor.” If you can’t afford the taxes on your home, you literally would get forced out. So, we put in some, what we called circuit breakers, highlighted that we have a senior citizen freeze program. Again, for the listeners, we don’t freeze our senior citizens, we freeze their taxes if you’re at a certain income level.
We passed a bill that Council had introduced and I signed the bill that’s directly supported long-term owner-occupied properties. We also put in, again what we call circuit breakers, to prevent wild, exorbitant property taxes as a result of reassessment. You want to maintain some level of the mix of the more senior, if you will, or longer-term occupants, as well as the new people.
Managing, not only the tensions that go with that, there may be cultural change, and a variety of other issues, but also being upfront in addressing these issues. Say, “The city is changing. There are a variety of factors going on. We want to celebrate the fact that we’re a very friendly, immigrant city. We want to celebrate the fact that we’re doing bike lanes, and ride share, and planting trees, and doing all these things that younger people like.” Philadelphia center city is the second most populated center city in the United States of America, second only to New York.
The reason Philadelphia’s population grew was, as I’ve mentioned, millennials, immigrants, and empty nesters. We’ve got great suburbs around us. You got the big old house, kids are gone, huge lawn, all the other things that go with it, you’re spending a lot more of your time in Philadelphia at restaurants and shows, et cetera, et cetera. Then, end of the night you got a 45-minute ride. So, a lot of empty nesters are moving into Philadelphia.
Communication at the local level is so critically important. I think, unfortunately, many of my former colleagues underestimate the power of communicating regularly with the public about what is going on. If change is happening you should address it upfront. Talk about it and celebrate it. But also take steps that help ensure that people can stay in their homes. They are the true champions in communities.
Q: Poverty, particularly poverty in American cities is really an endemic problem. Poverty is no stranger to Philadelphia. About a quarter of the city lives in poverty, give or take a few percentage points. What are some of the poverty alleviation strategies that you championed as mayor? Let’s play a hypothetical too and say you had another four, eight years, that there weren’t any term limits. What are some of the things that you would have done or wish that you have had time to do?
Michael Nutter: Poverty, in my view is the issue and the number one issue for the city of Philadelphia. We have a 25.7 percent poverty rate. We have the highest rate of the 10 largest cities in America. We’ve been over 20 percent for now 40 years. It is intergenerational, it is entrenched. There are people who are locked into the cycle, historically and in their families, locked into a bad economic situation. Having said that, focusing on education, focusing on public safety, focusing on workforce development, getting employers to understand the need to work, having better partnerships and relationships between and among the K-12 school system, colleges and universities and the private sector, I think are some of the keys.
Supporting additional literacy programs. We have 400,000 Philadelphians who struggle with low literacy skills. Helping returning citizens, formerly incarcerated individuals get back on their feet, get a second chance, get in the workforce. Really try to foster a greater relationship between the K-12 relationship and higher ed, that we are even teaching and training students on the jobs of the future, not the ones that are presently existing but may be going away. Having an honest conversation with Philadelphians and Americans about the changing nature of work. What automation is going to do. It is, for some, great political rhetoric, to talk about the jobs that are going to China and Mexico. But, in many instances, a person very well could have lost their job to a robot made by an American. Helping people understand that some jobs are just not coming back and being honest with people about that, I think is part of the key to moving people out of poverty and to greater prosperity.
One of the things we did, we had numerous agencies and departments that did all kinds of things, siloed away with different funding sources, rules and regulations clearly written by people who have never tried to run a city or get a job training program up and running. So we collapsed a lot of those agencies under one umbrella, Community Empowerment. Community Empowerment and Opportunity Office created a plan, Share Prosperity Philadelphia. It is, was our poverty reduction plan. Putting a person, an agency in charge and responsible for the $8 million or so that comes into Philadelphia from a variety of funding sources and having a focus.
The poverty rate actually went up during the recession and then really, literally kind of settled back down. We’re stuck in this range of kind of 24 to 26 percent. So, putting our efforts into better educating our young people, training and helping to train adults who face some of the challenges that we do. It really is the work of the mayor, but cities mostly cannot do this work by themselves. Having the state and especially the federal government actively engaged in a partnership is critical.
I think as we start, I’m just not exactly sure how much support the cities are getting from the federal government. So, therein lie new partnerships and relationships. The corporate sector, the philanthropic sector, the NGOs, religious community getting actively engaged in support people, unleashing the power of this human capital that is literally sitting on the sidewalk and locked away.
That’s the work that really needs to be done and if we’re able to do it... What I tried to promote really was regionalism. Philadelphia is surrounded by Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties. Those five, the five of us in a state with 67 counties, the five of us represent 40 percent of the economy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. So, there’s a lot of transfer back and forth between the counties and the city. As the city goes, so goes southeastern Pennsylvania. If we were to get more people in the workforce, increase our tax base, we’d actually be able to lower taxes and support more programs and services.
Those are longer term issues, but had I been able to stay another four years, that’s where I would have put all of my efforts.
Dan Harsha: I think I’ll wrap things up with one last question. You know, at the Ash Center, we have the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which is a relatively recent program which trains mayors from around the world who were recently elected. It gives them some leadership and management training.
Michael Nutter: Yeah.
Dan Harsha: It didn't exist when you were Mayor.
Michael Nutter: I wish it did.
Q: What are your parting words of advice for someone who’s thinking about running for mayor or taking the reins of a city as a city manager? What do you wish you know now that you didn’t then?
I wish someone had actually told me that the recession was coming. I’m still really pissed with a lot of my staff about that. It was not in any of the briefing materials. But, I think the bigger lesson there is, in seeming times of prosperity, prepare for a potential downturn. I’m a total, complete optimist. But, depending on which economist you talk to, there is a concern, not like 2008 but there is a possibility of some downturn. This is the time in better times when you prepare for that.
So, I’m a part of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and mentor, coach for mayors on a regular basis. What I tell the new mayors, and even those who have been in for a while, have a plan, work the plan, stick to the plan. Don’t get distracted by a lot of the noise and nonsense out there. Stand by your convictions. But, I’ll kind of close with this. As the great philosopher, Mike Tyson said, “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.” Having that plan and then being adroit, being flexible, realizing where you are, the limitations of your authority, but sticking to your convictions about decisions. You can’t fix yesterday, you can do something about tomorrow. You make a mistake, own it. Own up to it and move on.
Q: How did you deal with major setbacks of key projects when you were mayor? Do you have any lessons in dealing with different stakeholders, including the media?
Sure. As powerful as any of us wanted to think we were, things didn’t always go our way. I think the way I tried to deal with it was, try to keep reminding myself, “This is not about you. Circumstances, situations, everyone’s not going to see the world the way you do.” Again, we say back in Philadelphia, you just got to put your big boy pants on and deal with it. Maybe you could have explained things better. Maybe you could have done somethings better. I tried to...
Listen, I didn’t run on this platform but the opportunity arose after the recession. Our pension fund is 47 percent funded and now as a pensioner, I’m very concerned about that. I was then as well. Philadelphia is the largest city in America that owns a gas company. It’s been 180 years. I didn’t see that as core business for us. We thought there was an opportunity to actually sell Philadelphia Gas Works, PGW. We worked on it. We had a valuation company, that said, “Yeah, that probably would get you about $1.2 billion even as debt-laden as the company was.” Somebody did. They bid $1.2 billion. We were going to put $500 million of that money into the pension fund. It would have taken us to 80 percent funded in about 10 years, along with current contributions, and we just couldn’t get it done. City Council wouldn’t do it.
They literally, it was kind of like what Mitch McConnell said to President Obama, they literally wouldn’t have a hearing. Because, they knew if you had a hearing and you heard all the full details, we were going to get rid of this asset, which would have taken the city down a terrible financial hole, fix the pension fund, we’d have money for some projects that the Council Members ... I mean, it was an absolute stone cold, grand slam winner and they literally just wouldn’t do it. I would say, this is a technical term, I was pissed. Then, you’re just like, “Okay.” Sun comes up tomorrow. Get back on the horse.
Q: I am a Kennedy School alumnus and this call is coming from Toronto, however, I spend most of my time in Sub-Saharan Africa. My question/ comment is, you said, and I thought it resonated and you discussed or mentioned fairness in terms of equity, or an element of justice. I recall that former Justice Holmes said that paying taxes is an obligation that people should revel and regale because it brings out services, and streets, and safety, et cetera. However, he did caveat that one should be very cognizant in just paying the minimal amount of tax. Then, you have Yasha Monk in terms of that brilliant little book on people versus democracy. There is an element lacking in our collective civics. That there is an individual living in the States who touts that he is extremely proud that he pays no taxes and has received in excess of $100 million in terms of property collateral write-offs. I would suspect that this does not inspire among many citizens, perhaps even citizens in your city of Philadelphia. Why are we paying these horrendous taxes and receiving so little? Yet, property is rising, people are being cut out or shut out in terms of accessing property. How do you resolve this in terms of what I call you being a member of the political civic leadership class. I thank you for your comment sir.
Michael Nutter: Thank you. You packed a lot into that question. I think, at least at the local level, how citizens feel about paying taxes is more often times than not a function of how they feel about the quality of services that they’re receiving. People generally... I don’t know that anyone is... I mean yesterday was April 15th. I was not thrilled out of my mind yesterday to send the federal government some additional funding. But, that is my obligation as a part of being a citizen of the United States. So you just deal with it, but when you write the check, it kind of hurts.
But at the local level, if people see that my streets are clean, the abandoned cars are gone, the street lights work, the water comes out of my faucet, potholes filled, et cetera, et cetera, water in the swimming pools in the summer, books in the library, people do accept that this is a part of your civic duty and obligation. What you don’t want is to be paying high taxes and not getting high-quality service or think you’re getting ripped off. I think there is a line somewhere in each citizen’s mind or in the collective citizenry when any government, local, state, or federal is egregious, is over the line and there’s lack of fairness and inequity in terms of who’s paying what. That certainly takes place, I can’t dispute, at the federal level.
Any number of individuals or companies, I think anyone could make a case they’re probably “not paying their fair share,” but that’s a function of the tax laws. Which are much more complicated at the federal level than they are at the local level. Generally, citizens understand, “I pay my taxes. I work hard. I get some services. As long as the government’s not ripping me off or the politicians are not stealing, that’s just kind of the way it is.”
Q: You spoke a lot about the importance of communication, which is very much the world I live in. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the tension of having to speak to the public and your constituents openly and honestly sometimes with not positive news, but also keep them engaged and hopeful in what your mission is and what you’re trying to achieve.
Michael Nutter: Sure. Well, I’ll give you an example of that. Talk about delivering bad news. I often talk about this and I refer to it as “the week.” Also, story’s in a book that I wrote a couple years ago. In late 2008, three really big things happened during the course of one week in Philadelphia and, of course, in the nation. The Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series on October 29th, 2008. We had a parade. Two million people showed up on October 31st, that Friday. The following Tuesday, there was the presidential election. Senator Barack Obama was on his way to becoming the first African American president. Then, that Thursday, a week later, after the Phillies win, I announced that the city has a $1 billion, five-year deficit.
I was not very popular that day. But, we had to openly and honestly disclose to the public that we were now suffering the full weight of the economic recession, which had been declared by the feds in September. People were upset. Again, that was a real kind of buzzkill. You know, World Series, a parade, presidential election, and then here comes the mayor saying basically we have no money. Tax hikes. Service cuts. Et cetera, et cetera. We painfully had to explain to the public what was going on.
I then embarked on a series of eight Town Hall meetings to go around the city and further explain to people. That was received by usually 500 or so people showing up to scream at us for three hours a night. After the first night, I did ask, “Who’s idea was this?” My staff looked at me and said, “It was yours.” So, you know, just suck it up.
Communication is critically important. You’re not always going to be able to deliver really happy news. When I had to talk about a police officer being killed in the line of duty. Or kids being shot on the street. Or a building collapse, train wreck, any number of issues. Those are some of the toughest moments in public service, but that is a part of the job. That’s what you signed up for. You don’t pick your moments, the moments pick you.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you would share the lessons that you learned and learned from other cities in terms of scaling up and scaling out ideas that did work?
Michael Nutter: Yeah. Again, one of the great and powerful tools for mayors are the relationships that are developed through the U.S. Conference of Mayors. I was honored to be president of the Conference. It’s a one-year term. I was president from June of 2012 to 2013. Met a ton of mayors across the country and had the opportunity to work with them. As Dan mentioned, this newer opportunity created by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, $32 million gift to Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy, creating the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. Usually cohorts of about 40 mayors. Usually 30 from the U.S., 10 international. These are incredible resources and opportunities to share information, share best practices, maybe from time to time commiserate.
All the mayors are experiencing, for the most part, pretty much the same thing. Small, medium, or large city, it’s just function of how many zeros are after the first number. Trying to make sure the public is safe. How do you educate kids, and young people, and adults? How do you create economic opportunity? The challenges of leadership. Leadership, actually it’s a pretty lonely enterprise from time to time. How do you keep a team together? How do you keep them energized and focused, not distracted by all the day-to-day stuff? How do you govern in the present while always focusing on the future and trying to work that plan as I talked about earlier?
These are... I mean the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative was and is so greatly needed. We’re fortunate that Mike Bloomberg, who I refer to as the mayor of the world, is a great convener, very generous with his own time, and certainly resources, and has supported the work of cities and mayors unlike anyone in, I would say, modern history.
Q: My question centers around what’s been identified across the state and across the country as an opioid crisis, and it impacts the future of cities like Philadelphia, and the planning for resources necessary to ensure healthy population and healthy growth within cities.
Unfortunately I am almost certain the case is, Philadelphia, on an annual basis has possibly seen the highest number of deaths from opioid abuse and overdose of any of the major cities in the United States. I would also absolutely say that much of that probably also tied to poverty in our city, and for some people a sense a hopelessness and loss.
The public health system, local, state and federal, again has to be deployed aggressively to help people in crisis get to the heart and soul of A, on the law enforcement side, where is all this product coming from and how do we stem the flow of these substances, some old, some new. Secondly, significant investment in treatment programs, beds, and facilities. Again, not to keep kind of talking about the feds but, this is a national crisis. I believe it was declared an emergency by the current occupant of the White House. It is not clear to me what resources have been made available to cities, and counties, and states all across America. I thought that if you declared something a national emergency, you actually put the money to it to try to help fix it, but that is unclear.
Unfortunately, it appears that many of our cities are still left to their own to handle this crisis in the United States of America. You know, Philadelphia is struggling at this point. Fortunately, we do have a governor that cares about these issues, in Harrisburg. Governor Wolf. But, this is going to be a long-term challenge for many cities across the country. We just can’t act like, “Well that’s happening over there,” wherever over there is, and the rest of the city is this kind of shining city on the hill. It doesn’t work that way. The people who are caught up in this, they’re as much a part of Philadelphia and our cities as anyone else.
Q: I’m proud to say that Mr. Nutter was my mayor and also my councilman when I was living in Philadelphia. I say hello Mr. Mayor and my question is, what are some of the difficulties in assuring that minority companies have contracts with city government? What efforts can be made by mayors across the country to ensure that this happens?
Michael Nutter: Sure. Thanks. Great hearing your voice. In that regard, I would contain my remarks to our time in office. I literally do not know what the current state of affairs is with the successor administration. You have to be intentional. You have to be willing to, we talked earlier, someone asked the question earlier about communications. Whether you’re black, white, Latino, Asian, or anything else, if you’re the mayor of the city, and you see, again, inequities in terms of participation, in terms of opportunity, I think we have to be strong enough and willing to call it out and call it for what it is, and not allow ourselves to get blocked into a zero-sum game. We hear this in the national dialogue from time to time that if X person is to get a little more, then Y person has to lose, as opposed to literally just try to make the pie a little bigger. I don’t necessarily want your slice of pizza. I want my own slice of pizza and you should be able to enjoy yours on your own. We were very, very focused, figuring out A, how much money do we actually spend as a government, where is it spent, what is it spent on, and being that much more aggressive in finding companies that were qualified to do the work, debunking the idea that minority and female and disadvantaged companies, their participation either drove up cost, lowered the quality. There would always be the excuse, “Well, we can’t find any.” I would say, “Well, how hard are you looking?” That kind of thing.
Having staff in every department and agency, a person who was focused on finding where those opportunities were and where those companies were as well. Making your bids accessible. We put ours up on the city’s website. Getting people just to get notices of those opportunities. Publishing the results on a yearly basis, holding ourselves accountable. When I left, I believe our number was 31 percent minority, female, and disadvantaged business participation. I think it was maybe in the single digits when I came into office.
It is possible. You have to be willing to stand up in the face of opposition. In the face of people who may have been used to always getting the bid, always getting the contract. Saying to them, “You know, hey, sorry. But, this time either this company is better qualified, lower price, higher quality goods and services. We’ll see you next bidding opportunity.” That kind of competition is also really great for the city government because competition makes people that much more aggressive. The city should benefit as a result of not only higher quality but lower cost.
Q: I’m an MCRP graduate of the Kennedy School. I live in Chicago. Mayor Nutter, I’m interested, we too have a lot of millennials in one part of town but we also have families that earn between $45 and $85,000 that have left the city. I work in the housing field. I’m wondering if you had some tools or saw some things that helped keep those working class folks in your city and not have it just become kind of the upper income and the very poor.er quality but lower cost.
Michael Nutter: I think there are two major issues. You may know that I do some amount of work in Chicago. I have a fellowship at the University of Chicago Harris School and work with their urban labs folks out there. I think for many, many cities it’s issues around public safety, as well as education.
At some point in time, young people and not so young people have children. There’s a conversation that, back porch, dining room table, front stoop, whatever. Johnny or Sally is three, four years old. Where are they going to first grade? In many instances, we didn’t have really good answers to those questions or really good options. So, focusing on K-12 education, making sure that neighborhood schools at least potentially were an option, charter schools, which are public schools, which was a growing movement in Philadelphia, as well as either religious or private schools. We need as many educational options for parents and children as possible. For us, that was part of the both attraction and retention strategy for citizens.
But, I’ll go back again to a lesson learned from a great friend and leader, Mayor Bloomberg, who said, “Unless people feel safe, you can’t have a great city.” Challenges around public safety combined, at times, with challenges around schools, will cause people to move. We, during my eight years at least, were able to significantly reduce the primary homicide rate, shootings. Again, I think people felt safer and wanted to be in Philadelphia. But, if crime is an issue, in any city, and I’m not just saying as it relates to Chicago, it will be difficult to hold onto citizens. Again, especially if they don’t see educational opportunity for their kids.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of affordable housing and trying to increase affordable housing without necessarily increasing density, which can lead to more luxury housing?
Michael Nutter: Yeah. That is one of the great public policy challenges facing many, many cities across the country. Again, Philadelphia’s certainly having that challenge. There’s a ton of development activity taking place in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, much of it is not what some might consider affordable based on income criteria.
Inclusive zoning certainly is one of the tools that can be used. Lowering the cost of construction is certainly another. But, again, from a planning standpoint, being much more intentional about where those opportunities are. Having discussions with the development community where you might allow a little more density for more affordable housing. You might allow folks to build a little higher up if a certain percentage, 10 percent, 15 percent, there are folks in some cities talking about 20 percent ratio for affordable housing for the ability of developers to do a little more.
There’s nowhere near enough money, again, coming in from state and federal sources to truly address the affordability issue in many cities like Philadelphia and others. But, I think we have to at least utilize the tools that we have available to us and recognize that people need a roof over their head. They need to be in a safe and secure place. That really is a part of what running a big city, or any city, is all about.
Mari Megias: Great. Well thank you very much. With that we’re going to wrap up today’s Wiener Conference Call, which is the last conference call of this academic year. I look forward to reconvening with everyone next September. I would like to send a special thank you to Dan Harsha and Mayor Michael Nutter.
Dan Harsha: Thank you.
Michael Nutter: Thank you. I do also want to thank Mr. Wiener for having such a series. It was a tremendous honor for me to be able to participate in it. Things like this don’t just happen, but they happen because individuals decide that they want to make a great opportunity take place. Mr. Wiener, thank you very much.