Using ARPA Funds to Fight Urban Blight

To some, the pandemic may feel like a distant memory, but to many states and municipalities, there are still funding sources available related to pandemic relief.
To some, the pandemic may feel like a distant memory, but to many states and municipalities, there are still funding sources available related to pandemic relief. In fact, some of the American Rescue Program Act (ARPA) funds don’t have to be spent until 2026. However, some funding vehicles have deadlines that are much sooner. In this blog post, we’ll discuss using ARPA funds to fight urban blight and models of implementation. There is still time to allocate available funds to combat urban decay. Starting now will allow your municipality to leverage all of the funding available and follow best practices along the way. It takes time to build relationships and involve stakeholders, follow all the rules, leverage learnings & best practices, solicit vendors, communicate transparently, and evaluate the impact. A report by Brookings Metro, the National League of Cities, and the National Association of Counties found that many larger cities were relatively quick in allocating funds. Many cities and counties have millions of dollars waiting to be allocated. In this blog, we’ll explore how ARPA funds may be used in urban blight reduction and redevelopment. Then, we’ll discuss some success stories of municipalities making it happen.

ARPA Funds Still Available for Blight Reduction

As of March 2023, 80% of ARPA funding has been used in an impressive 12,000+ projects to support 330+ local government entities, representing over $51 billion. This means 20% of available ARPA funds are still on the table. Cleveland, Ohio is an extreme example. As of February 2023, Cleveland had only finalized plans for 3% of their ARPA funds, leaving 97% unallocated. This is by no means a criticism of Cleveland. ARPA funding vehicles are complex and complicated, not to mention local processes that must be followed to disburse the funding. Understanding stakeholder priorities; aligning them with local, state, and federal priorities; submitting proposal; amending and approving the proposals are a few of the necessary steps before funds are allocated! ARPA is a large bucket of funding with several specific funding vehicles. Each has its specific rules, forms, and eligibility requirements. Let’s look at the funding vehicles available for your municipality to fight blight.

ARPA Funding Vehicles

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has several programs:
ERAP nor SSBCI have provisions for eligible expenses related to blight remediation or physical asset improvements and will not be discussed below.

State & Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) for Urban Blight

There are several ways municipalities can use SLFRF for urban blight remediation, and there is time to get it done! SLFRF must be used for costs incurred on or after March 3, 2021, must be committed (“obliged”) to expenses by December 31, 2024, and spent by December 31, 2026. The expanded projects eligible for SLFRF relevant to fighting urban blight include residential, commercial, and IT/data. Of note is item #5: “Improvements to vacant and abandoned properties, including rehabilitation or maintenance, renovation, removal and remediation of environmental contaminants, demolition or deconstruction, greening/vacant lot cleanup & conversion to affordable housing.7” The funds should not be used to reduce the total number of affordable housing units.
State & Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (ARPA) final rule on eligible activities:
Treasury recognizes the enumerated projects below, which have expanded under the final rule, as eligible to respond to disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on households and communities: 
Pay for community health workers to help households access health & social services
Remediation of lead paint or other lead hazards
Primary care clinics, hospitals, integration of health services into other settings, and other investments in medical equipment & facilities designed to address health disparities
Housing vouchers & assistance relocating to neighborhoods with higher economic opportunity
Investments in neighborhoods to promote improved health outcomes
Improvements to vacant and abandoned properties, including rehabilitation or maintenance, renovation, removal and remediation of environmental contaminants, demolition or deconstruction, greening/vacant lot cleanup & conversion to affordable housing
Services to address educational disparities, including assistance to high-poverty school districts & educational and evidence-based services to address student academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs
Schools and other educational equipment & facilities
Additionally, SLFRF can be used for both residential and commercial rehabilitation, as shown below.
Assistance to disproportionately impacted small businesses includes the following enumerated uses,
which have been expanded under the final rule:
✓ Rehabilitation of commercial properties,
storefront improvements & façade
✓ Technical assistance, business incubators &
grants for start-up or expansion costs for
small businesses
✓ Support for microbusinesses, including
financial, childcare, and transportation costs
Finally, SLFRF can be used for data collection, analysis & dissemination in addition to program evaluation. “SLFRF funding may be used to improve the efficacy of public health and economic programs through tools like program evaluation, data, and outreach…Eligible uses include…”
Program evaluation and evidence resources: 
✓ Data analysis resources to gather, assess, share, and use data
✓ Technology infrastructure to improve access to and the user experience of government IT systems, as well as technology improvements to increase public access and delivery of government programs and services
✓ Community outreach and engagement activities
✓ Capacity building resources to support using data and evidence, including hiring staff, consultants, or technical assistance support
Contact City Detect today to learn how our Blight Reports and near-real-time data can support your SLFRF urban blight reduction programs.

Capital Projects Fund for Urban Blight

The Capital Projects Fund (CPF) set aside $10 billion to fund infrastructure and built-environment-related projects. While urban blight is not specifically named, rehabilitation of physical properties is an eligible use of funds. Additionally, costs related to grant writing, evaluation, data, and monitoring are eligible expenses.
Eligible Project Costs. Below is a non-exhaustive list of eligible costs:
• Costs associated with completing the grant or Application and Grant Plan;
• Pre-project development costs and uses, including data-gathering, feasibility studies, community engagement and public feedback processes, equity assessments and planning, and needs assessments; permitting, planning, architectural design, engineering design, and work related to environmental, historical, and cultural reviews;
• Costs of repair, rehabilitation, construction, improvement, and acquisition of real property, equipment (e.g., devices and office equipment), and facilities (e.g., telecommunications equipment, including infrastructure for backhaul, middle, and last mile networks);
• Cost of long-term leases (for terms greater than one year) of facilities required to provide qualifying broadband service, including indefeasible right-of-use (IRU) agreements and capital leases;
• Personnel costs including salaries and fringe benefits for staff and consultants required for carrying out a Capital Project (such as project managers, program directors, subject matter experts, equity consultants, grant administrators, financial analysts, accountants, and attorneys);
• Ancillary costs necessary to operationalize and put the capital assets to full use, including costs to increase broadband adoption and improve digital literacy;
• Costs associated with monitoring of and reporting on Projects in compliance with Treasury requirements, including award closeout costs;
• Costs associated with collecting and measuring performance data and conducting activities needed to establish and maintain a performance management and evaluation regime related to Projects funded by the Capital Projects Fund program.
Learn how City Detect helped Habitat for Humanity identify blighted properties in need of redevelopment.
It’s not too late to take advantage of CPF dollars: The most recent award was made in Oregon in September 2023. At the time of this blog post, $8.4 billion of the total $10 billion has been awarded. There is still time and money available to support your municipality’s redevelopment initiatives.

Homeowner Assistance Fund for Urban Blight

The Homeowner Assistance Fund was allocated $9.9 billion in direct financial support to homeowners. The goal of the HAF is “to mitigate financial hardships associated with the coronavirus pandemic by providing funds to eligible entities for the purpose of preventing homeowner mortgage delinquencies, defaults, foreclosures, loss of utilities or home energy services, and displacements of homeowners experiencing financial hardship after January 21, 2020, through qualified expenses related to mortgages and housing.” While the funding goes directly to homeowners, the HAF is an important source to mitigate and remediate urban blight. The majority of eligible expenses are related to paying mortgage and related homeownership fees. However, funds can also be used on home repairs, maintenance, planning & needs assessments. The specific language in the HAF Guidance document is as follows: “7. measures to prevent homeowner displacement, such as home repairs to maintain the habitability of a home, including the reasonable addition of habitable space to alleviate overcrowding, or assistance to enable households to receive clear title to their properties; HAF can even be used to help understand the need and provide targeted community engagement to reach the most vulnerable residents. Here is the HAF Guidance: “10. planning, community engagement, needs assessment, and administrative expenses related to the HAF participant’s disbursement of HAF funds for qualified expenses, in an aggregate amount not to exceed 15% of the funding from the HAF received by the HAF participant” City Detect Urban Blight Reports and maps quickly identify eligible areas for targeted community engagement. See how our mapping and reports work. Need help creating a baseline for the needs assessment? City Detect can assist your data collection efforts. Check out our services to learn more about our technology.

Using ARPA Funds to Fight Urban Blight: Models of Execution

In 2021, the Center for Community Progress posted a comprehensive blog on using ARPA funds to fight property deterioration and blight. Since then, several states and municipalities have leveraged American Rescue Plan funds to fight commercial and residential blight, illegal dumping, and beautification projects. A Brookings report found that midwestern cities and counties are investing more heavily in neighborhood revitalization efforts, such as blight elimination, than other areas of the country. As of July 2022, St. Louis, MO had spent the most on commercial rehabilitation projects. St. Louis is spending over $13 million on this project:
Project overview: Establish fund for residents, developers and/or contractors for the purpose of redeveloping LRA properties located in Qualified Census Tracts or serving residents at 65% AMI or below in non-Qualified Census Tracts. Attach loans or grants to the sale of LRA properties. Provide anti-displacement and support for historic neighborhoods through housing stabilization and landmarks in Qualified Census Tracts. Funding for land clearance, site assembly, predevelopment, Brownfield remediation, tenant improvements.
In addition to evaluating the Brookings ARPA Investment tracker, we searched through news articles, press releases, municipal regulation websites, and more. We evaluated programs in Michigan, Ohio, New York, Missouri, Massachusetts, Illinois, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Municipalities in these states have used ARPA funds to address issues related to
    • blight
    • code enforcement
    • illegal dumping
    • demolition, reconstruction, and repair of low-income properties
    • vacant lot beautification
Here are a few models of program implementation and city-wide collaboration that shine:

Detroit’s Data-Driven Blight Remediation

The progressive use of $95 million ARPA funds starting in 2022 and ramping up in 2023 for blight remediation is part of Mayor Duggan’s Blight to Beauty campaign. This follows on the heels of the city’s 2021 HUD Choice Neighborhood award. As discussed in our previous blog post, HUD’s Choice Neighborhood (CN) applications take some serious dedication from partners, stakeholders, government departments, and residents. The city-wide commitment demonstrated by the successful CN grant is further evidenced by the level of organization and collaboration in Detroit’s Blight Remediation program.

Why we love Detroit’s efforts

First, as data nerds, we love that Detroit’s efforts are specifically and intentionally data-driven. The Michigan Chronicle quotes Zachary Meers, the head of Detroit’s General Services Department’s Blight Remediation Division, “We are really implementing a data-driven approach to the work…” and “This is where the data comes into play. As we grow our knowledge of the landscape and scale, we will be better informed and able to do more with the resources we have, hopefully leading to a streamlined and efficient operation that is sustainable in the long term.” The intentional focus and articulation of the role of data in Detroit’s urban blight remediation puts Detroit at the top of our list of best practices. Second, Detroit’s blight remediation website page contains both high-level and detailed information for all stakeholders. The level of transparency of progress and expenditures encourages broad involvement. The quick links to the city’s job board and bid opportunities make it easy to understand the current service gaps and opportunities. Additionally, the chart visualizing the program funds available and in development makes this information accessible.

A Statewide Effort to Combat Urban Blight

Not only is Detroit leveraging data, they are part of a network of municipalities participating in a statewide initiative. The cities of Saginaw and Flint, as well as Genesee County, are all using ARPA funds to fight urban blight. The City of Saginaw has allocated over $7 million in a revolving loan fund and rehabilitation efforts. Additionally, the City of Flint and Genesee County are collaborating to eliminate urban blight by allocating $24 million ARPA funds. Further, the Michigan state government is powering up these local efforts through a statewide program: The Blight Elimination Program sets aside $75 million from the state’s ARPA allocation to eliminate blight and an additional $10 million from the 2024 state budget to support land banks and local organizations. Michigan has a long history of finding innovative ways to combat urban decay. The state is noted as one of the best models for leveraging the legal structure of land bank authorities in combating blight in this 2005 best practice guide by the Local Initiatives Support Organization & published on the HUD Exchange. Given the success and progress, it is unsurprising that Detroit tops Brooking’s Investment Tracker for neighborhood revitalization, as shown below.
Detroit Project Overview: 
Blight Remediation – Industrial and Commercial is led by the Jobs and Economy Team (JET) in the Mayor’s Office. It is designed to strengthen public health and safety, the community, and economic outcomes through removal and remediation of the City’s blighted properties that pose the highest public health and safety risks to the surrounding area. The presence of abandoned structures has been linked with negative physical, mental, and socioeconomic outcomes for individuals, households, and communities. Blight removal and remediation have been shown to improve these outcomes and the built environment, promoting health and safety, environmental health, redevelopment, and economic stability. Detroit has been one of the hardest hit cities during the pandemic, resulting in adverse impacts throughout the City and exacerbating vacancy and blight issues that existed in historically underserved areas. Through demolition, environmental remediation, and site readiness activities, the program intends to strengthen impacted neighborhoods, remove barriers to redevelopment, and promote economic development by remediating/removing abandoned, hazardous, or contaminated sites. Success will be measured by the number of properties assessed/surveyed towards remediation; the number of hazardous/abandoned buildings stabilized; and the number of hazardous/abandoned buildings demolished. Site identification and scoping, environmental due diligence, and demolition activities have begun and are ongoing.
However, your municipality does not need a huge allocation to make a difference in urban decay.

Birmingham’s Blight Reduction Blueprint

Admittedly, we’re a little partial to our home state of Alabama. (Roll Tide!) Urban decay is intimately linked to Birmingham’s rich history of activism and civic engagement. Urban blight is one of residents’ top priorities, according to Birmingham’s chief strategist, Ed Fields. And, in April, Mayor Woodfin wrote, “Neighborhood revitalization has always been my top priority as mayor.” So, it’s no surprise that both Birmingham and Jefferson County are using ARPA funds for blight reduction and redevelopment. In 2022, Birmingham approved using ARPA funds to combat urban decay. “$3,700,000 to support the demolition of blighted properties at the Carraway redevelopment site to make way for affordable and other quality housing.” Like Detroit, a regional redevelopment effort is helping focus efforts and accelerate impact. Jefferson County has also allocated ARPA funds to redevelopment and revitalization projects, including:
    • $3 million to rehabilitate existing affordable housing
    • $10 million to support water and road infrastructure to reduce flooding of surrounding residential neighborhoods

What we love about Birmingham’s Blight Fight

Birmingham approaches redevelopment from a holistic and historically informed perspective. The city leadership focuses on three activities:
    • Understanding the human experiences driving grassroots efforts and prioritization of redevelopment
    • Building blight-fighting partnerships across levels of government and geographic units
    • Leveraging data from local and national resources
Mayor Woodfin is quoted balancing the earlier human-centered focus with an appreciation for data-driven interventions: “‘[D]ata is a massive driver for everything we’re doing in the city of Birmingham.’ There are two important reasons for prioritizing data-driven decision making. One is that data helps direct limited resources in the most effective way possible; the City Council allocates funding for Smart Demolition blight removal work each year (roughly $3 million), and these dollars stretch further and are more impactful since all spending is informed by data. “Secondly, the data ensures equity in blight remediation. Inequitable service delivery is, unfortunately, not uncommon and most negatively impacts lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color.” Source:
Fighting urban decay in Birmingham is the community equivalent of a full-body HIIT workout. Let’s look at some notable interventions over the past two decades leading up and building on the outcomes of ARPA funds for blight reduction.

Birmingham’s History of Revitalization Programs

Birmingham has been addressing urban decay through a variety of programs in addition to using ARPA funds to fight urban blight to bring equitable development to the city’s 99 neighborhoods. Like Detroit, Birmingham has leveraged additional funding sources and innovations over the long history of fighting urban decay in the heart of Alabama. Here are several examples of Birningham’s efforts over the years:
    • 2022 ARPA funds allocated for demolition and redevelopment
    • 2004 Creation of Main Street Birmingham, now Rev Birmingham, to support neighborhood commercial districts by working to fill vacant storefronts and attract businesses.
These initiatives bring together more partners and funding sources, community partners, grassroots community activism, and academics. While Birmingham did not receive or allocate the most to fight blight, the consistent data-driven efforts and the extensive partnership network make this city a model for execution. Learn more about City Detect’s work with Birmingham and partners. Contact us today.

Honorary Mention: Baltimore’s ARPA-Funded Housing Equity Initiative

Baltimore, the first city to adopt a 311 call center, has allocated $100 million of ARPA funds to combat housing inequity, a topic closely linked to blighted properties. In addition to the ARPA funds, the city is leveraging public-private partnerships and private investment to accelerate change. Learn about other grants your municipality can leverage to redevelop, revitalize, and build resistance here. The three investment categories for these funds include a capital investment, blight elimination and prevention, and anti-displacement program. About these programs:
    • Strategic Capital Investments ($56.3 million): The demand for affordable housing increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. ARPA funds will leverage private sector investment to support community development and affordable housing units.
    • Blight Elimination and Prevention ($39.7 million): These programs and projects will address the vacant housing stock, help reduce public health disparities caused by environmental hazards, and tackle housing instability.
    • Resident Protection and Anti-Displacement ($4 million): These projects provide legal services and utility assistance to low-income households to prevent eviction and displacement.
There are three reasons why Baltimore receives our honorable mention:
    1. While Baltimore’s press release and media don’t specifically discuss the data behind the allocations, the executive memo – a report to the City Council on the usage of funds – starts and finishes by talking data, data, data.
    1. $100 million dollars is one of the largest allocations of the programs we looked at.
    1. Leveraging the public-private partnership funds will make the allocated funding go even further.
Baltimore is a city to watch!

Conclusion: Using ARPA Funds to Fight Urban Blight Regardless of Budget Size

We evaluated programs in North City (St. Louis), IL3; Syracuse, NY4; Baton Rouge5 and New Orleans, LA6; Columbus, MS7; Westmoreland8, York9, and Northumberland County, PA10; Cleveland, OH1112; Macon-Bibb County, GA13; Baltimore, MD14; and New Bedford, MA15. There are many good examples of using ARPA funds to fight urban blight through programs, community engagement, and leveraging data to ensure transparency of outcomes. The best programs leverage detailed and comprehensive data to aggregate & assess the extent of urban blight. Then, they use community engagement to inform the priorities, often through a 311 system. Next, building relationships with partners across governmental units, public-private partnerships, and private investments to amplify the impact. Finally, paying close attention to each funding mechanism’s required timelines and reporting obligations. (The upcoming deadline of December 31, 2024 is only 13 months away!) Regardless of ARPA allocation or budgeted amount, investing in data-driven infrastructure improvements has positive impacts well beyond public health. We’d love to highlight the data-driven work your municipality is doing to combat blight. Contact us today to learn more and collaborate. Contact City Detect to learn how we can support your grant efforts. Author: Katherine Zobre

Katherine Zobre

Katherine Zobre has ten years of professional grant writing experience working in Economic Development. She has experience with international, federal, local, and nonprofit grants. She also works with economic development agencies to create innovative programs to support equitable growth and support to underserved communities. She has an MS in International Development Studies from The University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and BA in Political Science and Economics from the University of Maryland. Katherine has lived, worked, and volunteered in 11 countries across 5 continents.