Aerial view of the city of Arcata, one of the 10 cities to participate in the 18-month BOOST Pilot Program designed to help California local governments advance climate and equity goals.
Article News from the Institute for the Local Government by Karalee Browne

BOOSTing economic development and equity in California communities

Karalee Browne is a program director for the Institute of Local Government and can be reached at

Throughout California, the COVID-19 crisis accelerated the economic challenges so many cities were already facing: the death of brick and mortar retailers, rising income inequalities, and skyrocketing housing costs. 

According to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released this year, the state lost more than 3 million jobs between February and May 2020, largely erasing gains from a decade of continuous growth. Sarah Bohn, vice president of research at PPIC, says industries that employ women and people of color were hit the hardest by the pandemic.  

“This is not unique to this recession,” Bohn said, “which means we will keep repeating this cycle unless we do something different.” 

Bohn suggests that local governments should target those hit the hardest with direct support. “It’s clear how interconnected everything is. We need to think how to support those workers who keep our economies thriving.” 

Giving cities a BOOST

Just prior to the pandemic, The Institute for Local Government (ILG) launched a pilot program called BOOST, in partnership with the Strategic Growth Council, to help under-resourced communities build capacity to advance their climate, equity, and economic development goals. Through this program, ILG worked with 10 cities and two regions to develop projects and programs that promote more equitable, just, and economically-thriving communities. During the 18-month program which began in 2019, the ILG Team: 

  • provided grant assistance for BOOST communities to apply for 59 grants totaling almost $50 million to support planning, affordable housing, equitable transportation, and climate mitigation and resilience projects. 
  • provided strategic counsel, allocated funding, secured resources, and identified expert consultants to help develop six Climate Action and Resiliency Plans, including the first-ever for the cities of Paramount, Ventura, Bakersfield, and Salinas, and updates for San Diego and East Palo Alto.
  • trained 72 local agency staff on authentic public engagement strategies through numerous customized capacity-building workshops. 
  • strengthened local planning projects by facilitating discussions and building relationships with community-based organizations and advocates that provided valuable input to support more equitable planning and programs to address the needs of vulnerable populations.    

The BOOST communities included the cities of Arcata, Arvin, Bakersfield, East Palo Alto, El Centro, Mammoth Lakes, Paramount, Salinas, San Diego, and Ventura, and regions in the San Joaquin Valley and the Coachella Valley.

Future site identified for the town of Mammoth’s project to support bike and pedestrian-friendly paths, snow storage capacity, and broadband development for its largest workforce housing project known as “The Parcel.”

Town of Mammoth Lakes

One of the largest grants obtained through the BOOST Program went to the town of Mammoth Lakes. The town received a $20 million Infill Infrastructure Grant to support bike and pedestrian-friendly paths, snow storage capacity, and broadband development for its largest workforce housing project known as “The Parcel.” Sandra Moberly, the town’s community and economic development director says affordable housing is key to the town’s economic development. 

“We need more adequate and appropriate housing that residents and workers can afford,” Moberly said. “This project is key to fostering a workforce that can support our economy.”

City of Arvin 

In many communities, housing shortages can lead to economic instability. This is also true in the small city of Arvin. With limited staff, many city employees already wear many hats. The COVID-19 pandemic just compounded the problem. Even though capacity at the city was low, there was significant opportunity to address a number of systemic problems that the city has been facing for years, such as a lack of affordable housing and struggling local businesses. Self Help Enterprises, a community development organization, offered a much-needed solution to these longstanding problems. 

Through the BOOST partnership, ILG connected the city with Self Help Enterprises to form a capacity building partnership. As a result of the partnership, Arvin was able to access approximately $200,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding from Kern County and more than $100,000 in new federal funds from the Community Development Block Grant Coronavirus Response Round 1 (CDBG-CV1) Fund. Self Help Enterprises also helped the city apply for CV2 funds and Permanent Local Housing Allocation (PLHA) funding through the Department of Housing and Community Development. The PLHA funding will help develop a revolving loan program over the next four years, which will help Arvin residents bring garage conversions up to code. This will not only help provide safe affordable housing for disadvantaged populations, but it will also help the city reach its housing goals.  

“We didn’t have the ability to process loans for rental assistance or to administer programs to assist businesses that were affected by COVID-19,” said Christine Viterelli, grant writer for the city. “We couldn’t access this funding without Self Help’s partnership. We just don’t have the people with the specialization that was needed.”

Equity, engagement, and economic investment

City leaders should consider leveraging partnerships with community based organizations to help build their own capacities during a time when local resources are stretched to the limit. Not only can these partnerships increase programmatic capacity, they can help build meaningful relationships and opportunities for engagement with residents to ensure that economic growth is equitable.  

The key to emerging from the economic downturn in a more equitable way will be to truly understand and clearly define the nature of economic challenges that our communities face. To do this, economic development leaders will need to expand their stakeholder groups beyond the business community and engage residents, particularly disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, in these conversations. By doing this, cities can gain a better understanding of the current challenges residents face. 

In addition to understanding the current challenges, economic development leaders must also acknowledge the historical inequities that played a role in creating those challenges. This can be both sensitive and overwhelming, but it is incredibly important. Acknowledging the history of inequitable policies, programs, and economic practices in your community is important to creating a common understanding around current economic development challenges and determining future priorities. Economic development that is equitable, inclusive, and outcome-driven begins by prioritizing community engagement and clearly linking that engagement to actionable initiatives with measurable results. 

For additional best practices and lessons learned from ILG’s BOOST Program, please see the full report