Thursday, January 23, 2014

Whose Redevelopment?

This post is culled from some loosely edited material from an e-mail exchange with a friend. Please excuse it being slightly informal. I just feel this is an important issue that warrants a post.

A recent article on the site Books and Ideas article on displacements/evictions of inner city poor referenced an important article by a University of Wisconsin-Madison sociology professor on the same subject. The article, On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto by Alice Goffman should be required reading for anyone interested in the plight of American inner-cities and the urban (and increasingly suburban) poor.

While I think the article speaks for itself, what I want to talk about is I think one of the most interesting aspects of urban displacement is how preventable it is the policy milieu in which the situation described within the article operates. Through housing subsidy, inclusionary zoning and a host of other policy levers, we have the ability to provide dramatically increased affordable housing. Obviously, this does not solve problems of underemployment and unemployment in many of the communities at risk, but it is at least an important start. I think we should societally be looking at things like a basic income (which I plan to write more about in a future post).

So why don't we see more affordable housing? The answer is that, when municipalities do site redevelopments, predominantly what they are interested in is maximizing tax revenues in the long term. That is why they are willing to use tools like Tax Increment Financing (TIF) or tax abatements as a means of making redevelopment more attractive. As Harvey Molotch observed years ago, cities are growth machines. This means that, it costs more money every year to provide the same level of services, which means that municipal taxes need to gradually go up to pay for serves or cities need to expand to increase their tax base. As a result, rather than subsidize the poor, most municipalities see it as more in their long term interest to push people into a neighboring (now often suburban) municipality so that they don't have to pay for it.

I recently saw an example of this passing of the buck during an event I attended on "sustainable cities" including a panel discussion featuring the director of planning for DC. While much of the discussion centered around transportation systems and transit-oriented development (TOD - a planning buzz term that really just means building stuff around transportation hubs) someone eventually broached the question of displacements and gentrification stemming from site redevelopment featuring heavy tax subsidy to encourage development and then market driven pricing for redeveloped parcels. The director said something about how "pleased" she was that the bulk of DCs development was done around transit corridors then said something to the effect that "our partner municipalities really need to do their part to provide affordable housing".

Now, anyone in the least bit familiar with the economic straights that Prince George County (for example) is in, knows that they are not in the position to build more affordable housing, they can barely keep the lights on in the schools. Well-to-do Montgomery County maybe (they do have inclusionary zoning on the books) but what would compel it, or many of the conservative well-to-do counties in Virginia (Arlington, etc) to actually provide affordable housing. They also are happy to pass the buck, especially knowing that they are largely unaffordable for many of the poor displaced. What this largely means is ghettoization in extremely poor suburbs for displaced minority people who previously at least had access to urban services (by virtue of living in the inner-city) but now literally have nothing. Effectively what this policy does is manages to further lower the socio-economic plight of those already near the bottom and places them in a situation of absolute isolation. We are burying the urban poor in suburbs and leaving them to die.

People from these communities are fully aware of this. This awareness is why we are seeing targeted violence from at-risk minority communities against the tech industry in the Bay Area. This has included attacks on the Google and Apple employee commuter buses and assorted hostility towards tech sector workers. It is also something that I expect we will see much more of across the United States if current trends in inequality and urban displacements persist.

As I noted, their are ways around this. Working in partnership with Community Development Banks (rather than with large retail establishments) as part of site redevelopment so that those at-risk in a community can become business-owners and gain the skill-sets needed to be business owners and the like over the course of a redevelopment project is an example that I am trying to learn more about. Shore Bank in Chicago and some similar organizations have really done some great things that cut against the tendency outlined above. That said, all of this costs money and reduces overall profitability of site redevelopments and as long as we are unwilling to pay taxes and force municipalities to scrap for every dollar and make annual decisions about what city staff they are going to have to lay off next to balance the books, we are not going to see any change.

Certainly a lot of the feel good, City revitalization talk that has become the stock and trade of my profession (City Planning) is a way of ignoring a lot of this. This is not to say I don't think urban redevelopment is not a good or important. Place-making is something that planning can really excel at - I just think that it is obvious that we need to be doing a hell of a lot more for our urban indigent to make sure that they are indeed part of the future being planned. (Token "minority outreach" which is part of any redevelopment project. This is because planners now see themselves as facilitators who bring people together - not that we do a great job of actually soliciting opinion from minorities, but as long as you held the meeting, you can say you did it. 

 Most of the meetings I've attended that were designed to garner minority inputs were held at times that would not suit working parents (often with two jobs). They also viewed things like child care (which is a necessity) as being too expensive. Planning staff, to their credit, do spring for the translator, who, inevitably sits in the back with nothing to do - further exemplifying the difficulty planners seem to have in engaging minority communities, but I digress. It is obvious that many more of the conversations around planning processes should occur in partnership with churches, community groups and other organizations that have direct access to at-risk and minority populations at risk of displacement such that the input of those at risk can be thoroughly considered. Unless we can actually include at-risk people in a meaningful way, we are working to put the final nails in the coffin in the creation of a permanent underclass of people for whom eviction, displacement and just about any other inner-city social ill you can think of are the norm.

Regarding gentrification and the response of planning and public policy to it I cannot recommend highly enough Sharon Zukin's fabulous book, Naked City: The Life and Death of Authentic Urban Places. It is clear that planners can be doing a lot more about planning and gentrification and we should be having a much more active and informed public debate on the subject. Attempts, like this piece by NPR to put a positive spin on gentrification for minority populations are active mechanisms for disinformation. They exist to make gentrifiers (many of whom likely make-up much of NPR's listenership) feel better about themselves. The article is actively ignorant of the long, rich and international literature linking gentrification with displacement. It also avoids more complicated questions on the nature of gentrification and the (rather complicated) instances when it may in-fact prove beneficial. The argument that we should be pursuing is not how to avoid making dilapidated urban areas better places to live (I think development is a necessary and good thing), but how to insure that those changes and improvements benefit everyone, particularly those that are most at-risk of displacement.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The same thing's happening here in Toronto in the same guises, and under a wave of condoization (the rebuild of the Regent Park housing units into 'mixed housing,' and a few other places in downtown Toronto most likely about to undergo the same thing, although TCHC [Toronto Community Housing Corporation] has managed to arrange for some of the condos being built in downtown Toronto to have units for social housing). Myself, I'd wish that the developers would build some of these condos in the suburbanized areas of Toronto, so as to increase the density of the city along certain avenues, and also to preserve the special qualities of the older buildings in Toronto. Great article.