Claiming the Right to the City

In January 2007, 30 organizations from seven cities got together in Los Angeles and adopted a framework to “urbanize” human rights. The goal is to ground human rights in the real lives and struggles of communities of color in United States cities and to utilize the human rights framework to unite and elevate our organizing.

The “Right to the City” Alliance is informed by a power analysis of what we’re up against in urban spaces, recognizing the role of United States cities in the global economy. Our analysis sees working class communities as central to the fight for human rights in the city while embracing a vision of life and democracy for all city dwellers.

Principles of Unity for the Right to the City Alliance

We believe the right to the city is the right for all people to produce the living conditions that meet their needs. This includes:

Land for People vs. Land for Speculation
The right to land and housing that is free from market speculation and that serves the interests of community building, sustainable economies, and cultural and political space.

Land Ownership
The right to permanent public ownership of urban territories for public use.

Economic Justice
The right of working class communities of color, women, queer and transgender people to an economy that serves their interests.

Indigenous Justice
The right of First Nation indigenous people to their ancestral lands that have historical or spiritual significance, regardless of state borders and urban or rural settings.

Environmental Justice
The right to sustainable and healthy neighborhoods and workplaces, healing, quality health care, and reparations for the legacy of toxic abuses such as brownfields, cancer clusters, and superfund sites.

Freedom from Police and State Harassment
The right to safe neighborhoods and protection from police, immigration, and vigilante repression.

Immigrant Justice
The right of equal access to housing, employment, and public services regardless of race, ethnicity, and immigration status and without threat of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or employers.

Services and Community Institutions
The right of working class communities of color to transportation, infrastructure, and services that reflect and support their cultural and social integrity.

Democracy and Participation
The right of community control and decision making over the planning and governance of the cities where we live and work, with full transparency and accountability, including the right to public information without interrogation.

The right of working class communities of color to economic reciprocity and restoration from all local, national, and transnational institutions that have exploited or displaced the local economy.

The right to support and build solidarity between cities across national boundaries, without state intervention.

Rural Justice
The right of rural people to economically healthy and stable communities that are protected from environmental degradation and economic pressures that force migration to urban areas.

All of the groups that assembled are facing huge pressures of displacement and gentrification of their communities. We explored the ways that neo-liberalism and the privatization of land use have turned our cities over to developers. We discussed how we’re fighting struggles for housing, use of traditional space, and against predatory development. We discovered how putting forward a proactive and simple assertion of our rights made a huge difference in how we understood our ongoing work. And we quickly recognized that so many of the issues we’re fighting for in our cities: housing, transportation, education, LGBT rights to space, and rights of culture, are inextricably interrelated. We just need a common way to talk about it, strategize, and develop our power in common terms. Toward that end, the Right to the City Alliance was initiated so that we can build local power toward a national agenda for our cities. So that, one day, we can build enough power to stand with our brothers and sisters in the global South and demand global justice for humanity.

Demanding Change
Systems of power do not change unless they are forced to. The question for me in organizing has been how do we actually translate a moral assertion of rights into a practical demand on power. Effective demands do two things. They weaken the power of existing systems of inequality and strengthen the rights and conditions of those whose rights are at risk.

The difference between a universal assertion of what’s right and a practical demand is that effective demands recognize current power relationships. To be useful, organizing demands must be winnable by our forces and the target of the demands must be capable of conceding and delivering on its promises.

As organizers of poor people, workers, women, immigrants, LGBT people, and formerly colonized and enslaved peoples, one of our most basic understandings is that we organize those who are most directly impacted by oppression to directly confront the powers which deny them of their rights. This is not just a reflection of an organizing method but an indication of a political principle. It’s a question of leadership of the oppressed, of the working class, and people of color in particular. We’re not just all humans. We are people, classes, races, ethnicities, genders with distinct and varied relationships to power. We believe that those whose power and rights are most crushed must be central to leading the fights for their own liberation. The struggle for human rights is then a struggle for them to directly claim their humanity against oppressive systems and institutions.

While the human rights framework’s main tenet of universal humanity is incredibly powerful as a uniting force across nation states, class, and race, it must be grounded in a theory of power and social change to be effective. Even if we look back at Malcolm X’s strategy of utilizing human rights to be able to get around the domination of the United States, successful execution is ultimately tied to the potential power of countries in the Third World and others to exert the power of the United Nations in relation to the power of the United States.

Malcolm spoke at a time when Third World liberation struggles were growing in power and the possibilities of overturning white supremacy and colonization were inspirational and almost definite. In the decades since Malcolm’s words, those movements have subsided and the United States has become the sole global superpower. The United Nations and other international bodies have lost their influence and power. The United States not only has veto power, it can completely sidestep, overstep, or step on the United Nations with its demands and generally win. The point here is that both internationally, nationally, and locally, the tool is only as strong as the power that is behind it.

Ironically, with the historic slide of progressive power the significance of human rights grows. Its strength now is as a tool for power building. For both Malcolm and the Right to the City Alliance, the importance of human rights is as a vision.
Malcolm’s vision of human rights challenged the legitimacy of the United States government as the arbiter of justice. In the context of a fractured political left, and the dearth of progressive mass movements the human rights frame provides possibilities of putting forward bold, radical alternatives while appealing broadly to a common interest in the future of humanity.

Gihan Perera is cofounder and executive director of the Miami Workers Center.

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Gentrifying Downtown Miami

Community organizations  demand the right of return for  residents.

Manny Diaz has a vision, and he’s made no secret of it. As the mayor of Miami, Diaz wants to cement the city’s position as an economic, political, and cultural hub for the Americas and pursue the holy grail of mayors everywhere: world city status. Diaz, perhaps unlike other mayors though, is well positioned for this quest. He was recently elected head of the United States Conference of Mayors and hosted this year’s Super Bowl, one of those big-ticket events that many aspiring world cities in the United States fall over each other to attract.

However, a deeper look at Miami reveals that as politicians and big business run after “world city” status, they attack poor communities of color. They refuse to build new homes for the poor, or they nab major events like the Super Bowl but never direct the money to those who actually need it. “There’s no discussion of how these huge opportunities benefit communities,” said Denise Perry of Power U, a Miami grassroots organization. “So, people might get an extra eight hours of work selling bottled water on the street corner, but there’s nothing for us in the end.”

In January 2007, some 30 community-based groups banded together at a conference in Los Angeles to form an alliance called Right to the City, whose leaders want to link the gentrification happening in Miami to that in Detroit, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and abroad. According to alliance members, Americans are facing a new urban politics, wherein the word “redevelopment” has come to mean little more than tailoring every aspect of city life for corporations and affluent consumers. Those who advocate for the “right to the city” argue that simple neglect of poor communities no longer suffices under this new urban politics. Instead, the push is to remove the poor entirely from the newly gilded downtowns. Countering this will require thinking about the larger rights that people have to their cities. (See “Claiming the Right to the City,” on page 12 of this issue.)

Overtown Faces Gentrification
Nowhere in Miami is the new urban politics more evident than in Overtown, a historic and predominantly Black community located adjacent to downtown. More than 50 percent of its residents live in poverty. Median family income is just over $14,000 a year, and approximately 90 percent of residents are renters. This marks a dramatic shift from less than 50 years ago, when many Black residents owned businesses and homes. The decline began in the early 1960s, when major highways were built through the central business district of Overtown. More than 10,000 people were removed from the area, mirroring the abandonment of many urban areas across the country by the federal government, industry, and working- and middle-class whites.

Long neglected, the Overtown neighborhood has in recent years become an area of interest to the city and to developers. The “revitalization” of Miami has made Overtown suddenly valuable again, but the proximity of a poor, Black neighborhood to downtown stands as a glaring obstacle to urban renewal. This combination of “bad” people and good land could mean only one thing in the new Miami: the neighborhood had to be redeveloped.

In Overtown, as in most low-income communities of color, the issue of housing is paramount. Without affordable places to live, other pressing concerns like jobs and education become irrelevant. Predictably, housing and land are shaping up as the central conflict points in the struggle over Miami.

In 2007, Power U confronted the city bureaucracy about its negligence on the housing question. Miami has one of the highest levels of vacant public housing in the nation yet has done little to fill these vacancies, suggesting that the city would rather allow the empty units to fall into disrepair, condemn them and then “redevelop” them. It is part of what might be called a slow “scorched earth” removal policy. In response, the grassroots Miami Workers Center led a “Fill the Vacancies” campaign that began in 2004. In February 2007, as part of that campaign, Power U and another group, Take Back the Land, seized vacant public housing units and moved in two families. “There are over 41,000 people on Miami-Dade’s housing assistance wait list,” said Bernadette Armand, an organizer with Power U. “Meanwhile, the Board of County Commissioners is allowing many of these public housing units to remain vacant for five years or more. They do not want to address or solve this gentrification and housing crisis.”
Police arrived and activists were arrested, but a message had been sent to city officials, developers, and investors: people would defend their right to the land.

Right to the City
A number of progressive academics and grassroots social movements are looking for ways to understand and respond to the changes in many cities around the world and their devastating effects on poor communities. While there is no consensus on a definition of “Right to the City,” it is clear that cities are rapidly becoming a central battleground in the new world order. As urban scholars have documented, major cities have become global command centers for moving money across borders. The decline in urban manufacturing in the United States and Europe has left many cities with thousands of people who have no jobs or entry into the new economies but who do live on valuable city land. The implications for poor people of color are clear: where they were once segregated in abandoned downtowns while Whites fled to the suburbs, now they are expected to disperse to the peripheries as cities are taken back. Increasingly, their presence in the city in any capacity other than as cheap labor is unwelcome—a blight on the landscape of the new “entertainment” city. Members of the Right to the City Alliance hope that this framework will help poor people draw connections between what they experience on a daily basis and what happens in other communities. And, understanding that gentrification is a large-scale, global problem might just be the way for people to create a bigger vision for what they want to change.

“We are frustrated with just pushing for jobs and a small percentage of housing,” said Sara Mersha, the executive director of Direct Action for Rights and Equality in Providence, Rhode Island. A right to the city analysis, she observed, puts the focus on the colonization of entire communities and highlights the national and international dimensions of gentrification. This means linking the increase in rental and ownership costs, the development of luxury condos and the threatened displacement of Black, Cambodian, Puerto Rican, and other oppressed communities of color in Providence to the commodification of land and real estate speculation that are ravaging metro regions across much of the globe.

Failing to fill public housing is one major strategy to disperse poor communities. Another, familiar to urban residents across the country, is to actively support, politically and financially, the development of unaffordable housing, particularly the increasingly ubiquitous luxury condominium. In Overtown, the community is faced with a politically connected developer, the Crosswinds Communities, a privately held residential housing and development company based outside of Detroit, Michigan.
Crosswinds proposes to build luxury homes on publicly owned land in Overtown that has been vacant for 20 years, which it gained access to in an uncompetitive, no-bid process. The project is still in its early stages, and Power U, along with its allies, has been successful in delaying construction for two years. In fact, Power U chose to focus on this particular project because they see it as a harbinger of development, a preview of the vision that city elites have for their community.

Minimum yearly income to qualify for a home in the Crosswinds development is $40,000, in a community where the median family income is $14,000. According to a study done by researchers Marcos Feldman and Jen Wolfe-Borum at Florida International University, the median family income in Overtown implies that monthly housing costs over $350 would be out of the reach of most residents. Currently, the market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Miami-Dade County is $775, and the vast majority of Crosswinds units would be priced at market rates. Local residents argue that the Crosswinds project could casue more than 6,000 residents to be displaced and a historic cultural center of Miami to be lost.

Detroit and Miami Residents Fight Crosswinds
The campaign to mobilize the community against the Crosswinds project demonstrates some of the ways that the Right to the City framework can be used. “We went to Detroit, where Crosswinds has done the exact same thing to a Black community and completely flattened that neighborhood,” said Perry, the organizer with Power U. “Everyone’s been displaced, and they’re building luxury condominiums. In Detroit, it happened as they were building the new stadium.”

Having learned of this earlier struggle in Detroit, Power U set out to prevent a repeat in Overtown. “We interviewed the people in Detroit and brought them to Miami. So, when there was a public hearing, they were able to speak out, based on real experience that they had with the same developer there.”

Perry and her group used the Right to the City idea to emphasize that this was not just a local fight. “We could have carried on the Crosswinds campaign as only being mad at our local commissioner and only making our local commissioner the target, but then we’re missing the entire picture. Neoliberalism, corporations… all of those pieces would be missing if we only focused on the commissioner,” Perry said. “When our members talk about Crosswinds they also look around the city of Miami at the increase in poverty, the increase in homelessness. As we help people understand it more, they can name it even more clearly, but they already understand it. It’s just about sharing theory and language amongst organizations, which will help build a broader-scale movement.”

It is exactly this combination of popular education, analysis, and mobilization that the organizers of the Right to the City Alliance envision will galvanize a national movement. And while developers and their friends in city government try to paint these community efforts as anti-development, longtime Overtown resident and Power U member Howard Watts counters such attempts to seize the public relations high ground. Speaking to the Miami Sun Post, Watts asserted: “They say we don’t want development, which is false. We want development, but development for us.”

Tony Roshan Samara is assistant professor of Sociology at George Mason University. Grace Chang is a writer and activist for the rights of immigrants and women of color; she teaches at University of Califronia, Santa Barbara. Reprinted from

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Segregated Housing: Martin Luther King to Cabrini Green

Martin Luther King Jr. Courtesy of www.diversitycentral.comMartin Luther King Jr. Courtesy of In Chicago, the city skyline is undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis. Construction of luxury buildings, such as the Trump International Hotel and Residence, is underway, even as segregated public housing towers—such as the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects—are being demolished. The contrast cannot be overstated.

The Trump skyscrapers with their cutting-edge architecture, five bedroom penthouses, stunning river views, and 14th floor spa are a symbol of luxury and affluence attracting outside investment to the city. Across the Chicago River, the Cabrini-Green towers, built in 1943, with their high murder rate and some of the nations most concentrated gang activity, are a dark stain on Chicago’s public image. Frightened residents live as captives in their homes. The buildings (with boarded up windows, broken elevators, graffiti, and a trash shoot that at times is backed up to the 14th floor) are encased in steel fencing to prevent residents from being thrown off.

Only One Way Out

A New York Times story from 2007 highlighted the relief and regret felt by some of Cabrini-Green’s residents.1 Commenting on the drug users and decaying conditions of the buildings, Sierra Milton, one of the last remaining residents on the 14th floor, said, “I want to be out of here so bad, I want to go because I’m scared. I’ve been living here since 1998 and this is the worst I ever felt.”
One floor above, Thelma Hicks expressed some sadness about the pending move, saying, “If I had a choice, I’d stay here because this is my roots.”

Working class communities and people of color have been facing the same dilemma for decades under urban renewal—put up with substandard conditions, or pack up and leave their communities. Investment in improvements does not occur until former residents have relocated and the land sold to redevelopment agencies for hefty profits. Savvy civic leaders have long realized that tearing down a building is far easier than dismantling entrenched racial bias and poverty. Consequently, years go by and little is done to address the roots of urban inequality.

Not all leaders, however, have turned a blind eye to the problems contributing to the perpetuation of the modern-day American ghetto. On January 26, 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved into a run-down ghetto apartment in Chicago’s West Side to politicize the issue of fair housing. The segregated neighborhoods provided a fertile ground for King and other activists to launch a national campaign to confront the fierce inequality of America’s inner cities. Like the Cabrini-Green projects of present day, King’s neighborhood was typical of the North Lawndale district of Chicago. Referred to as “slumdale” by its residents, it was known for its rotting infrastructure, chipping paint, rodent infestation, and lack of heating.2

From de Jure to de Facto
King may have begun the battle for ending de jure segregation in housing, but the widespread practices of red-lining, urban renewal, restrictive covenants, biased mortgage lending, disinvestment, and white flight have ensured that the housing patterns established under slavery and Jim Crow remain firmly intact.3 Many of the housing conditions that King fought against are still faced by Black families in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Oakland.4

During the Second World War, waves of Black migrants flowed into Chicago seeking jobs, freedom, and a better life, only to find that the city lacked affordable housing and shelter for people of color. Because whites were unwilling to allow Blacks into their neighborhoods, Black renters were forced to live in overpriced, overcrowded, rodent-infested “fire traps” owned by absentee slumlords who made huge profits.5 Those who attempted to escape the squalor by moving outside racially bounded districts had their homes burned down and their families tortured. Others were murdered by rioting mobs of white people. These acts were not just the work of individual racists. Legislation played a major role in shifting tax revenue away from the inner city to the white suburbs. Later, under urban renewal, the city tore down more Black housing than it created, thus ensuring that the projects and ghettos remained in highly segregated areas. This phenomenon has been repeated in urban communities nationwide, demonstrating that the ghetto is not just a place but a structural process.6

Recognizing that a series of seemingly “blameless” widespread practices were the cause of modern-day inequality, and that creating a democratic America had to begin with basic planning issues surrounding how people made their lives with justice in housing, hiring, and education, Dr. King set out to mobilize citizens, politicians, real estate agents, business investors, and religious leaders for a summit. Following several months of tense negotiations (and mass rallies 50,000 strong), Mayor Richard J. Daley promised to establish fair housing in Chicago.7

Tragically, despite Dr. King’s other achievements, the promise of fair housing and an end to the ghettos of Chicago is yet to be fulfilled.

Cabrini-Green—a Metaphor for Inequality
Today, places such as Cabrini-Green serve to remind us that America remains a divided society with clear racial differences, not only in housing, but also in education, employment, life expectancy, exposure to toxics, legal access, and prison populations.
Ending poverty requires much more than tearing down dilapidated buildings and shifting their residents. People require not just adequate shelter but open spaces, farmers’ markets, clean environments, fair wages, reliable public transit, equitable schools, community centers, and the best and brightest of what urban planners can imagine for all.

Once home to nearly 15,000, most Cabrini-Green residents have moved out, even as gentrification is moving in. A handful of former residents have been able to secure homes in mixed housing developments, following a barrage of background checks. The vast majority of them, however, were given vouchers and pushed elsewhere even as the value of the property skyrocketed.
King believed that equitable cities can only be created when all of us—residents, politicians, workers, religious leaders, and community activists of every color—stop ignoring the existence of urban inequality in America. The construction of the Trump International Hotel and Residence and the nearby Spire tower (touted as the world’s tallest residential tower with its 1000+ condominiums with a view of four states) stand in stark contrast to King’s dream of equitable housing. These architectural feats are monuments to inequality. As long as men and women on the ground remain segregated by skin color, these symbols in the sky will represent this nation’s tremendous lost potential.

1. Saulny, Susan. “At Housing Project, Both Fear and Renewal.” The New York Times. March 18, 2007.
2. Wehrwein, Austin. “Dr. King Occupies a Flat in Slums.” The New York Times. January 26, 1966, p. 37.
3. Clark, Kenneth B. Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1965.
4. Hirsch, Anthony. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
5. Pulido, Laura. “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90, no.1. p.12-40. March 2000.
6. Sugrue, Thomas. The Origins of The Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996. 7. Ibid.

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Tax Credits for Developers, Bulldozers for the Poor

Protestors blocked by police outside the New Orleans city council meeting. © 2007

Despite Katrina causing the worst affordable housing crisis since the Civil War, the federal Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) is spending $762 million in taxpayer funds to tear down over 4600 public housing apartments and replace them with 744 similarly subsidized units—an 82 percent reduction. HUD took over the local housing authority years ago and all decisions are made in Washington D.C. HUD plans to build an additional 1000 market rate and tax credit units, which will still result in a net loss of 2700 apartments to New Orleans. The new apartments will cost an average of over $400,000 each.

Affordable housing is at a critical point along the Gulf Coast. Over 50,000 families still living in tiny FEMA trailers are being systematically forced out. Over 90,000 homeowners in Louisiana are still waiting to receive federal recovery funds from the so-called “Road Home” reconstruction fund. In New Orleans, hundreds of the estimated 12,000 homeless have taken up residence in small tents across the street from City Hall and under the I-10.

In Mississippi, poor and working people are being displaced along the coast to allow casinos to expand and develop shipping and other commercial activities. Two dozen ministers criticized the exclusion of renters and low-income homeowners from post-Katrina assistance: “Sadly we must now bear witness to the reality that our recovery effort has failed to include a place at the table... for our poor and vulnerable.”

Resident resistance is being expanded by allies from a coalition of groups who see the destruction of public housing—without one-for-one replacement— harming all renters and low-income homeowners.

Kali Akuno, of the Coalition to Stop Demolition, explains why many people who do not live in public housing are joining residents in this fight. “In the past two years, New Orleans has faced a series of social crises that have struck a blow to our collective vision for a more just and equitable city, not simply one that is more inviting to elites. Yet none of these crises has been as uniquely urgent as this. What is at stake with the demolition of public housing in New Orleans is more than just the loss of housing units: it is the possibility of losing any significant affordable housing for the foreseeable future. Without access to affordable housing, thousands of working class New Orleanians will be denied their human right to return.”

A federal court has refused to stop the scheduled demolitions. Residents offered evidence to show that the three-story garden-style buildings were structurally sound and pointed out that the local housing authority itself documented that it would cost much less to repair and retain the apartments than to demolish and reconstruct a small fraction of them. The New York Times architecture critic described them as “low scale, narrow footprint and high quality construction.” HUD promised to subject plans for demolition to 100 days of scrutiny, yet it approved demolition with no public input in less than two days. The court acknowledged some questions about the fairness of the process but concluded that if the demolitions turn out to be illegal, residents can always recover money damages later.

Republican party interests are clearly not served by the return of all African Americans to New Orleans. Louisiana before Katrina was described as a “pink state”—one that went Democratic sometimes and Republican at others. The tipping point for Louisiana Democrats was the deeply Democratic African American city of New Orleans. Immediately after the hurricanes struck, one political analyst from the right wing Heritage Foundation said, “The Democratic margin of victory in Louisiana is sleeping in the Astrodome in Houston.” Tiny turnout by African American voters in New Orleans in recent elections has led white Republican interests to calculate immediate new political gains. Demolition of thousands of low-income African American-occupied apartments only helps that political and racial dynamic.

But no one will say openly that African American renters are not welcome. Supporters of the destruction of thousands of apartments have come up with a series of stated reasons for their actions, but it clearly looks like political gain and economic enrichment are the real reasons.

Reduction of crime was supposed to be the main reason for getting rid of thousands of public housing apartments. Yet, crime in New Orleans has soared since Katrina, while the thousands of apartments remain shut.

Every one of the displaced families who were living in public housing is African American. Most are headed by mothers and grandmothers working low-wage jobs, or disabled, or retired. Thousands of children lived in the neighborhoods. Race, class, and gender are an unstated part of every justification for demolition, especially the call for “mixed-income housing.” If the demolitions are allowed to go forward, there will be mixed income housing—but the mix will not include over 80 percent of the people who lived there.

The absolute lack of any realistic affordable alternative is the main reason people want to return to their public housing neighborhoods, or be guaranteed one-for-one replacement of their homes. Absent that, redevelopment won’t help the residents or people in the community who need affordable housing.

Demolition Called Ethnic Cleansing

In December 2007, the City Council voted unanimously in favor of demolition, spurring massive protests from community members. In February 2008, despite several months of protests by local residents and with all court appeals exhausted, the demolition finally got underway in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, Switzerland the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination questioned representatives from the United States government on housing programs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Several community groups traveled to Geneva from the Gulf Coast in order to testify and make their voices heard. One of those residents was Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, who stated, “The demolition of public housing, the growing number of homeless people, the utter failure of the Road Home Program, the complete disregard of renters, police harassment of African Americans, and racial disparities in flood protection are evidence of ethnic cleansing by our government that abuses the human rights of mostly African American residents of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast region.”

HUD Corruption Reports
HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson has his own reasons for pressing ahead with the demolitions. HUD has approved plans to turn over scores of acres of prime public land to private developers using 99 year leases and to give hundreds of millions of dollars in direct grants, tax credit subsidies, and long-term contracts. One of the developers described it as the biggest tax-credit giveaway in years.

Investigative reporter Edward T. Pound of the National Journal has uncovered many questionable and several potentially criminal actions by HUD in New Orleans. (See Pound reported that HUD Secretary Jackson worked with, and is owed over $250,000 by an Atlanta-based company, Columbia Residential, which was part of a team awarded a $127 million contract by HUD to develop the St. Bernard housing development. Columbia was also awarded other earlier contracts for as yet undisclosed amounts under still undisclosed circumstances.

Pound also discovered that a golfing buddy of Secretary Jackson was given a no-bid $175 an hour “emergency” contract with HUD within months of Katrina. The buddy, William Hairston, was ultimately paid more than $485,000 for working at the Housing Authority of New Orleans over an 18- month period.

A review of the dozens of no-bid contracts approved by HUD in New Orleans shows millions going to politically connected consultants, law firms, architects, and insurance brokers. [In April 2008, Jackson resigned and is under investigation by the HUD inspector general, a federal grand jury, and the Justice Department's public integrity section.]

New Orleans and Beyond
What is happening in New Orleans is happening across the United States. It is just that New Orleans offers a more condensed and graphic illustration. The federal government is determined to get out of housing altogether and let the private market reign. A 2007 report of the Urban Institute confirms that in the last decade, over 78,000 low-income apartments have been demolished by HUD. Moreover, HUD has approved plans to demolish at least an additional 62,000 units. (See /411497_cost_benefits_hope_VI.pdf.) That is why locals are receiving support and solidarity from residents and housing advocates in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York.

Destruction of housing for the working poor is also a global scandal as corporations and governments push entire neighborhoods out. In India, traditional fishing villages destroyed by the tsunami are being forcibly moved away from the coast, and the land where they lived is being converted into luxury hotels and tourist destinations. The International Alliance of Inhabitants, which opposes the demolitions in New Orleans, points out poor people’s neighborhoods are also being taken away in Angola, Hungary, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

Poor and working people in New Orleans and across the globe are living on property that has become valuable for corporations. Accommodating governments are pushing the poor away and turning public property to private. HUD is giving private developers hundreds of millions of public dollars, scores of acres of valuable land, and thousands of public apartments.
Whether resident resistance in the Gulf Coast is successful or not will determine not only the future of the working poor in New Orleans, but of working poor communities nationally and globally. If the United States government is allowed to demolish thousands of much-needed affordable apartments of Katrina victims, what chance do others have?

Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. You can contact him at You can read updates on Quigley’s blog


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"The complete disregard of renters, police harassment of African Americans, and racial disparities in flood protection are evidence of ethnic cleansing by our government " — Monique Harden

New Orleans Black Diaspora: Will the Residents Come Back?

"The white elite is fighting to bring New Orleans back, richer than it was and whiter than it was, with no concern for anybody else."


Dr. Beverly Wright, Director, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice

For more than 20 years, Dr. Wright has been a leading scholar, advocate, and activist in the environmental justice arena. She has directed numerous grassroots community-initiated health surveys, evaluated community buy-outs, and supervised community development initiatives around contaminated sites and serves as a strong voice of the grassroots environmental justice movement.

Dr. Wright is a professor of sociology and the founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ). Since 1992, DSCEJ has fought for the rights of residents of the Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor, the area commonly referred to as Cancer Alley. Dr. Wright served as chair of the Second National People of Color Leadership Summit in 2002.

In early 2006, she initiated “A Safe Way Back Home,” a pilot project with the United Steel Workers Union, in which contaminated soil was removed from yards and common areas in the Aberdeen Road neighborhood of New Orleans.


Jesse Clarke: There has been a lot of publicity over the recent struggle focused on the destruction of public housing units. What’s the general state of things in New Orleans today? Who owned the city before Katrina, who owns it now?

Beverly Wright: The white elite is fighting to bring New Orleans back, richer than it was and whiter than it was, with no concern for anybody else. It’s clear to me that they don’t want people to come back. I am not against tearing bad housing down if, in fact, the plan is replacement housing. Poor people would love to live in a beautiful community. The struggle is over the amount of replacement housing: We are drawing a line in the sand for one-to-one replacement. We are right at the height of this struggle.

Clarke: How does that play out politically?

Wright: It affects your political strength. For example, they moved six-to-eight thousand people out of public housing. What was promised, was replacement housing. What we got, was a white city council district. Now we have two white city council presidents because the deal, when there was a Black majority, was to add a second president for the whites. That was quickly forgotten when the opportunity existed for them to take control, even though it’s not representative.

Before the storm, the white population was quite small. We had a majority Black city council. The Black population was [around] 70 percent, if you add the undercount. The mayor claims to have figures showing that we are almost back to 65 percent, but some people don’t want those numbers known. Since the storm, hundreds of Black people have been purged from the [voting] rolls, many of them unable to get back home. In this context, they held an election for city council where the one Black person that ran got 48 percent of the vote. She needed 51 percent in order to [avoid] a run-off. Those “missing voters” certainly made the difference. [At] the runoff, the Black turnout was low. The result: a majority white city council. There’s nothing about being fair in all of this. They took advantage of the situation [and] now we have a majority white city council. That could affect who owns what and where in a dramatic way and very quickly.

I’ll give you an example of [something] I saw happen that made me see what our plight could be. A Black woman who owns a daycare center in a city that has an unbelievable shortage of daycare went before the city council to have her [business] expanded. She’s in an area that didn’t get a whole lot of water. The neighborhood association—made up of all white people—came out against her expanding this Black daycare center. I watched her get locked out with nobody to speak for her, and the white city council president, saying: “I hope you don’t give up. We’re going to go with the neighborhood association and not allow you to expand this permit.” [At] a time when the city is under water, he’s denying her the opportunity to expand service to Black children needing daycare because the whites in the neighborhood are against it!

It became so clear to me [then] what political representation means. And we don’t have anybody representing us.

Clarke: So, is there a general resurfacing of racism in action—without the explicit words?

Wright: Absolutely! And sometimes there’s a resurgence of words. I mean, I live in Dixie! One of our legislators said the flooding of the housing project had done what the city had attempted to do for the last 20 years, and that was to get rid of the poor. One of the city council people talked about how we should never allow what happened before. That is, have so many poor people concentrated in one place.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not really a resurgence. [The racism] has always been here. It’s just that they have been dealt a stronger hand. Their idea of getting rid of poverty is shutting the poor out and making certain they don’t come to New Orleans. Of course, the real way to deal with poverty is not to get rid of the poor people but to get rid of poverty… [with] a decent school system and living wage jobs. But that’s not how they see it. And they said it openly.

They’ve also been talking about mixed-use housing: with condos and all of this development that [will make] young, upwardly mobile white people move to the city. What they’re attempting to do is to change the political structure of this city by race. By appealing to young white people to help us rebuild, they’re hoping to get the city back to being white, which it hasn’t been in a very long time.

Clarke: I understand that there was a sizeable amount of Black and poor home ownership in New Orleans.

Wright: Yes, [there are] a lot of poor homeowners. The lower Ninth Ward was owned by Black people, and the renters oftentimes were relatives [who] weren’t paying much rent.

Clarke: And what’s happening to these owners as the properties continue to sit vacant?

Wright: After the storm, [people] paid their houses off with the insurance [but] they have no money to rebuild. A lot of the mortgage companies forced the poor homeowners to pay off their mortgages, which was illegal. So, these former homeowners [now] actually own the land that’s just sitting there. They don’t have money to fix it but they don’t feel the pressure to sell. That’s where Road Home {reconstruction fund for homeowners] was supposed to kick in to help people, [and they] are still waiting.

Clarke: They can still meet the tax bills, then?

Wright: Up to now, the taxes have not gone up extraordinarily, because we still have—and it might change—a homestead exemption. For example, the house that I live in now, my tax was $457 per year; [but] with the homestead exemption, my tax bill is $25 per year. You pay no taxes on the first $75,000 of your house’s [value]. In a Southern town like this, where a majority of the houses cost less than $75,000, most people pay zero. That’s why poor people could keep their homes. But when they reassess the houses, [their value] will go up. It still [would not be] like California and some other places, but it [may be] enough for poor people to not be able to [afford] them.
This hasn’t happened yet, but it’s coming, and people are bracing themselves for it. The city council has been talking about programs for people under certain incomes so they wouldn’t lose their homes. That’s going to be a big issue that we’re going to have to push for.

Clarke: When you look downtown you see new hotels, casinos, and entertainment centers; are the new owners getting a bonanza?

Wright: Oh, we’re getting some new owners. Donald Trump is coming in. We [also] have the Uptown area—the Warehouse District apartments and condos are extremely expensive. The Krauss Building on Canal Street—I understand it’s already sold out and they just started construction.
Some of this was going on before the storm and the storm just hastened [things]. For instance, Uptown was built on a grid with super-houses on the main street. The houses for workers are placed with slave quarters on the Inner Circle, so you still have some relatively small houses off the main streets… owned by Black people. [But] houses around them are selling for a half million dollars, so these little wooden shotguns are now being appraised for an unbelievable amount of money. That’s one of the things that we’re real concerned about.
I think it’s a way to get rid of the poor people who own houses Uptown—by increasing the value of the property all around them, [so] they can’t afford the taxes.

Downtown New Orleans by night, as portrayed in Delta Airlines In-Flight Magazine.” ©2008 Delta Airlines

Clarke: Are you trying to get new affordable housing built?

Wright: Well, that’s what’s going on now through the Office of Recovery Management. Two huge contracts for building affordable housing were given to two organizations—Providence, which has been around a long time and is a part of the Council of Charities, and another [newer] group. It still is nowhere near the number of housing units we’ve lost or will lose, with the destruction of the projects, but there is an attempt to make certain that we extract as much of the land as we can for public housing. [When] they got rid of the St. Thomas Housing Project, they included some low-income housing, but it’s nowhere near [meeting the needs of] the 6,000 people who were displaced.

Clarke: How far has the rebuilding of the levees come? Who is benefiting?

Wright: I think that the majority of the energy and monies for rebuilding have gone into the areas that have had the least amount of damage. [That is] sections of the city where white people, rich people live, [rather] than where poor and Black people live.
The Army Corps of Engineers has, in fact, [already] secured the property of the wealthy white people. Their last report basically shows that [wealthy, white] Lakeview and Old Metairie are the only sectors of this city that have increased levee protection. They got five-and-a-half feet more protection, so they probably won’t get any water at all.
Where I live, we have gotten zero increased levee protection. The lower Ninth [Ward] has gotten only two feet of increased protection. If we get another hurricane like Katrina, we can expect approximately the same amount of water and damage and loss of life [according to a] chart from the Army Corps of Engineers. If that’s not the most racist thing that I’ve ever seen in my life… people were so upset, they said it was a mistake.
Clarke: So, who is doing this work?

Wright: Bottom line, outside contractors. For the most part, the work is going to big firms that have long-term relationships with the Army Corps. There are a small number of local contractors who have gotten some money—to appease the masses. The local and minority contractors are locked out.

Clarke: So they haven’t quite got the political will to actually bulldoze, or rather re-asses and tax and expropriate the Black homeowners?

Wright: Not yet. [But] I believe, it’s coming. They know they can buy this land for ten cents if we get another hurricane.
I think they’re getting a lot more resistance than what they expected. The fact that there was so much Black home ownership is the thing that’s hindering their process, and they’re trying to figure out how to get that land from us. If they are successful, then they can move forward with everything. But we’re holding on, you know, we’re holding on.

In the Seventh Ward—the ward that I’m from—there is a real vocal group [that is] adjudicating old properties and turning them into low- to moderate-income housing in my old neighborhood. I believe that that’s going to be our only hope—the tenacity of the people themselves who are determined to keep their land like me and many, many, others.

Jesse Clarke is Editor of Race, Poverty and the Environment.

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Hope VI Mixed-Income Housing Projects Displace Poor People

If you have ever lived in or around a public housing development you would probably agree with the stated aim of the federal Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) program: Drastic measures are needed to improve the dilapidated buildings and uplift the lives of the people who live in them.

HOPE VI provides grant money from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to local housing authorities to demolish and reconstruct “distressed” projects. Tenants receive relocation assistance and a portable Section 8 voucher to subsidize their rent in the private market while their public housing developments are demolished—entirely or in part—and reconstructed as mixed-income housing complexes in an attempt to deconcentrate pockets of intense poverty.
In theory, the original tenants are then able to return to their refurbished homes and enjoy a wide range of social and economic programs designed to ease the transition from welfare to work. In reality, what often happens is that the reconstruction is delayed or abandoned altogether, or the “mixed income” residency requirements causes the poorest of the tenants—those most in need of subsidies—to lose their homes.

A Brief History of HOPE that Isn’t
Since 1992, HUD has awarded 446 HOPE VI grants in 166 cities. As of 2006, 78,100 public housing units had been demolished and an additional 10,400 units were slated for redevelopment.1

However, a 2004 study by the Urban Institute found that only 21,000 units had been built to replace the 49,828 demolished units. In other words, roughly 42 percent of the demolished public housing had been replaced.2

In 1940, President Roosevelt stood in front of Atlanta’s Techwood Housing Project, the first completed federally funded public housing, and said, “Within a very short time people who never before could get a decent roof over their heads will live here in reasonable comfort and healthful, worthwhile surroundings.”3

In 1996, despite its special place in history, the Techwood Project was the first to be demolished under HOPE VI to make room for the Olympic village. However, visitors to the Olympics were still able to walk through a virtual reality exhibit of Techwood, but without the annoying presence of its displaced tenants. The original Techwood contained 1100 units—all of them for public housing. Today, only 300 units are available for public housing.

A HOPE Based on Punishment
Under the Clinton and Bush administrations, Republicans and Democrats have colluded to systematically dismantle what was left of the social welfare system ushered in by the New Deal. Throughout the 1990s, the rhetoric of welfare reform blamed “cultures of poverty” and “concentrations of poverty” for poverty itself. Instead of getting tough on corporate layoffs of thousands of people during peak profit time, Clinton decided to show “tough love” to those most likely to be at the receiving end of structural unemployment.

Of course, it would be a grave mistake to stereotype all public housing residents as welfare recipients because public housing tenants are often some of the hardest working but poorest paid people. In 1999, the median income of families living in public housing was $6,500, well below a living wage by any standard. In their essay “Failing, But not Fooling, Public Housing Residents,”4 authors Jacqueline Leavitt and Mary Ochs point out that both “welfare reform” and “public housing reform,” take a punitive approach to public policy and make false assumptions about the availability of decent-paying jobs and adequate job training. Interestingly, punishment and privatization often seem to go hand-in-hand.

In 1996, President Clinton signed into law a bill designed to accelerate evictions in public housing. Dubbed “One Strike and You’re Out,” it was touted as a way to stop drug trafficking and violent crimes in public housing developments. Since One Strike was a civil procedure, tenants could be evicted even if they were acquitted of criminal charges. In effect, what One Strike did was provide an excuse for eviction based solely on innuendo and allegations of criminal activity. Thankfully, in January 2001, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eliminated those provisions of “One Strike,” which allowed evictions of those who were both innocent and ignorant of the crime for which they were being evicted.

Fighting HOPE with Resistance
In 1996, a small group of residents at a North Beach public housing facility in San Francisco who were concerned about being displaced by HOPE VI decided to fight back. They sought the help of the Eviction Defense Network (EDN), which had previously led a successful campaign to prevent evictions of undocumented residents.

There followed a three-year, door-to-door campaign of organizing and educating the tenants about the dangers of relocating for HOPE VI upgrades without a firm promise of a home to return to. Consequently, more than 60 percent of the tenants signed pledges not to move until they had received real guarantees. The San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA), fearing that delays and a failure to comply with HUD mandates would cause them to lose $23 million in HOPE VI money, relented. The tenants were offered an “Exit Contract” with legally binding guarantees, most significant among them: one-for-one replacement of all demolished low-income units and a limited number of reasons for disqualifying a tenant from re-occupancy.
Charged by this modest victory, the tenant activists of North Beach drafted a Public Housing Tenant Protection Act (PHTPA) as a citywide ordinance. Although supported by San Francisco Board Of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano, and passed by the Finance and Labor Committee, the measure was eventually killed by Supervisor Amos Brown.

QHWRA: No Hope for the Homeless
The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act (QHWRA) of 1998 mandates that all public housing developments should become “mixed income,” meaning, all new housing units are for those making 30 to 80 percent of the median income. In effect, this makes it virtually impossible to exit homelessness via the public housing system.

Partnerships with the private sector are key in reducing federal government costs for low-income housing. According to HOPE VI proponents, the average annual direct costs are reduced by $3.9 million for public housing units redeveloped as mixed-income housing.5 But urban land being at a premium, the HOPE VI process usually results in the privatization of many developments as developers contracted to do the reconstruction generally gain partial ownership (currently estimated at around one billion dollars) of the new housing. So, the poor continue to lose, as corporations, such as McCormack Baron, Sun America, and Bridge Housing Developers make immense profit.

Nationwide, there are now over one million families awaiting subsidized housing (as acknowledged by HUD’s own research) but the federal government continues to cut back on available units.

Fillmore before redevelopment.Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

.Spatial Deconcentration as Political Diffusion
The United States Code of Federal Regulations has identified “the growth of population in metropolitan and other urban areas, and the concentration of persons of lower income in central cities” and set a goal to “develop new centers of population growth and economic activity.” Its apparent objective is “the reduction of the isolation of income groups within communities and geographical areas and the promotion and increase in the diversity and vitality of neighborhoods through the spatial deconcentration of housing opportunities of persons of lower income and the revitalization of deteriorating neighborhoods.”6
In other words, poverty is a result of poor people living in close proximity to each other—rather than of structural unemployment or the persistence of racism—and “economic integration,” or living close to employed people will set a good example for the poor.
Is spatial deconcentration a progressive solution to poverty or a hideous experiment in social engineering? One obvious effect of spatial deconcentration is the dilution of the political power wielded by concentrated voting blocks. The other is that it makes more difficult any political organizing for the common economic interests of a community.

Author Yolanda Ward traces the theoretical roots of spatial deconcentration to when President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders commonly known as the Kerner Commission.7 Inner City riots were frequent in the 1960s. (San Francisco’s largest was in 1966—a community response to the police killing of Matthew Johnson, a 16-year-old African American youth from the Bayview.) The Commision was set up to investigate the origins of 160 disorders in 128 cities in the first nine months of 1967.

The Kerner Commission report, released in 1968, recommended traditional liberal solutions to poverty, such as strengthening the social safety net and increasing job opportunities for inner-city citizens. It also suggested spatial deconcentration as a viable strategy to deter urban uprisings.

Whatever the intentions of its promoters, the end result of spatial deconcentration (supported by the Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Jr., and Clinton administrations) has been the political demobilization of the oppressed as poor residents are scattered to the suburbs.

Pushing the Poor Out of Town
Urban Habitat studies published in the 1990s track the deconcentration process in the Bay Area where displaced low-income residents generally are dispersed to the rim cities of Antioch, Vallejo, San Pablo, Dixon, El Cerrito, and Vacaville. In each of these areas, the number of available jobs exceeds the population. Some, like Vallejo and Alameda, have suffered high unemployment rates as a result of military base closures. So, public housing transplants to these areas often have to commute to the metropolitan areas to find low-wage work.

Overt political racism is another issue that gentrification refugees have to face in the rim cities. A case in point is the early morning raid conducted by a Vallejo city taskforce on the federally subsidized but privately owned Marina Green development in 1997. Over 60 families were rousted from their beds and forced to watch as officers ransacked their apartments for no apparent reason other than that they all received welfare.

The irony of federal housing policy “reform” is that it uses a progressive critique to accomplish completely conservative aims. The HOPE VI program argues against warehousing the poor in substandard areas and many housing authorities actually have self-sufficiency programs for their residents to prepare for gainful employment. However, by abolishing the requirement that demolished public housing units be replaced on a one-for-one basis and cutting funding, Congress has effectively given the federal government an exit strategy out of the public housing business.

As the nationwide housing crisis intensifies and the nation teeters on the brink of a recession, we are faced with the type of economic and political conditions that existed during the Great Depression. We can only hope that they will lead to a re-ermergence of some of the more enlightened and progressive social programs of that era.

Urban Removal: Legacy of Destruction

The term “urban removal” refers explicitly to the government-financed-and-facilitated destruction of inner-city housing. In the case of HOPE VI, the destruction is of government-owned developments but in some cases, the government also seized private property and removed entire communities.

The Western Addition or Fillmore District of San Francisco is ground zero in the history of urban removal. The first removal in that area occurred with the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. The area was then populated by Blacks who were aggressively recruited from the southern states to work in the Bay Area building war machines. During the war years, Blacks not only enjoyed a degree of economic prosperity, the neighborhood became a center for jazz, blues, and the arts. But when the war ended, the government started a propaganda campaign against the Fillmore, branding it “blighted.” Given the relative prosperity of the Fillmore at the time, the notion of “blight” had little to do with decrepit conditions, but everything to do with racist assumptions and developer profit.

The urban renewal legislation passed by Congress in 1949 and 1954 conferred Redevelopment Agencies with the power to condemn entire city blocks and evict residents, be they renters or owners. The process of eminent domain proved devastating to the roughly 17,000 people displaced during both phases of the project.

Before urban removal, a large portion of Blacks owned their own homes. Joyce Miller was nine years old when her family was forced to leave their home under the threat of eminent domain. “They offered the families some money, usually less than what the place was worth,” Miller recalls. “They told you that if you didn’t accept, they would take your home anyhow.”
Although Miller’s family found housing not far from their former home, other residents were not as lucky. “The realtors made sure that if you stayed in San Francisco, you went only to the Ingleside District or the Bayview,” she says. “Everyone else was pushed out of the city.”

1. Turner, et al. Estimating the Public Costs and Benefits of HOPE VI Investments: Methodological Report. The Urban Institute, June 2007.
2. Popkin, et al. A DECADE OF HOPE VI: Research Findings and Policy Challenges. The Urban Institute and The Brookings Institution. May, 2004.
3 Dedication of Techwood Homes. Archives of Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, Atlanta. Nov. 29, 1935.
4. Leavitt, Jacqueline and Ochs, Mary. Failing, but not Fooling, Public Housing Residents, The Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies Working Paper Series, University of California, Los Angeles. 1998.
5. Turner, et al. Estimating the Public Costs and Benefits of HOPE VI Investments: Methodological Report. The Urban Institute, June 2007.
6. Title 42, Chapter 69 Sec. 5301. Congressional findings and declaration of purpose Section 101 of the Act.
7. Ward, Yolanda. Spatial Deconcentration. /text/ward.htm

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Privatizing Public Services Imperils Cities

Over the past few decades, governments at all levels in the United States have been in a perpetual state of deficit. Taxes are way down from their post–World War II levels, and except for a brief period during the tech boom, there is rarely enough money for even basic social services

“It’s been a strategy since the 1970s to ‘starve the beast,’ as Grover Norquist calls it,” says Robert Haaland, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Local 1021.

At the same time, politicians terrified of raising taxes, have been looking for a magic bullet to fix the deficit problem. It goes by many names—privatization, public-private partnerships, competitive outsourcing, creative financing solutions—but the basic idea is to allow the power of competition in an unregulated market to provide the public with the best services at the lowest cost.
“To do or to buy is the question that all governments face,” says Ken Jacobs, director of the University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center.

We have been buying.
Since 2000, outsourcing of federal dollars has increased 100 percent, to $422 billion in taxpayer funds, according to a September 2007 study by the United States Public Interest Research Group of Washington D.C. The federal government is now the private sector’s largest customer.
Even a city like San Francisco, with a reputation as one of the most progressive cities in the country, has been wooed by public-private partnerships to fund its many civic needs, including construction of a new power plant and the running of its Muni transit system.

Milton Friedman congratulated by President Ronald Reagan. © 2008 Free To Choose Media, courtesy of the Power of Choice press kit

Public, Bad! Private, Good!
“The public has been schooled to think that government is the problem, not the solution,” says Elliott Sclar, professor of economics at Columbia University. In his book, You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatization (Cornell University, 2000), he writes: “American folk wisdom holds that, by and large, public service is uncaring, unbending, bureaucratic, and expensive, whereas competitively supplied private services, such as FedEx are efficient and responsive.”

Competition, the privatizers say, drives innovation. Less red tape means more efficiency. A lack of unions and collective bargaining agreements translates to lower labor costs. Large-scale multinational operations can reduce redundancy and streamline their processes. But this country has a lot of experience with privatization, and the record is not good.

One hundred years ago, private companies did a lot of what we now call government work. “Contracting out was the way American cities carried out their governmental business ever since they grew beyond their small village beginnings,” writes Moshe Adler, a Columbia University professor of economics, in his 1999 paper “The Origins of Governmental Production: Cleaning the Streets of New York by Contract During the 19th Century.” At one time, private companies provided firefighting, trash collection, and water supplies, to name just a few essential services. But, according to Adler, “By the end of the 19th century, contracting out was a mature system… and the realization that every possible improvement to contracting out had been tried, led city after city to declare its failure.”

Following the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco, for example, the city decided to municipalize water service after Spring Valley Water—the company charged with the task—failed to deliver while the fires raged.

In Philadelphia, as well as in San Francisco, the business of firefighting was once very lucrative—for both, the firefighting companies and the arsonists who were paid to “generate business.”

“Large amounts of public contracting out historically created lots of opportunities for fraud and nepotism,” says Jacobs. So, public agencies stepped in to provide basic services as cheaply and uniformly as possible. Towns and cities took on the tasks of security, education, and sanitation. Nationally, the federal government improved roads and transit, enacted Social Security benefits, and established a National Park System, among other things.

A Legacy of Deficits and No-Bids
About 30 years ago, the pendulum started to swing the other way and privatization came back—driven by University of Chicago Economist Milton Friedman, enacted in a massive policy shift by Ronald Reagan, and proliferated by Grover Norquist and the neocon agenda. During Reagan’s first term, he cut taxes by 25 percent overall, but the rich got a 40 percent cut. Domestic spending fell by half a trillion dollars in the 1980s, but any savings were countered by a rise in defense spending.
According to Harvard Economist Lawrence Summers, “The Reagan budgets will influence the government for the rest of this century. Just as the Great Society left an imprint of federal commitment to help the indigent and equality of opportunity, the Reagan budget deficits will leave an imprint of non-involvement.” (Quoted in Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency, Johns Hopkins University, 1990.)

Reagan’s massive tax breaks and realignment of money led to a boom in the outsourcing of public services, with private companies doing more municipal work and nonprofit organizations trying to fill in for social services, welfare, housing, health care, and the environment.

The George W. Bush era has seen even more overt outsourcing, with no-bid contracts that completely turn over government services to the private sector in “direct conversions.” The Washington Post recently reported that no-bid government contracts have tripled in the past six years.

The Failure of the Privatization Myth
To field-test the primacy of privatization, the Reagan administration sponsored a transportation competition in the early 1980s between Miami’s Metro-Dade Transit Agency and Greyhound Bus Service. The two providers were each given five comparable transit routes to manage over three years and 80 new buses were bought with a $7.5 million grant from the federal government.
After 18 months, 30 of the Greyhound buses were so badly damaged that they had to be permanently pulled from service; passenger complaints were up 100 percent; and ridership was down 31 percent. Why? There was no incentive in Greyhound’s contract to maintain the equipment or retain riders, so the company’s only goal was to deliver the cheapest service possible.
The experiment offers an important lesson in privatization politics: when you add the cost of adequately protecting the public’s interest, the private sector doesn’t look so efficient.

“Market fundamentalists present an idealized, simpleminded notion of competitive markets in which buyers and sellers have equal knowledge,” says Sclar. “Anyone can be a buyer, anyone can be a seller, everyone can evaluate the quality of the good. In this never-never land, that’s often the way the case is made for privatization by this particular group of economists.”
In the real world, privatizing a service raises a number of issues. “Accountability gets to be a really big problem,” says Ellen Dannin, professor of law at Penn State University. “There are predictions about how much money will get saved through privatization, but no one ever goes back to check.”

When companies take over services that aren’t typically part of a competitive market, all sorts of unexpected problems occur. Jacobs points to the contracting of school bus services in cash-strapped districts. Not only did costs eventually rise in many places, but when schools tried to go back to providing their own service, the skilled drivers who knew the routes and the kids and were able to do much more than drive a bus were gone.

Sclar and Dannin agree that any service that lacks competition—such as, electricity—should be public. “It’s a natural monopoly,” Sclar points out. “It’s either going to be a well-regulated industry, or it’s got to be done publicly.”

Corporations exist to make money. And although graft, mismanagement, and scandal have always been present in City Halls, in the final analysis, the legislative, judicial, and executive branches were not designed to generate profits. Typically, very little is known about a private contract outside the company. Open books are something most companies lobby against fiercely and this lack of transparency leaves the door wide open for corruption.

Sclar is of the opinion that private and nonprofit companies that receive contracts should be required to abide by public-records laws. “Transparency should always be the goal,” he says. “If a company doesn’t want to make its records public, [it shouldn’t] go after public work.”

Who Owns the Roads?
These days, public goods, from which everyone presumably benefits, are all too often falling into the hands of profit-driven companies. In New Orleans, charter schools have replaced all but four public schools. In about 15 municipalities, public libraries are now managed by the privately owned Library Systems and Services. At least 21 states are considering public-private partnerships to finance massive improvements to aging roads and bridges. When a publicly owned road is leased for 99 years to a private company, the politician who cut the deal gets a huge chunk of cash up front to balance the local budget, or to meet another need. But when the new owner of the road puts in a tollbooth to recoup costs, it’s not that different from the tax that the politician—perhaps long gone from office—refused to impose. What option does that leave the voting driver?

If there’s one point that Dannin never tires of making to her students, it’s this: Employers depend on roads for their employees to drive to work and a public education system to train their workers. They depend on housing, police, the court system, and the system of laws.

“[There’s] a huge amount of infrastructure we tend not to think about [usually],” she says. “We live within an ecosystem... [but we have] a hard time seeing that ecosystem, that infrastructure. That’s what your taxes pay for.”

If we keep this reality in mind, we might have a slightly different answer the next time someone asks: “Who owns our cities?”


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Selling Our City To Lennar Corporation

Over the last decade, Florida-based mega-developer Lennar Corp., has been snatching up the rights to the Bay Area’s former naval bases—those vast stretches of land that once housed the Pacific Fleet but are now home to rats, weeds, and sometimes, low-income renters.

Lennar acquired its first base in 1997, when it was named master developer for the decommissioned Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. Two years later, it bid for the Hunters Point Shipyard but a consultant for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency recommended giving the development rights to Ohio-based Forest City. Lennar fought back, using its deep pockets and calling on its politically connected friends. Soon, a parade of Lennar supporters—among them, Mayor Willie Brown and Representative Nancy Pelosi—convinced agency commissioners (all of them mayoral appointees) to ignore the consultant and go with Lennar because it was the only developer that had bothered to reach out to the Bayview Hunters Point community.

Who can say if Forest City would have done a better job? A developer is, after all, a developer. But Lennar’s victory at the shipyard helped it win the rights, four years later, to redevelop Treasure Island—even before it had broken ground at Hunters Point. And a couple of years later, it parlayed yet another exclusive development agreement; this time for Candlestick Point.Lennar Corporation clears land in Bayview disturbing asbestos dust. © 2007 Jakub Moser/Chronicle

Now that the Fortune 500 company (with revenues of $16.3 billion in 2006) does have a track record at the shipyard, serious doubts have been raised about the wisdom of entrusting most of San Francisco’s undeveloped coastline to a profit-driven corporation that is proving difficult to regulate or hold accountable for its actions. Sure, Lennar has provided job training for southeast San Francisco residents, set up small-business assistance and community builder programs, and invested $75 million in the first phase of development. But it was also a Lennar subcontractor who failed to monitor and control the release of toxic asbestos dust next to a school at the Hunters Point Shipyard.

Also, when the building industry took a nosedive in 2006, Lennar reneged on its promise to provide much needed rental housing at Hunters Point Shipyard, saying that it was no longer economically feasible for the company to do so. The Redevelopment Agency had originally approved a plan for 700 of the 1600 units on the 500-acre site to be rentals.

In November, 2006, Eve Bach, an economist with Arc Ecology, warned the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that Lennar’s public benefits package for Treasure Island—comprised of 1,800 below-market affordable housing units, 300 acres of parks, open space, and recreational amenities, thousands of permanent and construction jobs, green building standards, and innovative transportation—could be seriously compromised. She cited the discrepancy between Lennar’s stated desire for a 25 percent return and Budget Analyst Harvey Rose’s projection of an 18.6 percent return as one basis for concern. “Particularly at risk [for] shortfalls are transit service levels, very-low-income housing, and open-space maintenance,” Bach warned.

Dysfunctional Development
“I can’t say that Lennar is trustworthy, not when they come up with a community benefits package that has no benefit for the community,” says activist Marie Harrison. “I’d like to be able to say that the bulk of our community are going to be homeowners. But I resent that Lennar is spoon-feeding that idea to folks in public housing who want a roof over their heads and don’t want to live with mold and mildew, but don’t have jobs or good credit or a down payment. I’ve heard seniors say, ‘I can’t even afford to die.’ Lennar is not being realistic, and that hurts my feelings and breaks my heart.”

The Redevelopment Agency’s apparent inability to pull the plug on Lennar or its subcontractors leaves observers wondering how best to characterize the relationship between the agency, the city, the community, and Lennar. The commissioners have been appointed either by Mayor Gavin Newsom or his predecessor, the consummate dealmaker Willie Brown. But the incestuous web of political connections goes even further.

Newsom is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s nephew by marriage. Another nephew—Laurence Pelosi—is Newsom’s campaign treasurer and former vice president of acquisitions for Lennar. He is currently with Morgan Stanley Real Estate, which holds Lennar stock. Both Newsom and Laurence Pelosi are connected to lobbyist Darius Anderson, who hosted a fundraiser to pay off Newsom’s campaign debts and counts Lennar among his clients.

Willie Brown’s ties to Lennar run equally deep. His head of economic development, Kofi Bonner, is now an executive vice president with Lennar serving as lead negotiator in the Hunters Point redevelopment.

It appears that the city’s interests would have been served better if the job of appointing and overseeing developers had been given to elected officials, such as the Board of Supervisors, rather than to mayoral appointees.

Plan B: Damage Control
At the moment, it appears that Lennar is accountable to none, except the hapless Redevelopment Agency. “Without any teeth, the Agency’s claims that they have enforcement capabilities are like arguments for the existence of God,” says Arc Ecology’s Saul Bloom. He recommends hiring an independent consultant to oversee the site, and firing contractors who mess up.
A Proposition 65 lawsuit filed “individually and on behalf of the general public,” by Christopher Muhammad’s Nation of Islam-affiliated nonprofit describes Lennar as “a rogue company that can’t be trusted.”

“Our contention is that Lennar purposefully turned the monitors off,” says Muhammad. “If you read the air district’s asbestos dust mitigation plan, it appears that there was a way to do this grading safely... The problem was that Lennar was looking at their bottomline and violated every agreement. They threw the precautionary principle to the wind, literally. And the city looked the other way.”

Raymond Tompkins, an associate researcher with San Francisco State University’s Chemistry Department and a member of the Remediation Advisory Board to the Navy, says: “If you can’t put water on dirt [to avoid] dust, you can’t deal with the far more complicated processes at the rest of the shipyard.” He would like an industrial hygienist to oversee the site.
“[Lennar’s] cavalier attitude around asbestos dust fosters concern among the African American community that gentrification is taking place and that they are going to be sacrificed for a stadium [next],” adds Tomkins, who has family in Bayview Hunters Point.
In fact, both Newsom and Brown, along with Senator Dianne Feinstein and Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, support a proposed ballot measure that would allow Lennar to build a new 49ers stadium at Hunters Point.

The Bayview “Jobs” Initiative
Who really is behind the Bayview Jobs, Parks, and Housing Initiative, which does not even have the support of the 49ers, who prefer to be in Santa Clara?

The measure was submitted by the African American Community Revitalization Consortium (AACRC), which describes itself as “a group of area churches, organizations, residents, and local merchants, working to improve Bayview Hunters Point.” Yet, this group is backed by Lennar and draws its members from among those with a personal financial stake in the company’s projects. AACRC founders Rev. Arelious Walker of the True Hope Church of God in Christ in Hunters Point and Rev. J. Edgar Boyd of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church of San Francisco are both members of Tabernacle Affiliated Developers, one of four Bayview-Hunters Point community builders who entered into an agreement with Lennar to build 30 percent of the for-sale units in Parcel A. Tabernacle will build the affordable units while Lennar develops the market-rate homes.

Neither Walker nor Boyd disclosed this conflict of interest at a July 31, 2007 Board of Supervisors hearing where they, and the busloads of people Lennar helped ferry to City Hall, created the illusion that the community was keen on keeping the work going, instead of (temporarily) shutting down the site to address the health concerns of people in Bayview.

Assuming that community benefits, such as home-building contracts, better parks, and job training opportunities do trickle down to Bayview Hunters Point residents, will those opportunities outweigh the cost of doing business with a company that has endangered public health, created deep divisions within an already stressed community, and is struggling financially? (In late 2007, Standard and Poor placed Lennar’s debt rating at a junk bond BB-plus level because of the company’s “exposure to oversupplied housing markets in California and Florida.”) As for the 8,000 to 10,000 proposed new units at Candlestick Point—what percentage of those would be rented or sold at below-market rates? And what would be the effect of the nationwide mortgage meltdown on that?

According to Executive Director Fred Blackwell, the Redevelopment Agency’s deposition and development agreement (DDA) with Lennar does not allow the company to indefinitely mothball its housing units. “The DDA gives Lennar and the vertical developers the option to lease the for-sale units for one year, prior to their sale.” Blackwell also insists that they can hold Lennar accountable. “I feel like the DDA gives us all the tools we need,” he says. “But we can’t just arbitrarily shut things down.”
But many in the community are not convinced.

The Measure of Things to Come
Some believe that the only certain outcome of the ballot measure would be a mandate for the city to turn over its valuable public lands and spend millions of dollars in scarce affordable housing funds on subsidizing the ambitions of a corporation with a dubious track record and an active aversion to public accountability.

True, Lennar has promised to rebuild the Alice B. Griffith public housing project without displacing any residents. And the measure also allows for the creation of 350 acres of parks and open spaces, 700,000 square feet of retail stores, two million square feet of office space, and improved transit routes and shoreline trails. But what about the rest of the shipyard—contaminated with a long list of human-made toxins? With the possible early transfer of the shipyard from the Navy to Lennar via the city, can we have faith in Lennar’s ability to safely manage the project?

As it turns out, San Francisco voters will face competing ballot measures in the June 2008 election. A Lennar-supported measure turned in 14,000 signatures, while a competing measure calling for 50 percent of the newly developed housing to be sold or rented at below-market rates, has turned in 11,811 signatures. Shortly before press time, the Department of Elections determined both initiatives have enough valid signatures to go on the ballot.

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits
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Tenants Plus Land Trust Beat Gentrification

Situated at the juncture of San Francisco’s Chinatown and financial district, 53 Columbus is a “prime” piece of real estate by anybody’s estimate. But the tenants of this very desirable property—mostly low-income Chinese immigrants—probably wish it were not so. Their troubles began in 1998 when San Francisco City College—the owners of 53 Columbus—issued eviction notices with the intention of demolishing the building.

The tenants turned to the Asian Law Caucus for help and in 2001, this loose coalition of residents and community activists persuaded City College to sell their building to the newly formed San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT), which in turn converted the building into a cooperative. Since then, with funding from the City of San Francisco and various grants, tenants have worked side by side with volunteers of the SFCLT to rehabilitate the building and upgrade the apartments, making them affordable, in perpetuity, for the tenants to own.

Historically, the population of San Francisco has always been diverse—ethnically and socio-economically. Today, rapid gentrification has made the city the second most expensive in the United States, forcing out people of color and working families. In the last 20 years, housing prices have increased more rapidly than working people’s incomes, and over one-fourth of the city’s renters pay over 35 percent of their income for housing. Whenever a tenant moves out of a rent-controlled apartment, the rent reverts to the market rate. In addition, evictions, condominium conversions, and the sale of multi-family properties, have all forced long term residents to leave the apartments that they have occupied for decades. Without affordable housing, San Francisco is in danger of becoming a homogeneous community with all of its diversity confined to history books.

“When you’re living in someone’s home, your life is dependent on other people. When you have your own home, you have autonomy.” Ji, a retired cook, told the San Francisco Chronicle in a July 25, 2006 story on how the Land Trust has benefitted the residents.

The SFCLT provides inexpensive, resident-controlled housing that working people can afford. Under the Community Land Trust (CLT) model, residents have the opportunity to cooperatively own their building. Residents purchase their units at a price based on their ability to pay but they have to sign a “limited-equity” agreement, which places restrictions on the re-sale of the units, and obliges them to sell their units only to other low-income earners—to ensure that all units within a CLT will be perpetually affordable. The lease agreements that govern a CLT are usually in effect for 99 years with the option of renewal for another 99 years. Residents can also deed their units to their heirs.

There are over 200 housing-oriented land trusts around the country, and from their 1970s beginnings based on counter-cultural ownership models, they have expanded to become a full-fledged housing strategy adopted by a wide array of people.
But true to its roots, the CLT model is more than just a mechanism for developing and financing affordable housing. Each apartment building that is rehabilitated and turned over to a CLT becomes a permanent barrier against gentrification. In other words, CLTs have the potential to revolutionize cities, making them places in which people of all races and income levels can live.

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits
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Can Redevelopment Slow the Black Middle Class Exodus?


Fred Blackwell, Executive Director,
San Francisco Redevelopment Agency

Fred Blackwell holds a Master's degree in city planning from the University of California at Berkeley and is a 1991 graduate of Morehouse College. He worked at the Mayor's Office of Community Development from 2005-2007. He was a member of Urban Habitat’s Board of Directors from 2001-2007. Blackwell led community development efforts with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and The San Francisco Foundation before moving into government service.


Juliet Ellis: When, and why did you take this job?

Fred Blackwell: [Laughs] I took the job five months ago because, while down the hall from the Mayor’s office at Community Development, I had the opportunity to see from a distance the opportunities and challenges associated with redevelopment in San Francisco. It seemed to me that the relationship between agency and community was at times acrimonious. I came to the conclusion that it didn’t have to be that way if we could figure out a way to work more in partnership with the neighborhoods we serve.

Ellis: So, based on the history of the acrimonious relationship, how would you describe the biggest challenges you face in leading the redevelopment agency?

Blackwell: There are a few. One is overcoming the agency’s image—mostly a result of work done decades ago in the Western Addition where massive acres of land were cleared, residents and businesses displaced, and land actually lay fallow for a long period of time. That reputation has stuck with the agency. The challenge is to change that image and base it on some of the agency’s most recent work. Another challenge is to stimulate and foster investments in areas that have been neglected and disinvested for many years, in a way that produces benefits for the folks who have lived through years of neglect.

Jesse Clarke: What is some of the [agency’s] recent work that you think will deliver concrete benefits, without displacing people and driving them out of the city [as have] problems from other development projects?

Blackwell: The Redevelopment Agency has adopted a very aggressive affordable housing policy. For example, California redevelopment law requires 15 percent of the housing in a project area to be affordable. Our general rule of thumb is usually around 25 percent. We actually have a commitment to spend half of the tax increment financing that comes through the agency on affordable housing.

Also, our Bayview Hunters Point employment and contracting policy sets a 50 percent local hiring goal for agency-sponsored projects and requires developers and contractors to make a good-faith effort at reaching that goal. Our contracting compliance team is charged with making sure that good faith is really exercised.

Fillmore district housing  removed. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public  Library

Clarke: How long has that been in place?

Blackwell: That was adopted in December 2007. We also have a Model Block Program. Although our central effort is to produce new affordable housing… in an area like Bayview, it’s also important to invest in the existing housing stock. So, we set aside money for low-interest deferred loans to homeowners on [the Model Block] to upgrade their property. We also set aside several hundred thousand dollars annually for streetscape improvements, and working collaboratively with other City departments to do things like tree planting and traffic calming.

Clarke: How much are you spending on this program [of the agency’s $246.4 million budget]?

Blackwell: This year, we’ve dedicated a million dollars for the residential loan program for one block. In the upcoming fiscal year, we’re setting aside another million dollars for another block, as well as half-a-million for streetscape improvements to the [original] block.

The other really important thing that we are working on… when people were displaced from the Western Addition and Bayview Hunter’s Point several decades ago, they received a certificate of preference. Over the years, the agency had lost track of a lot of these certificate holders. We are now tracking these people down and making sure that they are aware of the opportunities that are in the agency’s pipeline. More importantly, we are also talking to our commission about expanding the certificate preference program to the grandchildren of the original residents. This significantly expands the pool of people eligible to exercise the certificates in future affordable housing developments and acknowledges the [multi-generational disruption caused by the original displacement].

Ellis: You led the city’s task force that was looking at the Black exodus [out of] San Francisco. How are you thinking about that—as a priority in people’s concern—as you consider the redevelopment agency’s role and its work in Bayview Hunter’s Point?

Blackwell: It’s a complicated answer. When you look at the data, you see very quickly that it’s the middle class African Americans who have left this city in the largest numbers. As a result, we are left with a very low-income population of African Americans and seniors. In 1990, a little more than half of the African Americans were considered very low-income, in 2005, it’s approximately two-thirds. It suggests to me that two types of strategies need to be [considered]. One is to retain what we have of the African American population. Another is to focus on attracting more African Americans to the City. The out migration of African Americans isn’t very different [from that of] other ethnic groups. Where there’s a big difference is [in the replacement] of the community. In other words, there are more African Americans moving out than moving in.

And I haven’t even talked about economic development and the perceived lack of opportunity for African Americans—the low number of African American businesses, the low performance of African American children in the school system, or the high level of crime and violence in the African American neighborhoods.

Illustration by Lennar Corporation

Clarke: So, looking at a neighborhood like the Bayview, which still has a predominantly African American population, how high a priority is it for the agency in terms of economic development?

Blackwell: It’s our highest priority. We are trying to do a number of things to bring more investment to Third Street—the main thoroughfare for Bayview. We’ve invested in three mixed-use affordable housing projects and are looking at an investment in the Opera House, which is an important landmark on that street. We have a façade program for Third Street [that makes] grants and loans available to existing business owners. And there are a number of things that we’re trying to do as well to entice [businesses]. We were able to secure commitment from a grocery store, Fresh and Easy, which we think is a very important part of the economic development and health of [that] neighborhood.

Ellis: What’s your take on the role of communities engaged in planning processes—do you feel like it’s going deep enough and there’s authentic, adequate participation from folks?

Blackwell: I would say, you have very deep participation from those community advisory groups that are directly connected to the agency. [But], I don’t think that the engagement is broad enough or deep enough. The general populous, I think, lacks awareness around what’s going on.

Clarke: When community organizations attempted to overturn the development plan, they had the 30,000 signatures but the petition was disqualified. What do you think about giving people more frequent, actual electoral opportunities to take a crack at these issues? And what do you think of the 50 percent affordable housing initiative that just qualified for the ballot?

Blackwell: I am in favor of having the general population weigh in on important land use issues. What’s also important is that people have the opportunity to make an informed decision. One of the problems with the petition to stop the redevelopment plan was that the people [who signed] were not adequately informed about the plan. I have concerns about the 50 percent requirement for the shipyard. This is a piece of land that has been fallow for several decades and… the best opportunity to develop this land is now. It’s important in terms of the development of the Bayview community in general, and I don’t think that the 50 percent goal is feasible from a financial point of view. But I’ve got people here doing some analysis to tell me whether or not that’s true.
Another important point is that community benefits that come with projects like this need to go way beyond affordable housing. I’m in favor of affordable housing, but I think that authentic community development and revitalization involves more than just housing. It involves open space, opportunity for economic development, infrastructure, and basic services for the folks who live there. If you spend all of your tax increment money and money available for community benefit on affordable housing, you’re missing the mark.
Clarke: In terms of Lennar being the prime contractor, given the challenges they’ve had in their current work—the problems with the asbestos dirt, the dust, the constant criticism from certain community elements—why should the city give them another project when the affordable housing component got taken out for economic reasons?

Blackwell: First of all, the assertion that Lennar is not building the affordable housing in Phase One is actually wrong. The changes that were made to the Disposition and Development Agreement changed the mix of housing in terms of the proportion of rental versus ownership units, but it did not change the proportion of affordable housing. Another important point is that the [income levels for the] affordable housing slated for the shipyard are well below the city’s requirements and hence, are closer to the incomes that reflect the Bayview. I am not a defender of developers in general, or Lennar. The staff of the agency brought forward to the commission a recommendation, a developer that wasn’t Lennar, to develop the shipyard. [The Commission turned that recommendation down]. But given that Lennar is already at the shipyard, and their timeline, it makes sense to just expand what we’ve got going rather than to create a whole new process.

Third Street Light Rail terminus at Sunnydale © L. Henry

Clarke: What are some of the big economic trends that have to happen to keep San Francisco a diverse city with a diverse economic and racial population?

Blackwell: A large part is making sure that the city’s workforce agenda is in sync with its economic development agenda. Whether we are trying to position ourselves as a hub for biomedical and green technology or continuing our role as a tourist attraction and a financial center, we’ve got to make sure that we have a workforce that is prepared for those industries. That means preparing people from the Bayview, the Western Addition, and South of Market, for the jobs that will be in the pipeline… by investing in the nonprofits that are doing the work around this. Otherwise we will end up in a situation where we’ve got industries that the locals aren’t prepared to work in.

Another positive development in terms of retaining diversity is Hope SF, the city’s response to the drying up of national Hope VI money. This year, through revenue bonds, the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors raised 95 million dollars for the revitalization of public housing locally, which is the same amount that was appropriated nationally for Hope VI.

The important thing to know about Hope SF that distinguishes it from Hope VI is that the commitment under Hope SF is one-for-one replacement of all the public housing to get torn down. That wasn’t the case with Hope VI. The other commitment with Hope SF is to phase redevelopment of the public housing, which means that existing residents do not have to move off-site during the construction process, which I think significantly enhances our ability not to displace people as we go through the revitalization process. The first development is going to be Hunter’s View, then Potrero Hill, and Sunnydale.

And if the initiative passes the voters in June—Alice Griffith will be included in the Candlestick Shipyard Project.

Clarke: How does this compare with the idea of spatial deconcentration—the breaking up of large public housing units to put in mixed income housing, so the poor population isn’t concentrated in a single area—something which also tends to break up political power blocks in inner city communities?

Blackwell: The paradigm that you describe creates mixed-income communities by spreading the poor folks around the city. We’re saying that the problem is that poor folks are not in the mix with people from different [rungs] of the economic ladder. So, we’re trying to achieve the income mix without displacing the low-income people. But that notion about diluting the voting block—that’s a good point.

Ellis: Any comment on the topic of this issue: “Who owns our Cities?”

Blackwell: I think a group of people that need to be brought into [this conversation], especially when you talk about “who owns our cities,” are the developers. This is not just about public agencies and nonprofit developers and advocates. It’s also about this development community and we need to sit around the table with them a bit more in order [for] them to gain a better understanding of what communities are looking for, and their role in producing the kinds of communities low-income neighborhoods envision for themselves.

Download or view a pdf of this article (288 KB).

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

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Without Housing, Without Rights

Freedom Of Speech, Linocut © Art Hazelwood

The federal government created the contemporary crisis of mass homelessness by cutting and refusing to restore billions and billions of dollars in funding for affordable housing programs, starting in the early 1980s and continuing to today. On top of this, every Congress and administration since then has focused on homeless people themselves as the cause of the problem, in the process institutionalizing the idea that “fixing” the broken people—rather than the broken system they dismantled—is the solution.

Since the emergence of mass homelessness in 1982, every federal plan to address homelessness—Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) emergency shelter plans, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Continuum of Care plans, 10-Year Plans to End Homelessness spearheaded by the Bush administration’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH)—has been based on the assumption that homelessness re-emerged in the 1980s because something was wrong with the people who were finding themselves without housing.

The federal government has required local communities to submit competitive applications for federal largesse, and to show that they could effectively address the “problems of homelessness in America” within the grant amounts allocated. So, local governments did just that: they formed committees, created task forces, hired tons of consultants, and wrote grant after grant and plan after plan showing how they could address the problem if only the feds would give them the lion’s share of the little money available.

Unfortunately, while the federal government does fund “homeless assistance” programs at the state and local level, the $1.4 billion total allocation for these programs pales in comparison to the $54 billion reduction (in 2004 constant dollars) in annual spending on affordable housing programs. As a result of these skewed priorities, local governments are more and more hard-pressed to shelter—much less house—the ever-increasing homeless population, and many have turned to draconian measures to solve their “homeless problems.”

From “Quality of Life” to Economic Cleansing
Local efforts to deal with growing homeless populations often start with innocuous-sounding language about the “quality of life” of the housed and business sectors of the community, or perhaps are billed as an effort to ensure that communities don’t become a “magnet for the homeless.” But over time, more laws and ordinances get passed, and as these are implemented, it is only under very stringent “time, place and manner” restrictions that are enforced by private security and local and state police departments that homeless people are tolerated—if at all.

By the early 1990s, the business sector began to join forces with local governments to enforce open space and activities restrictions. Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) use private security that has various levels of enforcement authority and works with local police. BID security is most commonly financed with some form of government subsidy, direct funding, or a combination of both, but it is not under the purview of any government oversight body.

According to the non-profit organization Religious Witness with Homeless People, (RWHP) homeless individuals face anxiety, degradation, and frustration as a result of the aggressive enforcement of “quality of life” ordinances. This anxiety is expressed by one homeless individual in one of nearly 200 interviews conducted by RWHP: “You’re always on edge out here already because it’s dangerous. I can’t go to the cops now because they’ll probably just arrest me because of the (camping) tickets.”

This type of ticket is not uncommon. The most common public space and activity restrictions are those aimed at camping, sitting, lying, or trespassing on either public or private land, panhandling, sleeping, blocking the sidewalk and possessing “stolen property,” such as shopping carts and milk crates—to name just a few. Furthermore, these restrictions are often implemented in conjunction with the closure of public parks and the outlawing of free food and clothing distribution.

While certain communities highlight different controls at different times, often depending upon the outcome of local elections and legislative and court efforts, all have one primary common goal: to remove the presence and resulting impact of people without housing from local communities. As the Mayor of Las Vegas recently stated when she outlawed feeding people in city parks: “If we stop feeding them, they will leave.”

This nationwide pattern has escaped Civil Rights protections because on their face, these programs are not clearly discriminatory. Local laws are often drafted in such a way as to appear to apply equally to all people in a community. In fact, however, enforcement is very much impacted by both skin color and appearance.

Local governments cannot legally discriminate against people strictly because they do not have housing. Federal protections prohibit local and state governments from removing people from their communities due to the color of their skin or economic/employment status. California’s “anti-Okie” laws of the 1930s and the South’s Jim Crow laws in effect from the late 1800s to the 1950s are examples of the kinds of local laws overturned in previous generations. Yet, modern “quality of life” legislation and enforcement targeting homeless people can be found in communities across the nation.

Infractions and Due Process Rights
Anti-homeless laws and ordinances and their application have, in fact, created a loophole that allows for the circumvention of a homeless person’s right to due process under law. The process by which homeless people face repeated incarceration generally follows this scenario:

A homeless man is sleeping on the sidewalk. A local ordinance makes it illegal to do so. The man gets a ticket and is later arrested for not paying the ticket. He spends a couple of days in jail, and is just as homeless now as he was before, only now he has a criminal record. This was the case for many of the individuals interviewed by RWHP. One man relayed the familiar scenario, “I was sleeping in a tent in a hidden spot near the freeway. They gave me a ticket for trespassing. I don’t have money to pay it. I’ve never been in jail before. I keep to myself, but now they’re going to make me a convict just for sleeping.” Another anonymous man related his experience: “They wake me up in the morning and threaten to arrest me if I don’t stand up and start walking. The drop-in centers are all full, so I either walk or get ticketed again. I can’t walk all day long. You can’t think straight when you’re this tired.”

The overwhelming majority of the thousands and thousands of homeless people incarcerated under these laws are jailed for not responding to the tickets they were given, but not for the offense they committed in the first place. Because that original offense did not carry a jail penalty, they are not entitled to the free representation provided by the Public Defender’s office. If they are going to fight the ticket in court at all, they will have to do it alone and in the belly of the very system (criminal justice) that is trying to get rid of them in the first place. More often than not, the government, through the local District Attorney or a police officer trained in court presentation, will have representation, but the homeless person will not.

This chasm in “due process rights under law” for poor and homeless people is exploited by local governments and business interests to remove people from neighborhoods and communities where they are unwanted. Because the state defines itself the “owner” of public space, it enforces discriminatory time, place, and manner restrictions and works with local private property owners to do the same. People without housing are left with no other options but to keep walking, get very lucky, or wind up in jail.
Additionally, homeless individuals who have an active warrant for minor offenses, such as sleeping in public, are often prevented from getting the services needed to exit homelessness. Due to warrants, they can be denied public housing or lose social security benefits, general assistance benefits, a place in a treatment program, and employment opportunities.
When local governments initiate new programs designed to remove people from their communities, it becomes a civil and human rights issue that cannot be overcome solely by those being targeted. Only the combined skills, resources and talents of many communities working in concert with each other can stop this trend.

The Real Crime
Fact: Compared to 1978, the United States government is now spending nearly 65 percent less on developing and maintaining affordable housing for poor people. ($83 billion was appropriated in 1978, while only $29 billion was allocated in 2005.)

Fact: Compared to 1978, the United States government now spends $84 billion more on subsidies for homeownership programs than on affordable housing for poor people. (It spent $38 billion in 1978 on these subsidies for middle-class and affluent homeowners versus $122 billion in 2005.)

Fact: In 2004, 61 percent of all federal housing subsidies went to households earning over $54,787 per year, while only 20 percent of those subsidies went to households earning less than $18,465 annually. The 2004 federal poverty threshold for a household of four with two minor children was $19,157.

Fact: Approximately five percent of the United States population has a serious mental illness. However, the Department of Justice reports that 16 to 24 percent of the population in prison or jail has a mental illness.* Moreover, inmates with mental illness in state prison were 2.5 times as likely to have been homeless in the year preceding their arrest than inmates without a mental illness.

There is a direct correlation between the federal government’s decision in the late 1970s and early 1980s to redirect expenditures for housing from rental assistance for poor people to homeownership—a trend that continues to today—and the subsequent re-emergence of homelessness in America in the early 1980s.

If our federally mandated housing and homelessness plans (FEMA, HUD, and ICH) and our locally politicized campaigns had focused on addressing “what created this mess” in the first place, the ludicrous current attempts to fill a $54 billion housing hole with a mere $1.4 billion of annual homelessness assistance funding would have drawn ridicule long ago.

Life skills training courses for a homeless person do not compensate for the fact that in the 20 years from 1983 to 2002, the United States government built 500,000 fewer units of affordable housing than it did in the seven years from 1976-1982. Money management classes for a rural parent do not compensate for the 35,000 fewer affordable units being built in rural America each year. Better outreach and case management may be good things, but they are unrelated to our nation’s massive reemergence of homelessness. Will the repressive policing of homeless people for sleeping and living on our streets ever create enough housing to make up for a $54 billion cutback from the federal government? No.

If we want to address homelessness in America, we need to stop looking at homeless people, at “them,” and we need to start looking at us. If we believe our government represents us, it is we, the people, who must pressure our senators and congressional representatives to make a real economic commitment to restore funding for affordable housing. Outlawing homelessness won’t make it go away; nothing ends homelessness like a home.

* Web correction: Print editions of this story list this statistic as "about 16%"

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

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Pay Dirt: State Tax Policies Drive Local Land Use Policies to Ground

California’s Proposition 13, passed in 1978, forever changed the fiscal and governance system of the state. It placed strict limitations on property taxation by capping overall property tax rates at one percent and requiring tax revenues from each property to be apportioned to each of the local governments—e.g., city, county, special district—serving that property. In turn, the local governments allocate the money among local agencies, such as police, fire, sewer system maintenance, and social services.
To soften the loss of revenue from property taxes, the state assumed a higher level of responsibility for education costs incurred by school districts. But this arrangement has led to a confusing system where the state raids local coffers to close the budget gaps in deficit years. Over time, and as population growth has increased the demand for schools, healthcare, and environmental protection, this fiscal policy has seriously limited the resources available for public services. As a consequence, local governments have been forced to chase revenues wherever they can be found: mainly in the form of sales taxes from retail sales.1

The need for tax revenue pushes cities across the state—and around the country—to accept developer plans for auto malls and mega stores, at the expense of affordable housing, parks, or open spaces. Cities have found it easier to pursue sales tax from commercial land use than to do battle with homeowners who have embraced a stable property tax structure since 1978.

Plan Locally, Pollute Globally
Planning commissions are made up of locally elected or appointed officials who understand that public projects, such as low-income housing, preservation of open space, and other amenities do not pay for themselves over time. But they do know that if you zone lots of land in your city for stores and auto malls, you can attract lots of customers who will come only long enough to buy cars, clothes, and computers in your city but will leave a penny of every dollar they spend in your coffers. That’s because revenues from a one percent local sales tax (collected by the state) are returned to the general fund of the municipality in which the sale occurred.

Sales taxes now exceed property taxes as the largest source of revenue for California municipalities. What’s more, it’s revenue that is not earmarked for specific purposes, which makes it very attractive to cities everywhere. So, as long as local governments are responsible for land use decisions, parking lots, malls, and other sales revenue generators are going to be the winners.
Says Judy Corbett, executive director of the Local Government Commission, “There’s too little incentive to create new housing and use land wisely when it’s a money-losing deal for local communities.”

The fallout from these thousands of locally made land use decisions, unfortunately, is traffic congestion and air pollution. Especially in this era of concerns about global warming, it is an opportunity missed to reduce the local carbon imprint and reverse greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, awareness of the climate change issue is slowly beginning to gain momentum in land use planning circles.

Typical mall development
How can local communities have an impact on zoning decisions? Traditionally, participation in land use planning commission hearings has been left to the busybodies and zealots. But, if we do not all begin to pay attention to the forces that drive local land use decisions, it will be too late for our environment and for our communities. Local communities need to implement thoughtful ideas for re-designing neighborhoods around industries that pollute less. Not only could this approach work to reverse global warming, it has the potential to enable our communities to capture sufficient revenue to deliver high quality services to residents.
In rural communities where farming and ranching are the cornerstones of the economy, there have been innovations to transform the methane produced by cows into energy creating facilities called methane digesters. That’s the type of community transformation that urban communities must pursue.

The threat of a recession in 2008 has prompted the President to push for a cash rebate of approximately $600 per taxpayer—for a total of $150 billion. The idea behind this scheme is to spur consumer spending—of the tax rebate, apparently—and get us out of a recession. But what if the federal government had invested the funds in carbon sequestration programs? What if every rooftop in urban America were to plant carbon sinks—rooftop gardens—to not only minimize the progression of global warming, but to increase their local community’s revenues?

It will not be a simple task to reform our fiscal policy institutions, but the alternative in this era is unthinkable.

1. Lewis, Paul. “Retail Politics: Local Sales Taxes and the Fiscalization of Land Use,” Economic Development Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2001): 21-35, Public Policy Institute of California, 2001.

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Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

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