Housing and Urban renewal

Enough you princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and do what is right and just! Stop evicting my people! Says the Lord God. Ezekial 45:9

The traditional wisdom of the working and middle classes was that a person's rent should not be more than one week's wages (Newman Declining 7). The United States Congress' Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe defines "affordable housing" as that which costs not more than 30% of household income. By this standard, 73% of poverty homeowners and 85% of poverty renters, do not have affordable housing as they pay much more than 1/3 of their incomes for rent or house payments. That same congressional report notes that in 1978, there were 370,000 more affordable housing units than low income renters. In 1985, there were 3.7 million fewer affordable rental units than there were low income renters. From 1980 to 1987, the aggregate number of low income housing units decreased by 2.5 million units. From 1970 to 1983, rents increased at double the rate of personal income. The following table, derived from data in this report, indicates the progression (USCSCE 37):
Median Rents Avg. Sgl Family House Price
1970 $108 $23,000
1980 $243 $62,200
1983 $315 $70,300
1970-1983 increase 201% 305%


In 1970, there were 5.5 million units that rented for $80 or less a month; in 1983, there were 650,000. During that same period (1970-1983), 1.8 million units -- 19% of those renting for less than $250 a month -- disappeared from the market (USCSCE 37).

There has been a tremendous decline in "SROs" (Single Room Occupancy) hotels, traditionally the housing of last resort for the poor (the next step being homelessness). One million such units (50% of the total) have been demolished or converted upscale. In New York City, 1975 - 1981, SROs fell from 50,454 to 18,853, with the vacancy rate of the remaining units less than 1%. Fifty percent of the SROs in Los Angeles were demolished, 1973-1984; 19% in Chicago (18,000 units total), during the same period. One San Francisco project alone eliminated 4,000 units. These are rarely replaced (USCSCE 38)

A primary driver of this destruction has been urban renewal, which must be considered to be a major, ruthless, and constant attack upon the poor. Poverty neighborhoods are regularly targeted for "renewal" because of "blight" (that is to say, poor people live there and because they are poor, their houses and properties are not very fancy). Because the poor do not have the necessary political connections, they are rarely able to successfully fight such land-grabs. The result is that neighborhoods -- of many years existence, with their own intricate civil societies and social networks among people -- are destroyed for the private profit of the affluent. In place of the living neighborhoods, the powerful build playgrounds for the rich and the famous, entertainment and shopping districts, and upscale housing (Smith Utne 62).

"Displacement" may be defined as the "involuntary removal from a habitation due to conditions beyond the control of the inhabitants," even if they have paid their rent. It is caused by arson, fire, code enforcement, coop/condo conversion, demolition, foreclosure, institutional expansion, disaster, planning/zoning decisions, housing rehab, rising market rents, urban renewal, disinvestment and reinvestment. It affects 2.5 million people every year, as 500,000 low rent units are lost -- most to non-market forces such as urban renewal and government actions. It is known to create and drive fear, hostility, and ethnic and cultural misunderstandings (Park 22). Urban renewal policies have caused the utter devastation of poor and working class neighborhoods and, together with freeway construction and other federal, state, and local policies, appears to be creating (as perhaps an "unintended consequence") modern American poverty ghettoes (Mollenkopf 658-59, Glazer 37). Anyone with any money -- all of the middle class and many of the working poor -- in such situations leave completely, abandoning the poorest of the poor to be warehoused in housing projects. Experience suggests it helps poor people to live with the working and middle classes, rather than be segregated into ghettoes. Such neighborhood integration provides positive role models (people whose lives are getting better, whose lives are active, and who work for a living). This is not possible in a poverty project (Weakland "Urban" 363).

These "housing projects" are poor substitutes for the vital communities they replaced; they are universally demeaning, discouraging, and contribute to fear and alienation, as well as being bad for children (Park 21). By constantly destroying the housing of the poor, the government reduces the total amount of housing available, thus artificially inflating rents, thereby adding to the poor's economic misery (Park 22)

Urban renewal projects rarely pay market values for the property, but rather, a "fair value" which is a political price calculated by the government and which the property owner has little opportunity to challenge -- and if a challenge process is available, it is controlled by the buyer, that is, the government. This is a social punishment upon people who have, often at great cost and sacrifice, done what they were "supposed to do," that is, save their money and buy a house -- only to have it taken away by the government, receiving only pennies on the dollar in terms of replacement value. A local example of this process is the vast amount of vacant property between the hospital complex at NE 13th and Lincoln and downtown. The area between the hospitals and downtown was once a vibrant neighborhood, the heart of the African American community. Today it is nothing but weedy empty lots.

This particular crusade is continuing today, as the white-owned and controlled hospitals attempt to drive out their neighbors to the north, so that a "buffer zone" can be created between the hospitals and the rest of northeast Oklahoma City. The prime tactic being used by the hospitals is the buying up of property and then letting it deteriorate, thus driving the values of other properties in the area down. A secondary tactic relates to their control over the zoning board for the area (which has only one local resident on it).

Urban renewal is defended upon due process grounds. The property owners are paid something for their property, it is regrettable that people have to move, but "that is the price of progress and a requirement of the marketplace." But in fact, urban renewal is not a marketplace endeavor; it is a cold expropriation by the civil government -- using its police powers -- that removes unwanted people, seizes their property, and then delivers it to those with connections with the local government who will make a profit off the deal. There are few poverty communities in the entire country that have not been subjected to this wicked and devastating blight over the past 30 years. A fruitful area of sociological endeavor would be to connect research concerning problems that result from the destruction of civil communities during wars with the situations that have resulted from the similar devastation of urban poverty communities United States by their own governments.

It is suggested that these projects "create" jobs, but it is not clear whether they create, or simply rearrange jobs. Further, these calculations fail to consider the moral cost of jobs created by destroying poor peoples homes. Where does this fit on the balance statement of modern America? Mayor Marion Barry has claimed that urban renewal in that city has created 60,000 new jobs in the District of Columbia, but unfortunately, 100% of them went to suburban residents, mostly white, while employment of DC residents, mostly black, declined by 15,000 jobs (Smith Utne 63).

The focus of these urban planning commissars is always on attracting jobs, and very rarely on fostering or encouraging neighborhood initiatives that can produce employment among people already in the neighborhood. The District of Columbia zip code 20032 is arguably one of the poorest urban neighborhoods in the U.S., yet it has an annual income of $370 million, 100% of which goes into the neighborhood and then right back out of the neighborhood due to lack of merchants in the area. One community economic development factor is to keep money in the neighborhood for a while, before it is sent out into the wider community, thus creating homegrown, grassroots economic empowerment as the money runs around the neighborhood a few times. But the government's focus is too often on pouring concrete, literally chasing away the poor, and then handing their homes over to their rich friends (Smith Utne 64, 69).

The process is dominated by a complete lack of solidarity or compassion. In the 1955 Supreme Court decision which legalized mass urban renewal terrorist attacks on poor neighborhoods, the justices ruled that society's "need" to rehabilitate "blighted" areas outweighed the rights of the residents and property owners to their community. The case at hand involved a 551 acre community and featured the forced relocation of the residents over their strong objections (Smith Utne 61).

Conservative author Charles Murray notes that the elite are characterized by a myopic viewpoint regarding the importance of neighborhood and place to poor, working, and middle class people. The assumption generally is that the rich appreciate their neighborhoods (they are inherently superior as the conservatives remind us), but the poor (who are inherently inferior) don't, so therefore if there is a need for playgrounds for the affluent (e.g. ball parks, football stadiums, museums, upscale housing developments, etc.), the place to start is with the neighborhoods of the poor. Urban renewal (together with building freeways) has been a political response by the American power elite to cultural changes brought on by black migration and poverty in the 1970s (Smith Utne 61). It is contributing to the homeless problem (USCSCE 37). As part of a ruthless war on the poor, it is bringing the condemnation of Almighty God upon the American nation.