The Poor Pay the Price for Another Hurricane

Residents at Trent Court Apartments try to wait out the flooding. (Gray Whitley/Sun Journal via AP)

New Orleans   Keisha Monk made the front page of the New York Times.  I doubt if this was on her top ten list of life’s hopes and dreams.  She lives, or at least lived until recently, in the Trent Court public housing project in New Bern, North Carolina, which turned out to be in the path of wind, rain and flooding when the river rose in the wake of Hurricane Florence.  Her unit and others, not far from the river’s bank, were flooded, ruining virtually everything, and likely making her unit uninhabitable.

The rivers in North Carolina are still rising.  I got a call from a Local 100 person in Houston who was being sent alerts by FEMA to get ready to be deployed as a contractor to do home inspections as soon as the water receded and anyone could drive in and assess the damage.  Keisha Monk will not be on his list.  She’s not a homeowner.  She’s simply a lower income, public housing resident, who was happy to have finally found a home in Trent Court.  She might get a check from FEMA.  Eventually.  After a mountain of paperwork.  She won’t get anything but temporary housing though.  If she is lucky.

An article mentioning Monk was on the front page of the Times, but what really caught my eye was not Keisha or Florence, but the word, “Katrina” which still has a visceral trigger for me even after thirteen years.  There were some sentences from reporter, Richard Fausett, that capsulized the horror of the aftermath that Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Ike, Irma, and many others that have brought stigma to their human counterparts for life and scarred millions for the rest of their lives as well.  He wrote,

She [Keisha Monk] also realized that she was now a player in the kind of redevelopment drama that tends to swamp storm-battered places like this – a story of race, class, gentrification and safety fears, and questions without easy answers about who gets to live on often alluring, sometimes treacherous, waterside real estate.  She is also being reminded after Hurricane Katrina, that the poor are always vulnerable – to the vagaries of the real estate market and to the perceived value of their residences in good times and the ravages of Mother Nature when disaster hits.

The future of Trent Court, like so many center city public housing projects in cities both large and small, was already precarious.  There was a plan to relocate people and build something new, maybe there, maybe nearby with market rate housing and eighty units still available for the poor.  Many, like Monk, would likely not be on the list for those eighty units, and they are years away as life continues to grind down hard on low-and-moderate income families.  The problem is global, not local, as we heard in Asuncion about the relocation of thousands of families there from areas where they have lived for generations because of flood risk.

Organizations and individuals talk about a “right to the city,” but as we know from Katrina, this is another right that requires a constant fight, and is often lost.

We all know this is not a story that will end well.  At least not for Keisha Monk, her family, and the other residents of Trent Court.  Living on the wrong side of the tracks was about yesterday, but on the bad side of the floodplain is the new and constant misfortune for the poor.  As one of Monk’s neighbors said, it will just be a case of another area where riverfront property is opened up for rich people “to walk their dogs.”

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The Contradictions Embedded in East Cleveland

possible in Cleveland

Cleveland  In several meetings with community development and housing experts in Cleveland, they kept pointing us east. Not just to the east side of Cleveland which had historically housed the largest African-American communities in the city, but to the near suburb and separate city of East Cleveland, so with an organizer from ACORN Canada’s Ottawa office, we hit the doors for several hours while driving around the area to get the measure of the area.

According to census figures, East Cleveland is now about 94.5% African-American in a population that has dropped to less than 18,000 from almost 40,000 in 1970. The median household income is now $20,660 compared to almost $49,000 statewide in Ohio with a poverty rate over 42% compared to almost 16% statewide. The median home value is just shy of $37,000 with 65% renters and a general housing vacancy rate of over 37%. The school district regularly ranks as the lowest in the state of Ohio, and the city has been on the verge of bankruptcy for years, unable to pay police and fire personnel.

On the other hand it is hardly a mile from the expanding campus of Case Western University, museums, the botanical garden, and hospitals associated with the world-famous Cleveland Clinic. Part of the area was the Forest Hills estate of John D. Rockefeller who built the Standard Oil monopoly in Cleveland and lived here. Some of the houses and apartment complexes in the area are huge, both occupied and abandoned. There are case studies that argue that this contradiction was not just deindustrialization and white flight, but a more systematic result of governmental racial housing discrimination over years of the type brought to attention more recently in Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law.

The Thriving Communities Institute has made East Cleveland a poster child. A $100 million fund diverted from the state of Ohio’s foreclosure relief money was earmarked for demolitions, but excluded multi-family dwellings. They argue that a 20-acre tract is hopeless and should be cleared for development and housing. The Institute, which supports land banks, chafes at criticism that it is only about demolitions, and claims that they rehab one house for every three they take down.

Driving through East Cleveland and visiting with families there, it was easier to see the demolitions, and in fact when looking for dumpsters which are the markers for rehab, we saw none. But, visiting with families, ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign was impressed with the enthusiasm that families had for the area, and their commitment to owning their homes, even though they were now on land contracts. Of five families, we met four who were African-American, one white, and one Hispanic. They weren’t running. They were hunkering down. Their repair projects were serious, but the gains were palpable in the large two-story houses with basements that they were trying to make their own.

The economics are brutal though, because for homes that most were contracting to buy for $25,000 or so, the Institute’s back-of-the-envelope figures spitballed at me in various meetings meant that $20,000 in repairs might only increase the value by $5000 in the home on the general sales market, hardly moving the needle on tax revenues and not offering much in collateral for bank loans. In a scary way, this is almost an argument for land contracts to implement rehabilitation, but in another way, it is also an argument for government to step in to create the long term fix that it helped create and that short term capitalist calculations are continuing to enforce.

demo in Cleveland

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