Locating Housing for the Poor: Good Intentions, Expediency, and Living with the Consequences

Robert Moses, seated at left in 1959, used his position as head of the Mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance to mass-produce thousands of units of public housing, often near the shoreline.

 Quito    One of the ironic outcomes of recent disasters, whether New Orleans or now New York, is that the public, policy makers, and politicians are finally forced to reckon with where the poor are, and often, where they have put the poor in ways that are hard to escape.  In a smaller way this is true of politics and elections as well, as we have recently seen in the sudden realization of the Republican Party that there are a whole, whopping lot of people out in America that don’t look or think like them.   Like disasters, democracy is an equally transforming experience, as I am also seeing daily in Quito and throughout Ecuador, as new and old parties try to calculate their appeal and power in places they do not know and with people they do not completely recognize because they are foreign to their daily experience.

In New Orleans ignoring the failure of public protection and the levee system, many areas that flooded were in places like the 9th Ward where land had at one time been cheap enough to allow African-American families to buy and build or where swamps had been filled sufficiently to allow developers to create cheaper land for housing expansion as the city grew.  In Quito or Mexico City or Lima, poorer and lower waged workers, immigrants, or migrants moved to where there was land, squatted, and tried to make the best of it, until cities were slowly forced to deal with the burgeoning populations and politicians were forced to figure ways to deliver to leverage their support. 

In New York an interesting piece today in the Times, “How the Coastline Became a Place to Put the Poor,” by Jonathan Mahler, looks at the role of legendary power broker and public developer, Robert Moses.

The Rockaways were irresistible to Moses. Once a popular summer resort for middle-class New Yorkers, who filled its seaside bungalows and crowded into its amusement parks, the area had fallen on hard times when cars, new roads and improved train service made the beaches of Long Island more accessible.

Never one for nostalgia, Moses saw the Rockaways as both a symbol of the past and a justification for his own aggressive approach to urban renewal, to building what he envisioned as the city of the future. “Such beaches as the Rockaways and those on Long Island and Coney Island lend themselves to summer exploitation, to honky-tonk catchpenny amusement resorts, shacks built without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living,” he said, making his case for refashioning the old summer resorts into year-round residential communities.

What is more, the Rockaways had plenty of land that the city could buy cheaply, or simply seize under its newly increased powers of eminent domain, swaths big enough to accommodate the enormous public-housing towers Moses intended to build as part of his “Rockaway Improvement Plan.” Though only a tiny fraction of the population of Queens lived in the Rockaways, it would soon contain more than half of its public housing.

In fairness of a sort, Mahler even concedes that maybe some of these re-locations might have not just been based on cheap land and eminent domain, but even “good intentions,” citing the efforts of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to clean up the slums on New York’s Lower East Side, pushing new housing towards the waterfront, which also flooded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

What interests me is not that plans go awry over time, that good intentions can create their own hells, or that concentrated high rises for the poor, the old, the infirm, and the challenged can re-ghettoize areas into new wastelands “…without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living” in the earlier words of Robert Moses, but the inability of governments, politicians, and the public to abandon their nostalgic notions of what they had hoped might be developed when they pushed the poor out of sight and fully meet the challenge of resolving the handiwork of earlier decisions and their consequences.  Without a doubt, cheap land is going to attract poorer families and poorly funded public works.  This is simply reality, regardless of the intentions, so let’s get past that.

The real problem is that whether governments push people there as in New York City or turn their heads and finally find them there in New Orleans, Quito, Lima, Mexico City, and thousands of other cities, small and large, ignorance of the government is not bliss, and the challenges created by reality have to be faced.  For want of a better way to say this, if housing is going to be separate, at least citizens and families have to be assured that it is equal.  Services have to be provided.  Transportation has to be affordable and accessible.  Jobs and work locations have to have incentives to move nearby.  Decent retail outlets have to be located in accessible areas and subsidized if necessary to ensure success.  Public schools, police, fire, health clinics and hospitals have to be built, supported, and guaranteed to perform at the same or better quality as provided anywhere else in the government’s jurisdiction.

The social contract between government and citizens cannot guarantee that there will never be mistakes or that perfection is possible, but has to warrant that every effort will be made to create equity and in simpler terms, to fix whatever is broken.  Ironically, doing so not only provides more citizen wealth, city stability and security, but on the long run saves money as countless studies have established.

Democracy encourages us to not avoid the messes we create and the problems around us because it allows people to have a voice and creates occasions where these voices cannot be ignored or silenced.  Disasters by definition are terrible and force us to stop ignoring the precarious problems we have created and reckon with the largeness of our “community” in terms of morality and human rights, easily swept aside in the hurry of everyday lives, but now no longer invisible, and recommit to the minimum standards that must be equitably guaranteed to all.

Land use is a public decision and commitment, not a matter of fate and possible fatality.

Lessons of Disaster: Sandy, New York City, Housing Projects, and Lost Wages

New Orleans   After Katrina and the continual start-and-stop-and-slow rebuilding process in New Orleans with side trips and explorations to Kobe and more recently cities in Eastern Japan after those earthquakes and the tsunami attacks, and other cities near and far, I have come to believe that the way governments, established institutions, and community and popular organizations deal with disasters is extremely important.  These are the ultimate “stress tests” not simply of the built environment, but of the organic resilience of human and social organizations.  So in the same way I couldn’t stop reading Katrina stories and participated in the watch “force” on the nuclear meltdowns in Japan, I’m all over Sandy, as well, especially in the way it looks at the impacts across the entire community.

There were two very interesting pieces in the Times this morning that were both significant in this regard and disturbing.

One was about life in public housing without electricity or heat.  First you had to get past the headline on the front page which was meant to project all possible fears of the worst kind on the projects:  “In New York’s Public Housing:   Fear Creeps in With the Dark.”  Interestingly, the headline in the on-line version was much more balance, as you can see by including “heroism.”  Ok, well a little more balanced anyway.

The actual story was less lurid and more helpful.   Less than 10% of the more than 2000 NYCHA buildings were powerless, which deserves an attaboy of some kind right there.  There were stories of people looking after people.  Building by building impromptu barbeques to share the food that would have spoiled was reported.   Hallways became public spaces.  People talked of visiting with neighbors not usually part of their circle. The rhythms of life move with the sun, which speaks as much to what I always refer to as “inside camping” on the Gulf Coast hurricane hunkerdowns, as it does to any particular or latent fear of crime and mayhem.

Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster has handled this phenomena best in this book about the way that in the worst of times sometimes the best arises in people to build real communities from the San Francisco Fire to Katrina.  My Battle for the Ninth Ward about the post-Katrina experience found many of these same elements in the fierce fights for people to come home.    If you can survive the latent racism lurking behind the headlines, there’s a lot to feel good about in these stories of adaptation.  One quote from a 73-year old tenant that identifies with what he inaccurately thinks is “half of the world” living without electricity is a classic!

Another story  looked at the problem of lost wages for workers displaced in the storm who don’t get paid if they can’t get to work or if work is shutdown from flooding, power failures, and other catastrophes.  Too often we read about “stay-cations” and “hurrica-tions,” as if these are party times for people, as long as the storm “attacks,” as they correctly call these natural events in Japan, who escape the devastation.   People are hurting everywhere including the pocketbook, and no matter what the Republican Congress thinks, we don’t do enough to help individual families bounce back.  One man talks about how to pay for $7000 in roof damage.  Looking at my roof that still lacks gutters 7 years after Katrina, I could tell him the answer, but he might not like it.  I can already see the articles the Times will be writing about homes without any flood insurance up and down the East Coast, because who expected the 100-year “super storm.”

I haven’t read any story yet where they recommend not rebuilding New York City and the East Coast, like we read daily about New Orleans, so that’s refreshing.  Maybe this “shared suffering” in the media center of America, will lead to some compassion and public policy reforms on a number of fronts for post-disaster families and communities?  Dare we hope?

Hurricane Sandy devastation in the Rockaway and Breezy Point Queens area

Fire in the Mercado, Usury at Los Bancos

Tegucigalpa    Within minutes of hitting central Tegucigalpa we were on our way to a series of markets directly across the picturesque but fetid river running alongside the capitol not far from the original palace.  ACORN Honduras in Tegucigalpa had been working with stall vendors over the last month who had asked for help after a sudden fire overnight had wiped out the public market where they had been selling for many years.  More than a hundred had been displaced.

Signs of the fire were still everywhere, even though the space was bustling with activity where the shopkeepers were hammering, sawing, and constructing rough plywood type structures and shelving to hold their wares.  Next door another market had also been damaged and the bent steel and twisted sheeting was still being cleaned up and wheelbarrowed away.  The small merchants we met with under a blue tarp (the common cloth of disasters large and small) felt some satisfaction at the fact that a recent meeting with the Mayor had gotten the cleanup moving next door.  

What the merchants had on the agenda for discussion with us was their problem with banks.  They weren’t the only problem, but they were the boulders in the road to recovery.  To restock would cost each of them about $6000 USD.  They were worried of course that under their tarps their customers would diminish with the heat until some semblance of order was restored or the new building was long on the way.  Many of them had existing bank loans at 19% which they couldn’t pay and had been given some limited (and expensive!) forbearance for three months, but in trying to refinance to restock the same banks were now saying they wanted 28%, and they all wanted it now.  A look around made it clear that repayment was impossible.  Dilcia Zavala, ACORN’s organizer, said there was a law that mandated forbearance for up to a year after disasters, but even meetings with the Mayor and Governor had not seemed to convince the banks to relent from their harsh terms.

These banks were not local moneylenders.  Talking to the small vendors the names sometimes sounded local like Banco Pro Creidito, but that bank was German.  HSBC and Citi both were involved and have visible offices in central Tegucigalpa.  This was big business and a 28% it was usurious.

We had research to do, but clearly the only hope that these women had to not end up as sharecroppers in the square for international banks the rest of their lives was if they had some leverage.  The only leverage seemed to be to force the government to give the law enough teeth to buy some time so that they could survive in the marketplace long enough to get on their feet, even though they might be shackled later with 28% interest.

They call this disaster profiteering for a reason!

Elite Panic and the Tea Party

Rebecca SolnitNew Orleans In an excellent book on community building in the wake of disasters of historic proportion, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit raises a number of insightful points about what she refers to as “elite panic.”  In post-Katrina New Orleans we saw this all the time, the predictions of dire consequences and the frenzied mobilization of self-appointed big whoops running around trying to take charge, create emergency committees composed mainly of themselves, fund apocalyptic plans and studies tailored to their interests, and other such wildness in the name of protection, advancement, and the future of the city.

Reading past the marionette string pullers among big business donors and the professional Republican party operators shrewd and skilled enough to take advantage of the alienation, racism, and desperation at the base, the same “elite panic” in the wake of the Obama election and its administration over the last two years seems to be the driving force.  The fears triggered by race, “otherness,” and the sense of having been displaced and losing control setting off critical elites in a panic at what might come next and how it has to be stopped.  The Tea Party is one of the sharp points of a stick being wielded and thrashed about by the elites.

A recent story about Obama’s lost support on Wall Street, even after essentially betting and mortgaging the whole national farm on the bankers and brokers who hover there is more than ample evidence of my case in point.  All of this is bitter irony given how regularly Obama and his minions including the Wall Street apologists like Treasury’s Geithner and the White House’s Larry Summers, have done pretty much their bidding while millions have traveled the crowded road in the hand basket to hell.

I had a moment’s surge of hope reading a blog by a Chicago Sun political columnist who  parsed an Obama quote yesterday that might be construed as indicating he was ready to throw those fellas out finally, but that was, as usual, quickly dashed by among other things the administration’s recoiling from a Times story that had indicated that finally they might be ready to strap it on and go after the right wing coup that has manipulated the Tea Party so that the Republicans have been taken over by more extremists than is even usual for them.  Eventually, they are going to have to realize that this is a real fight and the elite panic that is driving this fight will not be assuaged by compromise but only by total victory.

We have to oppose that fiercely.