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.

Federal Judge Holds Vouchers are Resegretation in Louisiana with More to Come

New Orleans  A federal judge in Louisiana took a hard shot to the gut to the conservative efforts to provide public money to help some parents pay for their children to escape public schools.  He called it what it was:  an effort to re-segregate the school system.  The basis of the decision was equally clear.  The judge found that the voucher effort to pay for movement to private and parochial schools was in clear violation of the long standing desegregation orders in the Tangipahoa Parish school district across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.

The voucher program has moved money to more than 5500 students since being forced through the Louisiana legislature last year along with other so-called “school reforms,” most of which were meant to privatize the schools, give the state control, and re-segregate.  There are 30 more parishes in Louisiana under desegregation orders, so count on them running into court quickly.  The young gun, New Yorker running the state Department of Education swears the matter will be turned over on appeal, but that’s a long shot bet in my view.

The other artifice behind these rightwing moves has been to pretend that they were not illegally appropriating local school district tax dollars to move people from the district.  They make this argument in the face of the fact that to fund their resegregation efforts, they lower the state contribution by almost exactly the amount of money they are giving the schools as part of the state contribution to public education, thereby in effect forcing the local money to “pay” for the vouchers.  An op-ed columnist in the Baton Rouge Advocate eviscerated the Governor and his cronies several weeks ago for the transparent fraud involved in this maneuver.  Now both teachers unions in Louisiana are about to have their day in court on an identical challenge to this misappropriation.   I’d bet they will win there as well.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn’t work when it involves taking taxpayer money from citizens supporting the public school system to in fact destroy the very system they are funding.  This is exactly what experts like Professor Diane Ravitch have been arguing eloquently along with many, many others around the country recently as the so-called reform effort is being exposed as simple gentrification via charters, privatization at large, and a return to separate and highly unequal.

Louisiana might finally be leading the effort back to public schools thanks to the courts!


Kristof and a Three Cups of Tea

Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of teaVicksburg    I’ve read a couple of Nicholas Kristof’s books with interest over the years and used to read his column in the New York Times, but largely have abandoned them in recent years as I’ve done more international organizing.  I’ve done so not because he’s exactly wrong on the issues, but it’s a matter of taste and he’s become too sanctimonious for me and too rah-rah about this and that, all of which I have come to find annoying in a way that doesn’t make we want to carry a sign, but does have me skip over his column.

I say all that not by way of apology, but grudging admiration for an extremely fair and balanced, yet nuanced and supportive column he did this week about Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea, and promoter and sometimes builder of schools in Afghanistan.  I don’t know Mortenson from Adam, haven’t read the books, and don’t plan on doing so, though of course I’ve read about his work and followed the broad outlines of his efforts.  In short I don’t have a horse in this race.

Jon Krakauer, another author and another guy with experience on the mountains, and 60 Minutes do have some beef with Mortenson  and his work, and seem to have poked some large gaping holes in it including the fact that almost 60% of the money didn’t go to building schools in the last report from 2009, and that a lot of the schools don’t exist.  They clearly have horses in the race, and Krakauer who has gone after the Mormons without blinking an eye, and 60 Minutes are not folks who you would choose to have on your bad side.  Instinctively, having also read most, if not all, of Krakauer’s books, I would go with his view in a minute over almost any other protestation, so I’m betting Mortenson has real troubles that have now come to the surface fairly.

Kristof also has a fast running horse in this race having promoted in his usual enthusiastic way Mortenson and counts him as a friend and calls himself a fan.  Fair enough.

His defense was measured and effective against a bad hand and few cards in his column, and that’s what I admired.  Having been out there in the world, Kristof acknowledged there  could be big problems but stepped out from behind the normal “judge and jury” journalism posture in an amazing way saying the following:

“The furor over Greg’s work breaks my heart. And the greatest loss will be felt not by those of us whose hero is discredited, nor even by Greg himself, but by countless children in Afghanistan who now won’t get an education after all. But let’s not forget that even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.”

The last line is the kicker.  It is a “walk a mile in my shoes” sentiment that has real value.  Essentially, he concedes the dude may have messed up, but that doesn’t change the record – he still built schools and created change for children – or the fact that the “reader” and most of the biscuit cookers out there who might stand in judgment haven’t done diddle.

In the “gotcha” culture of modern politics and the court of public opinion which has created so many couch potato hanging  judges, Kristof makes a contribution for his friend here by reminding people that it’s a messy world and there are messy people in it, but it’s worth the work warts and all.

I’ve often quoted a line that used to be used in interviews with judges over and over by the executive board of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO when I set with that body for many years.  One or another of the guys would quote the line of an older leader who used to explain that we interviewed the judges so that they could understand that sometimes we might want to talk to them “not only about justice, but also about mercy.”

Kristof’s plea for mercy here should be remembered when we look at many people and the imperfect but beautiful work of social change.