Are Gentrified Cities Too Greedy?

Urban renewal works in D.C. and New Orleans. But the needs of the vulnerable shouldn't be ignored.

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In my neighborhood, Bloomingdale, the mayor has proposed giving nearly $50 million in tax dollars to help a private developer build on top of the historic McMillan Sand Filtration site, a 25-acre tract of publicly owned green space. Like many of my neighbors, I personally would love to see a park there. Their plan? Yes, you guessed it: another "mixed-use" housing development.

This is a serious question familiar to many a Manhattanite: How many condos can one city take?

Affordable Housing and the Poor-People Purge

New Orleans lacks the riches of the federal government, but has similar struggles. Even before Hurricane Katrina, like many of the postindustrial, post-civil rights, majority-black urban areas, it struggled with reduced population and tax revenue, poverty and violence. Today the devastating 2005 storm is giddily spoken of by policymakers as "an opportunity" to try out new stuff.

Others, like Loyola's Andre Perry, have described the city as "one of the meanest places for poor people that I've ever seen." After Katrina, all 7,500 of New Orleans' public school employees were fired, which Perry says "severely impacted the black middle and working classes, who were thrust into poverty without jobs." Way to kick 'em when they're down. (In June -- seven years later -- a judge ruled the firings illegal.)

Then there is the New Jim Crow issue. Perry continued: "Poor blacks are not only more likely to be arrested and incarcerated; the new economy has simply not found spaces for gainful employment. We have celebrated innovation and entrepreneurialism among startup and young professionals -- the city has not made a collective effort to find innovative ways to retrain the formerly incarcerated."

There is similar treatment to "returned citizens" leaving D.C. prisons. Despite its stable jobs market, the district has some of the most entrenched poverty in the country. What about the debt the city owes the people who stuck with it during the lean years? We owe them affordable housing, built in convenient locations. Instead, public and even just low-cost housing is being dismantled. Mayor Vince Gray's most recent budget proposal allotted for a measly 900 affordable housing units over two years and some help with the rent. This is the urban-planning equivalent of a swift kick in the rear.

In D.C. especially, if the city continues on this path of systematically purging the poor and working classes, let's not pretend it's about bringing in enough tax revenue to balance the budget. And though there is a clear and disproportionate racial impact, it's not even totally about race. At this point, it is really just about a grab for tax revenues and power in the rare U.S. city where it still pays to speculate in real estate.  

The Atlantic's Franke-Ruta aptly notes that unlike D.C.'s Chinatown, which has few Chinese residents, there are still black people on U Street. I'm afraid unless there is some sort of holistic and systematic re-evaluation of the city's development policies, that won't be for long. And when the whitewash is complete, the eviction of poor and working-class people will not have been out of necessity, but pure greed.

Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor of The Root and author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.