Monday, November 13, 2017

Land of the Gentry

I have watched city after city I have lived in gentrify.  First it was Oakland and the improvement were I lived was tied to Ikea.  Once it came the rest followed.  When Jerry Brown was elected Mayor West Oakland began to change with the change in businesses, small hair salons, restaurants and coffee shops.  The conversion of the old Sears building and new mixed use housing also changed the dynamic.  East Oakland still to my understanding struggles.  But the change made Oakland less affordable and more genial, also more white.  The cost of the Bay Area has dramatically changed the composition of both color and income thanks to the tentacles of Silicon Valley.

Then came Seattle and the pirhana of the Amazon and now Seattle is what San Francisco is, diverse by color not by profession.  The tech sector has more diversity than one thinks with regards to ethnicity - Indian, Asian ,White and male.  There you go.

And now Nashville. I am not sure what the make up is but this is the South and if you are a person of color and there are many colors here, figure out where your kind are and go there. This is not a blue city in a red state it is a pink city in a deep red state.  The industries here that headquarter here are two major automotive companies - Bridgestone and Nissan - the rest are home grown businesses - Dollar General, Trucking Businesses, Hospitality Trade, Medical Trade and my personal favorite the Private Prison Industry.  The average minimum wage is just that for many employed by these businesses and as a result the median wage has gone above the state average by 10K and is now 57K.  It has met the level of wages from the recession of 2008.  The peak was in 2007 with 58K .  The cost of living however has not and it is estimated that one needs 75K annual income to own a home and live in the Nashville city limits.  Hence fewer and fewer do and the congested roads and highways reflect that.

To compare Seattle is peaking at 75K and costs are equivalent to 100K in which to maintain living in the City limits.  Seattle, however, has better (not great) public schools, a better infrastructure and a real downtown core with massive activities that are not just booze related.  That and the liberal political environment and legal weed enable a community to rely less on minor crime in which to fund resources. That said Seattle has a debtor's style penalty tied to criminal prosecutions and have had a Police Department under Judicial degree.  So Nirvana is still the band. 

That said the thriving International District and Central District that was the Black Community for decades had dissipated and in turn moved further South in the County.  The cost of this leads to a loss of history and in turn cultural experience that is necessary if we are ever to rid ourselves or at least discourage the racist leanings that are currently on the rise across the country. 

Nashville fears public transit and regardless of where one sits on the economic scale the idea of buses, light rail, etc send chills down the spine of many.  Some fear they will be pushed out by rising property taxes, some by buy outs and other means to drive ones from their homes. Rising rents and the push to multi units on a single lot also contribute - the "tall skinnies" or coffin boxes that permeate here and in Seattle.  And here in Nashville we are finally getting the cell block single units that have been en vogue in Seattle and San Francisco.  Density is great if in fact you have a structure in place to manage.  Nashville does not.  With few sidewalks or crosswalks, minimal bike lanes and no real urban style services to meet the needs as in Grocery Stores, light Hardware, etc you have all hat no cattle as they say. 

The push for affordable housing is smoke and mirrors and that crosses the board in Seattle as well. As this from the Nashville Scene mentions the reality behind said projects:

Most of our workforce can't afford the housing we're building
Nov 13, 2017 4 PM
The Nashville Business Journal’s Adam Sichko was tweeting about The Pearl, the new development near Watkins Park.

And I laughed, because it’s yet another sleight of hand that people who care about affordable housing in Nashville need to watch. Out here in the real world, when we hear the term “workforce housing,” we think “this must be housing for service workers — waitstaff, hotel workers, the people you need to keep the city up and running, but who notoriously don’t make a lot.
The problem of the server is easy to understand. For a server job to be attractive, the server must make enough at her job to cover her bills and pay her rent and leave her some left over for fun. If she can make, say, $30,000 a year being a server downtown, but she has to pay $12,000 in rent, then a job out in, say, Dickson, where she might make only $26,000 a year, but only has to pay $6,000 a year in rent leaves her ahead.
If service industry people can’t afford to live in Nashville, they can get jobs where they live. And I think this goes without saying, but I’ll say it — with as many chips as we as a city have placed on the tourism industry, losing our service workers would be catastrophic. And we already see hints that this is a looming problem — job fairs going unattended, big "Help Wanted" signs out front of hotels, etc. Service workers literally cannot afford long commutes, and with our thriving suburbs, they don’t have to.
But the “workforce housing” trend isn’t focused on those people. They all use phrases like “teachers” and “firefighters,” and it’s true that Nashville’s pay rates for those professions would allow them to spend $1,000 a month on rent. But those salaries also allow them to go out to Mt. Juliet or Gallatin and get a house for that and commute in.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are teachers who would love to live in town if they could afford it, and we should find ways to make that happen.
But the sleight of hand I’m talking about is pitching these feel-good projects as if they are helping the whole of our workforce, when, really, they’re designed to help a minority of the workforce. And no one’s stepping in to help find housing for the people who make less than them.
Gentrification is a way of pushing in. Getting those with high and stable incomes to move back into the city.  Then in turn pushing those out to the suburbs with the dying malls and in turn less desirable commute times all in the name of greener environments.  Gosh you can't have green suburbs? Well you can but to improve the schools, roads, etc you need a tax base that can support the growth and low income, low cost housing does not. 

Much of the push back I believe is bound in racism and the reality is that it matters.  Like likes like. We don't want to live next to people who are not like us.  We profess the idea but we live in the reality. 

Gentrification is sweeping through America. Here are the people fighting back

In Atlanta, a neighborhood is resisting the use of eminent domain, which allows government to take private property for public use

by Cliff Albright
UK Guardian
Friday 10 November 2017

Walk into the home of Robert and Bertha Darden, and you are immediately surrounded by memories. Like many African American couples who have reached a certain age, the front room of their house is full of photos – of the Dardens in their youth, of their happy children and smiling grandchildren.

Many of the moments reflected in the photos were captured during their 28 years spent in their Atlanta home. In the midst of all of these stands a plaque. “I received this when I retired after 29 years of working for the city of Atlanta,” Mr Dresden says.

He’s an Atlanta man. Beaming with pride, he tells me he had started working for the Atlanta’s sanitation department in 1969, and later transferred to the department of transportation where he remained until his retirement in 1998.

But now the city is aggressively trying to take their house.

The process the city is attempting to use to take ownership of the house is known as “eminent domain” – the power for governmental entities to take private property for public use.

The city claims it needs the house, along with others on the same block in the Peoplestown neighborhood, in order to build a park and pond that will help with street flooding.

Meanwhile, community members suspect the flooding is being used as a pretext to facilitate private development in the neighborhood.

This process is replicated throughout the US. If successful, eminent domain could become the newest tool that local and state governments could use to accelerate the gentrification and displacement that is already affecting low-income black and brown communities.

‘The most powerful tool in the gentrification arsenal’

Eminent domain has a long history in the US and also exists in other countries where it is known by many names including compulsory purchase, compulsory acquisition and, perhaps most appropriately, expropriation.

The US constitution acknowledges the government’s power of eminent domain and imposes two limitations: the taking of property must be for public use, and it must include just compensation. Determinations of what constitutes public use have traditionally been left to each state, and the US supreme court has been increasingly expansive over the years.

In Georgia, land cannot be taken and handed over to private developers to increase revenues. However, land can be taken for a public redevelopment project, such as a facility or park to help deal with flooding issues.

And that is exactly what the city says it intends to do in Peoplestown. According to a press release issued by the city, “Once completed, the neighborhood will have a Japanese garden, gazebos for community gatherings, several detention ponds, and bio retention areas to treat stormwater.”

Tanya Washington, a professor at Georgia State University, lives on the same street as the Dardens, and like them, she is in a legal battle to keep the city from taking her home.

According to Washington, the city’s rationale is problematic because it uses the symptoms of the neighborhood’s systemic neglect to become a reason for displacing families.

“What I’m concerned about is cities trying to use that crumbling infrastructure as a justification for exercising eminent domain because it provides a basis for arguing public necessity,” she says.

Complicating the battle is the fact that cities are given a presumption of public necessity, placing the burden of proof on the homeowner. As a result, the state court hearing the initial case ruled in favor of Atlanta’s government, but Washington and the Dardens are appealing against the decision.

If allowed by the courts, that built-in justification could become the most powerful tool in the gentrification arsenal.

It would allow almost any city to use the legacy of institutional racism and systemic neglect to further advance the displacement of low-income black residents.

In theory, the rationale for using eminent domain could include street flooding, high quantities of lead in city water systems, or even high crime rates in certain neighborhoods.

The latter is not unimaginable: crime actually was part of the justification for the city demolishing all of its public housing.

Atlanta’s decision to get rid of it eventually became a model for other cities. Its use of eminent domain could be next.

When ‘urban renewal’ means pushing black residents out

In the late 1950s, Atlanta embarked on its first attempt at “urban renewal”, which for many people at the time translated to “negro removal”.

Hundreds of homes were demolished by the city, and thousands of black families in three neighborhoods (Summerhill, Peoplestown and Mechanicsville) were separated from each other when three interstates were constructed through the heart of their communities.

The problem worsened in the mid-1960s when the city decided to build a new stadium to house a professional baseball team. A significant portion of the Summerhill neighborhood was wiped away. Whatever sense of community and connection had survived was reduced even further as business left and schools closed.

Decades later, in preparation for the 1996 Olympics, an estimated 30,000 low-income Atlanta residents were displaced from their homes in order to make room for the new Olympic Stadium. Landlords in the area sought to raise rents to take advantage of proximity to the Olympic venues which meant many had no choice but to leave.

In the process, 1,195 public housing units were gone, and by 2000, only 78 of the families from the former public housing were rehoused in the shiny new development – a mere 7% of the pre-Olympics population. Moreover, the project launched a new agenda that ultimately resulted in Atlanta becoming the first US city to completely demolish all of its housing projects, eliminating 17,000 units of public housing.

The Dardens understand these negative side-effects all too well. Such projects tend to place extreme demands on the pre-existing infrastructure, whether in the form of increased traffic or other environmental concerns. Mrs Darden recalls that as the new Olympic Stadium was being constructed, the city had to build a tunnel that could handle water drainage from the stadium.

“The tunnel was supposed to go through Grant Park,” she said, referring to a nearby neighborhood where residents are predominantly white with higher incomes. “But Grant Park residents refused to let them bring the tunnel to that neighborhood, so they stopped it in our back yard.”

As a result, the Dardens and their Peoplestown neighbors say they have had flooding issues ever since Olympic Stadium was built. These issues led to significant flood damage in 2006 and 2012 after heavy rains, and several residents, including the Dardens, eventually sued the city for failing to address the hazard.

Several street drains on their block often become clogged with tree limbs, garbage and other debris. “If the city had just cleaned out the drains the way they should have, the flooding never would have happened.” Instead, ever since 2006 Mr Darden has taken it upon himself to periodically clear the street drains, especially when heavy rain is expected.

One could argue that despite his retirement, at the age of 67 he continues to work for the city more than the city works for him.

‘Why don’t y’all just move back to the country?’’

In 2005, the city of Atlanta proposed the Atlanta Beltline Project: a 6,500-acre ring of parks, open space, light rail transit and mixed-use development along a 22-mile industrial rail line that circles the core of the city.

Given the previous experience with major development projects in the city, the not-for-profit organization Georgia Stand-Up commissioned a study to explore rising home prices in areas adjoining the proposed Beltline path and to offer recommendations to avoid displacement. Even at this early stage, the 2007 report highlighted troubling increases in property values that did not bode well for low-income renters and owners on the city’s south side.

Unfortunately, not enough was done by the city to address those concerns. The project’s affordable housing effort was underfunded, and many of the affordability requirements were either too weak, too temporary or both. The trend towards gentrification increased. A more recent Georgia Tech report shows that prices in neighborhoods bordering the south side of the Beltline increased by 40% from

The Dardens have seen the impact first hand. “Some of our friends were renting, and when it came time to renew their lease, the landlords wouldn’t renew and sold their properties to developers instead,” she said. “Some neighbors say the rents went up so much they couldn’t afford it. It doubled or even tripled. We have a lot of senior citizens on fixed incomes who can’t afford that.”

And it’s not just renters. Her aunt used to come by on Sundays to pick up one of the neighbors who attended the same church. The neighbor lost her house because she couldn’t afford to pay the increasing property taxes.

Mr Darden mentions the house right across the street. “The owner got sick and sold the house. Not sure how much, but a developer bought it, remodeled and just finished it a few months ago. They put it on market for sale, I believe asking $469,000. And that’s just a wood frame house, not even brick like ours.” A house two blocks away recently sold for $515,000. And just a few houses down the street from the Dardens, a house that recently sold for around $100,000 is now listed for around $300,000 after remodeling.

Mrs Darden recalled an experience at a town hall meeting last year. “During the public comments, my husband was speaking about some of the issues, and a new white neighbor who had moved here about a year earlier called out, ‘Why don’t y’all just move back to the country?’”

To the Dardens, the translation was clear. “Get out.”

Not all of the new residents share that attitude. Washington, the professor at Georgia State University, is a relatively new resident of Peoplestown, having moved there in 2011. From her perspective, the main reason she moved there was because she appreciated the neighborhood the way it was and valued her neighbors.

“I love to be able to sit on the porch and talk to some of the older neighbors,” she said. “I wasn’t looking to replace, neutralize or change them.” She respected the neighborhood association that was in existence, and didn’t feel like she needed to start a new one.

But some new residents, particularly white ones, felt differently.

“When folks decide to start their own associations, it sends a message. The imposition of an us versus them, new versus old, resident versus buyer perspective is not healthy for a community,” Washington said.

“It has produced harsh feelings on behalf of long-term residents who feel slighted and disrespected. And it impedes building a common platform and demanding representation of the whole community. Part of the community invites development because they don’t feel threatened by it. Part of the community is scared to death of it because of decades of past experience.”

Such a split often paves the way for other interested parties such as developers to pursue “divide and conquer” strategies, and as the most recent promise of development began to take shape, the community was vulnerable.

Carla Smith, the city councilwoman who represents Peoplestown and Summerhill, argues that the community was able to participate in a Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) that resulted in a robust planning document. “No one will argue that the LCI is not a good product; everyone was involved in that,” she said.

The owners and developers of the property announced signing an “agreement” which incorporates concepts from the LCI, stating, “We are deeply committed to making the community safer, stronger, healthier and more stable.”

However, Washington highlights that none of it is enforceable.

‘We have to give a damn’

As frustrating as the fight has been for Washington, she remains optimistic and she knows that other cities have found ways to resist gentrification.

“But the first thing you have to do is you have to name it and call it what it is. It’s not a question of can we do it … There are lots of policy practices, tax incentives and laws that can be put in place. So there’s no lack of capacity, but there’s a lack of political will. We have to give a damn. We have to give a damn about people staying in their home. We have to give a damn about poor and working-class folks, and about seniors who want to spend their sunset years in the homes that they know and love. We have to care, and our policies will follow our compassion.”

Atlanta voters will soon have an opportunity to influence how much the city government cares about these issues.

The current mayor is unable to seek re-election due to term limits and on Tuesday the city voted for a new mayor and city council. “Lots of people running are touting their long record of service and how many years they’ve been in public positions,” Washington says. “For some of them, their record is their indictment. Because this [gentrification] happened on your watch, and not only did you not stop it, you facilitated it.”

Mrs Darden agrees about the current lack of political will and the need for new leadership. “We need new city council people and a new mayor that has a heart for the people.”

As for Mr Darden, he believes the battle is about faith. “I still trust God, and I won’t doubt him. We’re not gonna bow to the city.”

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