New Orleans: Unveiling “Hidden” Poverty
In the past month we have all witnessed a massive assault by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, one of the country’s great historic treasures. Most of us are both anguished by a sense of loss and challenged by what must be done to retrieve what we can.
I know New Orleans well. In 1999 I conducted a year-long study of the New Orleans region. My study was co-sponsored by three dozen organizations ranging from the New Orleans Regional Chamber of Commerce to the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans to a half dozen city community development corporations. Two key leaders were Pres Kabacoff, head of Historic Restoration, Inc., a superb urban redeveloper who pioneered the rebirth of New Orleans’ trendy warehouse district; and Bill Borah, a local attorney and leader of the preservation movement who had won “the Second Battle of New Orleans” two decades earlier, stopping plans to build an interstate highway through the French Quarter.
My study yielded three principal findings:
- There was no semblance of anti-sprawl land use planning throughout the region. Over the past five decades urbanized land expanded at three times the rate of growth of urbanized population. New Orleans was the largest American city without a master plan; the political culture promoted “planning” deal-by-deal. Built out scenarios of suburban St. Tammany, St. Bernard, and St. Charles parishes estimated that they were zoned for three to four times their current population—to the extent that zoning existed at all. State government must mandate strong, anti-sprawl land-use planning (a highly improbably event politically in Louisiana, a state that seemed to welcome new development on any terms).
- Most stunningly, sprawl had been almost a zero-sum game. Adjusted for inflation, the growth of assessed valuation (property wealth) between 1950 and 1998 had been only 16 percent for the entire six-parish region. Only 16 percent in 48 years! New property wealth created in suburban parishes was largely offset by a decline of older property wealth within New Orleans, which had lost more than half of its tax base (56 percent). Did Katrina destroy more than half of the city’s remaining property tax base in 48 hours, as suburban sprawl and urban disinvestment had in 48 years? I doubt it.
- Concentrated poverty was overwhelming the city’s assets. Among this country’s major cities, New Orleans had the second highest poverty rate (only behind Detroit’s). In 1990, out of 176 census tracts in New Orleans, the poverty rate exceeded 20 percent in 121 tracts; the poverty rate fell between 41 percent and 60 percent in 42 tracts and exceeded 61 percent in an astounding 17 tracts (each of which had one of New Orleans’ 10 massive public housing projects located in or adjacent to it). To attack concentrated poverty, a) the region’s economic growth must be accelerated,1 and b) specific housing policies must be adopted to mainstream the black poor through federal HOPE VI programs and regional inclusionary zoning policies.
In short, the New Orleans region was a classic example of “spreading our wealth while concentrating our poverty.”
My report, The New Regionalism: Planning Together to Reshape New Orleans’ Future, was published as a 20-page tabloid insert by the Times-Picayune (circulation: 287,000) and another 30,000 copies were distributed through other outlets. I presented my report in a public lecture attended by more than 500 civic leaders sponsored by the University of New Orleans, my research partner.
And then . . . very little happened. Confronted with how hard it was to change basic “rules of the game” that, while they may afflict the weak, reward the powerful, the coalition of community groups steadily dissolved.
One step, however, was taken. Pres Kabacoff’s company took over the troubled HOPE VI process to completely re-create the massive St. Thomas public housing project as a mixed-use, mixed income neighborhood. St. Thomas is located in the Lower Garden District about two blocks south of the regentrifying Magazine Street. “River Garden” would be New Orleans’ first HOPE VI redevelopment and, with a mix of about 30 percent public housing and 70 percent market-rate housing, would be New Orleans’ first experiment with mixing middleclass and public-housing households.
Analyzing the market, Pres decided that he needed a flow of revenue from onsite retail businesses into the overall development in order to further reduce apartment rentals to levels that would surely be attractive to middleclass tenants. As an anchor store, he signed up Wal-Mart. “Pres,” I told him, “Wal-Mart is the bête noir of the preservation movement nationwide. Couldn’t you have found even a Target or K-Mart instead of a Wal-Mart?”
Led by my friend Bill Borah, the local historic preservation movement fought the Wal-Mart tooth and claw before the city council and in the courts. (The National Trust for Historic Preservation itself actually intervened in opposition to the Wal-Mart.) I was receiving calls, articles, and e-mails from both sides.
My view was that the greatest enemy of historic preservation in New Orleans was not Wal-Mart but concentrated poverty that sapped the vitality and value of so many historic neighborhoods. I wrote an op-ed piece for the Times-Picayune making that point and urging the preservation movement to become vocal champions of inclusionary zoning and other mixed income housing development strategies in both the city and its suburbs.
At one point, I heard that some opponents argued (though not Bill Borah) that if rental income from Wal-Mart was needed to offer more attractive rents for middle-income tenants, just drop Wal-Mart and build River Garden entirely for public housing families. If true, I find that proposition totally repugnant and immoral.
River Garden has gone forward and (with a somewhat scaled down Wal-Mart store) is reported by the Times- Picayune to be a great success —with the Wal-Marts having minimal or no impact on the prosperity of specialty retail Magazine Street.
To our national shame, Hurricane Katrina ripped the veil off the “hidden” problem of poverty in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast—a problem “hidden” only from eyes that were determined not to see. Whenever a hard line is drawn between historic preservation on the one hand and advancing economic opportunity and racial justice on the other, I’m always going to be on the side of justice.
Measure 37 and Other Inequities
We are meeting in Portland, Ore., where another type of hurricane—Measure 37, the so-called “property rights” amendment—has ripped across the public policy landscape, threatening to undo more than 30 years of the nation’s most sensible comprehensive land-use planning.
The so-called “property rights” movement seems always to be concerned with the rights of “greenfields” property owners on the metropolitan periphery. It must have occurred to some of you to ask, “what about the property rights of all those property owners whose property values vanished while sprawl was costing New Orleans over half its tax base?”
We need to re-define the property rights issue to assert everybody’s property rights— not just those of the relatively favored few.
Let’s not talk further about New Orleans that, post- Katrina, may be a special case. Let’s look at the Detroit region with a central city even poorer than New Orleans.
Under the provisions of Michigan law, the three counties around the city of Detroit (Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne) have long been totally divided up into 131 municipalities. State law delegates “comprehensive” planning and zoning powers to these 131 “little boxes” (that average about 14 square miles each), setting no regional planning goals nor even requiring that each “little box” consider the effect of its development actions on its neighbors. The rule is “every jurisdiction for itself and the Devil take the hindmost.” Well, the hindmost is always the city of Detroit.
From 1970 to 2000, even though this three-county area lost population, it did see net formation of 283,000 households. However, within the state of Michigan’s “every-‘little-box’-for-itself/Devil take-the-hindmost” system (powerfully subsidized by sprawl-favoring, state-controlled highway and other infrastructure spending) area homebuilders constructed 584,000 new housing units— more than twice as many new homes as there were new households to fill them. The new always sells and the new always rents, but the region’s “hindmosts” saw 270,000 older housing units just vanish— rendered economically valueless by excess housing supply. Many wonderful, historic structures and traditional neighborhoods disappeared. (The City of Detroit owns 44,000 vacant lots where homes once stood.) Overall, in the last 44 years, Detroit has lost 71 percent of its property tax base!
That’s not just a bloodless statistic. Each of those 270,000 vanished houses was once some family’s most valued asset—most often, some African-American family’s most valued asset. Across the country the greatest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history is occurring right now as the Greatest Generation transfers its accumulated home equity to the Baby Boom generation, and Generation X is poised to inherit that wealth in turn from their parents and grandparents—if they are white. Because of the destruction of housing values experienced by most African-Americans, their heirs will inherit nothing but debt.
In Michigan (as in many states), state law sets up one class of favored property owners (periphery property owners) at the expense of other property owners (core-area property owners).
I am not a lawyer, but that sounds to me like a state’s denying “equal protection of the laws” under the XIV Amendment to the United States Constitution. My colleagues Myron Orfield and John Powell are lawyers. We are collaborating on researching a class action suit in an appropriate federal court to focus on the destruction of these urban dwellers’ property rights by the very policies championed by so-called “property rights” advocates.
The Need for New Coalitions
Why take this issue on? We are taking this on because, for example, Measure 37’s electoral success in Oregon is no instance of the “little people” spontaneously rising up against “Big Government” bureaucratic tyranny. It is rather the fruit of a carefully orchestrated campaign by radical ultra-conservatives, spearheaded intellectually by libertarian think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, and the chain of state little Cato Institutes, litigated by libertarian groups like Defenders of Property Rights and Mountain States Legal Foundation, and fueled by tens of millions of dollars from oil companies, highway contractors, homebuilders associations, forest industry and mining giants, and auto and bus manufacturers.
We are all targets— growth management advocates, New Urbanists, historic preservationists, organizers of poor communities such as ACORN, faith-based coalitions committed to social justice, progressive labor unions. Whatever our specific cause, we share a common ethos: serving the common good, asserting the value of responsibility to a larger community.
For all the populist appealing rhetoric of property rights advocates (well-honed by focus groups), their brand of rampant, unfettered “free market” individualism ends up apportioning the lion’s share of benefits to the richest and most powerful.
Too often we “good guys” are feuding amongst ourselves, working at cross purposes. Our house, divided against ourselves, cannot prevail.
I challenge the members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to rethink some of your goals, to take a fresh look at the limited range of your alliances. You’ve done so before about 15 years ago, broadening your focus from just historic buildings to entire historic neighborhoods. You need to reframe your mission within the context of regional economies and increasingly unjust and inequitable social trends.
Let me rephrase an observation by a Holocaust survivor, reflecting on what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
First, they came after organized labor, but I did not speak out for I am not labor;
then they came after the poor, but I did not speak out for I am not poor;
then they came after regional Smart Growth advocates, but I did not speak out for my focus is some buildings and some neighborhoods;
then they came after the New Urbanists, but I did not speak out for I am into Old Urbanism;
and then I realized, when they come after me, there will be no one left to speak out for me.
1 Compared to its nine peer regions, New Orleans ranked only ahead of Birmingham in job growth (1950-97), had the highest regional poverty rate in 1990, and the slowest growth in median family income (1950 to 1990).
Editor’s note: On October 14, 2005, Oregon’s Measure 37 land-use law was overturned by a county circuit court judge. This controversial measure, approved by 61 percent of the voters in November 2004, gave property owners the right to develop their property under the rules and regulations in effect at the time they acquired it, without regard for the community planning rules their neighbors live by. The judge ruled the measure unconstitutional because it favored longtime property owners over those who had purchased property more recently, and because it prohibited the Oregon legislature from exercising its authority to regulate for public welfare, health, or safety. Measure 37 opponents are now preparing to fight an appeal made to the Oregon Supreme Court, which will be heard January 10 in an expedited schedule.