United States

Gentrification, Demolishing the Projects and the Dispersal of Poor Urban Black Communities

A Black Agenda Interview By Bruce A. Dixon

In urban Black America, stable communities are the exception rather than the rule. It’s a fact of black life in the U.S. that our urban communities, especially poorer ones are rarely allowed to exist more than a couple generations. Low and moderate-income black communities, especially renters are not valued, either by our black elite or by the larger society. Portrayed in the media as desperate sinkholes of despair they are inevitably slated for gentrification, displacement and dispersal. Communities of public housing residents have been conspicuous targets of this model of urban redevelopment. Last summer, Black Agenda Report talked to University of South Florida’s (USF) Dr. Susan D. Greenbaum1, one of the few scholars studying the outcome of the national policy of demolishing and dispersing public housing communities. It’s a question most scholars and our black elite seldom ask. For too much of our black business class leadership, gentrification isn’t a question of economic justice. It’s just another way to get paid.

Bruce Dixon: What is the HOPE 6 program, anyway?

Susan Greenbaum: HOPE 6 is a program that began in the early 1990s, actually under Bush 1. The intention of it was to revitalize housing projects that were distressed and deemed in need of removal by a commission that was put together in preceding years that identified a fairly large number of housing projects deemed to be virtually unlivable. The program evolved into something rather larger than that. It became part of a privatization initiative for demolishing public housing, for redeveloping on the sites of the former complexes mixed income communities that were the result of public-private partnerships and were greatly influenced by the New Urbanism. Henry Cisneros, HUD director during the early part of the Clinton administration was particularly attracted to the principles and ideas of the new urbanism. And so it got combined into this idea that public housing was a failure and needed to be redeveloped.

Out of that also came a number of social principles that were designed, I think, to explain why people were (being) dislocated in this fashion. Complexes were demolished, people have to be relocated, and this can be very disruptive to their lives. The theory of deconcentration, which came out of the work of William Julius Wilson, among others, was the notion that a big part of the perpetuation of poverty arises from the fact that poor people, particularly in public housing, are concentrated in areas where only other poor people live. They’re bereft of role models, they’re bereft of resources and they create a kind of self-reinforcing and intergenerationally-reproducing set of values and behaviors that make poor people perpetually poor.

Bruce Dixon: So then, according to this (theory) if poverty and the bad behaviors people associate with poverty come from poor people, the solution to poverty is to break up concentrations of poor people.

Susan Greenbaum: That is it in essence, that if you can somehow disperse those concentrations and relocate these very poor people into areas where there are less poor people, and ideally more middle class people, that they will learn appropriate values and behaviors, they will be linked to new opportunities and their lives will be transformed and presumably they will be able to lift themselves out of poverty.

Bruce Dixon: Is it really a new idea in urban economic development that the only way, the best way to develop urban neighborhoods is to move poorer people out and richer ones in? That didn’t just start in the last twenty years, did it?

Susan Greenbaum: No, no, it’s got ample precedent. What is different though, is that there was kind of, I don’t want to call it a policy, but there was an agenda of containment. Certainly the dual housing market is containment, where you draw a line around areas and say this is where black people can live, and if black people spill over into the margins of adjoining neighborhoods then those neighborhoods begin to transition and become all black also, and this is somehow related to some kind of creeping pathology, an image of a cancerous process. This is like, let’s take these concentrations of poverty and pathology and break them up, scatter the people into new areas where presumably their conditions (the behaviors that characterize poverty) will disappear.

Bruce Dixon: Have any systematic longitudinal nationwide studies been done to determine what the actual effects on families and former communities that were scattered have been?

Susan Greenbaum: There have been some. The Urban Institute [Nonpartisan economic and social policy research] and Abt Associates [Research and consulting on a wide range of issues in social and economic policy] at Cambridge had collaborate longitudinal panel studies that they began, I can’t remember the date they started, but there were a period of intervals at which they revisited the impacts of relocation on the people who have been relocated. There was a report issued in late 2007 that was the latest version of what has happened. In that report there are a number of findings that are certainly negative.

There have been virtually no positive effects on employment opportunities. There are mixed and equivocal results regarding the benefits to youth of being relocated. There are very negative results regarding the health status of people who’ve been relocated. There is not much good that has been identified in the effects of this process from that study, which is the largest study. It’s based on several sites. It’s not a nationwide review. But this is going on in cities and towns that have public housing throughout the country. It continues to be even though the actual funding for the HOPE 6 program
was discontinued in the late Bush administration.

Bruce Dixon: Let’s go a little bit into this idea that you help poor people by scattering and breaking up their communities. That sounds like an interesting idea. If poverty is bad, who would want to be around other poor people? And if poverty is bad, how can breaking up concentrations of poor people be the wrong thing to do?

Susan Greenbaum: This, I think, is one of the principal contradictions in this policy, or in this program and in the policy that undergirds it. There is an assumption that poor people living together with other poor people develop very dysfunctional habits, behaviors and values, and that this is the principal reason or one of the reasons they cannot escape poverty. Well, if that’s the case, to relocate poor people into lower and middle class neighborhoods is to introduce what are acknowledged to be “bad elements” into those neighborhoods. Now I disagree with the initial premise, so I don’t agree with the secondary premise....

Bruce Dixon: The premise that the former residents of public housing are “bad elements.”

Susan Greenbaum: Exactly, I think this is part of a longstanding pejorative tradition that blames poverty on people who are poor rather than on structural factors such as inadequate incomes and poor educational opportunities.

Bruce Dixon: So do the people in these middle-income neighborhoods into which poor people are relocated resist and resent the newcomers?

Susan Greenbaum: Well, that’s certainly been our experience. This is one aspect of the program that has been very little studied. To my knowledge we are the only people who have systematically attempted to determine how the homeowners in neighborhoods into which people have been relocated are reacting to their arrival. Ed Goetz in Minneapolis did a study of a court ordered relocation process that also looked at the reactions of incumbents and he found a lot of resistance. What we have found is considerable amount of resistance, and it’s hardly surprising. People are worried that their home values have been diminished as a result of the new mix in the neighborhood. They’re worried that their safety has been affected by this new mix in the neighborhood. They believe the images and the messages they’ve been presented of why these are uncongenial neighbors. So it’s hardly surprising that they’ve been resistant. It’s an unexamined problem.

Bruce Dixon: Tell us if you can why the health outcomes of former public housing residents should be worse, and why the job outcomes of former public housing residents have not improved after relocation.

Susan Greenbaum: I would be purely speculating on this but I’d be happy to speculate. In the most recent report from the Urban Institute this is one of the findings that really stand out. We know from their earlier baseline studies that people in public housing have worse health status than other people at comparable income levels. This is both cause and effect. People who are in poor health seek housing security because they really don’t have the capacity to engage in employment at the same level as more healthy people.

But what they found was that people who were relocated with vouchers into private neighborhoods were worse off than people who stayed in public housing. And that’s anomalous. I think what it is, is that disconnecting them from healthcare services that tend to be concentrated in those public housing neighborhoods.

In Tampa for example, on the edge of the former public housing projects and continuing still, there was a low-income clinic. There were services provided by WIC and a program called Healthy Start that brought that kind of services to people who lived in these complexes. The services were more accessible. When you scatter people into areas where there are not those kinds of services deliberately positioned, it just causes more problems in securing them. The eligibility for Healthy Start for example, was based on living in a census tract with a certain level of poverty. When people were moved out of public housing into a variety of census tracts many of which had income rates too high to qualify, Healthy Start had trouble finding their former clients, and certifying their eligibility. So those people fell through the cracks. I think this is one small example of the processes that led to those outcomes.

Bruce Dixon: Weren’t the presence of a lot of these health programs in these (public housing) areas a result of the exercise of political agency, political power by some of the people who used to live in the projects?

Susan Greenbaum: Sure, that and the fact that you place services, logically, in the areas where people need them the most. But it was also the case that people agitated for their own needs, and did so more effectively when they were together as a large group, as a constituency.

Bruce Dixon: What about access to employment?

Susan Greenbaum: Actually this is interesting. We’ve looked at this in Tampa, so I can only speak about Tampa. There was better public transportation by a long shot in the areas where the projects used to be. If you look at the areas where employment was most likely to be, such as downtown and in hospitals located in the downtown area, and shopping districts that were accessible by public transportation from the downtown area, opportunities to find and secure employment were actually better.

Now people were stigmatized for living in public housing. Those kind of issues had an effect on whether or not employers were willing to hire. One of the assumptions was that this stigma could be relieved. Well, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of that. What has been going on is that people seem to have less access to the employment than they need. Other studies have shown similar kinds of results in other places where transportation seems to be a major factor...

Bruce Dixon: You mean the availability of public transportation in the areas to which they have been moved—although jobs are out there, if you can’t walk five miles to a job and there’s no bus there, it’s not going to work out for you.

Susan Greenbaum: Right. I think there are some issues like that which weren’t anticipated. I mean, the broad notion that good jobs had left the inner city and had been relocated into the suburbs so if we move people to the suburbs where the jobs now are then they would have better chances of getting them. But that doesn’t eliminate the kinds of discrimination that exists. And the fact that people with low skills no matter how close are not going to be qualified for those jobs and they’re not going to get them. The idea that they would somehow be incorporated into social networks where it’s sort of a well known truism that people get jobs through people they know, and if they now know people who have jobs maybe they’ll be able to get jobs, well, that hasn’t happened,

Bruce Dixon: Is it true, do you think, that we’ve developed a culture in America where we only value homeowners, where we don’t value, and we don’t protect the rights of people who have to rent their housing?

Susan Greenbaum: That’s a situation, which has come to full contradictory flower in recent years. Yes, I think so. Certainly in the state of Florida, the rights of tenants are extremely flimsy. There are very few protections against either bad conditions or bad treatment or recourse when landlords don’t fix things they’re supposed to—that creates an insecurity which is, I think, a real problem, and it reflects... (a valuation of renters) as transient and not as reputable as people who own their own homes.

Bruce Dixon: What do we lose when we break up communities of renters like the communities of people who lived in public housing? What’s lost there?

Susan Greenbaum: I think this is the real problem. Because the social structure of public housing has been so demonized, there’s a failure to recognize what that social structure actually consists of. A very recurrent theme not only in our interviews but in the work that other people have done in other places is that when people lived in public housing they had access to a whole range of support from each other that is no longer available (once they’ve been moved). People watched each other’s kids. People were able to use each other’s telephones. People gave each other rides places. So you didn’t have to own a car to get someplace because you could pay somebody a couple of dollars to take you in their car. You didn’t have to have a phone to get a job because you could give the number of the person next door and they would get you and you would get that call. There are whole lists of those kinds of things. These practices are well known but they are not valued, they’re certainly not valued appropriately.

When people are moved away from those contacts where you no longer have somebody next door whose phone you can borrow or who’s willing to watch your kids while you go for a job interview or any of the other kinds of things that make survival more feasible, there’s a lot of struggling that happens. Or people have to buy those services, which further diminishes their limited incomes. So the breaking up of communal support structures is really one of the casualties of this.

Bruce Dixon: Does the fact that the projects were or used to be on good sized contiguous tracts of land near downtown that developers can make a big buck off of, did that have anything to do with the popularization of this relocation agenda?

Susan Greenbaum: Nobody will acknowledge that, but many of us think so. There are sites that were desirable, certainly in the city of Chicago, desirable real estate that was being occupied by large public housing complexes. In Tampa for example, the area of Seminole Heights, which was sort of a 1920s development with a lot of old…cottages had become a site of gentrification. But there was a very large public housing project located just to the north of Seminole Heights. That was redeveloped, and it was, by anecdote of the people trying to revitalize Seminole Heights, a very welcome development because now there’s no longer this sort of looming menace up the street of these projects, but rather this very attractive new urbanist-style apartment buildings where very few former public housing residents live.

Bruce Dixon: What do we have to do to be able to move beyond and create a model of urban development that isn’t simply moving poorer people out and richer ones in? What would have to happen?

Susan Greenbaum: We need to return in earnest to place-based redevelopment, and to participatory, collaborative redevelopment. There were many, many people living in public housing who had a very good understanding of their situation and of the kinds of things that would help their community, and were very willing to work on behalf of creating those kinds of structures, opportunities for kids, opportunities for each other, political mobilization, and self-help. Self-help and mutual aid are principles that are destroyed by (gentrification) this kind of redevelopment, it... (makes survival) highly individualized. We need to return to the belief that we’re all in this together and that collective structures have power.

I’m hoping that in this new administration this kind of understanding that neighborhood has new status, certainly more than it did in the previous one. There’s been this notion that well, we tried community development and it failed. Well, it’s very easy to dissect the failures of community development and see that the concept really has never been appropriately tried, that there were many successes we could build upon.

I think there is hardly any good evidence in support of deconcentration. There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests it’s not a good idea. People who are earnestly interested in making improvements in the urban landscape and in the way that poverty is conceptualized should really go back and look at some of these time worn principles that really do work.

Bruce Dixon: What is there to fear from concentrations of poor people and who are the actors in our society who had something to fear from concentrations of poor people, and who benefited by their dispersal?

Susan Greenbaum: That’s a complex question. The media images of what went on in public housing have been so negative and so thorough. It just amazes me, the number of well-meaning people who believe this in totality, who think that the problems of poor black families come from the fact that their structure is somehow different from nuclear families in the suburbs rather than this being a matter of economics or some other circumstances. People have this belief, mainstream middle class white people, that if they’re somehow brought into contact with poor people they’re going to become victims of crime or their kids are going to take on bad practices and those are pejorative, really libelous characterizations that need to be re-evaluated. People need to have a more balanced understanding of where poverty comes from.

Bruce Dixon: Finally, a lot of the people who did move wound up in neighborhoods that have been ground zero for the foreclosure epidemic.

Susan Greenbaum: That’s exactly what we’re finding. We looked at two case neighborhoods—we chose two case neighborhoods for ethnographic treatment. One of these neighborhoods is not the site of the highest foreclosure rate in the county, and it is just like a war zone. There are so many empty buildings, so many predatory activities going on in that neighborhood now that to suggest people are better off living there is ridiculous. These are neighborhoods that were vulnerable to the sub prime scams and now the foreclosure prevention scams. It’s a situation in which the problems have compounded themselves. People are being evicted from Section Eight properties that are being foreclosed upon (even though) they’ve paid the rent, HUD has paid the rent, but they’re in foreclosure and people get evicted.

Bruce Dixon: We understand that now one of the focuses of your research is what’s going on in those neighborhoods where the foreclosure epidemic is happening.

Susan Greenbaum: That’s right. Now we’re just beginning so it’s very difficult to generalize, but the things that we’ve learned are just heartbreaking. People who get foreclosed on and evicted lose everything they have. They put all of their possessions in storage, and that becomes one more bill they cannot pay. So heirlooms that have been in families for generations are lost—all of their memorabilia, all of their valuables. People who started out a step on the ladder to some sort of middle class are now consigned to far worse poverty and to despair. Their families fall apart under the weight of this pressure. Pets are sent off to the pound. The aching circumstances surrounding all that are causing domestic violence, they’re causing divorce, family dissolution, things we can’t really tolerate much more of as a society.

Bruce Dixon: And there are no communities left to organize...

Susan Greenbaum: The effect is to demobilize, and to demoralize, and those are not good things. It’s hard work and it’s so much harder than when all we had to worry about was relations between the former public housing residents and homeowners.

Bruce Dixon: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Dr. Greenbaum., February 17, 2010

1 Dr. Susan Greenbaum is a professor of anthropology at USF, the University of South Florida. She has been researching urban settings for thirty years, in Tampa, Kansas City and other cities. Since 2000 she has closely examined the impact of the HOPE 6 program, and most recently has been concerned with the patterns of mortgage foreclosure in the areas to which many former public housing residents had relocated. She is the author of More Than Black, Afro-Cubans in Tampa, tracing the experiences of this black immigrant group in the Jim Crow South and the mutual aid society they developed more than a century ago which still endures today.