Purging the Poor

Naomi Klein is a must-read this week, as she rakes through the racial and socioeconomic politics of the new New Orleans.

Wearing a donated pink T-shirt with an age-inappropriate slogan (“It’s the hidden little Tiki spot where the island boys are hot, hot, hot”), Nyler tells me what she is nervous about. “I think New Orleans might not ever get fixed back.” “Why not?” I ask, a little surprised to be discussing reconstruction politics with a preteen in pigtails. “Because the people who know how to fix broken houses are all gone.”

I don’t have the heart to tell Nyler that I suspect she is on to something; that many of the African-American workers from her neighborhood may never be welcomed back to rebuild their city.

Why? Because Washington is offering huge incentives — tax breaks, subsidies and relaxed regulations — to big firms for their help rebuilding the city, which will be designed by people Klein calls the “white elite.” (And considering that whites make up only 27% of people in New Orleans, she’d be correct).

So what could they do? Well, integrate neighborhoods, for one:

As for the hundreds of thousands of residents whose low-lying homes and housing projects were destroyed by the flood, [New Orleans’ top corporate lobbyist, Mark] Drennen points out that many of those neighborhoods were dysfunctional to begin with. He says the city now has an opportunity for “twenty-first-century thinking”: Rather than rebuild ghettos, New Orleans should be resettled with “mixed income” housing, with rich and poor, black and white living side by side.

What Drennen doesn’t say is that this kind of urban integration could happen tomorrow, on a massive scale. Roughly 70,000 of New Orleans’ poorest homeless evacuees could move back to the city alongside returning white homeowners, without a single new structure being built. Take the Lower Garden District, where Drennen himself lives. It has a surprisingly high vacancy rate–17.4 percent, according to the 2000 Census. At that time 702 housing units stood vacant, and since the market hasn’t improved and the district was barely flooded, they are presumably still there and still vacant. It’s much the same in the other dry areas: With landlords preferring to board up apartments rather than lower rents, the French Quarter has been half-empty for years, with a vacancy rate of 37 percent.

The citywide numbers are staggering: In the areas that sustained only minor damage and are on the mayor’s repopulation list, there are at least 11,600 empty apartments and houses. If Jefferson Parish is included, that number soars to 23,270. With three people in each unit, that means homes could be found for roughly 70,000 evacuees. With the number of permanently homeless city residents estimated at 200,000, that’s a significant dent in the housing crisis. And it’s doable.

But why do I get the feeling that it won’t be done?


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22 comments for “Purging the Poor

  1. Earl
    September 22, 2005 at 4:07 pm

    Look, it’s obviously desireable for poor people to live in mixed income housing. The obvious counterpoint is there is no reason for wealthier people to live with poor folks. In fact, now the first question I ask landlords is if they accept section 8; if they do, there is no way I’ll ever rent from them.

    Since I’ve deliverately stopped living near poor people, I’ve
    (1) not had some lazy bitch who couldn’t be bothered to watch her 4 kids let them play ticktacktoe on the side of my car with a rock, causing $3,500 worth of damage

    (2) not had anyone murdered

  2. Earl
    September 22, 2005 at 4:07 pm

    (2) not had anyone murdered

  3. Earl
    September 22, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    (2) not had anyone murdered

  4. Earl
    September 22, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    eh, it keeps cutting off my post. I give up.

  5. earl
    September 22, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    One more try in mozilla —

    Look, it’s obviously desireable for poor people to live in mixed income housing. The obvious counterpoint is there is no reason for wealthier people to live with poor folks. In fact, now the first question I ask landlords is if they accept section 8; if they do, there is no way I’ll ever rent from them.

    Since I’ve deliverately stopped living near poor people, I’ve
    (1) not had some lazy bitch who couldn’t be bothered to watch her 4 kids let them play ticktacktoe on the side of my car with a rock, causing $3,500 worth of damage

    (2) not had anyone murdered

  6. Allah
    September 22, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    You live in a poor black neighborhood, though, right, Jill?

  7. September 22, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    Thanks.

  8. September 22, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    You live in a poor black neighborhood, though, right, Jill?

    I live in a fairly mixed-income neighborhood, actually. In my building and on my block (and particularly to the east and north) there’s a wide range when it comes to race and ethnicity, and it’s mostly young working people. Go three blocks west and it’s gorgeous brownstones that I would give my right arm to live in. So I live around the corner from a lot of rich white folks, and in the same building and on the same street as a lot of not-so-rich folks of every color.

    Do I live in a poor black neighborhood? No. But if the vacancy rate in my neighborhood was 17 percent (it’s actually 1.2 percent right now, according to my broker) and thousands of low-income people had just been displaced from their homes because of a natural disaster, you can bet that I’d hope my neighborhood would welcome them with open arms.

  9. September 22, 2005 at 4:24 pm

    Jill-

    You don’t owe jackasses explanations of any sort, let alone thoughtful and polite ones. Your grace and composure amazes me.

    -H.C.

  10. September 22, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    It is so sad to me that the destruction that Katrina brought with her has actually been less of a tragedy than the way that further segregation has been enabled in her wake.

    I guess all the rich, white folks must be pretty happy that Katrina could do what they’ve been trying to do all along – run the scary, poor, black people out of town.

    I can’t begin to conceive how some people can’t seem to realize how racially relevant this catastrophe is, and how New Orleans will never be the same no matter how fantastic it looks once it is finally rebuilt.

    They won’t even have a chance to rebuild their own neighborhoods. They’ll simply relocate to another place where people will still look at them suspiciously and try to push them as far away from the white-collars as possible.

  11. Allah
    September 22, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    you can bet that I’d hope my neighborhood would welcome them with open arms

    Yes, in the interest of decency. But you’re kidding yourself if you think it will lead to some permanent arrangement of different classes living “side by side”. The rich will do what people with the means always do in such situations: for reasons of safety, status, and simple class panic, they’ll move out and start new neighborhoods for people with similar income levels. I’m sure I’d do the same thing. And judging by the zip codes of politicians from both parties, so would they.

  12. OHNOES
    September 22, 2005 at 8:13 pm

    Can you blame the rich for wanting to live in neighborhoods with nice houses? :P

    My goodness, so much more screaming about all the eeevil rich white racists who are most certainly Republicans.

  13. September 22, 2005 at 8:18 pm

    Strawman alert!

  14. September 22, 2005 at 8:40 pm

    Rather than rebuild ghettos, New Orleans should be resettled with “mixed income” housing, with rich and poor, black and white living side by side.

    Right, because the demand is huge to pay more than your neighbors for property in a “mixed value” neighborhood.

    But if the vacancy rate in my neighborhood was 17 percent (it’s actually 1.2 percent right now, according to my broker) and thousands of low-income people had just been displaced from their homes because of a natural disaster, you can bet that I’d hope my neighborhood would welcome them with open arms.

    And what if the character of your neighborhood changed, with an uptick in violent crime? Urban development is not a utopian fantasy (no, it doesn’t need to be a post-apocalyptic dystopia either). Varying races and ethnicities can live side-by-side just fine (witness many big cities). As Allah said, different classes is a trickier equation. If not for safety concerns, for prestige of neighborhood, and the fact that real estate values tend to move very tightly together based on area.

    You could build a “mixed value” neighborhood, but it wouldn’t stay “mixed value” for long, unless you locked people into draconian sales clauses (a la Habitat for Humanity) that prohibited sale for a number of years. And that would only delay the wealth/property value normalization of the neighborhood.

    Not to mention, the rich folks wouldn’t buy under such conditions in the first place because, hey, why should they?

  15. September 22, 2005 at 10:08 pm

    Separating race and class is a little dishonest though, don’t you think? I mean, one look at pictures from New Orleans and it’s pretty clear that they’re still deeply intertwined.

    If you read the whole article, what Klein was ultimately pointing out is that the proposed solution — building a “prettier” New Orleans with mixed-race neighborhoods — could happen right now. What it requires is publicizing fact that there are high vacany rates in the higher-elevation (and richer, and whiter) neighborhoods (and honestly, I don’t think property value is much of an issue at this point) and not being shy about moving people into those areas.

  16. zuzu
    September 22, 2005 at 10:12 pm

    People, there’s more between being rich and being poor. Really!

    And a lot of the New Orleans poor were working poor.

    NYC’s public housing has been mixed-income since, IIRC, its start, and it’s avoided a lot of the problems that purely low-income housing has had in other cities. So you get straight-up poor living side-by-side with working poor and blue-collar working class and moderate-income middle class, and things have more or less worked out.

    Obviously, the rich won’t have to live where they don’t want to. But the thing about New Orleans is, big expensive houses were on the main roads and houses owned by poor folks were on the side streets, so the poor and the rich lived cheek by jowl except in the most extreme neighborhoods (i.e., the Ninth Ward and the Garden District).

    Many of the poor won’t return, particularly not if they get a better shot elsewhere (better schools, better housing, safer from disaster). If the Halliburtons of the world succeed in turning New Orleans into a Disneyfied version of itself, they’re going to discover that it was the poor of the city who gave it a lot of its flavor. I suspect the New New Orleans will bear about the same relationship to the original as New York, New York the casino bears to New York, NY.

  17. September 23, 2005 at 9:15 am

    Separating race and class is a little dishonest though, don’t you think? I mean, one look at pictures from New Orleans and it’s pretty clear that they’re still deeply intertwined.

    Oh sure, practically speaking. But I think that it’s tricky to speak of them as if they are one and the same, as a lot of the guilty rhetoric has been doing since the hurricane. My point was that race integration is much less of a tough nut to crack than economic integration in a neighborhood, as has been my experience in rather diverse big cities.

    zuzu –

    So you get straight-up poor living side-by-side with working poor and blue-collar working class and moderate-income middle class, and things have more or less worked out.

    Interesting. I’m not doubting you, but I’ve never witnessed the phenomenon that extends to middle class, personally (working poor, poor and blue collar, yeah). I think two important questions to ask are:

    1. Why are poor neighborhoods so insecure and fall into such disrepair in the first place?

    2. Why is a “mixed value” neighborhood the answer? Other than the dilution of negative elements because wealthier folks (even working lower-middle-class) are more conscientious? (There is a quality of life cost to this dilution for somebody)

    My instinct is, if the level of public services provided to poor neighborhoods is roughly equivalent to those provided to middle class neighborhoods (a big “if”), what further responsibility does the government have to ensure that people take care of their neighborhood? Especially a brand spanking new one built after a natural disaster?

  18. September 23, 2005 at 9:26 am

    I think suggesting that poor people don’t or don’t want to take care of their property is a bit disingenuous. Rather, there is likely a time, money and labor divide — wealthier people have more time and money to spend on property cosmetics than people living from paycheck to paycheck.

  19. September 23, 2005 at 9:35 am

    Also, think of the difference between renting and owning. In every place I’ve ever rented, the only cosmetic changes I’ve been allowed to make were putting nails in the walls to hold pictures. Other than a plant and a couple of chairs on the back porch, I wasn’t allowed to do anything outside.

    As far as structural things — I live in a college town with a huge number of rental properties. You have a few choices: live in a brand-new place built for kids whose parents will pay for the ridiculous amenities or live in an old place that hundreds of people have tromped through with their crap. When you rent WYSIWYG properties, well, WYSIWYG. My first apartment, where my son and I lived alone, my back door never fully closed. I never was able to get anyone in to fix it. You’re at the whim of your landlords — and your neighbors, I suppose — hopefully they give a shit.

    And public housing? Good fucking luck. My friends who have used Section 8 have never been able to get anything structural in their apartments fixed without calling on the Sec8 office to rain hellfire on the landlords.

  20. September 23, 2005 at 10:04 am

    I think suggesting that poor people don’t or don’t want to take care of their property is a bit disingenuous. Rather, there is likely a time, money and labor divide — wealthier people have more time and money to spend on property cosmetics than people living from paycheck to paycheck.

    This is very true. Also see Broken Window Theory — Giuliani relied pretty heavily on it when cleaning up NYC. And I know some of his tactics were questionable (to say the least), but it largely worked. The basic idea is that when people are in a space over which they feel they have little control, and which is already broken-down and vandalized, they don’t feel that they have any personal ownership to keep it nice. When spaces are clean, broken windows are fixed immediately and there isn’t graffiti everywhere, there’s a disincentive to be the first person to sully the space.

    Think about it this way: If you walk into your home and it’s spic-and-span clean and flawless, you’re more likely to hang your coat up, stack your things neatly in a pile, and wash your dishes after dinner. If the place is a wreck, you’ll probably throw your coat on your couch, toss your crap everywhere and tell yourself that you’ll do the dishes tomorrow. At least, that’s what I do.

    Plus what Lauren said about low-income and rent-based neighborhoods lacking access to basic services.

  21. Rabbit
    September 23, 2005 at 11:38 am

    Not to mention, the rich folks wouldn’t buy under such conditions in the first place because, hey, why should they?

    I’m working on a mixed income housing project in Chicago (as a secretary, so mostly observing), and we’re doing pretty well at selling our units. Its about half rental and half for sale, with 1/3 of for sale being affordable (with the afore-mentioned ‘draconian’ sale restrictions) and the rest market rate, and about 1/3 of the rental being affordable and 2/3 being straight public housing. Only very few people live there yet so I suppose it hasn’t been proven yet whether it will succeed long term…but the for-sale market rate units are being sold at a fairly good clip.

  22. September 23, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    I think suggesting that poor people don’t or don’t want to take care of their property is a bit disingenuous. Rather, there is likely a time, money and labor divide — wealthier people have more time and money to spend on property cosmetics than people living from paycheck to paycheck.

    I suppose. But assuming ownership control, it does not take hiring Mr. Belvedere to mow grass, take out trash, pick up the yard or paint the place once every few years. Or, you know, not deal crack around the corner from an elementary school (which is representative of the other set of problems, ameliorated by the type of aggressive policework that y’all would evidently decry). Some lower-class to blue collar areas have neighborhood cultures that maintain neighborhoods very well. What’s the difference? (I don’t know) Something is broken down there in New Orleans, and I believe the problem has various layers to it, a key layer being a corrupt local government that misuses funds and manages substandard public services.

    Using the “rent” situation (definitely a key point), the question becomes, “why aren’t the landlords maintaining the properties well.” And it’s about profit of course; the margin might be tanked based on the low rental income. Not sure how to solve that, as its an economically self-reinforcing situation.

    But beyond physical upkeep, my question is, what are the factors that would improve with “mixed income” housing and how would you sell and maintain it to people with the flexibility to choose otherwise? The “broken window” point is well taken (Guliani was a miracle worker) for part one. Still, good luck controlling the real estate market with regard to execution.

    I’ve just never seen practical wealth integration that is anything but a transitory (gentrification or decline) stage.

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