October 20th, 2006

I first read the BGR’s report on Road Home’s rental housing a couple weeks ago, and it really got under my skin. And now it’s been cited in yesterday’s Times-Picayune front page article on the fate of public housing and the directions being taken toward affordable housing in New Orleans, it’s crawling out from where it’s been festering.

“Although ostensibly a recovery program, the Road Home rental program is at heart an affordable housing program.”
The Road Home Rental Housing Program: Consequences for New Orleans
Bureau of Governmental Research

First of all, it’s been my understanding that HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program is intended, in their own words “principally for low- and moderate-income persons,” so the LRA couldn’t not focus primarily on affordable housing even if it wanted to. Unaffordable housing ought to be able to take care of itself, as the BGR itself aptly pointed out back on August 24, 2005, in that other lifetime when Katrina was just a newly named tropical storm preparing to swat Florida.

Second, the spirit of alarm (gasp! an it’s an affordable housing program? in the Orange County I mean, Orleans Parish, recovery effort?) is telling. The BGR recognizes that the many legacies of poverty have hurt our city and citizens, but their high-minded, “objective,” “pure facts,” “no spin” (is there ever a clearer warning to keep your seatbelt fastened and your arms inside the ride until the Tilt-A-Whirl comes to a complete stop?) conclusion is that the remedy is to remove the poor, or a sizable number of them anyway. And being the ever-thorough BGR, they detail at great length their endorsement of the best means to accomplish this feat – move over Voodoo, there’s a new sympathetic magic in town: Feng Shui.

The BGR is probably too “advanced” to believe in elemental natures like Air, Fire, and Water, but that doesn’t mean they’re above the Move Your Poor, Change Your Life strategy of urban self-improvement which is so popular these days (they have plenty of company in HUD, and even the LRA to some extent, however harshly the BGR takes them to task).

It begins with skimming the excess: Poverty doesn’t have to go away entirely – you still have to take the yin with the yang, the dishwashers with the doyennes – but

“The geographic allocation formula [ i.e. - dispensing funds based on the percentage of damage] would continue to concentrate the region’s low income subsidized housing in New Orleans.”

That’s right, the BGR is so confident that the New Feng Shui will have us manifesting effortlessly that they’d rather New Orleans get less funding. Granted, they’re not without paternalistic concern for the less well-off: “So much of the money and jobs have gone to suburbs,” BGR President Janet Howard told the Times-Pic. We should “help lower-income people relocate closer to jobs that would help them climb the economic ladder.” Go off to a better life in other parishes (of course, not St. Bernard – you’re not welcome there unless you’re a blood relative). Don’t worry about us market-raters – we’ll soldier on alone, here in this economically stagnant, jobless hell hole.

After skimming the excess comes deconcentration. Too much of the Element in one place is just no good, however benign it may be in small amounts. Sure, there’s research on correllations between high concentrations of poverty and problems like crime and teenage pregnacy (although the correllations vary more from place to place than you might guess from casual mentions), but causation is far from proven, and doesn’t appear to be getting any closer. Nevertheless, Mixed-Income is a rallying cry far and wide, despite results that at their rosy-lensed, optimistic best have been, well, mixed (and whose relative successes aren’t necessarily measured by the lives of the “deconcentrated,” but by the real estate).

The mixed income strategy (or strategies, since the implementations have been all over the map regarding what sort of mixes, what income levels, ratios, building styles, etc., which makes the BGR report’s repeated conjuring of a “classic mixed income development” especially baffling) is least effective where it’s most predicated on trickle-down socialization. Did I say move over Voodoo? Maybe I spoke too soon – the one thing that can be said for supply-side economics is that we can all agree what side the supply is on. The notion that the above-AMI crowd is in exclusive possession of morals, work ethic, and all around upright behavior is rather less certain. If only being evil really did make you poor… Curiously, one of the BGR report’s harshest criticisms of the LRA and LHFA is that it has “attempted to achieve predetermined social outcomes” with this program by backing off somewhat from their original plan to engineer mixed income developments with high market-rate to low-income ratios.

What’s especially disturbing about this report is that the BGR doesn’t even believe it’s own rhetoric. Would any “research” organization worth its salt concede this: “Limited evidence exists to support the theoretical benefits of mixed income developments,” and still proceed? Would the weasel-worded “Many policy makers and scholars have expressed their preference” pass professional muster anywhere else? (The answer is sadly, yes, all too often, but it shouldn’t anyway.) No matter – the point isn’t to lift individuals out of poverty, it’s to reduce the Element. Why? Lest we “Impede the Growth of the Tax Base.”

The BGR is hardly without company in the stance that cities are made of tax bases first and citizens second – perhaps one among the “many policy makers and scholars” consulted was New Urbanist Andres Duany (speaking of Feng Shui spatial fixes), who’s said in the past that “affordable housing is not what cities need. Because they don’t pay taxes. They bankrupt cities.” (In another discussion with New Urbanism critic Alex Marshall, Mr. Duany gives us the delicious phrase: “to decant the monocultures of poverty.” ?!? Add alchemy to the growing list of mojos in play.) Does New Orleans need a stronger tax base? Of course. Should we watch what public subsidies are doled out for development projects and how? Like hawks. But are there really legions of well-heeled taxpayers lined up out there to fill the market-rate portions of these projects and solve all our economic problems if only we filter out the Element adequately? (Need a quick financial fix? try green candles Green Condos in your Wealth Corner.) A moment ago, New Orleans was such a wasteland that low-income workers were counseled to settle in other parishes post-haste – there’s no “economic ladder” to climb here, we kicked it away.

Poverty won’t be solved by any one magic bullet, spell, charm, or fetish, and if pretending we’ve neutralized it draws attention away from the needs of actual people in actual neighborhoods, we could leave city and citizens alike just as bad off as before (I’m really tired of the rationale that whatever we do couldn’t be worse than before just as long as we do it differently). Not to mention, lingering any longer on trying to attract developers and these mysterious market-rate renters to fill out the 60-80% units it’ll take to justify the 20-40% affordable units just limits repopulation (the tax base, the tax base!). The Rental Road Home plan may not be an absolute gem, but it’s time now to start getting people into homes again, not play mad social scientist. What color candle do we have to light to do that?

4 Responses to “Unsympathetic”

  1. Ray Says:

    I don’t know if I’d suggest that advocates of mixed-income housing are acting in bad faith, necessarily. Where I think the “mixed-income housing” thing goes wrong is the idea that you destroy old neighborhoods, and create new mixed-income ones in their place, while not making older, wealthier ‘hoods mixed-income. I don’t see how the idea is worthy of scorn otherwise, or how the status quo pre-K was worthy of total preservation. (Someone told me you could just fix up the existing public housing developments, and everything would turn around, broken windows theory and all that. But evidence is certainly sketchy as regards the effect of physical improvements as well. Evidence is sketchy on public housing and crime especially, by the way. As much as everyone talks about it, you’d think more would’ve been done. But … no!)

    I went to the Lakeview area UNOP meeting on Saturday. Now, if many stores are opening around there, I presume they’ll need some lower-income people to do the service jobs. But someone noted that if developers are allowed to buy property from the LRA or whoever and turn it into Section 8 housing, you might as well shoot the neighborhood, ’cause it’ll already be close to death anyway. (Incidentally, it was one of only a smattering of African-American people in the crowed–among them people from Gentilly who had the wrong meeting–who said this.)

  2. Ray Says:

    Oh and, of course, Jefferson Parish doesn’t want those lower-income people, according to the Times-Pic, especially not ones from New Orleans. Heavens no. Not in my backyard!!

    Now, as the report suggests, investments in education, worker training, substance absuse, etc., are all needed to fight poverty as well. But aren’t the public housing developments as they stand just a more noticeable example of how little our society actually cares about lower-income people? A physical manifestation of the non-working status quo?

    Would trying something else in addition to providing more education, job training, etc., be such a bad idea? I really don’t think things can change much, even with investment in all the above, however, until there is some sort of communication and cooperation between social networks in lower-income neighborhoods and other parts of a city or metro area. But how do you best accomplish that? People in, say, Lakeview or Jefferson Parish have no incentive to care about the fate of lower-income areas, outside of crime bleeding past their borders. But lower-income areas can’t be little islands off to themselves and thrive, I don’t think, or at least not islands with no consistent communication with and resources from networks and institutions outside the borders. They’re not “closed systems,” as someone described Lakeview as being at Sat.’s meeting (and this person was wrong to think even that).

  3. becky Says:

    Ray – I don’t think advocates of mixed-income housing are always acting in bad faith, although I’ve seen some real howlers, notably the St. Thomas redevelopment. From what I’ve been reading, it seems most true that policy implementation has gotten well ahead of conceptual clarity and empirical justification.” And as you’ve pointed out, there are a lot of other sketchy hypotheses like “broken windows” that get more credit than they’re due. There may be particular features of particular programs that produce real improvements, and those should be examined closely and compared to mixed income programs that don’t have much positive effect. One of the things that bother me most about the stance the BGR report takes is the implication that mixed-income is a well-established success, and even has an officially agreed-upon ideal ratio of incomes.

    I agree with you very much that social networks are critical, especially bridging networks that are mutually isolated. But in what I’ve read lately, I keep finding that mere geographic proximity in mixed-income developments doesn’t accomplish that nearly as well as expected, if at all.

    Most of all though, my concern is that we have a major housing shortage right now, and waiting longer and spending more to design and build mixed-income developments just exacerbates that problem without any promise that it will be worth the wait for anyone.

  4. Ray Says:

    True. I don’t see how Jefferson Parish thinks they’ll get by without people who’ll work at Wendy’s and whatnot. Or the BGR thinks NOLA can find anyone to work at various cheap nick-knack stands, etc.

    Oh, and wanted to point out one thing: Duany is preoccupied with housing because he’s an architect. He’s not a real social scientist. He just plays one at various “charettes.” (And I say that even though I like some of his stuff, paid a special visit to Seaside years ago, etc.)