May 13th, 2007
“Recovery also has to do with establishing legitimacy: understanding and responding to citizens’ priorities for the city. … With legitimacy, even if physical reconstruction is uneven and slow, citizens won’t necessarily feel their recovery was thwarted or denied.” – Diane E. Davis, Reverberations: Mexico City’s 1985 Earthquake and the Transformation of the Capital, March 18, 2002, at MIT’s Resilient Cities lecture series
Karen (of Squandered Heritage and Northwest Carrollton fame) asked the other day in conversation, why aren’t we looking at Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake more? Maybe because it wasn’t exactly a stellar recovery – but then, that makes it all the more relevant to our own faltering steps. Of course, the comparison hasn’t been completely neglected – nosing around a bit, I turned up this post, which in turn led to finding this video of Diane E. Davis’ lecture on Mexico City’s experience.
Do you have an hour or so to spare? WATCH THE VIDEO. The lecture portion is about 50 minutes long, with a 20 minute question and answer session following (although the sound isn’t great in that portion). Don’t have 50 minutes? Watch it in stages. I started jotting down a few notes about comments that seemed interesting or relevant to New Orleans’ situation, and ended up with 4 1/2 pages. I’ll try not to go into excruciating detail, but the Mexico City experience is so much food for thought I expect I’ll be chewing on this for a long time to come. So rather than attempt a blow-by-blow comparison of similar events here and there, here are a few points that especially stood out for me (in no particular order):
Responding to the title of the series, Davis argued that it’s not quite the case that cities are resilient. Rather, cities have multiple resiliencies, and some are less desirable than others. Corrupt intstitutions for instance, or violent crime. On the other hand, the resiliency of neighborhood and grassroots organizations was remarkable – even if they didn’t achieve everything they wanted or deserved, their political impact was definitely felt after the first faltering efforts that “followed the logic of money and power.” Citizens asked, “is it possible that we can believe in the efficacy of the government, when it was the people who did everything?” Their questions were the beginning of the end of one-party rule, and did eventually bring about somewhat more participatory democratic institutions and greater accountibility. Questions about urban recovery shouldn’t be limited to how cities recover; we should also ask what they recover. Since the center of the city, the concentration of the political, social, historical, cultural, and economic character of the city as a whole, was most severely affected, what exactly that character was and what it should become were hotly contested. Failure to come up with a coherent, easily implementable recovery plan wasn’t due merely to the very real shortcomings of the local and national government of the time, but also to the competing priorities of different populations and the political pressure they applied. Less damaged areas pushed for more “macroeconomic” concerns while the homeless were still fighting for shelter; debates raged on whether low-income housing should be rebuilt in place, in long-standing downtown neighborhoods, or whether that would discourage higher-end downtown redevelopment with a focus on tourism and offices – again, the character of more than just buildings was at issue. There’s conflict inherent in recovery – ignoring that fact won’t make it go away. Dignity, la dignidad, was the rallying cry for citizens’ groups. They lobbied for specific material needs as well, and for government accountibility, but the recovery of dignity was the vital underpinning of all those efforts. Although admirable concessions were achieved in housing policy, distribution of housing and assistance were still uneven in some respects, and that unevenness has had long-lasting effects, including exacerbating violent rivalries among street vendors, and the persistance of tent cities for years in some areas. Many downtown hotels and private office buildings were left unattended for years to come. There’s been a resurgence of activity and investment in the area more recently, but there are still spots here and there, two or three blocks in size, that have been untouched since 1985, just a stone’s throw from thriving, rebuilt districts.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop myself for now. I’m curious to know what anyone else thinks about the lecture, or about the Mexico City recovery experience in general.
March 6th, 2007
photo by Fiona Cooper
A belated hat-tip to Maitri for pointing out that the glowing quotes from Andres Duany about New Orleans being “the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities,” and singing the praises of our music, food and culture are excerpted from a BusinessWeek.com article culminating in the recommendation of
“…an experimental ‘opt-out zone’: areas where one ‘contracts out’ of the current American system, which consists of the nanny state raising standards to the point where it is so costly and complicated to build that only the state can provide affordable housing – solving a problem that it created in the first place.”
There’s another name for the sort of “opt-out zone” he’s proposing, and that’s shantytown (he’s not the only one: economist Tyler Cowen explicitly suggests a shantytown reconstruction here). Duany, who is famously prickly about affordable housing (preferring, in true New Urbanist form, fantasies of past “good” poor neighborhoods bustling with Sesame Street-like cheerful activity), has finally announced what sort of decanter he’d like to pour the monoculture of poverty into, but he hasn’t yet proposed where to put it. Probably not in the vicinity of the Cuban-esque Marigny Creole Cottage that inspired his epiphany about New Orleans culture.
Another of Duany’s good-old-days fantasies is that:
“Until recently this [building by one's self, or by barter] was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option,”
forgetting that if one’s home burned down, flooded or collapsed, one was left with nothing, however individually responsible one was. Also forgetting that New Orleans’ building-code history actually pre-dates our Anglo-American period that Duany insists will kill our culture – when the Spanish acquired Louisiana and decided it was a bad idea to keep letting the Vieux Carre burn down every few years.
Could there be less red tape in permitting? Of course. Is building according to safety standards more expensive than not? Naturally. Will debt be hard to bear for those who must rebuild or restore homes that were previously paid off? Afraid so, although it seems like addressing that problem ought to entail putting insurance companies feet to the fire, eliminating the Road Home restriction to awards based on “pre-storm value” rather than real rebuilding costs, and holding the Army Corps of Engineers accountable for its negligence, before throwing up our hands in defeat and suggesting that standards and safety should be considered luxury commodities.
The materials for these new pioneer opt-out homes had better be damn cheap or free (maybe salvaged off of the moldering ruins of abandoned properties – blight and affordable housing, two birds with one stone!), since no lending institution is going to approve even a modest amount for a building with no insurance, which is another item this experimental zone will be opting out of. (And, should another disaster occur, the naysayers who question New Orleans’ “right” to exist in the first place will crow the world’s loudest told-you-so.) Will Entergy turn the gas and lights on with no assurance that the wiring etc. was professionally done? (No doubt it’s more romantically Caribbean to dine by candlelight.)
No insurance also means no legitimate business even if one has the means to start up without a loan. Liability, workers comp, and other forms of insurance required are hardly likely to be obtainable either, let alone business, as opposed to building, permits. But no matter – illegitimate business is full of the plucky New World entrepreneurial spirit, and organized crime already loves “lending” and “insuring.” Maitri wrote that one of her first thoughts on reading about what a well-run Caribbean city we have was “tell this to the families of murder victims whose killers walk the streets due to inefficient government.” A criminal justice system is one of our government “nannies,” and ours is so abysmal right now that faced with an Opt Out Zone, opting out is probably what it would do too.
Maitri explains better than I can how wrong it is to conflate laissez-faire culture with laissez-faire governance – under the latter, the bon temps doesn’t roule so well. But beneath the fawning over the Caribbean value of enjoying quality of life before retirement, sometimes by sacrificing a bigger salary (but not necessarily by not working much, as he implies – someone should remind him of how much laundry gets done on Mondays while those red beans are slowly simmering) laissez-faire economics are what “New Orleans: The Wealthiest City of the Caribbean” is all about. And plenty of lives were just as nasty, brutish and short in the Old Free-For-All Urbanism that the New kind selectively appeals to as they are now (what shall we opt out of next? child labor laws? wouldn’t little chimney sweeps be cute, crawling up the flues of all those gas- and electric-free houses? how retro).
Someone please tell me that The Onion bought BusinessWeek, and a super-star urban planner did not just go down that road, or I’m going to have to opt out of what little sanity I have left.
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?