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How to Kill a City? Start with Welfare for the Wealthy

“Our urban system is based on the theory of taking the peasant and turning him into an industrial worker. Now there are no industrial jobs. Why not keep him a peasant?”

That decades-old quote from Roger Starr, New York City’s former head of the Housing and Development Administration, ultimately led to his resignation. But Peter Moskowitz, in his new book How to Kill a City, argues that this is in fact the theory of governance that has dominated cities for the past fifty years.

It is, says Moskowitz, “gentrification as governance.”

Moskowitz takes readers on a brief tour of how gentrification is often covered in the media: bemused newscasters reading stories about hipsters moving into converted warehouses; blue-toned photos of new coffee shops alongside rundown buildings; longtime residents giving startled interviews about how fast things have changed.

coffee gent

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The message in all of this is that gentrification just happens. It’s an almost mystical process. Even if we wanted to stop it, what could be done?

Highlighting the recent history of four cities—New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York City—Moskowitz unveils the systematic structures that support gentrification. By the time he’s done, it’s clear that gentrification doesn’t just happen. In fact, it’s an awful lot of work.

The first thing needed to promote gentrification as governance is the right mindset. As cities across the country grappled with budget shortfalls caused by white flight and federal cuts under President Reagan, local governments were forced to start buying bonds to cover their expenses.

This introduced corporate bond owners and, eventually, emergency managers as new, unelected players in local governance. They brought with them a novel concept, quickly adopted by their elected counterparts: cities should turn a profit.

Applying a business lens to city governance makes for some quick accounting. Poor people are liabilities—they need more assistance in healthcare, housing, and transportation than they pay in taxes. Rich people are assets—they pay more than they need in return.

As Moskowitz notes, this analysis completely ignores the centuries of theft from people of color (and government subsidy to white people) that created a racialized picture of American wealth. But never mind that now—there’s rich people to attract!

Sometimes, like in New Orleans, an external catastrophe provides the opportunity for change. After Hurricane Katrina, powerful locals were pretty explicit in their desire to build a city for a different population than the one that already lived there.

As one real estate developer was quoted saying at the time, “[T]he hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they don’t come back. … The party’s finally over for these people and now they’re going to have to find someplace else to live in the U.S.”

City officials agreed. One city councilman at the time summed up the situation thusly. “There’s been a lot of pampering, and at some point you have to say, ‘no, no, no, no, no.’ We don’t need more soap opera watchers right now.”

One of the first steps in this transformation was the demolition of almost all public housing in New Orleans, despite the fact that the vast majority of this housing was not damaged by the storm.

In its place, mixed income developments have sprung up, with plenty of amenities and security for the newcomers. Through this process of demolition and redevelopment, over 12,000 low-income families lost their homes.

New Orleans also moved to make sure that different businesses thrived after the storm. Low-income areas were designated cultural districts, with tax breaks for artists. But these districts also included tax breaks for new businesses—and only new businesses. Newcomers were given credits to rehab old storefronts and to subsidize their operation, while longtime community businesses were cut out of the program.

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From The New Orleans Advocate.  See especially the change around Mid-City and neighborhoods to the east.

Similar dynamics are playing out all across the country.

In Detroit, the city government divested much of its responsibility to outside groups after it went through bankruptcy. The city’s targeted development areas are now in large part governed by the businesses themselves. Through advisory boards and nonprofits that they fund, developers get to make decisions on public transportation, policing, and even zoning policy. They are literally writing their own rules.

And those rules almost always cater to predominantly white newcomers at the expense of longtime black residents. Detroit’s corporate overlords have even gone so far as to institute a sort of reverse HPAP—a home purchase assistance program that is only available to their own (predominantly white and wealthy) employees.

Then there are the more standard developer giveaways: city land and tax breaks for developers to build market rate housing. Moskowitz doesn’t feature DC in his book, but it’s easy enough to imagine projects like The Wharf and its $300 million in public subsidy filling a chapter.

There are no easy answers in How to Kill a City. Moskowitz is upfront about the fact that moving towards truly equitable development will require a great deal of city planning and significant financial investment. But as the book makes clear, the only thing that takes more planning and more money than stopping gentrification is creating it.

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