Paradise Lost: A Recipe for Gentrification in Chicago, San Francisco, and Beyond
by Peter Feng, in Beyond Chron; Published in three parts, May 24, 25, and 26, 2006

The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s plan to take over more than 1,300 acres in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood is the opening salvo in the final struggle for the soul of San Francisco. Combined with the 500 acres of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard that are currently undergoing redevelopment by the Florida-based Lennar Corporation, close to three-quarters of the Bayview Hunters Point area may soon come under the control of the City’s Redevelopment Agency. Although there has been much talk about making the process of urban renewal as inclusive as possible in order to benefit local residents, the fact is that more rather than fewer Bayview residents will likely be lost to the forces of economic dislocation and gentrification. This has significant repercussions for the political and economic future of San Francisco, for, aside from being one of the City’s poorest communities, the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood represents the last significant concentration of African Americans west of the Bay Bridge.

Equally significant is the fact that the impending displacement of Bayview residents from San Francisco seems to be occurring in concert with similar events in other states and against the backdrop of record high foreclosure rates among African American homeowners nationwide. In New Orleans, demolition crews are tearing down 120 homes in three low-income districts including the Ninth Ward. In Southern California, urban farmers from South Central Los Angeles’s African American community are fighting eviction from land that City Hall has designated for commercial real estate development. Seen within the context of housing and lending policies that have historically discriminated against non-white households, these developments indicate that a methodical movement is underway to inaugurate a new era of segregation in the United States, one in which differences in economic class and income function as a stand-in for race.

The Seduction of Gavin Newsom

In the summer of 2005 San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom attended the 73rd annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Chicago. After returning from the convention, Newsom said that he was so impressed by the cleanliness and design of Chicago’s downtown area that he was inspired to improve San Francisco’s own livability quotient by applying some of the same strategies used in the Windy City. To that end, Newsom declared in his 2005 State of the City address at San Francisco State University his intention to place increased emphasis on architecture and urban design, tree planting, public art installations, and street sweeping and maintenance. He also announced plans to green the urban canopy of San Francisco by planting 100,000 trees over the next two decades, and he singled out Bayview Hunters Point for the placement of surveillance cameras that would help police monitor high crime areas, linking economic development and job creation with safe streets.

Admittedly, Chicago’s impressive architectural achievements, open lakefront, and modern downtown belie the city’s enduring image as a large, dilapidated, industrial center. Indeed, on display at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors was not only information related to best practices for green building and policing in the Windy City and beyond but also Chicago’s glistening downtown district. From the string of upscale shops along the Magnificent Mile to the greenswards of Millennium Park and the tourist friendly confines of Navy Pier, visitors to downtown Chicago were treated to wide, tree-lined boulevards, an abundance of landscaped parks, interesting architectural designs, numerous public art installations, magnificent lakefront vistas, and an area generally scrubbed clean of dirt and homeless people.

Newsom is not the first public official to be seduced by this appealing picture. After visiting downtown Chicago in 1996, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy decided to use the power of eminent domain to demolish 60 buildings and condemn 125 mostly locally owned businesses occupying several blocks along the Fifth and Forbes corridor in downtown Pittsburgh in order to build a multi-level retail mall containing many of the same upscale shops as the Magnificent Mile. Murphy even pegged Chicago-based Urban Retail Properties to manage the area’s redevelopment.

Through local organizing efforts, a coalition of small business owners, historical preservationists, and supporters of immigrant and African American rights eventually forced Murphy to abandon this project. Their concerns were buttressed by research compiled by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance which showed that roughly two-thirds of the revenue generated by chain stores and franchise operations like McDonald’s routinely leaves the local economy and the metropolitan area altogether. In fact, a 2004 report entitled The Andersonville Study of Retail Economics demonstrated that, contrary to conventional wisdom, locally owned, independent businesses generate 70 percent more revenue for the local economy per square foot than national chains.

While Tom Murphy decided to forego a fourth mayoral run in 2004 in favor of employment with a real estate and development think tank called the Urban Land Institute, plans for the redevelopment of the Fifth and Forbes corridor continue to abound. Most recently, PNC Financial Services Group offered to sink $170 million into a new project to revitalize the area. The investment, however, is contingent upon the receipt of $30 million in public subsidies from the Pennsylvania state government and $18 million in tax breaks from the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and the Pittsburgh public school district.

Meanwhile, Murphy’s new job has taken him around the country to various sites designated for urban renewal. In New Orleans, for example, he advocated a “tough love” approach for rebuilding the city, and in a strange echo of the Fifth and Forbes episode business groups in Tampa, Florida, asked Murphy to instruct them on ways to bring upscale shops and condominiums to their downtown area. Murphy’s travels have even brought him into the orbit of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. At a March 30, 2005, conference at New York’s New School for Management and Urban Policy, Murphy appeared alongside Newsom, Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes, and Richmond, Virginia, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder to speak about “the characteristics of successful leadership needed to implement creative urban policies.”

Intelligent Design

Newsom’s current enthusiasm for redeveloping the Bayview is unlikely to have sprung from his meeting of Murphy, but it is clear that both men were inspired by their experiences in Chicago. Logically, then, if Newsom intends to inaugurate a renaissance of green building design and economic development in San Francisco by following Chicago’s example, he would do well to acquaint himself with both the triumphs and the tragedies of urban renewal in the Windy City.

The triumphs include the planting of 500,000 trees in the last 15 years and the implementation of public programs to clean, beautify, and rehabilitate city streets through landscaping and gardening. These efforts have considerably enhanced Chicago’s urban landscape, and Newsom is correct to believe that San Francisco can take a cue from the Windy City in this area.

Equally important as tree planting in Chicago, though, is the presence of several municipal ordinances that mandate the existence of public walkways along the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. These regulations have successfully reserved a significant amount of open space for public use and offset the deleterious effects of a downtown area dominated by skyscrapers.

San Francisco would likely derive comparable benefits from similar protections, especially in areas that abut San Francisco Bay. The lack of an ordinance promoting bayside access in such places as Mission Bay, for example, has resulted in a claustrophobic cluster of construction projects that extend right up to the edge of the water. It appears that citizens intent on drinking in bay vistas here will only be able to do so by (1) buying a condo, (2) purchasing a ticket to a Giants’ game, or (3) finding employment in an appropriately situated China Basin office building.

Any discussion of planning and development in Chicago, however, must necessarily include a conversation about the systematic institution of virulently discriminatory housing policies and development practices that were purposely designed to displace Chicago’s urban poor, schemes that Newsom should scrupulously avoid if he is truly intent on creating an environmentally sustainable San Francisco for all.

(Part 2) The Enemy Within

The story of institutionalized racial discrimination and economic segregation in Chicago begins in 1931. In that year, Chicago Real Estate Board member James Downs formed an organization known as the Real Estate Research Corporation (RERC) to conduct block by block surveys of the level of racial change in Chicago neighborhoods. Spurred on by the arrival of federally funded construction projects made possible by New Deal legislation, the purpose of this type of analysis was to help wealthy, white property owners hold the line against encroachment into their neighborhoods by low-income people and people of color.

In his capacity as a member of the Chicago Real Estate Board, Downs, who would go on to become the Windy City’s housing and redevelopment coordinator under Democratic mayors Martin H. Kennelly (1947-1955) and Richard J. Daley (1955–1976), advised real estate agents to only sell or rent housing to African Americans located in areas adjacent to where a majority of black people already lived. This effectively led to the creation of enormous ghettoes across Chicago that persist to this day. So useful was the data compiled by Downs’s organization that it may have served as the basis for the institution of redlining at a national level.

This supposition is given weight by the fact that by 1955, state and federal agencies were routinely calling upon RERC to advise them on issues of public housing and urban renewal across the country. What is also certain is that RERC had developed the capacity to generate policies and plans related to public housing and urban renewal and redevelopment that would go on to influence national legislation and be held up as national models.

The Housing Act of 1954, for example, expanded the definition of urban renewal to include commercial redevelopment in addition to neighborhood conservation. This was prompted by a 1953 RERC plan for urban renewal that involved the Englewood shopping district on Chicago’s South Side.

Of all the legacies attributable to James Downs and RERC, though, perhaps the most odious belongs to his son Anthony Downs, a University of Chicago economist who first outlined the policy of spatial deconcentration in a 1968 report by the Kerner Commission.

According to journalist Frank Morales, the Kerner Commission was created by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the causes of the urban riots that took place in American cities during the 1960s. In Chapters 16 and 17 of the Kerner report, Anthony Downs identifies the concentration of poor people in city centers as an important factor in the civil disorder of that time and recommends a strategy of “spatial deconcentration” to reduce the potential for future disturbances.

As spelled out by Downs, this policy involves the dispersal of the urban poor from the inner cities and the resettlement of their neighborhoods with middle class residents through a process of disinvestment and redlining on one hand and predatory lending on the other. The combination of alternatively denying conventional bank loans and insurance to property owners in low-income neighborhoods while making available high risk, predatory-type loans typically results in mass evictions, foreclosures, and abandonment of property in the inner cities. The resulting ghettos are then declared blighted areas and designated for redevelopment or urban renewal (i.e., gentrification).

Despite a 1969 federal ruling in the case of Gautreaux et al v. Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) which found that the CHA was guilty of deliberately planning and executing racially discriminatory public housing policies that effectively segregated African Americans in low-income neighborhoods, the strategy of spatial deconcentration was enshrined as federal policy in the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. Section 5301 states that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) supports “spatial deconcentration of housing opportunities for persons of lower income and the revitalization of deteriorating or deteriorated neighborhoods to attract persons of higher income.”

Predictably, the adoption of spatial deconcentration and gentrification as a model for public housing policy and community development nationally has resulted in increased homelessness in the U.S., a fact borne out by the upsurge in federal spending on homeless shelters ($300 million in 1984 compared to $1.6 billion in 1988), and the de facto resegregation of U.S. society along economic and racial lines.

In Chicago, the plight of the Cabrini-Green public housing tenement ably illustrates how spatial deconcentration and gentrification can successfully remove large swaths of the urban poor from the inner city, making the area safe for yuppies and other middle income earners. At its height, Cabrini-Green housed 15,000 of Chicago’s poorest residents in mid- and high-rise apartment buildings constructed during the tenure of Chicago Housing and Redevelopment Coordinator James Downs. The racially discriminatory public housing policies promulgated by Downs, the Office of the Housing and Redevelopment Coordinator, the Department of City Planning, and other governmental agencies helped to ensure that endemic poverty, crime, and economic segregation would be the lot of Cabrini-Green residents, a majority of whom were African Americans.

After a suitable period of decay, private developers, architects, and the Chicago Departments of Planning and Housing, the CHA, the Illinois Housing Development Authority, and the Federal Home Loan Bank moved to transform Cabrini-Green into a lower density, mixed-income neighborhood consisting of mid-rise buildings, duplexes, and row houses in the 1990s. Their argument for seizing and demolishing large sections of the public housing tenement was that Cabrini-Green had become an eyesore; it was too rundown and crime-ridden, and it s existence was representative of the failure of public housing and public housing policy in general.

Today, only about 5,000 of the original Cabrini-Green residents remain. The other 10,000 public housing tenants have been effectively driven out of Chicago to the outer suburbs and other cities and states, because they cannot afford to return to the new Cabrini-Green. This, despite the existence of a consent decree which stipulates that:

“All new developments on Chicago Housing Authority (CHA)—owned or city-owned land within the Near North Redevelopment Initiative (NNRI) area are required to include 50 percent market-rate units, 20 percent affordable housing units (i.e., those set aside for households earning less than 120 percent of the area median income [AMI] for for-sale units; below 80 percent AMI for rental units), and 30 percent CHA/public housing units (i.e., those reserved for households making below 80 percent of AMI).”
(Urban Land Institute, 2006: 84)

The Cabrini-Green Consent Decree is the result of a 1996 lawsuit filed against the CHA and the city of Chicago by Cabrini-Green residents who were unhappy at the prospect of being displaced from their homes without adequate recompense, and who also felt that they had been excluded from the planning process for redeveloping Cabrini-Green.

On the Front Lines

In San Francisco, where the cost of living is among the highest in the U.S., the political economic retrenchment that has taken place over the past 30 years has not only devastated individuals and families at the lower end of the income scale, it has also begun squeezing out middle-income earners. In a 2004 report, United Way of the Bay Area (UWBA) calculated county by county the Self-Sufficiency Standard for 2003 for 70 family types in California. That is, the amount of income needed to pay for the basic necessities of housing, food, child care, healthcare, transportation, taxes, and miscellaneous services in 2003. For a two-parent household in San Francisco with one preschooler and one school-aged child, each parent would have to earn a minimum of $14.27 an hour to be self-sufficient (Pearce, 2003: 18). That’s a combined income of about $4,566 a month or $54,796 a year. In the Bayview, where average household incomes are at least eight percent lower than the rest of the City, residents often find themselves engaged in a daily struggle to maintain food, clothing, and shelter.

Interestingly, proponents of urban renewal in San Francisco and elsewhere have used this very fact to justify the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods like the Bayview. Nobody would disagree that San Francisco should invest in renewable energy sources and create open space, recycle water, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create jobs to eliminate crime and poverty. However, it is telling that the wave of dot-com-driven economic development that swept through the South of Market area between 1994 and 2004 resulted in a decline in the number of low- and moderate-income households living in the City over the last 15 years, while the proportion of households earning $100,000 or more has increased over the same time period.

In real terms, this means that San Francisco’s population has become less culturally and ethnically diverse at the same time that it has become less economically diverse. This conclusion is supported by a 2005 report from the Public Research Institute at San Francisco State University which found, among other things, that African Americans in all age groups under 40 are disappearing from the city at an astonishing rate (Blash, Shaffer, Nakagawa, and Jarrett, 2005: 5). This fact effectively negates the argument that community development and/or redevelopment is designed to bring prosperity to all income groups alike. In truth, what is happening in San Francisco and across the U.S. is that major cities are being ethnically cleansed of their poorest residents.

(Part 3: A Prescription for Progress)

A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau provides further confirmation of this fact. The report, entitled Domestic Net Migration in the United States: 2000 to 2004, reveals that the 25 largest metropolitan areas experienced a net outflow of residents between 2000 and 2004, as spiraling housing prices and low-paying jobs sent low- and middle-income families in general and blacks and Latinos in particular into economic exile. Specifically, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago lost the most residents, while cities such as Tampa, Phoenix, Atlanta, and Dallas gained the most. In San Francisco, Daniel Homsey, the director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services (MONS) made the following observation: “If you were living here [San Francisco] in 1992, which wasn’t that long ago, today there’s more than a 50 percent chance that you no longer do.”

These developments highlight the need for a minimum wage that is tied to inflation to offset inadequate job creation, universal health care to provide workers with greater security and flexibility in moving from job to job, and increased affordable housing options for the City’s most economically vulnerable. A 2006 report by the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University of Chicago also cited the following strategies and policies as ways to combat the negative effects of gentrification:

Housing Assistance and Housing Development

• Develop mortgage assistance programs
• Create more loan opportunities for people with poor credit or fixed incomes
• Establish a rent control board
• Enact broader inclusionary zoning policies or affordable housing set-asides
• Create a citywide “balanced development” policy
• Adopt higher median-income thresholds to qualify for existing affordable housing programs
• Provide tax relief for long-time homeowners
• Change zoning laws to more strictly regulate size of new developments in some neighborhoods
• Increase tax incentives to encourage building more rental housing units
Community Participation in Community Planning

• Establish community planning commissions
• Create a “required community process that’s truly community driven for all [housing and retail] development”
• Enforce existing fair housing laws
• Use local ballot referendums to regulate zoning
• Appoint community zoning panels to oversee development in all communities of Chicago

Public / Governmental Action

• Invest more in public facilities and infrastructure in low-income communities
• Support community retail business incentives that will build wealth for community residents and provide local employment opportunities
• Continue emphasis on school improvement for all children
• Focus on employment development for lower-skilled workers and residents in low-income communities

Instead of making progress on these fronts, however, the current logic behind economic development demands that the benefits of economic development accrue to the wealthy among us. Part of the reason for this is because development deals are presently structured in such a way so as to socialize the costs of private development projects administered and managed by the private sector. In other words, economic development in the U.S. consists of using taxpayer dollars and the power of public agencies to underwrite and facilitate the activities of private companies and individuals (e.g., developers/contractors/consultants/etc.) who are in the business of pursuing private interest and private profit in the name of public development.

Proponents of this approach routinely claim that this is a reasonable state of affairs, since those who possess the most capital to invest in such ventures should derive the greatest benefit. However, these selfsame supporters of private enterprise hypocritically ignore the fact that economic development fundamentally begins and ends with resources provided by the public sector, nor are they shy about relying on public handouts and government contracts to spur their own pet projects. In the end, though, individuals who support policies that have the effect, if not the appearance, of ethnically cleansing cities of their poorest residents cannot be characterized as anything other than segregationists.

Aside from serving to transfer wealth from the poorest members of society to the richest, there is little evidence that the current model of taxpayer subsidized economic development results in better-paying jobs or improved living standards for the general public. Indeed, in his book The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation author Greg Leroy demonstrates how state and local governments have been continually taken to the cleaners by private companies whose demand for vast public subsidies as a condition for setting up shop in a given area often results in a net loss of jobs, reduced wages, and falling living standards.

In order to counter these occurrences, state and local governments must institute a public monitoring program to instill responsibility and accountability into the process. At he federal level, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) already employs public trust officers to monitor public sector organizations for compliance. In the event that a public sector organization is found to have violated the terms of its loan or grant agreement with HUD, that organization is required to repay the funds it has misspent in exchange for averting criminal charges. There is no reason why this practice cannot be extended to the state and local level.

Finally, the fact that the various policies and recommendations outlined above have widespread public support but no political support shows that the practice of allowing private corporations to contribute to political campaigns in the U.S. has resulted in a situation where private companies have the de facto ability to purchase or influence public officials who will be sympathetic to their interests.

This has resulted in the enactment of policies that are antithetical to sensible economic growth and sustainable development in the U.S. and beyond. A strong public financing system for political campaigns, in which free air time is granted to candidates for public office during election season, will help to prevent much of this corporate skullduggery.

It will also free public officials to vote their conscience and partake in actions that are more representative of the common good. In short, American democracy will be enriched, and representative government will become more responsive to the calls of the citizenry.

At the micro level, local communities, local governments, and NGOs are already involved in various projects aimed at resolving problems of hunger and homelessness, overpopulation, political and social oppression, foreign debt, nuclear proliferation, fair trade, environmental pollution, energy consumption, corporate wrongdoing, and economic injustice.

However, much of the work that is being undertaken to address these issues is occurring in isolation. As these issues are all interrelated, greater emphasis must be placed on identifying the common thread that runs through these topics in order to formulate holistic strategies that can eliminate their root causes. It is only through efforts such as these that it will be possible to shift the emphasis of economic development and/or redevelopment away from boosting the gross domestic product (GDP) to enhancing GDH or gross domestic happiness.

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On the Front Lines

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A Prescription for Progress

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