2.12.18. At the End of the Day -- An Antonym OP-ED
Tax Growth from Public Housing Redevelopment Should Fund Services for Norfolk's Poor.
Last month, City Council voted to begin the process of tearing down most of Norfolk's remaining public housing projects with the intention to replace them with mixed income development. Paul Riddick was the dissenting vote, citing concerns that there's no plan in place to rehouse the roughly forty-two hundred current residents spread out across these three communities. Redevelopment of the areas affected will first need to be approved by the Federal housing authority, though given the current administration’s disdain for public housing that's no great obstacle.
While the Council's vote isn't resulting in immediate evictions, that doesn't change the fact the last bits of subsidized housing in the city are vanishing, with nothing thus far slated to replace them. Make no mistake: The elimination of affordable housing for low income residents either pushes our poor out of the city or much more likely, into homelessness. And that's neither a moral nor sustainable solution to the issues Norfolk faces.
Gentrification and the Death of Public Housing.
The goals of public housing in America have traditionally ever been mercilessly pragmatic in nature, despite the characterization of such projects by conservatives: "Free rides for people too lazy to work." "Federal encouragement of poverty." "Subsidies for the shiftless." But an objective examination of the system reveals very little altruism. These kinds of projects were really first employed as a tactic to raise building standards and clear out slums in favor of more lucrative, tax rich residences. The net result of this was the eradication of thousands of neighborhoods of color and the dissolution of community bonds -- weakening the then growing political muscle of racial underclasses.
The history of the city of Norfolk is largely one of self inflicted wounds. It was the only town to be completely destroyed during the revolutionary war -- largely due to looters using the cover of British shelling who set buildings on fire to cover their tracks as they moved from target to target, until the blaze grew out of control and Colonial military commanders were left with little choice but to burn down the rest of it. The destruction of its industrial capabilities to keep its vaunted shipyards from fueling a Union Navy during the Civil War. The stubborn refusal of its citizenry to integrate schools at the end of the 50s, resulting in a mass exodus into neighboring localities with no interest in anything resembling an inclusive regional plan. This stymied the creation of a metropolis that could have rivaled the largest of Eastern Seaboard communities. Time and time again, Norfolk shot itself in the foot over a relentless campaign to maintain the power structures of racism and many of the challenges we face today are a manifestation of that struggle.
Our city is tax-starved. Our per capita income is far below neighboring municipalities. Much of our land is largely tied up in non-taxable use due to Naval and other Federal facilities, as well as the ports. By my estimate there's somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 churches in the city, mostly operating tax exempt. I could be wrong, but I don't believe ODU or TCC are paying property taxes on some of the most lucrative land in the city. And the result of all of this is an operating budget that doesn't properly fund our school system and leaves little more than crumbs to provide services for at risk residents. Our public health system is a joke. Our education budget is probably short to the tune of around a hundred million. Our infrastructure is struggling. And our governance is tasked with seemingly impossible problems. I've read the city budget cover to cover -- there's not much there in the way of fat.
With this in mind, it's perhaps understandable when our Council grants attractive incentive packages to big developers willing to invest millions on new projects that will someday generate revenue. It makes sense from a certain point of view when we hand out huge exemptions to massive corporations in order to reap the tax benefits of an influx of lucrative new jobs. The promise of increased funds generated by the gentrification of neighborhoods like Park Place is probably hard to lament when you're a city leader trying to manage difficult spending decisions. To a degree, I sympathize with the struggle the Council faces in answering these situations. I know its members to be largely decent people, who are civic minded and serious about trying to raise the standard of living for everyone who lives here.
Norfolk has a Moral Responsibility to Spend Money made from Displacement of its Poorest Citizens on Services for the Disadvantaged.
The displacement of our lowest income, oftentimes minority residents while wealthy urban developers reap huge profits is a morally indefensible path to solvency. Too many people of color have suffered disproportionately at the hands of Wall Street greed and Main Street indifference. They've been losing their homes over the past decade while mostly white, young professionals move in -- redefining the character of these neighborhoods. The face of the city is changing, and the elimination of what the Mayor is referring to as Church View is only going to further change it. Poverty is a systemic ill, not a failing of individual character, but rather a failure of resource distribution. A failure of inequitable wealth concentration. Fueled by and sustained over generations through racism. It's unacceptable to sacrifice the 4200 some odd residents of our public housing projects to balance out books. Especially when much of the fault behind their situations lays at the feet of generational ills propagated over centuries by the city that now seeks to evict them.
As I write this, there are insurgent entities desperately seeking to stop these communities from being torn down. Realistically, such efforts are unlikely to bear fruit. There's few examples in the region's history where the plight of the poor has ever stopped new development. That said, I believe there's an opportunity here to demand that the revenues generated from these reconstruction projects be devoted entirely to the biggest issues facing our city. Some percentage should go towards raising school budgets, particularly in areas that directly benefit economically disadvantaged students. Some percentage should go towards plans to manage flooding. Some percentage should go towards providing services to our most vulnerable citizenry.
We should raise the availability of job training. Concentrate resources into education initiatives targeted towards low-income children. Expand access to healthcare, both physical and mental. We should make sure that every one of these folks who are being displaced are somehow integrated into these new communities and given the opportunity to remain voices in neighborhoods that some of them have been a part of for decades.
It's a simple equation: If you tear a community down, you have a responsibility to build it back up. And if you spend the money you make on what used to be their homes on anything other than that end? You're doing wrong. Naysayers have been quick to point out that the hope here is that these residents will move to some other city and become someone else's problem. I choose to believe that our leaders are better than that. There exists a unique path here to change a story about Norfolk that has existed since before the story of America itself. To make it a place that lifts all citizens above a rising tide. To counter cynicism about what government is capable of and alter the narrative. Time will tell which tale bears out.
A Council and Mayor that puts this money towards these kinds of initiatives? That's a story people will tell for a long, long time.
Correction: The opening sentence of this piece previously indicated that the Council’s vote was to tear down all of Norfolk’s public housing. This is incorrect, the vote was over the three largest NRHA communities. Other, smaller projects will remain for now.