[photo courtesy of the Associated Press]
Christmas came early for developers last week, as the New York and New Orleans City Councils approved two large-scale redevelopment plans with ominous ramifications for affordable housing in both cities.
In New York, Columbia University’s controversial Manhattanville expansion, a $7 billion project that will last an estimated 25 years, was green-lighted by a 35-5 Council vote approving the rezoning of 35 acres of Upper Manhattan. Columbia’s expansion, which will include student and faculty housing, a biomedical research lab, and several new faculty buildings, will take up 17 of those acres, from 129 to 133rd Streets between Broadway and Riverside Drive.
While Columbia says the Manhattanville expansion will revitalize a “blighted” neighborhood and provide much needed jobs to the area, many local residents and business owners oppose the project and consider it a “land grab,” a perception exacerbated by the University’s refusal to rule out the use of eminent domain to evict holdout businesses. Neighborhood leaders agree there is a need for development in the area, and drafted an alternative development plan that would allow for Columbia’s expansion AND permit local businesses to stay open – crucially, the City Council decided not to review the alternative plan at the session, a testament to the clout of Columbia’s $1.6 million lobbying campaign.
The scene at New Orleans City Hall was far more raucous last Friday, as a City Council that is palpably whiter since Hurricane Katrina approved a federal plan to raze 4,600 units of public housing while police tasered and pepper-sprayed protesters in and outside the council chambers. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) argues that the current housing stock is beyond repair and favors “mixed income” developments along the lines of its HOPE VI program, which is responsible for the net loss of approximately fifty thousand affordable units since 1992. Although many buildings suffered minimal damage from the storm and are fit for rehabiliation, HUD is set on replacing the sturdy old stock with a yet to be determined design that will house 3,200 mixed-use units, with fewer than a third available to former public housing residents.
And who will live in these lovely new houses, at least some of which will resemble some of the low-density (and undoubtedly more expensive) designs in the Lower Ninth Ward commissioned by Brad Pitt? Rents are spiking and former residents displaced or relocated by Hurricane Katrina are paradoxically moving away or unable to return, a dynamic that could lead to a profound shift in New Orleans’ demographics, with a projected loss of 80 percent of the African-American population without a concerted government effort. The “smaller footprint” being pushed for New Orleans is “a massive redlining plan wrapped around a giant land grab,” according to former mayor Mark Morial.
Gentrification is at the heart of both these events, as Manhattan’s white flight in reverse phenomenon will bring a new wave of condo-hunters and landlord harassment to the neighborhoods surrounding Columbia’s expansion, some of the island’s last affordable areas. Cities are becoming the new suburbs, and the combination of forced displacement with the duplicity of elected officials towards community involvement in urban development will only widen the gaping disparities of class and race in America.
–written by Ali Winston