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Transcript: #34-00 Urban Renewal or Removal? Gentrification in U.S. Cities
August 23, 2000

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Phillip Babich: This week on Making Contact....

Male Voice: You see a whole different kind of business coming into San Francisco, a whole different kind of look to the city and the people just getting squeezed out more and more every day.

Female Voice: If somebody doesn't do something, nobody that lives here now or their children will be here. It will be White. There'll be no Blacks, unless you are rich.

Stephanie Welch: In urban areas throughout North America, real estate speculators and developers are pouring money into the neighborhoods and raising property values. Luxury hotels are going up, rents are sky rocketing, and people are selling their homes. On this program we take a look at reinvestment in U.S cities. I'm Stephanie Welch, your host this week on Making Contact, an international radio program seeking to create connections between people, vital ideas and important information.

For the past 100 years, the north lake front area of Chicago has remained one of the most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods in the United States. 50 different languages are spoken in local high schools. Immigrants come to the lake front from all over the world, making up one-third of the area's residents. African-American, Latino, Asian, European and Native American families dwell in the neighborhood's apartment towers and walk-up flats. Now, newcomers who are able to pay double and sometimes triple current rents are pushing out long time residents. Sara Jane Knoy works for the twenty-six year old community coalition Organization of the North East, or ONE. This coalition includes a wide range of groups, including tenant associations synagogues and churches and social service agencies. Knoy says working families are losing their homes which are being converted into condominiums.

Sara Jane Knoy: Mostly who's being displaced are families and primarily Cambodian and other Southeast Asian immigrant families, some African-American families and mostly people who are working. I would say at least 90 to 98 percent of them are working, but they're working in minimum wage jobs where they can't afford to pay the kind of rates that are being charged in neighborhoods today. You have a lot of situations where they're building. There's one right up street from our office that used to house 21 Cambodian families. By the time conversion's been done we'll have 6 young couples in luxury condominiums.

Stephanie Welch: Many people are finding it difficult to make rent on their income. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition based in Washington D.C., in over 70 metropolitan areas in the U.S., workers who are earning minimum wage would have to work one hundred hours a week in order to afford the fair market rent in their area. Knoy says that's the case in Chicago.

Sara Jane Knoy: If you make minimum wage which is $5.50 an hour, I think you can about $225 a month in rent if you pay one-third of your income for rent. There's no place to rent in the city of Chicago for $225 a month. The closest to that in this neighborhood are what's called the single-room occupancy hotels, which are just a studio and they're not suitable for families.

Stephanie Welch: Activists call that trend "gentrification." The term was coined by a sociologist in 1964 to describe the takeover of working class neighborhoods in London by people from the upper and middle classes. In gentrified neighborhoods, modest housing and buildings are spruced up, and the social character of the district is changed. In the United States, government funding and private investment often drive gentrification through a process sometimes called "urban renewal." But this redevelopment of neglected neighborhoods results in the displacement of low income residents and in many cases, people of color.

In Austin, Texas high-tech companies recently moved into downtown, driving up property values. Though this may seem beneficial to home owners, many are being forced to sell because of the accompanying rise in their property taxes and insurance. Companies like Intel are moving in aided by the city of Austin, instead of tax abatements which must be repaid. City officials are using tax incentives to lure the companies to Austin. Susana Almanza is with the group PODER, People Organized in Defense of the Earth and Her Resources. She says that rather than investing directly in local businesses, the city is giving away public funds to large corporations.

Susana Almanza: There was a lot of arguments and there was a lot of people who were opposed to the whole issue of tax abatements to transnational corporations who really didn't need any financial assistance, versus the small businesses and residents who were already here who never were eligible for tax abatements, nor did people even think of constructing programs to help them. But we've now gone into a new incentive program. And so, we've just given, I think, $221 million of incentives to Intel and about the same to the computer science corporation that is moving in. So in the incentives, there's no payback.

Stephanie Welch: In many U.S. cities, corporations are benefitting from urban renewal efforts. In the neighborhood of Harlem in New York City, for example, a program that utilizes federal and state funds is helping to fuel gentrification. What was once a poor, predominantly minority community has now become a hot spot for renters and buyers who can't find affordable housing in downtown Manhattan. Making Contact's Shereen Meraji has more.

Shereen Meraji: Some say that the historically Black community in upper Manhattan, known as Harlem, is undergoing a second renaissance. In the last decade there has been a renewed interest in this Black and Latino neighborhood by middle-income professionals, urban developers and large corporations. However, recent developments have posed a threat to low-income community members who can't afford rising rents, as new residents move into the inflated rental market. Nellie Bailey, executive director of the Harlem Tenants' Council, says that due to New York's housing shortage and Harlem's close proximity to downtown Manhattan, Harlem is the next logical place for urban professionals to relocate.

Nellie Bailey: Harlem is in Manhattan, and as the housing shortage, which is really in a crisis state, has depleted below 96th street in Manhattan, people--particularly young professional people, families--are looking above 96th street, which for a long time was the demarcation line that separated Harlem, or northern Manhattan, which was predominantly black and Latino, from the rest of Manhattan below 96th street, which is obviously white. So now we are seeing an absolute kind of mad rush, something that I would describe as comparable to the gold rush and people coming to Harlem just in droves.

Shereen Meraji: While what Bailey calls the gold rush for housing continues in Harlem, a plan is under way that is designed to encourage investment in the neighborhood. In the mid 1990s, Harlem became a so-called "empowerment zone" eligible to receive federal and state funding for certain community revitalization projects. The empowerment zone program was designed by Congressman Charles Rangel, representative of the Harlem district. He says his goal is to revive low-income neighborhoods across the United States by using public funds and tax incentives to entice private investors. Harlem's primary vehicle for dispersing empowerment zone money is the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation. It is authorized to spend a total of $300 million from city, state and federal funds on projects that create jobs for Harlem residents, says Dr. Petioni a retired physician and member of the corporation's board.

Dr. Petioni: The original goal was business development and job training. Among the people and among the Blacks and among the minority population our unemployment rate was very, very high, exceeding maybe 20 to 25 percent against the national average. And even now when the national average is something like 4 or something, we are still not down to--I think maybe we're down to maybe 18 percent, as I understand it. So the goal was to develop businesses in the Harlem community and train people to fill those jobs.

Shereen Meraji: The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation funded Harlem USA-- a 275,000 square foot retail and entertainment complex, to create estimated 500 jobs for community members. Dr. Petioni:

Dr. Petioni: This Harlem USA project is almost a square block. There's been a little hold up in a couple buildings. But we have a Disney store there, we have Old Navy, we have O'Dells. But this is a complex in which you have many businesses--this is a rented space, and it has certainly changed, already has changed the face of 121th street. And, of course, you know that with these businesses they have pledged to provide a certain number of jobs for people in the area, in the empowerment zone specifically in Upper Manhattan.

Shereen Meraji: But the new jobs aren't paying Harlem residents enough money to afford skyrocketing rents. According to Nellie Bailey with the Harlem Tenants' Council.

Nellie Bailey: The service sector that has expanded as a result of these corporations--for example Disney, Gap, Old Navy, Magic Johnson Theater--are coming into Harlem and these services, I might add, are needed. But what has happened as a result of this is that it has created a cheap labor pool in which barely minimum wages are paid. House benefits are not given to workers. And there is no opportunity for career advancement. Certainly they cannot afford rents in an inflated rental market. They cannot even afford to use or purchase the goods in these stores.

Shereen Meraji: Despite the fact the empowerment zone program hasn't brought the intended prosperity to long-time Harlem residents, board member Petioni is still hopeful.

Dr. Petioni: I want to see a Harlem that is more up to par as far as income is concerned, is more up to par as health and opportunities and what not. But I'm hoping that we will stay essentially a minority. I would hate to see us replaced by people downtown--the Caucasian community. I want to see it still be a minority community that's a healthy one and one that's working and well educated and still be the Black capital of the world. I don't know whether we'll be able to maintain that.

Shereen Meraji: To find out how low income tenants are fairing and if Harlem can remain what Petioni calls the Black capital of the world, I spoke with Harlem resident Valda Arbouin. Valda moved from Jamaica to New York and has lived in the same rent-stabilized apartment for 34 years, but faces eviction.

Valda Arbouin: I'll start at the beginning: I have lived in the building since 1966. We have had many landlords. They have neglected the building. We took care of it-- the tenants got together and took care of it, and passed from one to another. This latest landlord came along and decided-- he promised to do a lot of work. And then he started attacks. I had gone out to the country to Jamaica for three months and three weeks. He filed a non-permanent resident case against me, meaning I had not lived in my apartment six months and day-- it went to trial.

Shereen Meraji: And what was the outcome of the trial?

Valda Arbouin: The judge ruled against me, saying that I could not have lived there since he had brought so many witnesses: the electric company, a tenant that he had bribed--two tenants that he had actually bribed. Other tenants were threatened if they didn't testify in his favor. They would bring cases against them, which they did. We have sixteen cases that he has brought against tenants. Frivolous, all frivolous.

Shereen Meraji: And these are all longtime tenants?

Valda Arbouin: Oh, these are all longtime residents, 25 to 30 years.

Shereen Meraji: So Valda, you've lived in Harlem for thirty years. Can you talk about how Harlem has changed from 1966 till now? What changes have you seen throughout the 30 years?

Valda Arbouin: Oh yes. There are now neighborhoods that whites never walked in the middle of the day. They're now occupying buildings in those blocks. I mean at night you see them in places that they never dreamt of walking. We have now got the new stores. What's it, Odell's-- I'm looking at Magic Johnson Theater, just opened. Old tenants that had, you know, little mom and pop stores, they've even refused to give some of them new leases, with no excuses.

Shereen Meraji: So what do you see the future of Harlem, if this is what's going now? Who's going to be living in Harlem 20 years from now?

Valda Arbouin: Ah.... if somebody doesn't do something, nobody that lives here now or their children will be here. It will be white. There will be no blacks, unless you're rich. There will be no-- let's put it this way: no low-income, middle-income people. This is where it's gone.

Shereen Meraji: Valda, a lot of people say that this is inevitable, that this is just what happens; it's been happening over the years, you know. Neighborhoods change hands, and do you think it's possible to stop gentrification?

Valda Arbouin: I don't know. We have to decide to organize something, somehow. Tenants have got to get together. Wake up, because you're going to be homeless! Where are we going to go?

Shereen Meraji: So are people organizing? Do you see leadership?

Valda Arbouin: Yes, there is a miniscule amount of organizing going on. We're trying. We're working on organizations to try to get people organized, but a lot of people don't realize until it touches them personally.

Shereen Meraji: For Making Contact, I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

Phillip Babich: You're listening to Making Contact a production of the National Radio Project. This program now can be heard across the United States, Canada, South Africa and around the world on Radio for Peace international short-wave. You can also hear us on the Internet at If you want more information about the subject of this week's program, please give us a call. It's toll free, 800-529-5736. Call that same phone number for tape and transcript orders. That's 800-529-5736.

Stephanie Welch: In California, investment in Silicon Valley is fueling gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area and nearby San Jose. Tenants are making way for new affluent residents in dot-com ventures, and corporate chains are replacing local businesses one by one. Making Contact's Monica Lopez has more:

Monica Lopez: The new sprawl of high-tech Silicon Valley campuses beckon workers from across the country and around the globe with well paying jobs and a pleasant year around hazy sunshine. In San Francisco, once politically and culturally diverse neighborhoods are now overrun with shops, selling $2.50 cups of coffee and thousand dollar leopard print chairs to world weary but well coifed twenty-something's. And all of them are looking for a place to live. As a result, long time residents of some of the most vibrant neighborhoods in San Francisco are being forced out to make room for new arrivals who can pay double or triple the amount of rent to landlords. Rene Yañez is a long time resident of the San Francisco's Mission District.

Rene Yañez: My house is up for sale; my landlord passed away, and I've been getting the first hand look at people who want to buy into the Mission. They have open houses; people come through my house that I've lived in for twenty-two years. It's really demeaning, and it's also-- when these people come through and look at you with contempt because you are in the way. They feel entitled that they have the money, and they can buy you out. It really hurts because, man, I lived in the Mission over thirty years, and I invested a lot of time and effort in the Mission, you know. Like there was time that nobody wanted to go in the Mission. And I worked with the Mission Coalition organization without beautification money, education money. We helped-- trying to help the youth of the Mission. All those programs, and now you know, it's ah, thank you very much, now get out!

Monica Lopez: The current dot-com economic boom is fueling the wave of gentrification and so-called redevelopment in the San Francisco Bay Area. However, the previous waves of the gentrifiers--artists and developers alike--each contributed to varying levels of displacement and change, no matter how well intended. Many of the newly constructed live-work lofts sprouting up throughout the city are really just $500,000 condos. According to Matt Brown, executive director for St. Peter's Housing Committee, even this kind of construction can change the face of the community.

Matt Brown: These kinds of lofts, these kinds of multimedia businesses that are being built may not directly displace anyone, but they indirectly displace small businesses which lose customers because people--the face of a neighborhood changes. When you have a small corner store and all of your population that used to use your store for last twenty years leaves, then the most logical response for the landlord of that building is to rent to a place that is going to serve lattes all day.

Monica Lopez: According to a 1999 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, California ranked as the third least affordable state in which to live. The study estimates that for minimum wage workers to afford two-bedroom unit in San Francisco at the current fair market rent, they would have to work an average of 170 hours per week. Brawn says these hours are generally fulfilled.

Matt Brown: And they're usually worked by about seven people who live in overcrowded housing. We're working with a couple of buildings, and one of the buildings is three flats. And it's got over sixty people living in three flats, meaning that there's an average of over twenty people per apartment. What we're seeing a lot of nowadays--and this is really horrible--is we're seeing families moving to single-resident occupancy hotels, living in rooms with no kitchen. So you're seeing small children being brought up in an environment where they don't even have cooked meals available to them because there's no stoves in these hotels.

Monica Lopez: One way San Francisco landlords get around rent control restrictions is by using California's Ellis Act: the law states that landlords have the unconditional right to "go out of business." Once invoked, the landlord must evict all of their tenants and the units cannot be re-rented at a higher rate that the tenants were paying at the time of eviction. This means that they're not in the original spirit of the law. The Ellis Act provides a way for landlords to evict rent control tenants to make way for higher profits. It does this by allowing for condo conversions and the formation of group ownership called "tenants in common."

In response to this loophole, the state legislature ordered landlords to one year's notice to tenents that were either disabled, over 62 or who had been occupying their unit for longer than ten years. But Geri Almanza, community organizer for People Organizing to Defend Environmental and Economic Rights, says that for some Mission residents the attempt at closing the loophole backfired.

Geri Almanza: We had a community meeting and this family came, and they just received an Ellis Act eviction notice. And they were to leave their house two days after Christmas, and they had a month to leave. She came here as immigrant from Nicaragua like 35 years ago. And she came here to the Mission District because this is the place where low income people came, and her people were here: there's Latinos, she felt comfortable. This is really when we started working more in terms of coalition is because there was like... There was a law passed in January they have to give senior citizens--like people who have lived in a place for longer than ten years or people who had disabilities, they had to get like a year's notice before they could be evicted with the Ellis Act. So landlords were trying to just cash in and do evictions. So there was like a really big--a lot of increase in the amount of Ellis Act evictions, during that time. So it was December because they were all trying to beat that January deadline. And so that's why this family was being evicted.

Monica Lopez: Chester Hartman, executive director for the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, is pessimistic about stopping gentrification. Hartman also says the current level of grassroots political organizing in San Francisco is no match for the clout wielded by the wealthy.

Chester Hartman: The money imbalance the wealth imbalance and the ability to use wealth both in the political arena and in the market is so extreme now that I don't see too much hope for the kinds of land-use controls that, in a different political situation, might be able to stop gentrification. It's so like a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that gentrification occurs, the less the ability to fight it, obviously. The people who are being pushed out are no longer there to mount that fight.

The book that I wrote called The Transformation of San Francisco , we were playing around with the people at the University of California Press and I don't know what to call the updated edition. And I'm kind of pushing for San Francisco Transformed -- You know, that it's an accomplished fact already.

Monica Lopez: For Making Contact, I'm Monica Lopez.

Stephanie Welch: Some people see the gentrification process as inevitable, or at least irreversible once it begins. But many community groups argue that if federal and state funds were going to local businesses and residents instead of to big business in the form of subsidies, rents would remain relatively stable and neighborhoods would be allowed to thrive.

Tom Walsh is with the Organization of the North East in Chicago or ONE. He is working to make sure that Clinton administration directs an unprecedented five billion dollar federal housing administration surplus to combat the country's worsening housing crisis. He says that federal funds used to assist low-income residents come to nowhere near the total of public funds spent on more affluent Americans.

Tom Walsh: When you think about it, all housing is subsidized. If you own a condominium or you own, you know, a single family home or if you own an apartment building, that housing is subsidized. Every individual who's in one of the those positions gets to write off all the money that they spent on real estate taxes and all of the money that they pay as interest on their mortgage. That total amount of money that's kept out of the federal coffers is six times the amount of money that's currently spent within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's budget.

Stephanie Welch: Sara Jane Knoy, executive director of ONE, says that along with other organizing strategies their coalition has made some headway securing funds from the U.S. Department of Housing in Urban Development or HUD.

Sara Jane Knoy: We've had to lobby the federal government to create pots of money coming out of HUD that would allow low-income tenants to buy their own houses and their own apartments and make them into cooperatives. So first we organized at the local level to bring the tenants of the buildings together, and then we organized at the federal level to get the funding released so that they could buy the buildings. Then we returned to organizing on the local level to bring together the financing and the tenants to purchase the co-ops. In other cases the strategies that we've used have included marches through the community highlighting the issue of affordable housing, protests at the offices of developers who are building new-- doing new conversions in the community and refused to consider setting aside any of their units for affordable housing. We've also done community events and educational forums on affordable housing. We've gone down with large numbers of people to the board meetings of entities like the Illinois Housing Development Finance Authority to encourage them to grant loans to non-profit developers who wanted to make affordable housing in the community. So it's really been a variety of strategies.

Stephanie Welch: Along with efforts to work within the system to protect local communities from gentrification, Susana Almanza from PODER in Austin says that sometimes people just have to get out on the street and make their demands.

Susana Almanza: In the 70's when urban removal was named urban renewal, the same thing that's happening right now was happening then, and we lost a lot of land in that particular fight. But we actually had to go out in the streets. You know we had to actually organize hundreds and hundreds of people and protest and hold up traffic and fight the destruction of our community. So not everything is done like in the board rooms and in the meetings, but a lot of things have to be done out on the streets.

Stephanie Welch: That's it for this edition of making contact. A look at gentrification in U.S. cities. Thanks for listening. Special thanks this week Steve Mecatopolis[?] and Chuey Varela for recorded portions. I'm your host, Stephanie Welch.

Laura Livoti is our managing director. Peggy Law, executive director. Associate producer, Stephanie Welch. Senior advisor, Norman Solomon. National producer, David Barsamian. Women's desk coordinator, Lisa Rudman. Prison desk coordinator, Eli Rosenblatt. Production assistant, Shereen Meraji. Archivist, Din Abdullah. And I'm your host and managing producer Phillip Babich.

If you want more information about the subject of this week's program, call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736. Call that same phone number for tapes and transcripts. That's 800-529-5736. Making Contact is an independent production. We're committed to providing a forum for voices and opinions not often heard in the mass media. If you have suggestions for future programs, we'd like to hear from you. Our theme music is by the Charlie Hunter Trio. 'Bye for now.