Don’t Assume

If you work in any field for a substantial amount of time, you will hear certain story lines and beliefs repeated over and over. For example: public housing towers are all failures, horrible places to live, and it’s much better to knock them down and rebuild lower density public housing. Or, resident involvement in public housing redevelopment is always window dressing and never involves real participation and influence on the outcome. Or, improving a distressed low-income area inevitably involves moving in higher-income residents. Or, once enough momentum and political power are behind a project that will displace residents, there’s no fighting it.

Of course if you pay closer attention, you’ll find that reality is almost always far more complicated, and assumptions are being disproved left and right.

We have articles in this issue that challenge every one of the assumptions above. In Memphis, residents make a community plan that keeps their public housing towers intact — and push back against the Housing Authority that doesn’t like that result. From New Orleans, we hear the story of the post-Katrina redevelopment of the C.J. Peete public housing complex into Harmony Oaks, and how, starting with a group of traumatized and rightly suspicious displaced residents and a tight timeframe, McCormack Baron Salazar went to lengths not often seen even under less extreme circumstances to work with residents. From Pittsburgh, we hear how a group of residents of a large scattered-site affordable housing development in need of repair became its partial owners and are enabling its revitalization themselves rather than letting it be removed from the Section 8 program. And in Little Rock, a classic community organizing campaign turns pessimistic notions on their head by shaming a Tech Park Authority out of locating its buildings on top of one of the city’s African-American neighborhoods.

On a similar theme, in a lively discussion online, readers and bloggers have been picking apart and challenging traditional ideas about what gentrification entails, and what causes it. Alan Mallach began by arguing that preventing displacement is different from concerns about changes in “social control of a neighborhood,” while Rick Jacobus noted that slow and steady improvement for existing residents and stable property values can actually ward off gentrification, which often starts with exploitation of very low values for large-scale change.

Sometimes, we’re battling assumptions that are held more by society at large, as in the “rising tide lifts all boats” idea, which emphatically did not work for Jersey City, as Donal Malone discusses.

Other times our assumptions are so deeply rooted they constitute a surprising blindspot. Winton Pitcoff describes how the affordable housing world has been slow to embrace the potential for manufactured homes to help with the affordable housing crisis. Some very real problems with quality and security in the past have contributed to this attitude, but so too have habits — housers are used to working with subsidy, and most affordable manufactured housing is unsubsidized. Pitcoff describes the work being done to increase security through resident-owned coops that buy the land under “mobile” (but not really so mobile) homes, and through improved, energy-efficiency designs.

And sometimes changes sneak up on us, as with the realization that community land trusts, which we talk about almost exclusively as one of the forms of shared-equity homeownership, actually contain more rental units than ownership units! Maxwell Ciardullo and Emily Thaden write about some ways in which CLTs can involve and support their renters more fully.

It can be hard, but liberating, to reset assumptions. I hope you find inspiration or motivation in some of these stories.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great piece.

    Ed Goetz’ book, “New Deal Ruins” addresses just these perceptions about public housing. He says we’ve been using an “exaggerated discourse of disaster” to discuss pubic housing, which has done little to assuage the public’s already tainted views.

    One of the key issues here in Appalachia is the loss of land zoned for mobile homes. CLTs have been used in a few cases to preserve them.

  2. Among other things, these pieces demonstrate the importance of context, variously layered and conceived, in shaping how, when and why certain approaches work in particular places and times, but not in others. One of our most problematic and deeply embedded assumptions is that the process of generalizing a process from the particular instances of a specific case is a relatively straightforward affair.

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