Neighborhood Revitalization Research Paper

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1. Introduction

Neighborhood revitalization efforts and programs, both public and private, will be reviewed. These include early efforts at elimination of slums led by settlement houses, housing reformers, and social workers. This was followed by government programs like housing and health codes, public housing, urban renewal (both slum clearance and rehabilitation), model cities, neighborhood planning and redevelopment, and, most recently, the empowerment and enterprise zone program. Various techniques of neighborhood revitalization will be reviewed, as well as critiques of their impact. Likewise, community development programs, both public and private, and the role of community development corporations will be reviewed. The primary emphasis will be on the United States.

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2. The Progressive Era: Tenement Reform And Settlement Houses

From the mid-nineteenth century through the beginning of the First World War, the population of US cities swelled as a result of mass immigration, primarily from Europe. Most poor immigrants were concentrated in ethnic enclaves. In an era in which there were no governmental social and welfare services other than the poorhouse, poor immigrants lived in overcrowded and unsanitary housing and neighborhood conditions. In cities like New York, they lived in tenements in wretched conditions.

Around the turn of the century, the Progressive era saw the rise of reform movements. These included the efforts of housing reformers to address the conditions prevalent in slum neighborhoods. New York City was in the forefront, led by a Tenement House Committee of reformers like Lawrence Veiller. The journalist Jacob Riis exposed slum conditions in his graphic descriptions and photographs of ‘how the other half lives.’ This led to the enactment of the New York Tenement House Law of 1901, designed to eliminate the worst abuses. It became a model for similar legislation in other states. However, reformers like Veiller were loath to invoke the government and were especially opposed to government-subsidized housing for the poor. Instead, they eventually turned to the adoption of municipal housing and health codes, setting minimum regulatory standards for residential housing (Friedman 1968). A few philanthropists sponsored limited dividend model housing for workers but this failed to prove to be a viable alternative to the housing provided by private landlords (Birch and Gardner 1981).

During this same period, a settlement house movement began, based upon similar previous efforts in England. Reformers supported by private philanthropy sought to alleviate social problems in slum neighborhoods. They established settlement houses to provide social services to the poor. Largely apolitical, they sought to uplift the poor, while trying to improve their living conditions. Leaders included Jane Addams in Chicago and Robert Woods in Boston (Fisher 1984, Halpern 1995).

3. Slum Clearance: Public Housing

It was not until the Great Depression of the 1930s that public housing appeared in the US, decades after its adoption in Europe. The Depression exacerbated already existing problems in poor urban neighborhoods. The reforms of the Progressive Era had done little to alleviate the underlying causes of the slums and substandard housing. A new generation of activist housing reformers argued for intervention of the federal government to replace slum housing with government-financed, owned and operated public housing. This was a radical departure from US policy.

Reluctantly, the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt began a program of building public housing as part of a public works slum clearance program aimed at provided work to unemployed workers in the building trades. The real estate industry fought hard against the creation of public housing, arguing instead that private landlords should provide for the housing needs of low-income persons. The 1937 legislation provided federal financial assistance to those local governments which chose to participate in a program to provide decent, affordable housing for the poor. Local public housing authorities were to construct and operate the public housing projects. The real estate lobby was successful in limiting public housing to the poor and imposing limits on the amounts allowed for public housing units. In addition, public housing could only be built to replace substandard units. These limitations would later prove fateful in undermining the goals of the reformers and dooming the expansion of public housing. Despite the attempts of a few localities, racial segregation of public housing prevailed, reflecting racist attitudes and existing housing and neighborhood patterns.

The public housing program began slowly, was interrupted by the emergency of World War II, and barely survived conservative opposition in the housing act of 1949. It was adopted primarily by large cities with a preponderance of the poor, which received most of the funding and engaged in the construction of large-scale public housing projects. Even with its limitations, public housing was a great improvement over the slum housing that it replaced. In its early stages, public housing served as housing for the working poor.

However, as the public housing grew older, its population in the 1960s became poorer (Meehan 1979). They lived in projects that were often physically isolated, in poor condition, and racially segregated— despite increased federal subsidies and court mandates. Except for housing for the elderly poor, new construction of public housing virtually ended in the 1970s. Instead, the federal government in the US switched to providing subsidies to enable poor tenants to rent private rental units. In the 1990s, some of the most notoriously unsuccessful public housing projects were either demolished or reduced in scale. Despite the bad reputation of several examples nationally, for the most part public housing in urban areas did contribute to the elimination of the worst slum conditions.

4. Slum Clearance: Urban Renewal

Planning for postwar redevelopment in US cities began in the early 1940s. Liberals favored large-scale slum clearance, replacing them largely with public housing (Gelfand 1975). In 1949, Congress approved an urban redevelopment program which would eliminate slums and ‘blight.’ However, as it unfolded, prime downtown real estate became the focus of urban renewal in many cities. Instead of public housing, this land was re-used for commercial and industrial facilities, luxury housing, and institutional uses. Despite assurances of relocation and replacement housing, hundreds of thousands of poor slum dwellers saw their neighborhoods and housing destroyed but their housing conditions worsened instead of improving as little new low-rent public housing was constructed on urban redevelopment sites (Greer 1965). New York City under the leadership of Robert Moses provided some of the most egregious examples of this process, although Moses also built many of the best public housing projects in the US (Caro 1974).

The program was renamed ‘urban renewal’ in 1954. The newly elected Republican administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, while not opposed to urban renewal, was concerned about its cost to the federal government and the possibility that much of the cleared land was not proving to be attractive to private, for-profit developers. It tried to change the focus of urban renewal in part to conservation and rehabilitation, which it saw as less expensive. Urban renewal clearance and redevelopment policies would later be condemned as bad planning by critic Jacobs (1961) in a famous critique.

In the 1930s, the realtors opposed federal intervention in the housing market and proposed neighborhood associations as the primary vehicle for neighborhood conservation. This was aimed primarily at homeowners’ associations. This often had an exclusionary aim, with white homeowners organizing to prevent any entry by African Americans and other minorities. This is also the era in which the newly created Federal Housing Administration (FHA) adopted the racist standards of the real estate industry to rate neighborhoods for the purpose of making and insuring home mortgage loans. This became the basis for the ‘redlining’ of older urban neighborhoods and contributed to the exodus from these neighborhoods to the suburbs after World War II.

Many urban neighborhoods, mostly poor, also were destroyed to make way for central city links to the interstate highway system created in 1956. As with urban renewal, promises of decent, affordable replacement housing often went unfulfilled. Not all neighborhoods designated as slums for urban renewal or highway construction were necessarily blighted (Gans 1962). Where residents did organize to oppose the demolition of their neighborhood, typically they failed because they did not have political influence and had no legal standing in court to challenge these plans.

This finally changed in the late 1960s, following summers of riots in US cities from 1965 through 1968. Citizen participation finally was recognized and neighborhood residents at least had an opportunity to present their views. Advocacy planning arose to provide neighborhood residents with the capacity to develop alternate plans. The courts finally recognized the right of those to be displaced to challenge plans, typically on the ground that there was insufficient replacement housing available to meet federal requirements (Hartman 1974). Community resistance led to the demise of large-scale clearance for urban renewal and highways in the central cities by the early 1970s.

5. Model Cities

It was felt that displacement of poor and minority residents for these purposes contributed to the resentment that sparked so many of the urban riots of the 1960s. Resident participation in planning led to more serious consideration of rehabilitation of blighted neighborhoods rather than clearance and redevelopment. The first major example of this policy shift was embodied in the Model Cities program launched by a newly created US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1967. In contrast to urban renewal slum clearance, this reaction to the urban riots proposed to concentrate federal, state, and local resources to improve targeted poor neighborhoods. Housing rehabilitation, social services, job training, and community participation were hallmarks of this approach. Due to insufficient funds, intergovernmental coordination problems, and a change from the Johnson to Nixon administrations after the 1968 presidential election, Model Cities failed to fulfill its promises (Haar 1975).

6. Community Development Block Grants

In 1974, the urban renewal and Model Cities programs, among others, were ended and replaced by the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. The CDBG program was intended to give local governments more discretionary control over spending and to involve more communities (Hays 1995). However, CDBG funds were supposed to benefit primarily low-and moderate-income residents. This caused controversy in many localities and often led to wider dispersal of funds, to the detriment of those neighborhoods most in need of assistance (Rich 1993). This era marks a shift in federal policy that persisted through the Clinton administration, emphasizing devolution of responsibility for many federal aid programs and resulting in cutbacks in many HUD housing assistance programs.

7. Federal Recognition Of Neighborhoods

Federal policy since the 1930s did not usually recognize neighborhoods. HUD and its predecessor agencies made grants and loans to cities and states, developers and lenders, and provided insurance to individuals (homebuyers). In 1977, President Jimmy Carter made the unprecedented move of appointing an Assistant HUD Secretary for Neighborhoods and created a small program which for the first time awarded grants directly to neighborhood development organizations (Mayer 1984). In 1979, Carter appointed a presidential commission to advise him on neighborhood policies and programs but then disregarded its recommendations. His successor President Ronald Reagan immediately dismantled Carter’s modest neighborhood initiatives at HUD.

8. Redlining And Community Reinvestment

One of the major reasons for the decline of older urban neighborhoods was their ‘redlining.’ Lenders, insurers, and realtors avoided those neighborhoods which had a significant minority population on the basis that their presence jeopardized real estate values and would cause white flight. Federal agencies, most notably the FHA, followed suit. This in turn almost assured that eventually these neighborhoods would become all or predominantly minority-occupied. ‘White flight,’ triggered by unscrupulous real estate practices, then occurred in many neighborhoods (Jackson 1985).

Chicago, where such segregationist practices as ‘racial covenants’ originated and long the most racially segregated city and metropolitan area in the US, was the focus of organizing in the 1970s against lender disinvestment in urban neighborhoods. Neighbor- hood organizers demanded that lenders cease redlining and invest in neighborhoods. Racial discrimination in housing and lending had been previously outlawed, although enforcement of this legislation has yet to end such practices. The antiredlining movement spread and eventually led to the enactment of federal legislation in 1975 and 1977 requiring federally regulated lenders first to disclose generally where their loans were made and then to serve all of the communities within their territory. The US Congress rejected more restrictive proposals. The movement then used this legislation to document lender discrimination against older neighborhoods and to require lender commitments to again lend in these neighborhoods. This has led to major lender commitments in many cities (Squires 1992, Schwartz 1998). This is a critical component of neighborhood revitalization, especially when the federal government was reducing its role in aiding urban areas.

9. Gentrification Of Urban Neighborhoods

Beginning in the late 1970s, a contrasting phenomenon to disinvestment began. In many large cities, middle and upper-income newcomers began to discover and move into older neighborhoods in decline near downtowns (Palen and London 1984). These ‘urban pioneers’ renovated buildings which were typically in disrepair. As their numbers increased, these neighbor- hoods saw other changes, particularly in the quality of services, both private and public, reflecting the demands of the affluent newcomers.

City governments viewed this process as benign, with improvements in the physical quality of neighborhoods and increased tax revenue. However, in many of these neighborhoods, lower-income residents were displaced, directly or indirectly, because they were relocated for building renovation or could not afford rehabilitated housing. There was also often a clash of lifestyles between the residents and the newcomers. While the magnitude of gentrification-based displacement was debated (Schill and Nathan 1983), many localities did institute land use and housing regulations to provide some protection to residents against displacement and to ensure the replacement of lower-priced housing units (Keating and Smith 1996).

10. The Emergence Of Community Developement Corporations

In the 1960s, the US Congress funded directly community development corporations (CDCs). They are nonprofit community-based organizations operating in distressed, mostly urban and central city neighborhoods. Many originally derived from community organizing. Many are church-sponsored. They attempt to address both social and physical problems. They have expanded greatly in number, totaling several thousand by the 1990s (Vidal 1992). In larger cities, there are now citywide networks of CDCs.

CDCs engage in a variety of activities, typically housing and commercial development, job training, and, to a lesser degree, social services. They are funded from a wide variety of sources, including all levels of government, philanthropic foundations, and corporations (Vidal 1992). The impact of CDC activities has been rated positively (e.g., Rohe 1998, Walker 1993).

However, it must be conceded that, despite the often heroic efforts of CDCs and companion social service agencies, measurable levels of distress such as poverty and crime have increased rather than decreased in many urban neighborhoods since the advent of CDCs (Rusk 1999). CDCs are simply not enabled or funded to deal with the entire myriad of social and physical problems in distressed urban neighborhoods. Ultimately, governments in partnership with non-profit organizations, residents, and so-called ‘intermediary’ funders are responsible for the revitalization of neighborhoods.

11. Neighborhood Revitalization Techniques

A variety of techniques has been used in the revitalization of neighborhoods. Resident attitudes toward their neighborhood have been surveyed (e.g., Ahlbrandt and Cunningham 1979). Neighborhoods have been classified according to their physical and social characteristics (Keating and Smith 1996). Public programs have often targeted neighborhoods, based upon their profile and degree of need for assistance. Housing has been newly constructed and rehabilitated, both for lower-and moderate-to-middle-income range occupants (Rohe et al. 1998, Walker 1993). The low-income housing tax credit, which enables private corporations to profitably invest, is a critical factor in the provision of much affordable housing. In badly deteriorated neighborhoods, an urban homesteading approach has been tried to encourage self-help rehabilitation (Varady 1986). Existing and new businesses have been subsidized to improve their buildings, expand their operations, and assist in the training and employment of neighborhood residents. Neighborhood plans have been developed, with and without resident participation, to identify serious problems and programs and policies to alleviate them (Rohe and Gates 1985). A favored technique is the mapping of neighborhood assets as cornerstones for neighborhood revitalization. Neighborhood organizing remains a key ingredient in successful neighborhood redevelopment, with block clubs often being the cornerstone of neighborhood organizations (Medoff and Sklar 1994). Neighborhood organizing can be confrontational or cooperative, depending upon the circumstances and the style of organizing (Fisher 1984).

12. The People vs. Place Policy Debate

A major debate in neighborhood revitalization has been termed people vs. place. In 1968, the national commission on urban riots posed the dilemma of whether to rebuild poor ghetto areas or to try to disperse and integrate their mostly minority residents into mainstream society. Three decades later, this debate continues. Downs (1994) has posed alternate strategies aimed either at improving the social fabric and economic and physical conditions of impoverished inner city neighborhoods or providing mobility in work and housing to enable their residents to move to better neighborhoods in central cities and the surrounding suburbs. While there have been a few small-scale mobility experiments, more emphasis has been placed on the revitalization of inner city neighborhoods with the goal of their improvement for the existing residents.

The latest example in the United States of the latter approach is embodied in the Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community program launched in 1994. It is a belated response to the 1992 civil disturbance in South Central Los Angeles. Using a combination of employer tax credits, subsidized loans for businesses, and special funding for social services, including job training, the aim is to provide employment primarily in designated high poverty areas in more than one hundred communities (Gale 1996).

13. Neighborhood Revitalization In Canada And Western Europe

Urban revitalization and regeneration programs in Canada and Western Europe are similar to approaches in the US described above. However, the context is much different. Governmental systems typically feature national and regional policies, programs, and agencies. Municipal authorities may have less authority than in the US. With few exceptions, the levels of poverty and distress do not compare with the US, with the exception of industrial cities in sharp decline. Finally, there has not been nearly as much racial conflict in the cities of Canada and Western Europe as in the US, again with some exceptions. For a comparative perspective on urban regeneration in North America and Europe, see Judd and Parkinson (1990). For a comparative perspective on neighborhood revitalization in Australia, Canada, and Western Europe, see Gale (1984).


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