Will the new urban chic again push the inner city poor around?
The federal urban renewal program was originally designed to give slum dwellers "decent, safe and sanitary housing," as the Housing Act of 1949 had it. But to make the program palatable to the chambers of commerce, it concentrated mainly on rebuilding downtown business districts. In the end, urban renewal destroyed more housing for the poor than it built.
Now the former targets of urban renewal are being "recycled." Following the example of Georgetown, which was mostly a black slum three or four decades ago, young middle-income people buy up charming but run-down old inner city houses and restore them for their own use. Slums are being transformed into pleasant neighborhoods.
The movement, if that is what it is, has tremendous potential: We are still, as the Kerner Commission noted a dozen years ago, two societies - one black and largely concentrated in big city ghettos, the other white and largely scattered in suburbia.
The new urban pioneers, with their interior brick walls and paint-stripped Victorian oak paneling, may be blazing trails for the return of the middle class to the central city where the white-collar jobs and cultural centers are. The low-income people who now occupy the suddenly coveted innercity town houses could move out where the factories, the playgrounds and new schools and, most of all, the blue-collar jobs are.
But can they? What does it take to establish a reasonable economic and racial balance between city and suburb? How do we get a fairer distribution of the burdens and amenities in the metropolitan area?
As yet, to begin with, the Georgetownization of our blighted cities is by no means a certainty, despite all the publicity and all the restored town houses you suddenly see downtown, particularly in Washington. What seems a tide may be only a trickle.
What's more, one study, conducted in a Washington neighborbood by George Washington University planning students last summer, showed that less than one-fifth of the new urban pioneers moved in from the suburbs. The majority came from the other parts of the city.
This should not discourage us. If town house recycling keeps middle-income people in the city, it is already a considerable gain. But apparently it doesn't. Recycling or not, the latest figures show that most center cities continue to lose population.
As a recent report on neighborhood conservation by the Conservation Foundation points out, however, exact data on who is moving where is hard to come by between census years. The nationwide extent of the conservation phenomenon will therefore remain unknown until the 1980 census is in.
What is known is that urban conservation is rightly raising fears of large-scale displacement of low-income people and minority homeowners with no place to go. To some degree with the charges of "Negro removal" are as justified as they were in the days of the federal buildozers.
In those days the urban renewers threw statistical and - confusing figures baout vacancy rates and relocation successes - in the eyes of the press and increasingly irate community leaders. This time the issue must be met with more guts and candor.
Not all old inner-city residents who sell their house to an old-house enthusiast are victims of cruel disappointment. Once a neighborhood begins to improve or is slated for rehabilitation, values rise sharply and old residents are happy to take advantage of this for one reason or another.
More residents, however, are forced to sell because, with the increased status of the neighborhood real estate taxes rise beyond what they can afford. In one instance, cited by the Washington Urban League, a retired woman in Alexandria, Va., was forced to sell her home, bought in 1969, for $35,000 because her property taxes had risen to an unaffordable $1,428 a year. She has a small fixed income. The house subsequently sold for $84,000.
Renters are even worse off. True, low-income people in the ghetto tend to move a great deal. But just the other day this newspaper reported the story of an Alexandria woman who had lived in a rented home for 12 years and was evicted on two-weeks notice because the house was to be renovated for the expansion of "Olde Towne" Alexandria.
"It's not fair," said this woman, "for the simple reason that I don't know where the lower class is going to go."
Robert C. Embry, who runs the $2-billion-a-year community development program for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is not so sure either. President Nixon's moratorium on building subsidized housing for "the lower class" is beginning to reveal its full, cruel tragedy. Subsidy programs are slowly starting up again, but not on a scale proportionate to desperate needs.
Embry's community development funds are, however, available to help cities to help low-income people stay in restoration areas. One method to achieve this is inexpensive rehabilitation loans so the poor can keep up with the new Joneses. Another is to freeze property taxes for those who cannot afford an increase. A third is for the city to buy deteriorating houses, fix them up, and rent them to low-income families. A fourth is that those who are being displaced at least be paid the cost of moving - relocation expenses.
We must hope that these and other forms of assistance to the victims of urban conservation become effective before their opposition dampens the new enthusiasm for recycling cities.
Nor do any of these measures offer the poor opportunities for escaping poverty. That, as John Kenneth Galbraith once observed, is best done by the provision of income. The jobs that pay income for people without sophisticated skills have moved to the suburbs.
"We are leaning on the suburbs to take their fair share of low-cost housing," says Embry.
In my view such low-cost housing, to be acceptable to the suburban middle class, must be integrated with middle- and high-income housing as well as the shops and schools and services everyone needs. In short it brings us back to planned, new communities - an idea the Nixon administration deliberately bungled and the Carter administration just recently put on ice.