Frank Smith is black, a city planner, a neighborhood leader and, as of last January, a member of the D.C. Board of Education. In 1975, he brought a lawsuit to try to stop displacement in his Washington neighborhood, Adams-Morgan. The lawsuit received national attention. It helped 10 tenant households become homeowners rather than be evicted.
"Adams-Morgan is gone as we now know it," says Smith today. "Nothing short of a miracle would save it." "Gone" means gone to the young professionals, mainly affluent, young whites, gone to sandblasted brick and stripped floors and a Sesame Street city.
Smith's voice has a flat honesty. His head shakes slowly as he talks about the problem of convincing institutions like the Department of Housing and Urban Develpment of what's happening. He suggests with soft humor, "Maybe someone should graph the increase in the number of pages in the inflight magazines that sell city living to the trendsetters." He adds, "The urban poor are having the housing pulled out from underneath them."
Many experts apparently share Smith's view of what's happening, but keep a politic silence about the costs to be paid by the poor, presumably believing they are unavoidable. James Rouse, the dean of American developers, is recognized as something of an idealist in an unidealistic profession. A year ago, at an American Planning Association convention, he gave an almost official laying on or hands to the likelihood of continually increased demand for urban housing. He did not talk about where the poor would go.
Joe Giloley, of the National Association of Neighborhoods, supervises 50 VISTA volunteers working on displacement in nearly as many cities. He expects "widespread displacement." Carla Cohen a HUD expert on displacement, says that "displacement on a large scale is a possibility." Both admit that they have no clear idea of where the poor will go if displacement pushes them out of many inner-city neighborhoods. A recent HUD report to Congress on displacement never mentions the issue.
The major question in the minds of people like Cohen and Giloley is: will the poor go to the suburbs? A second question is: how will they find room there? Will so few middle-class people want to live in the suburbs that prices will drop and the poor will suddenly be able to afford to live there?
It is hard to project how much of a change there will be in demand for either urban or suburban housing. It depends on too many other things: for example, on whether, in a tight market, the growing number of affluent, single-person households decide to double up, making more housing available, or on whether they decide to buy and underoccupy big houses as tax-deductible investments -- in effect hoarding the available housing stock. It depends on how heavily the media hype the city. It depends on how many middle-class women choose careers over kids, trading in the family station wagon for eating out and mass transit and maybe even for a maid. It depends on the price and availability of gas.
The Real Estate Research Corporation says that in the '80s "the bulk of U.S. population growth will occur in the suburbs." Perhaps the safest conclusion that can be drawn is that, as the baby boom turns into a house-hunting boom, there will be a strong demand for housing in both cities and suburbs. The media always tend to focus attention on groups like the "urban pioneers" who adopt a new life style. That focus often makes people forget the mainstream. It is important to remember that when the smoke cleared, there was still Middle America after Woodstock. It is unlikely that people will abandon the pace and security of the suburbs in numbers large enough to deflate suburban housing markets so that the poor can afford to move there. Most of them will have to stay in the city.
Staying in the city means doubling up and overcrowding, the classic response of the poor to the blow of higher rents. This process was predicted by William Alonso, director of Harvard's Center for Population Studies in 1975: "Over the past 20 years the housing of the poor and the working poor has improved primarily because they have fallen heir to what used to be called 'the grey areas." The softening of middle-class demand for this housing stock lowered its relative price and permitted a sharp decline in overcrowding for low-income people. Whatever the troubles of cities, this has been a fortunate outcome, But the danger appears imminent that the housing stock available to working and welfare poor will now be sharply diminished, squeezed between abandonment at one end and the childless multi-worker household at the other. The consequence would be higher prices and more crowding for those of lower incomes."
But staying in the city is not the only alternative. Poor neighborhoods can spread into the suburbs, making them affordable by driving off other households that insist on security and order and can afford to pay for it. The process is simple. A concentration of poor people is too often a concentration of people who have been too frustrated and too starved for dignity to provide or accept much neighborhood peer pressure. Lack of that pressure makes it difficult to establish or enforce standards of behavior that provide security and order. Most people who can afford to move away. Using lack of security and order as a spearhead, progressive deterioration may force its way into the suburbs. It may spread from an adjacent city neighborhood, or it may spread from a small rundown sector within a suburb that deteriorates further because of increased overcrowding as people are pushed there from the city.
Tom Gale, housing director of the National Urban League, is one of the few people concerned about displacement who has any reasonably hard data on where the poor are going. He points to "some low-income black households who have been forced out of downtown Oklahoma City and are now living in trailer parks on the outskirts." Gale also says that "the Urban League's local offices are beginning to receive reports of black families who sold their homes for what they thought were good prices, moved in with relatives while they shopped around, and now find they don't have enough money to get another home. This is happening in cities like Knoxville, Tenn., Jacksonville, Fla., and Inglewood, Calif."
Gale's information, as well as the increased interest in city living among the middle class and the historical response of the poor to a tighter housing market, indicate that Carl Holman of the National Urban Coalition is right in predicting that "there will almost certainly be an increase in overcrowding, and a concentration of the poor into smaller areas of cities, often away from the downtown." There may also be some expansion of the slums into the suburbs. Together, the possibilities sound like a movie on the housing goals of the '60s run in reverse.