In a speech on urban renewal in Charlotte on Wednesday, Donald Trump called for legally designating some impoverished neighborhoods as "disaster" areas. The proposal was one of a series of policies advanced by the Republican presidential nominee that he said would rejuvenate inner cities.
"I will further empower cities and states to seek a federal disaster designation for blighted communities in order to initiate the rebuilding of vital infrastructure, the demolition of abandoned properties, and the increased presence of law enforcement," Trump said.
The pledge was consistent with Trump's grim portrayals of the inner city in past speeches, but the New York businessman appeared to escalate his rhetoric by implying that these places are disaster zones in the legal and literal sense, analogous to areas devastated by earthquakes, tornadoes or hurricanes.
Trump's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, has argued that he exaggerates the level of poverty and crime and wrongly conflates being black with being urban and poor. In the speech, Trump described his policies as part of a "new deal for black America."
It was not clear what Trump meant by a "a federal disaster declaration." A spokesman for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.
Generally speaking, the president declares disasters at the request of governors, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to spend money for temporary housing and rebuilding. By and large, these funds are limited by law to communities afflicted by natural disasters.
Occasionally, Congress has made specific appropriations to respond to economic catastrophes. For instance, one program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was designed to stabilize neighborhoods afflicted by foreclosure and abandonment following the financial crisis. The Obama administration has also sought to focus federal help on particular places through its "Strong Cities, Strong Communities" and other initiatives.
Carlos Martín, an engineer and an expert on housing policy at the Urban Institute, agreed with the principle of directing more federal resources to impoverished communities. "There does need to be additional resources provided for housing, particularly affordable housing, for infrastructure improvement, for schools, for health," he said.
At the same time, Martín said, the devil is in the details. Identifying the places that could benefit the most from federal help can be a challenge.
Martín noted that while Trump focused on urban renewal in his speech, fewer than half of the roughly 36 million officially poor Americans are living in principal cities, according to the most recent Census data.
In describing urban decay as a kind of disaster, Trump was resurrecting an old metaphor in American politics. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter toured the Bronx, walking through "blocks of rubble that looked like the result of wartime bombing," the New York Times reported.
"It was a very sobering trip for me to see the devastation that has taken place in the South Bronx in the last five years," the newspaper quoted the president as saying.
"A lot of people did use that analogy," said Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. She argued that the metaphor resulted in a misguided approach to urban planning.
Assuming that affected neighborhoods would have to be completely rebuilt, policymakers often planned major projects, such as public housing, highways and venues such as Lincoln Center in New York. Such projects tended to displace the remaining residents without improving their fundamental economic and social conditions.
Today, Gelinas added many cities have the opposite problem as they did a few decades ago. Rather than residents moving out and leaving vacant buildings behind, many urban populations are increasing, resulting in climbing prices for every available residence. There are only a few cities with unoccupied properties to demolish, such as Detroit and Pittsburgh.
"It’s not really the appropriate solution," Gelinas said. "Inner cities are so different today."
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