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Intention and Reality

Congress intended Urban Renewal as a housing program, as the goals listed earlier indicate. The initial legislation confined renewal activity to sites that either were or would be largely residential. In fact, the initial legislation stipulated that for each new unit of housing built, at least one old unit of housing must be torn down. The intent to eliminate slums by replacing bad, old housing with good, new housing was very clear.

The goals, though praiseworthy, contain some internal contradictions and some not-so-pleasant side effects, which become apparent on reflection. For instance, rebuilding the city's economy is likely to be furthered by a program that demolishes substandard housing and replaces it with a purely commercial development. But where does that leave the goal of adding good, new units to the city's housing stock? Who could be against eliminating substandard housing? Rephrase that as reducing the supply of low-cost housing, driving down vacancy rates, and thereby tightening the housing market in which the poor must find shelter, and it does not sound so good. Achieving a higher degree of racial integration is a praiseworthy goal. One way to achieve racial integration in a poor, black neighborhood is to knock down dilapidated older housing occupied by low-income blacks and replace it with high-quality—and more expensive—housing to be occupied by middle- or upper-income households, most of whom are not black. That is a rather stiff price to pay for integration. And, whether real integration will occur or whether the two populations will simply live in the same area but have little to do with each other, is a question too.

Urban Renewal was major urban surgery, and as such it had many side effects, not all of which were desirable or foreseen. One fact that soon became apparent was that local intentions and federal intentions were not always the same. With the passage of time, local desires began to change both federal law and federal practice. From the federal point of view, housing was central. But many localities did not care about housing. If rundown housing occupied by lower-income households was demolished and replaced with commercial development, the municipality solved both a housing and a tax base problem. The population that lived in the housing to be demolished would not vanish from the face of the earth. But if that population settled in adjacent communities after being dehoused by "the federal bulldozer," it became someone else's problem. From the local perspective, that solved the problem. From the federal perspective, that was no solution at all. At best, it was a "zero-sum game" played with federal funds. What constitutes a problem and what constitutes a solution vary, depending on whom one considers to be one's constituency.

What happens when federal and local goals differ? The "locals" wanting the federal money do some compromising and accept some conditions that they do not like. On the other hand, the federal official whose job it is to spend the allocated funds wants to see agreements with LPAs signed and projects underway. So he or she does some compromising too. In time the program gets bent from its initial shape into something that both the locals and the "feds" can live with. In the case of Urban Renewal, that meant relaxing the residential requirements and permitting many projects that had a predominantly commercial emphasis.

But that was hardly the end of the story. With the passage of time, some of the program's side effects became apparent, and both those who suffered from them and their allies began to exert pressure for change.

The most easily identified and numerous victims were those people who lost their housing because of Urban Renewal. In the typical project all the land was acquired at the beginning. Before clearance could begin, all those who resided on the site had to relocate. There then followed a clearance phase during which all the demolition was accomplished. The construction phase might then spread out over a number of years. It might not even begin for several years after clearance was completed. When the construction phase was completed, the number of new units might or might not approximate the number of units demolished. In either case the new units were not likely to do the original residents much good. First, there was the question of where they were to live in the intervening years. Equally important was the cost issue. Good, new housing costs a lot more to rent than bad, old housing. Urban Renewal typically took place in the urban core, where the housing that was demolished was old, relatively inexpensive, and largely occupied by poor people. Most of them could not afford the new housing even if they could wait for it. As Martin Anderson, probably Urban Renewal's most effective critic, noted,

The people are poor. A great many of them are Negroes and Puerto Ricans. Good quality, conveniently located housing is scarce; good quality, conveniently located housing for $50 or $60 a month is almost impossible to find. It is difficult to picture hundreds of thousands of low-income people, many of them subject to racial discrimination, moving from low quality into higher quality housing at rents they can afford. And then, one might ask, why, if all this good housing at low rents is available, didn't they move before urban renewal nudged them along.5

Studies of people dispossessed by Urban Renewal often found that they were worse off than before. The process of forced moving tore up individuals' connections to friends, relatives, neighborhood organizations, and the like, and generally left people less happy with their life situation than previously. The only way people seemed better off was that their standard of housing was somewhat better. That effect was almost inevitable, since renewal often tore down the most deteriorated units in the municipal housing stock. Of course, with the tightening of the housing stock, they often paid more for their new housing than they had for their old housing.

The effect of Urban Renewal on the city's economy also came under some criticism. There was no question that Urban Renewal did stimulate economic development as described earlier. The question that critics raised was how much damage the process did to the existing economic structure. The first argument was that simply the announcement of impending renewal froze investment both within and nearby the designated area. Within the area, no investor would commit funds, for obvious reasons. But even outside the area, investors would be inhibited because they did not know how much competition—subsidized with federal monies—would soon be coming to the renewal site. Whether it was old housing, old retailing space, or old commercial space, spending money on its renovation or modernization would be riskier if new, competing structures were soon to rise on the nearby site. Another argument was that when businesses were forced to close because their buildings were condemned, they often never reopened. The loss of customers to competitors or the expenses of reopening simply overwhelmed them. It was also said that renewal generally demolished relatively cheap commercial space. This is the space often occupied by struggling new enterprises that cannot afford newer space. Thus it attacks the "incubator" role of the city and may do long-term damage, which does not show up in short-term statistics.6

Ultimately, Urban Renewal accumulated so many enemies that in 1973 Congress terminated the program, although, as noted, funding pursuant to contracts signed previously continued into the 1980s.

 
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