Last week, the New York Times published a story detailing reactions from long-time community members to the recent leaps in Harlem’s gentrification.
Residents are banding together to protest the rapid changes to their neighborhood, changes they fear will force them from homes made newly unaffordable by development – some would say predatory development – and thereby destroy the community they have long called home. The article clearly articulates the mixed feelings of Harlem’s residents who are watching their neighborhood undergo "change that they believe is not intended to benefit them," but this scenario is not unique to 125th Street – the shift from low income housing to $1 million condominiums is taking place across the nation. The reactions of Harlem residents could easily have come from Minneapolis, where more than half of the city's public housing stock was destroyed in 1998 and 1999 – and has still not been fully replaced. In Chicago, public housing demolitions have forced 20,000 residents from their homes. Residents in Atlanta and Los Angeles are steeling themselves for the planned destruction of substantial numbers of public housing units. Tenants in New Orleans, having survived the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the subsequent levee breaches, recently saw 4,800 public housing units demolished which may lead to the displacement of over 20,000 people in a city where the homeless population has already doubled since the hurricanes.
In short, the United States is facing a national public and affordable housing crisis. Through the federal HOPE VI program, public housing is being demolished, without guarantees that tenants will be able to return to their communities. Market conversions of privately owned, HUD subsidized housing have led to the loss an additional 300,000 multi-family units. These problems are only exacerbated by a $6.5 billion shortfall in HUD funding that may lead to the displacements of hundreds of thousands of additional families who rely on HUD’s project-based Section 8 program. Around the country, poor families are facing "root shock" as the communities they have lived in for years and often generations are abruptly uprooted, scattered and destroyed. Our elected officials are disregarding these communities' right to a decent and affordable place to live in favor of high-profit development projects. In order to address this crisis, we need to reconsider the assumptions underlying our housing policy. Currently, many government officials think of housing as a commodity and a privilege, seeking approaches that will maximize profits from valuable real estate, managing public housing using strict private sector guidelines, and adopting legislation that penalizes our nation's poorest families for their economic vulnerability. Although international law recognizes a right to adequate housing, millions of poor families in the United States are spending more than half of their income on rent, living in substandard conditions, and facing homelessness. Until we make a right to housing a basic tenant of our housing policy and recognize it as a human right, community members in Harlem, New Orleans, Chicago and across the nation will be left wondering if gentrification, demolitions, and development will leave them without a community to call home.