Columns » Warwick Sabin

Moral of the story

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Many urban planners regard the rebuilding of New Orleans as an opportunity, rather than a burden. The city had fundamental problems that were almost impossible to overcome because of political and economic pressures. But the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina presents what amounts to a blank slate upon which new ideas can be drawn. In fact, the experimentation there also could offer important lessons for Little Rock and other parts of Arkansas that suffer from many of the same ailments that plagued New Orleans. The inequities of race, income and education will finally be addressed as Louisiana’s largest city is reconstituted, and we would be foolish not to play close attention. If some of the strategies work there, why wouldn’t we try to apply them here? As in New Orleans, the poverty rate in Little Rock is higher than the national average. In both cities, the poverty is disproportionately concentrated in the black population. This results in neighborhoods — and as a direct consequence, public schools — segregated by both class and race. Now that New Orleans has a chance to start from scratch, what are city planners proposing? A first priority is the construction of mixed-income housing, because it is a proven and practical way to alleviate the demographic division of a city. An article this week in USA Today about ideas for rebuilding New Orleans cited a Clinton-era initiative, called HOPE VI, as a model. “Large public housing projects, from high-rises in Chicago to low-rise compounds in Louisville, were torn down,” the story noted. “In their place came communities for families of varying incomes, built with a combination of private capital and government subsidies. Families on welfare could live next door to middle-class families in neighborhoods close to schools and services.” The article goes on to mention other ideas, like requiring developers to offer portions of their new projects at below-market rates, giving poor people housing vouchers so they can afford to live in better parts of the city, and giving tax credits to developers who build homes for lower- and middle-class families. These are the kinds of ideas that could just as easily be implemented in Little Rock, where the government already spends a considerable amount of money on subsidized housing. Why not ensure that public money is being directed toward advancing a public good (such as lifting citizens out of poverty), instead of compounding existing problems? Confining poor people to poor neighborhoods is a reliable way to make sure they stay poor. Taxpayer dollars should be used to reduce the burdens on society, not perpetuate them. In the limited cases where innovative strategies have been applied here, they seem to work well. For instance, some private developers have taken advantage of a program that allows them to receive federal grants in exchange for offering reduced rents to residents who are under an income threshold. (Otherwise you pay the market rate.) The Block 2 and Eastside loft apartment complexes utilize this formula, and both have an economically and racially diverse clientele and have contributed to the revitalization of downtown Little Rock. Still, those projects are a drop in the bucket compared with Little Rock’s entrenched segregated neighborhoods. We are fortunate that the future holds tremendous opportunities to implement innovative large-scale strategies — without a natural disaster having to serve as the catalyst. There is the expansion of the airport and increased development in its adjoining neighborhood, which gives local leaders the chance to treat a low-income community with dignity by helping them integrate, rather than shuttling them off to another poor part of the city. One idea would be to build mixed-income multi-family residences among the higher-end developments that are replacing their homes, so they can share in the revitalization of their neighborhood. More mixed-income residences also should be part of the plans for Main Street and Midtown, so that the wealthy are not the only ones who will benefit from urban renewal. We will never solve problems like educational inequity by partitioning the city and creating enclaves of extreme wealth and poverty. Integration is not only a moral charge, but also a practical and efficient way to improve society. It increases the incentive to push for the common good. One city’s tragedy illuminated a shared disgrace, and it would be a waste not to act forthrightly by that light.

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