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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bulldozing your Neighbors: Development Plans in the Rust Belt

Across the Midwest, the stimulus package is encouraging very strange things: cities are using it to demolish capital instead of to build it.

The signs are everywhere if you know where to look. In the Polish Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, I’m pitching my tent in a vacant lot. Until a few months ago, an abandoned house stood in the space where I’ll be sleeping tonight. A journalist was squatting in this house, free of rent, much like artists who took over empty factories and abandoned houses in the 1990s. The landlord didn’t bother to evict her: times were hard and few tenants were available. The house was falling down, and the journalist was doing basic repairs and making sure that no one damaged the property. The agreement suited everyone. Valuable housing stock was maintained; meanwhile, a woman was able to keep a roof over her head.

Last year, however, the city seized the squat, which was $6,000 overdue in back taxes. Rather than leaving it standing, the city spent about $5,000 in federal funds to bulldoze the house. The vacant lot is not likely to be rebuilt anytime soon.

Bulldozing is an odd strategy for an economic downturn, but it’s the major urban strategy being pursued in the rust belt. The “shrinking cities” scheme started in Flint, Michigan in the 1980s. Instead of allowing vacant houses to stand, city officials would use federal, state, and local funds to bulldoze houses. The vacant lots would be turned over to favored development corporations or – more likely – left fallow. In the wake of the current foreclosure crisis, the strategy of “shrinking cities” is being adopted as a way of dealing with vacant lots in Cleveland and Pittsburgh; bulldozing is now the unofficial urban policy of the Obama administration.

Read the rest at the Commonweal Institute, where I'm a fellow.

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Blogger Sachin Agarwal said...

In addition, there's the sunk carbon cost in existing structures. It's ridiculously terrible to tear-and-build. Legislative language that takes carbon costs into account that can be slipped into some legislation would do a world of good for these sorts of "redevelopment" projects, in or out of a stimulus program.

3:22 PM  

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