Urban Renewal Is Minority Renewal

Jacqueline Leavitt is professor of urban planning at UCLA

In the 1950s, shameful urban renewal programs destroyed four low-income apartment units for each one built. The proposed demolition of two public housing developments in the Eastside L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights recalls the discredited tactics of urban renewal, otherwise known at the time as “Negro and Hispanic Removal.”

The prescription back then was simple: Use a local arm of a government agency to come up with a catchy slogan, have urban planning and social service professionals rationalize already agreed upon decisions that satisfy federal funding requirements, and raise the expectations of the poor by asking them what they want but rarely incorporate their ideas. To complete the picture, lace guidelines with vague language about improvements for the poor, allocate residents a few program dollars and deal with anyone who suggests that something is amiss with name-calling.

In the 1950s, the “renewal” strategy was to demolish alleged slums, entice developers with cheap land costs and rebuild office units or luxury apartments on the cleared lots. At the national level, low-income housing decreased by 90% during the 1950s. By the late 1980s, the long-term impact was overcrowding and homelessness.


Turning urban planners and service providers into collaborators is an important facet of the plan. Since the 1950s, documents submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development show undercounted displacement and inflated numbers of satisfactory housing units into which displaced residents moved. “Renewal” wiped out jobs in small businesses in the surrounding neighborhoods. The documents also show that highway planners selected freeway routes that necessitated the demolition of affordable housing and physically isolated low-income communities. Federally required participation and relocation assistance occurred only after poor people and advocates put up a fight.

Flash forward to Boyle Heights in the 1990s. HUD’s “total revitalization” policy explicitly directs local public housing authorities to “thin out” units where the agency finds “distressed public housing.” In 1993, HUD awarded $50 million to the city Housing Authority to demolish the 221-unit Pico Gardens and 336 units in the Aliso Apartments extension, and replace them with 156 fewer units. The housing authority’s application promised HUD it would create “a new community.” What led to well-meaning professionals replaying the urban renewal nightmares?

First, housing authority staff produced in-house plans to secure revitalization dollars. When HUD policy shifted, the housing authority shifted: The same buildings considered suitable for rehabilitation were declared fit only for demolition. Then the authority’s staff issued self-fulfilling prophecies that contributed to the negative climate. They spoke publicly about anticipated vacancies each month. Maintenance declined noticeably. The housing authority jumped the gun, informing residents in 36 units at the Aliso Extension that they had 60 days to move out. After the proverbial barn door was left open, the authority hired urban planners to hold information workshops for residents, but just stonewalled them when questions about Section 8 and relocation were asked. Other consultants conducted a survey of residents’ needs. The results: Residents did not unanimously agree with the Housing Authority plans and were split in their opinions about their housing. In one question, 36.4% of the residents responded that they had not considered moving out; in another question, 9.7% were opposed to moving. Confused, residents thought it too soon to tell whether they wanted to move: 20% were undecided in one question, 40% in another. Poor housing scored a very distant second to jobs when residents identified their most pressing need.

In September, protesting residents filed an administrative complaint with HUD, in part questioning the agency’s consultation process. This stopped the symbolic demolition of three units. It’s not too late. The housing authority, HUD and the city could renounce the urban renewal mentality and stop the loss of almost 600 units of affordable housing.

Poverty, not poor housing, requires investing in residents and their dollars being reinvested in the community. People, not buildings, need revitalization. The housing authority can work with residents--place some of residents’ monthly rent in escrow as down payments for the units they live in; help them and their children acquire job skills, jobs and secure college placements.

Housing authorities, having lied in the past, need to demonstrate that people are more important to them than bricks and mortar.