Urban Renewal Revisited

October 1st, 2011

A cool video from Reason.TV on Urban Renewal, also known as “Negro Removal.”

In 1949, President Harry Truman signed the Housing Act, which gave federal, state, and local governments unprecedented power to shape residential life. One of the Housing Act’s main initiatives – “urban renewal” –  destroyed about 2,000 communities in the 1950s and ’60s and forced more than 300,000 families from their homes. Overall, about half of urban renewal’s victims were black, a reality that led to James Baldwin’s famous quip that “urban renewal means Negro removal.”

New York City’s Manhattantown (1951) was one of the first projects authorized under urban renewal and it set the model not only for hundreds of urban renewal projects but for the next 60 years of eminent domain abuse at places such as PoletownNew London, and Atlantic Yards. The Manhattantown project destroyed six blocks on New York City’s Upper West Side, including an African-American community that dated to the turn of the century. The city sold the land for a token sum to a group of well-connected Democratic pols to build a middle-class housing development. Then came the often repeated bulldoze-and-abandon phenomenon: With little financial skin in the game, the developers let the demolished land sit vacant for years.





Ilya Somin had this to say:

I discuss this period in greater detail in my recent testimony on the civil rights implications of eminent domain abuse before the US Commission on Civil Rights. As I point out there, today’s abuses are not on as large a scale as those of fifty years ago. But it is still common for “blight” condemnations to be used against the minority poor and other politically weak groups in order to transfer their land to politically powerful groups. And nowhere more so than in New York City, the focus of the Reason video. The recent Columbia University and Atlantic Yards cases are particularly egregious examples, which I described in this article.

Urban renewal and blight takings are also a good example of how, contrary to stereotype, protecting property rights often benefits the poor more than the wealthy. Indeed, government is far more likely to threaten the rights of the former, because they usually have less political influence with which to protect themselves.

For a somewhat contrary point of view, Freakonomics has a good summary of a new article that looks at the impact of the Housing Act of 1949, and focuses from a utilitarian perspective on the benefits of the removal.

A new study by Vanderbilt economist William J. Collins and Ph.D. candidate Katharine L. Shester looks at the long-term economic impact of the ambitious (and highly controversial) Housing Act of 1949, which used federal subsidies and the powers of eminent domain to “revitalize” American cities, i.e., to clear out the slums. By the time the program ended in 1974, 2,100 distinct urban renewal projects had been completed using grants that totaled about $53 billion (in 2009 dollars).

The results suggest a far less dismal legacy for the U.S. urban renewal program than is commonly portrayed. It appears that cities that were allowed to engage more actively in urban renewal posted better outcomes in 1980 than they otherwise would have in terms of property value, income, and population growth. Moreover, these results were not achieved by merely pushing residents with low human capital levels out of the city.

Though that’s surely cold comfort to those low-income residents turned out of their apartments, and the neighborhoods destroyed for civic centers and right-of-way.