REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

February 19, 2020

Urban Renewal’s Legacy

By David Reiss

photo by Ziggymarley01

I was quoted in The Ledger (Florida) in Seeking Progress, City Upended Lives in Eliminating Moorehead Community. It opens,

After selecting Moorehead as the site of a new auditorium, Lakeland officials began efforts 50 years ago to inform residents, assess properties, make offers to owners and assist residents in finding new places to live.

Dividing the predominantly black neighborhood roughly in half, the city planned to acquire all of the eastern section north of Lime Street by 1971 and the remainder in 1972.

The campaign, which displaced 122 families, fit into a decades-long national phenomenon in which cities partially or completely removed minority neighborhoods for projects aimed at fostering urban renewal.

The American Housing Act of 1949, part of President Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal,” established the power of governments to seize private property for projects categorized as urban renewal. It also made federal funds available for such projects.

Though intended to replace substandard housing with better options, the Act spurred a flurry of activity that wound up displacing minorities, said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and academic program director of The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. Cities used the program’s Title I funding to engage in what was sometimes called “Negro removal” or “slum clearance.”

Before the federal program was halted in 1974, some 2,500 urban renewal projects displaced about 1 million people nationwide, Reiss said.

“Two-thirds of those people were African-American, and if you think about African-Americans being 12 percent of the population, they were being displaced at a multiple, maybe at five times the rate of other Americans and particularly white Americans,” Reiss said. “So urban renewal really reshapes the urban fabric across the country.”

Property in minority communities tended to be cheaper to acquire, especially during the peak period of urban renewal, and Reiss said minorities also were less equipped to challenge authorities.

“It was structural racism on one level, where the majority would find it much easier to displace a black community than they would to displace a white community, although displacement wasn’t only in black communities — but as we see it’s overwhelmingly in black communities,” he said. “Because black communities were often poor, that would be another reason — being in a poor community would give you less political power to fight something like this.”

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