How Jack Kemp Rewrote the Urban Poverty Playbook

Before each home game during his time with the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills, Jack Kemp would have seen the neighborhoods surrounding the city’s football stadium on the drive in and understood that something had gone wrong.

Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium, a WPA project described by Sports Illustrated

The results were textbook: Residents with means moved out, property values plummeted, and a scattered, segregated, impoverished community with diminishing services was left behind. By 1973, the owner of Kemp’s team found a new, publicly subsidized suburban home for the Bills.

An average quarterback with an outsize reputation thanks to the team’s back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965, Kemp was by all accounts a good teammate and leader. He was a founder and president of the AFL Players Association and helped relocate the league’s all-star game out of segregated New Orleans after African American players boycotted over being denied access to local clubs and taxis. Later in life, he would recall his years of sharing team huddles with mostly black teammates as his introduction to the world outside his middle-class roots in Los Angeles. In 1970, Kemp retired from football and began his second career in politics. As a Republican lawmaker, he set about trying to address the urban poverty that plagued the kinds of places his teammates came from—places similar to or even worse off than the community Bills fans parked their cars in front of on Sundays in the ‘60s.

Kemp died in 2009; when in a 1988 story on the complex’s management, which also employed 250 people, mostly Cochran Gardens tenants. Gilkey traveled the world to share her story and her business model, and the turnaround at Cochran earned a site visit from President Bush (at Kemp’s urging) in 1991.

Similarly, Northeast D.C.’s Kenilworth-Parkside homes, built in 1958,  had also fallen on hard times by the 1970s. In 1981, resident Kimmi Gray went on a quest to take it out of government hands in order to fix it, convincing D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to turn it over to the Kenilworth-Parkside Resident Management Corporation (which she chaired). She kicked drug dealers out, hired residents on welfare to work in her office, and increased rent collection by more than 75 percent. The improvements turned Gray into a GOP celebrity; Kemp called her a hero. The Bush administration made Kenilworth-Parkside their tenant-ownership testing grounds in which residents could buy their own homes by purchasing limited-equity cooperative shares, and the management corporation would continue to manage until there were no more apartments to sell. “There were times when Jack Kemp came into Kenilworth almost as often as I came home,” one man told the Washington City Paper in a 1995 story on the redevelopment.

But these two successes were short-lived. At Cochran Gardens, the previously lauded tenant management group had the complex taken away from them by the city a decade later for tax mismanagement. Vacancies shot up before the development was demolished and replaced with townhouse-style housing in 2008. Meanwhile, at Kenilworth-Parkside, renovations for 341 units ended up costing more than it would to build a replacement apartments from scratch. Over one hundred other units were still “boarded up and unlivable,” according to City Paper, by the end of the first Clinton administration. The District’s vastly improved economic fortunes in the 21st century has led to growing concerns about gentrification as an affordability crisis spreads to all of its quadrants. In 2016, the D.C. Housing Authority teamed up with two developers to demolish the remaining 290 Kenilworth-Parkside apartments for a mixed income complex and a plan to subsidize the affordable units through the profits of its market-rate homes.

But at least one early success has endured. Columbia Point, a 1950s housing project in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, had become plagued by crime, drug use, and a vacancy rate of nearly 75 percent by the 1980s. In a bind, the city turned management over to a private company in 1984, which then created a rebranded, redeveloped Harbor Point. It was the nation’s first effort to transform a public housing project by recruiting middle- and high-income residents (one-third of the units would remain subsidized for low income).

The transformation effectively became the model for Kemp’s HOPE vision. Despite its results, the new ownership was only saved from bankruptcy by a last-second investment from Chevron, an energy company looking to get in on the newly established low-income tax credits in 1986. It still lives on as a healthy, celebrated community thanks to dedicated management but also because of the site’s easy access to public transit, a state university, and the nearby Harborwalk.

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Still, as HUD secretary, Kemp remained an enigma in the Bush cabinet. In a 1993 New York Times piece called “How Jack Kemp Lost the War on Poverty,” Jason Deparle described how Kemp repeatedly clashed with White House budget director, Richard Darman: “By refusing to invest more in poverty prevention, [Kemp] says, the ‘budgetmeisters’ courted more expenses later—in welfare, crime, and misery.”

American downtowns during this period, from Baltimore to San Diego, saw new skyscrapers, stadiums, and waterfront marketplaces redefine what urban life could be for a tourist or suburbanite. But for anyone who depended on low-income housing, not much improved. Kemp’s approach, Deparle wrote, carried a recklessness “that ignored their limitations, exhibiting a fervor that reminded one ally of an adolescent who had just read The Fountainhead.” Despite Kemp’s hopes for HOPE, only 135 of the country’s 1.3 million public housing units in existence during Kemp’s time at HUD were sold before he left the agency.

Kemp’s tenant ownership ideas, however, lived on through the HOPE VI program, passed by Congress one month before the 1992 election and embraced as the anchor of community redevelopment through the Clinton administration into the 21st century. By 2010, $6.2 billion in Revitalization Grants had been awarded around the country through HOPE VI, while the establishment of the Faircloth Amendment has capped the total number of public housing units in the U.S at 1999 levels. The ripple effects of this embrace of a Kempian path to affordable housing will likely be felt in American cities for years to come, as private developers have so far delivered mixed results in their efforts.

Public housing inventory dropped in cities across the country, often through the demolition of ubiquitous and often distressed brick towers and garden apartments. In Atlanta, where the first HOPE VI pilot grant was awarded, all of its publicly owned family housing buildings had been eliminated by 2011. Since then, median rents for a one-bedroom have skyrocketed while the city’s eviction rate ranks among the nation’s highest. In Chicago, public housing’s legacy is so potent that a National Public Housing Museum is expected to open in 2021 inside the only remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes. The most notorious of its public housing projects, Cabrini-Green, saw its mid- and high-rises demolished between 1995 and 2011. Located in the Near North Side, significant displacement has occurred while the local housing authority works on plans for redeveloping the area in a way that will meet demand for middle- and high-income homes, while also fulfilling its obligations to return hundreds of publicly owned units to the site.

The legacy of these initiatives resonated with UK musician PJ Harvey on a visit to Washington during the Obama administration. Harvey turned the notes she scribbled from the backseat of Washington Post reporter Paul Schwartzman’s car during a tour of Southeast D.C. and turned them into the first track of her 2016 album Hope Six Demolition Project. The song, “Community of Hope,” captures the never-ending effort to improve a neighborhood that had been essentially cut off from the wealth and power of the Nation’s Capital, settling for the removal of notorious public housing projects, and the promise of a new Walmart.  

As for enterprise zones, their spirit lives on through today’s Opportunity Zones, despite years of research proving that such programs have limited benefits. Formed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the program invites extremely wealthy people to avoid capital gains taxes by investing in (mostly) impoverished census tracts. So far, it has been great for investors, especially those who are friends or relatives of the celebrity developer-turned U.S. president. But it has done little to address the poverty and underemployment people already living in those tracts face as new luxury developments sprout up around them, if they’re close enough to a more prosperous census tract.

As ProPublica recently reported, it’ll be difficult to ever track the benefits for everyone else. Some Opportunity Zones aren’t even in poor areas, like in downtown Detroit, where mega-landlord Dan Gilbert’s preferred census tracts allow him to save money on higher-end hotel, office, and apartment projects that would likely have been built without the extra incentives.

The Buffalo neighborhoods surrounding the since-demolished stadium where Kemp made a name for himself on Sundays are now Opportunity Zones, too. Decades of population decline and continued disinvestment have slowly made way for an uncertain future in the face of a burgeoning, government-subsidized medical research campus nearby that has emerged since the turn of the century. These neighborhoods remain racially and economically separate from the private sector growth approaching their front doors, and fears over displacement—even among homeowners—have bubbled up in recent years over parking spaces, online map labels, and proposed market-rate housing in ways that make it clear that the people benefiting from the new wave of opportunities aren’t the ones who ever needed the boost.

This type of community tension between black and white, poor and rich, isn’t what Kemp would have wanted to see. But it’s in the urban renewal playbook he helped create.

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