Occupying the High Ground

by admin on

I stood on the glass-strewn basketball court at the ruins of Jerome Jones School. I wished I were not alone. A growing circle of unsmiling faces stared at me, shifting in uneasy silence. It was only a matter of time until the confrontation would erupt. The weapons that these people carried were neither guns nor knives. These were not street punks out to spill blood. They were sophisticates, moneyed professionals, who had secured their own personal pieces of urban real estate. And they were not about to yield an inch of their turf without a fight. The tension had begun several months earlier when the vacant Jerome Jones School was being considered as a shelter for the homeless. The building had mysteriously caught fire and burned to a shell the week the school board was to render its decision. The board, desiring that the land be put to some positive use, offered it to our organization to be used as home sites for the poor. Several "yuppies" who were renovating homes in the neighborhood challenged the school board's decision. They organized a political assault that pressured the board to rescind their contract with us. A sealed-bid auction would settle the matter. The highest offer would get the land. There were only two bidders; the yuppie group and FCS Urban Ministries. When the envelopes were opened and the bids read, our offer was higher - by one dollar!

The conflict was obviously not over. There were accusations of collusion with the school board and threats of legal action. Smear and fear tactics were employed to intimidate us. The outcry resounded throughout the community and reached as far as city hall. Nevertheless, we did have the higher bid and the ownership of property was transferred to our organization.

Here on the basketball court was our first eye-to-eye, neighbor-to-neighbor face-off. The crowd had grown to 25 or more. I wondered if it contained one sympathetic member. The silence was finally broken. "Why do you want to ruin our community?" And with that a reservoir of stored-up emotions began to pour forth - anger, fear, resentment, outrage. These were high-stakes risk-takers, pioneers, who had staked out their claim on the urban frontier and now their substantial investments were being threatened. These were not mean people. They were hard-working, self-respecting, even church-going folk. They had nothing against the poor - they emphasized that again and again. It was just that a cluster of affordable homes and more lower-income neighbors would hurt their property values. The necessary displacement of the poor from the community was an economic, not a moral issue. No one wanted to be unkind, they assured me. They just wanted to build a good stable community.

I could see quite clearly that this was a classic battle between the spirit and mammon. These were people of good will being torn in their hearts between protecting their investments and caring for their neighbors in need. Of course it was a volatile, emotion-laden drama. They were being forced to decide where they would commit their hearts - not just their treasures. Here, on the broken concrete basketball court of a burnt-out school, ordinary, kindhearted people stared at a painful choice. Either they could open places in their community and in their hearts for the less fortunate, thus risking lower appreciation of their homes, or they could choose profit as their preferred value and fight to protect their treasure. This was at its most basic level a spiritual decision.

It was clear in my mind that I was occupying the moral high ground. I had not moved into the neighborhood for economic gain. I had come to identify with the plight of the vulnerable and to take up their cause. Building a block of small homes that low-income families could purchase without interest was an important step toward ensuring them a permanent place in the center of the community. There needed to be many more such houses, not less, I argued. It felt good to be standing firmly on the side of justice. Perhaps too good.

I listened to their pitiful pleas to at least reduce the number of small homes and make room for more market-rate housing. But I was in clear control of both the moral and legal high ground. I owned the land and I could do the right thing with it. And I would, I assured them.

It was not until two decades later that it dawned on me that my smug position on affordable housing was seriously flawed. Katherine Grant, our new housing director, had been in the neighborhood less than a week when a rash of break-ins and rapes seized the community with terror. She had been very excited about moving into her new home, a restored Victorian on a lovely tree-lined street. But her enthusiasm was quickly overshadowed by grave concerns for her own safety. Instead of the creative joys of decorating and planting flowers, Katherine was consumed with urgency to install burglar bars, exterior lighting and an alarm system. She had expected to meet her neighbors at block parties and social events, not police-led crime watch meetings.

Katherine understood community development. She lived much of her life in cross-cultural settings and had extensive urban real estate experience. And she was not one to sit passively by as a victim. She met immediately with the precinct captain to discuss strategies for community cooperation in apprehending the perpetrators. It was teenage gang activity, the police informed her. They knew who three of the young thugs were and even where they lived - a couple blocks from Katherine on Grant Terrace. Grant Terrace... that had a vaguely familiar ring to it. Back in the office she pulled the files on houses our ministry had built in the immediate area and to her dismay, many of the homes on Grant Terrace had indeed been built by our ministry. She immediately ordered police reports on all the addresses on Grant Terrace and adjacent streets where we had built homes. The data that came back was deeply distressing. Much of the criminal activity and police incidents in recent years had been tracked back to our houses. And one of the accused rapists police were now hunting was from one of our families!

This harsh reality could not be farther from the original vision that inspired many caring volunteers to partner with us to construct these homes twenty years earlier. During those early days of our housing ministry, compassion for families in need of decent, affordable housing was the driving motivation behind our efforts. Building rows of modest homes on derelict land seemed so right. We simply did not know then what time and troubling experience was now teaching us: concentrating low-cost housing in a low-income area reinforces rather than relieves the pathology of poverty. Now Katherine and her neighbors were reaping the bitter fruits of our flawed strategy.

Decisive, corrective action had to be undertaken. Families who were in violation of the law (which automatically placed them in violation of their mortgage or lease agreement) had to be evicted. A number of these homes had to be upgraded and sold to middle-income residents who embraced the values of community improvement. Organizing efforts had to be initiated to create block watches, streetscape improvements, and code enforcement. In short, we had to re-create in the neighborhood around Grant Terrace a healthy, self-sustaining, mixed-income community that supported a positive quality of life and stimulated economic viability. Had I known two decades ago what I know now when I stood on the basketball court facing concerned neighbors, this volatile and costly remediation work would never have been necessary.

Mixed-income community development is not some romantic notion dreamed up by soft-hearted liberals. It is pragmatic strategy grounded in hard economic and social reality. Our society, after nearly four decades of failed social policies, has finally recognized that isolating people in poverty compounds is healthy neither for the poor nor for those who would avoid them. Thankfully, public housing policy has now shifted toward mixed-income development that affords the poor the quality-of-life standards and modeling benefits of upwardly mobile neighbors. Cities are enacting "inclusionary zoning" ordinances to ensure that their workforce - their school teachers, secretaries, police, sanitation workers, bus drivers and other essential personnel - can live affordably in the city. Economically integrated communities, we are finally realizing, are healthy for the entire city.

In retrospect, it may not have been simply greed and materialism that stirred angry neighbors to gather on a glass-strewn ball court. They may have understood better than I that concentrating clusters of low-income housing was detrimental to both the affluent and the poor. Perhaps the mixed-income alternative which they advocated was the high road after all.

Bob Lupton

No Comments