Friday, January 13, 2006

Paul Levy, urban planning, and the hard-knock life in Philly

[This is the Navigator. I've been invited by our kind proprietor to participate in the goings-on hereabouts and I'm grateful. So grateful that I've written an inappropriately long inaugural post. (Pithy remains my golden fleece.) This is the first time I've composed on Blogger, so this will probably look bad on the page. Bear with me: as Big Steven was saying about Alito's jokes, "this gets better."]

Do city planners really care about homelessness? Yesterday’s Philadelphia Weekly featured a sample of the urban planning debate, Philly style, in which Paul Levy managed to leave the impression that they don’t. I know some folks in the city planning world and I can confirm that many of them are genuinely concerned about the needs of the less fortunate - and not just as a nuisance to their well-heeled target audience - but Levy’s letter to the editor was phrased in just the wrong way.

Levy’s the head of the Center City District in Philadelphia - it’s his job to look out for the interests of his constituents, businesses and well-off residents. (The CCD is privately funded by businesses in downtown Philly.) In this case, he was responding to last week’s cover story, "Tale of Two Cities," by Gwen Shaffer, which highlighted the ongoing revitalization of central Philly while giving equal time to problems that bedevil the poor and homeless in that same area. Reading Levy’s entire letter, it’s evident that he doesn’t disagree with a single thing Shaffer says; he’s just annoyed that she had the gall to say it.

"Old cliches never die - they just obscure the facts" he opens, noting that the piece "invokes 19th-century Dickens" to highlight current realities. But not only does Levy not have any substantive disagreements with what he calls cliches - he goes on to assure us that he wholeheartedly agrees with them. "New luxury condos and homeless on the streets: The extremes are terribly real and deeply disturbing. But one is not the cause of the other." In his closing, he even hints that we ought to be doing something to fight homelessness: after five paragraphs singing the joys of a growing coterie of office workers and wealthy young professionals, he allows that "The persistence of poverty doesn’t negate success in Center City. [Shaffer’s piece hadn’t suggested that it did.] It defines instead the obligations before us, while providing new resources locally to address the problem."

Levy is absolutely right, of course - you can’t fund social services without a middle class tax base. Philadelphia was in a death spiral of hemorrhaging population for years, and the influx of young workers and taxpayers into downtown, in which CCD has played a significant part, has been critical to stopping (albeit not yet reversing) that decline. But Levy’s outburst seemed almost calculated to piss off homeless advocates, and alienate potential allies, for several reasons:

1. It’s not clear why Levy needed to write in the first place. Shaffer’s piece did, in fact, spend half its space celebrating the revitalization of Center City, and where she focused on the plight of the homeless, Levy is generous enough to concede that she was right, and that the facts are ‘deeply depressing.’ She never said that condos or yuppies ‘caused’ poverty. So why chastise her for peddling "old cliches"? Because, apparently, we’re not supposed to talk about this stuff: "This focus on condos is really misplaced," Levy writes, assuring us that "we should be celebrating the recovering addicts now gainfully employed along with the growth of downtown jobs and affluent residents." In other words, happy talk only - any mention of the "terribly real" extremes of poverty isn’t factually wrong, it just "obscures the facts" that Levy wants us to focus on. As though the media were just overflowing with stories about the homeless, and single moms struggling to find shelter had been hogging the political agenda for long enough.

2. Levy heads the Center City District. Homeless people live in Center City. You’d think he’d have some words for them. Like, say, those ‘obligations’ he concedes we have - what might they be, specifically? Perhaps his letter got edited down; it’s happened to me, and it’s frustrating, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here - but when you can fill paragraph after paragraph with stats about the benefits of luxury condos, it doesn’t look too good when your letter doesn’t have a single stat about the neediest people in the area you’re working on. He closes with a call to invest in education and public transit - and I join that call heartily, but it’s either insincere or naive to think that the morass of unemployment, addiction, mental heath problems, family dysfunction, and other catalysts for homelessness will be ameliorated entirely by more subway lines and better elementary schools. (If he’d ever talked to a homeless advocate, he certainly would have called for more affordable housing, for one thing.)

3. Levy shouldn’t presume so blithely that there’s no connection between new luxury condos and homeless on the streets. Public resources are scarce and city budgeting is a zero-sum game. Recently, advocates for the homeless and the housing-insecure finally succeeded in getting the city to establish a reserve fund for housing needs, but it was a while in coming, and it may never reach the $20 million advocates originally wanted. Meanwhile, public housing waits can stretch up to two years; city shelters are crowded, unpleasant, and often unsafe and poorly managed. The city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, announced with much fanfare in October, noted that "the demand for affordable housing exceeds the supply by at least 60,000 units" - yet the 34-page report didn’t mention any new funding for its initiative, limiting itself to an aspiration to "explore new resources." Meanwhile, although luxury condos are built by private developers, city agencies and city resources go to assist their efforts. The mayor’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative is spending taxpayer dollars to clean up areas that will be turned into condominiums. That’s not to say that NTI is a bad idea, or that the city shouldn’t spend any money that helps lure luxury condo builders and buyers inside city limits - it’s just to recognize that there are tradeoffs taking place, and amidst competing priorities, some needs are being unmet.

Luxury condos, by themselves, surely don’t cause homelessness, but Levy’s letter conveys the equally fatuous implication that luxury condos are the solution to homelessness. There are, indeed, some recovering addicts now employed, but they weren’t magically ushered into their new positions by the same Invisible Hand that brought us "the growth of downtown jobs and affluent residents"; they were, most likely, assisted by government-funded social workers and government-funded employment programs. We need more of those social workers, and more affordable housing, and more employment programs - and it’s pretty damn heartless to attack Gwen Shaffer for bringing a little bit of attention to these needs.

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