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Housing Now!: Neoliberalism and the Battle for the Right to the City

Miami Workers Center
Date Published: 
June 16, 2007
    In the middle of the night on February 14, while most people across the nation were celebrating Valentine’s Day, Miami-Dade police officers and a fencing crew converged on an abandoned public housing building. A community activist sleeping in a van on the property activated a phone tree that woke and gathered 15 low-income residents from the neighborhood, as well as other community organizers. They watched from across the street as a fence was erected around the property they had been using for the latest phase of a seven year struggle against the wholesale removal of their community. At that moment, the fight against gentrification in Miami seemed like a losing battle, but surprises lay in store just weeks away…

Gentrification’s discontents

Like most large urban centers across the US and as one of the poorest cities in the country, Miami is no stranger to the pressures of gentrification. Predominantly African-American innercity areas—depressed by decades of systematic divestment by private and public capital—are quickly flipping to ritzy condominium towers and shopping complexes. Puerto Rican working-class neighborhoods are becoming high-end fashion districts. Little Haiti is transforming into a chic hub for upscale restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques.

City and county officials applaud the “redevelopment” of “blighted” areas while reaping rewards from close ties to developers. Community residents and activists have been calling out the “redevelopment” as gentrification, noting that the pathway out of poverty should not mean paving over the poor and displacing their communities. Meanwhile, the bottom-line for city governments across the US is that high-price development and rising property values help sustain looted city budgets.

Gentrification is not unique to Miami; it is transforming the political landscape of the urban core in areas from San Francisco, to Chicago, to Boston, New York, and Washington, DC. The displacement and removal of predominantly poor and working-class communities of color represents more than cultural and class displacement; it results in political redistricting by razing and replacing. These communities have historically been the focal point around which progressive movements have wielded electoral, policy, and cultural influence.

The model of development being pursued by the political and economic leadership follows the dominant economic theory—neo-liberalism—in both domestic and international arenas. Neo-liberalism in the US is particularly apparent in large urban centers. Dr. Nik Theodore, Director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois in Chicago, defines neo-liberalism as “a political ideology, a doctrine, and a practice, organized around the elite project of extending the rule, logic and discipline of the market into all aspects of life.” This translates into the reshaping of everything public, from institutions to democracy itself, into a privatized domain.

In the urban context, examples include the erosion of public housing and public education programs through Section 8 private housing vouchers and private school voucher initiatives. Both programs have coincided with steady disinvestment from urban centers at the federal level. Cities are increasingly outsourcing public services to the private sector, including the transfer of land and public space (both critical in generating revenue and profit) to speculators and developers. Such public-to-private transfers create situations that pit the public good against investors’ interests.

Sites of struggle

If neoliberalism is a practical project in the city, then in the cities resistance is rising against it.

For instance, in New York’s West Village, the community organization FIERCE has been fighting gentrification of the Christopher Street Pier, an important social and cultural area for the LGBT community dating back to the Stonewall era. By the late 1980s, the pier area was targeted for “redevelopment,” and the surrounding community became extremely gentrified, with upper-class white gay men leading the charge. What had become a safe space for LGBT youth of color to create and sustain community—a gathering place for life and social networks for homeless youth rejected by the shelter system and targeted on the streets—was now prime real estate.

Luxury condo developments partnered with the public Hudson River Park Trust to take the pier, which meant removing the youth. In this case, exclusion took the form of an increase in armed police patrols and direct harassment. FIERCE has been waging a battle to increase the power of their membership (queer youth of color) and shift what “ownership” means in regards to public spaces.

On the West Coast, the community organization Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) is resisting the gentrification of a historically working-class neighborhood in South Los Angeles. The community is bounded by the Staples Center behemoth (and its four-million-square-foot L.A. Live expansion) on the north, and the sprawling USC campus to the south. The university has gradually accumulated over 200 properties north of its campus, methodically encroaching into the neighborhood. In the process, property values have soared (250% in the past four years) and area landlords have taken to evicting working-class tenants under false pretenses in order to free up units for USC students—often increasing rents by 200 percent!

SAJE negotiated a Community Benefits Agreement with the Staples Center that won some concessions for the neighborhood, but the agreement failed to stop the rent surge. SAJE is now developing its own land trust to amass and control land in their community.

Miami model

Public housing in Florida has recently seen a shift from public to private sector in both management and ownership. In the form of both non-profit and for-profit agencies, the private sector is responsible for affordable housing development with the help of substantial government subsidies. Few if any of these new units cater to extremely low-income residents, and once government subsidies dissipate, owners sell off low-income units at market rate.

The building that was fenced off on Valentine’s Day in Liberty City, Miami’s historic African-American neighborhood, was home base to community activists fighting gentrification. Historically, the building housed several families as part of the James E. Scott and Carver Homes (Scott Homes), the largest tract of public housing in all of Florida. In the early months of 2007, however, it had become a battleground in the latest round of a seven-year conflict.

In one corner stood a housing agency mired in corruption and scandal but intent on barreling ahead with its most bungled of projects: the wholesale demolition of Scott Homes funded by a Hope VI grant. (HOPE VI is a federal housing program that provides money to local housing agencies to “redevelop” public housing developments, usually through the demolition of existing public housing and the creation of “mixed income” units resulting in severe reduction of low income units and people.) In the other corner were former Scott residents and community organizations—Miami Workers Center (MWC) and Low Income Families Fighting Together LIFFT (LIFFT)—steeled through years of struggle and now claiming the last remaining Scott structure, a small lot, as community territory that was off-limits to Miami-Dade Housing Agency (MDHA) demolition crews.

Since January, MWC/LIFFT had used the land as a staging area for their Find Our People campaign, a community-driven effort to account for the more than 1,000 displaced Scott residents. MDHA had admitted to losing track of hundreds of people, not to mention almost $60 million in public funds. A large plywood Wall of Shame was erected to list the names of displacees.

Over the following weeks, neighborhood residents stopped by to document themselves, their friends, and those they knew to be deceased or no longer in the area. Round-the-clock volunteers guarded the site and assisted all those who stopped by. The campaign found 240 lost people in a matter of weeks. In early February, MDHA made a daytime run at fencing off the property but was repelled by a neighborhood residents’ blockade and intense press attention. The volunteers present in the middle of the night on Valentine’s Day could muster no such defense. The site was seized and fenced. Two weeks later, the tables turned dramatically.

Scott fight

HOPE VI was created to spur the “revitalization” of seriously deteriorating public housing stock across the US. In practice, the “urban renewal” program has resulted in an overall loss in affordable housing and the breakup of low-income communities targeted for redevelopment. Hundreds of thousands of predominately African-American people have been displaced.

US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that HOPE VI grants have helped to demolish 78,259 public housing units and rebuilt only 33,853 such units in return. Furthermore, HOPE VI has increasingly appeared to target not the most severely distressed public housing stock, but those which are located in areas best situated for higher income redevelopment.

HOPE VI arrived in Miami in the form of two federal grants that would have demolished 1,600 units of extremely low-income housing—home to over 5,000 people in historically African-American Liberty City. MWC’s housing campaign in Liberty City was a seven-year fight against both of these initiatives.

In 2001, MWC and its grassroots organizing project LIFFT successfully stopped the destruction of 750 units at Liberty Square Projects, known locally as the Pork n’ Beans. In the pivotal moment of that struggle, a busload of LIFFT members stormed the US HUD building in Washington, DC to demand that the HOPE VI grant be denied. Meanwhile, another HOPE VI grant had already been approved to demolish the James E. Scott and Carver Homes, the largest tract of public housing in all of Florida. With this demolition, 850 public housing units were to be torn down and replaced with 80 units of public housing and several hundred town homes.

Building on the Pork n’ Beans victory, MWC/LIFFT intensified organizing efforts to reverse the Scott Carver HOPE VI plan. Between 2002 and 2006, the organizations were able to force some improvements in the plan through direct action, civil rights lawsuits, coalition work, and community awareness-building. Despite all the organizing, MDHA had displaced all 1,129 Scott families and demolished all but one building by 2006.

Last summer, The Miami Herald’s “House of Lies” series publicly exposed the corruption and malfeasance at MDHA that grassroots organizations had been decrying for years. The series, recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, revealed that tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for affordable housing had been stolen, misused, or squandered. Scott Homes was the central example of the scandal.

Despite protests, testimony, and the demonstration of public support around the impacts of displacement, the scandal only accelerated MDHA efforts to execute its original plan. On the other side, drawing a line in the sand, and inspired by the Center for Pan-African Development’s Umoja Village Shantytown erected only blocks away, former Scott residents and MWC/LIFFT occupied the site of the last standing Scott Homes building. From there they launched the Find Our People campaign and the lot soon became a central gathering and networking place for Scott displacees.

In the face of building momentum, the county moved to shut down the site. However, while MWC/LIFFT were turning up the pressure on MDHA from below, US HUD was coming down on MDHA from above, threatening to take over the housing agency and put it into federal receivership (at press time this conflict is in the courts). In this context, the newly hired head of MDHA, Kris Warren, reached out to MWC/LIFFT to dialogue about HOPE VI and the potential federal takeover. The result of these conversations was a historic housing agreement including:

  • one-for-one replacement of 850 extremely low-income units;
  • the right to return for all former Scott families;
  • representative power over the development design and process, including MWC/LIFFT representation on an accountability panel to oversee plan implementation;
  • the development of a community building for coordinated services, information, and space for public participation;
  • a tribute to and commemoration of James E. Scott and Carver Homes—its history, struggle, and legacy in the local black community.

National alliance

Gentrification is a national phenomenon threatening many of the democratic gains won through the political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Federal policies of devolution and budget cutting have shaped the urban planning terrain, creating the conditions for high-price—high-pay development. In this environment, we have seen the conglomeration of developers into mega-corporations spanning across cities, and even nations. Yet resistance to gentrification is usually local in character and defensive. In the context of globalized capital and neoliberal policies domestically and internationally, these local fights often do not have the necessary resources or scope to effectively challenge the roots of gentrification. There is a clear need for a national formation to strategize and connect local fights across the nation.

Fittingly, as the Miami Workers Center struck a blow against gentrification’s South Florida visage, it was also participating in a new national initiative directed at creating a national agenda for urban social justice issues. Recognizing the role of US cities in the global economy, the Right to the City Alliance (R2C), which includes SAJE and FIERCE and thirty other organizations nationwide, is working to analyze, strategize, and build collective power locally and nationally.

With a shift in the cities, with a growing national alliance against gentrification, with the assertion of the rights of low-income communities of color to live, work, think, and participate in the city, there is hope. And moving forward, the cities may just fall to rise again as the main site of struggle and victory for leftists in the US.

Miami Workers Center is a strategy and action center in Miami Dade County. For mote information see