Meeting the Challenge of Municipal Disinvestment
By Phillip J. Obermiller & Thomas E. Wagner
Redlining and gentrification by banks and insurance companies are familiar themes in the planning literature, but little recognition is given to cities engaged in the same tactics. Municipal disinvestment is the process by which public jurisdictions decide to target neighborhoods through strategies sometimes known as benign neglect, planned shrinkage, or slum clearance. The purpose is to encourage so-called “undesirable populations” to leave an area in order to make land available for “best use” applications. Euphemisms such as (re)development, urban renewal, revitalization, and triage are often red flags indicating targeted neighborhoods.
Municipal disinvestment ploys typically include denying an area clean water and/or sanitary sewers, decreasing police patrols and levels of fire protection, reducing garbage collection and snow removal, closing or not maintaining schools and public recreation facilities, providing minimal or no street repairs, making adverse zoning changes, implementing highly variable code enforcement, withholding building permits, and threatening to invoke eminent domain. The human cost of municipal disinvestment can be mitigated by urban planners as we will show, but first here are examples of the practice.
In the Halifax, Nova Scotia, neighborhood of Africville there were no paved streets, sewage, or running water. The city dubbed the African-Canadian residents “squatters,” although many had built their own homes and were multi-generational residents of the area. Halifax shuttered the neighborhood school while ignoring requests to convert the abandoned building to a community center. The United Baptist Church, described as “the heartbeat of Africville,” was demolished at night although the Halifax real estate division would not actually purchase the property until nine months later. The destruction of the church without warning caused the loss of decades of birth, baptism, marriage and funeral records. Because of the clouded titles to some dwellings, the city paid a small amount to a few homeowners for their properties while many others were offered only a $500 “moving stipend.” After operating a rat-infested dump in the community for many years, the City of Halifax with inescapable symbolism offered its garbage trucks to help displaced residents move their furniture. After the dump was cleaned up and the bulldozers had finished their work on the former community of Africville, the landscaped area was renamed Seaview Memorial Park.
Annexed in 1908, Peck’s Addition in Hamilton, Ohio, was also slated to become a park but for over 70 years it was home to Appalachian migrants attracted by the city’s manufacturing jobs. The city refused to provide residents with public services such as sewage, running water, or paved streets. A dump was opened in the Addition in the 1930s and operated by the city through the 1970s. As it began buying up properties in the neighborhood, the city ensured home values in the neighborhood would decline in its favor by refusing to issue building permits for home maintenance or improvements. After the purchased houses were demolished, the parcels were left to become weed-infested lots, further lessening the livability of the area. Community leaders protested these tactics, even to the point of threatening to secede from the city and become a separate jurisdiction, but to no avail. Today Peck’s Addition no longer exists, its homes bulldozed to create a space for Vora Technology Park and the Hamilton campus of Miami University. The City of Hamilton now calls the area its Riverview neighborhood.
Kenyon-Barr was a predominantly African-American area in the West End of Cincinnati, Ohio. Home to over 25,000 residents, it included grocery stores, bars, restaurants, barber shops, beauty parlors, churches, dry cleaners, and funeral homes. The 1948 Cincinnati Master Plan, however, recommended it be razed in the name of “slum clearance” and by 1960 that goal was achieved. In the words of one reporter, it was “the willful, wholesale demolition of a 400-acre neighborhood. And not just the structures but the community – the social, political, and cultural network – that filled them.” Residents received a peremptory letter from the city stating “All occupants of this property must move” although the city had made no provision for their relocation. Today the West End is also the site of Interstate I-75 and a major league soccer stadium, while its formerly thriving Kenyon-Barr neighborhood is now a commercial and industrial area called Queensgate with a 2010 population of 142.
The city of Mebane, NC, withheld water lines and street paving from its mostly Black neighborhoods of West Side and White Level. In the 1920s it established a sewage treatment plant near these communities but prohibited residents from tapping into the sewer lines. In the 1990s the city decided to run a highway bypass through the area, which would destroy 77 homes along with the Yadkin Masonic Temple and St. Luke Christian Church. Home owners were offered minimal payments for their properties, while the churches were to go uncompensated “because they would be useless without the residents.” In 1992 the Mebane City Council refused to approve a $600,000 HUD block grant for safe water and sewer installation, housing rehab, and street improvements in the area. In response, residents formed the non-profit West End Revitalization Association (WERA) in 1995. Prompted by the Association, Mebane won a $750,000 block grant to remedy public health risks from failing septic systems and contaminated well water in the city’s west side neighborhoods. WERA also continued to fight the bypass project and, after a nearly 30-year struggle, it prevailed - the rerouted bypass of North Carolina SR 119 opened in 2022.
Africville, Peck’s Addition, Kenyon-Barr, and West Side/White Level are not simply examples of planning gone wrong in a bygone era. Municipal disinvestment continues today in the Woodcliff neighborhood of Whitehall, a city a few miles east of Columbus, Ohio. Woodcliff is the site of 317 housing units built in 1953, most of them two-story duplexes separated by ample greenspace, some rented at reasonable rates, others privately owned. After a period of lax code enforcement, minimal public services, and consistent denial of building permits for renovations, Whitehall declared the neighborhood a public nuisance in 2007, offering to buy the 37-acre complex for $9 million, or less than an average of $30,000 per unit. Those refusing to sell risked having their homes acquired by the city through eminent domain. With a court order in hand Whitehall gave families until the end of the school year to find new homes. The Woodcliff complex has been kept vacant since 2019, and has been ravaged by fires and vandalism. The first step in clearing the so-called “nuisance condo complex” is slated for late 2022. When the bulldozers are finished, new construction will begin on a $250 million mixed-use development including residential, office, and retail space with the intent of attracting workers from the new Intel Corporation plant being built in nearby New Albany, Ohio.
These examples are not intended to indicate planning for improvements should not be undertaken. Change is a natural outcome of the passage of time and a fundamental characteristic of urban history. But how change is managed is a different and more compelling question involving social concerns such as the age, race, ethnicity, and social class of residents in targeted neighborhoods along with issues of equity and fairness.
Racism appears to be a factor in the destruction of Africville and Kenyon-Barr, and played a role in the threats faced in Mebane. Residents in the former were often restricted to moving to principally Black neighborhoods or public housing blocks, limiting their relocation options relative to worksites, churches and schools. Black residents in Mebane took control of their own destiny by organizing to gain public improvements and avoid the problems of relocation.
Peck’s Addition and Woodcliff are examples of ethnic and social class discrimination, indicating that municipal disinvestment often targets poor and working-class neighborhoods. The residents of Peck’s Addition were mainly white, while Woodcliff was an integrated neighborhood. What these neighborhoods had in common was a different class status than those running the cities of Hamilton and Whitehall.
In addition to the racial and class aspects of municipal disinvestment there are political and economic motivations accompanied by lapses in planning education. The economic dimension is self-evident: city coffers benefit from new, more tax intensive investments which are politically appealing despite the fact that they are made at the cost of displacing some residents. The flip side of this are the so-called “shrinking to survive” ploys used by some cities attempting to cut operating expenses by eliminating or decreasing services in targeted neighborhoods.
Academic programs in planning are slow to teach about municipal disinvestment. Courses such as planning ethics, social justice and the city, urban poverty and local economic development, community and economic development planning and the like are usually offered only as electives. Introductory courses in urban planning frequently overlook problematic areas such as the history of municipal disinvestment. It appears many planning faculty have not developed this as a valid area of research; the most comprehensive treatment of the topic is found not in planning journals but on Wikipedia.
Neighborhoods affected by municipal disinvestment are often complex social networks of mutual support. Unraveling these systems of shared assistance simply increases the social problems faced by dislocated residents. In Africville, for example, younger people carried water from public wells to elderly residents, providing not only for their physical but also their social needs. Daily visits ensured critical social interaction that was lost when they were dispersed to various public housing locations around Halifax. In cases where the destination housing was partially subsidized, residents on fixed incomes were often faced with losing a large part of their monthly checks to rents. In other instances, such as in Woodcliff, working-class residents ineligible for subsidized housing faced much higher purchase or rental costs for much less space.
Destabilizing community organizations, closing neighborhood institutions such as schools, churches and small businesses, and disrupting social networks are problems planners must work to avoid. Municipal disinvestment can result in the disruption in daily living and social patterns, causing major readjustments, high psychosocial stress and negative physical health outcomes. Those who have been dislocated may feel stigmatized and discriminated against, resulting in declining mental health as well. While planners may count on new locations to provide amenities unavailable to residents in targeted neighborhoods, for many Black, Hispanic, Latino, and low-income families, municipal disinvestment can also be a tragedy and injustice, a loss of home and community, what one commentator calls “the destructive dislocation of modest but cohesive communities.”
Clearly, urban planners do not control the financial, administrative and political decisions behind municipal disinvestment. But they do have an influential voice once the decision to disinvest is made, and should be prepared to recommend ways to mitigate its deleterious effects.
When renewal programs are implemented with existing residents in mind, living standards can improve with increased investment in health and social resources, thereby ameliorating disinvestment outcomes.
Planning to keep communities at least partially intact by allocating affordable housing in redeveloped areas is a common strategy to avoid social disruption. This should be done in direct cooperation with residents, lest dramatic transformations in the cultural and social environment in these areas occur through infusions of new resources which could jeopardize affordability and the place-based independence of current residents.
Where dislocation does occur, plans should include follow-up strategies to determine the well-being of displaced residents. Urban planners’ recommendations should move beyond subsidies (including market rate relocation benefits) to involve choice. This can be achieved by working in close cooperation with civic associations, community organizations, and non-profits in the affected areas.
Letters informing residents of a deadline for moving should include a list of properties, including phone numbers, with one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments with equivalent rents available nearby. Contact numbers for public and non-profit organizations that specialize in housing assistance should be included in the letter. The deadline itself should be generous in terms of advance notification, take into account the timing of monthly social welfare distributions, and be attentive to seasonal realities such as school year schedules or winter weather.
Along with reasonable moving stipends and any first month’s rent subsidies available, deposits should be refunded promptly so they can be applied to new rentals.
Planners can also combat the effects of displacement by recommending rental and foreclosure assistance and by taking steps to encourage increased production of affordable housing.
Planning educators should include discussions of municipal disinvestment in the required curriculum. Research on its effects should be encouraged, for instance, exploring the relationship between municipal disinvestment and homelessness.
Beyond professional considerations, these are moral issues. Planning is not separate from but is a part of the moral order of society. The American Planning Association code of ethics calls for “the highest standards of honesty and fairness” making planners ethically bound to display concern, decency, and compassion for those affected by their professional actions.
For more information please see the following documentaries:
Phillip J. Obermiller is a senior visiting scholar in the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati.
Thomas E. Wagner is a university professor emeritus in the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati.