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I Think We Should Start Seeing Other People: Part One

Updated: May 6, 2020

After watching the city council meetings that have transpired since North Carolina had its first reported case of COVID-19, it has become abundantly clear that Raleigh has two main priorities. The first is the business community. The spokesperson from the economic development team referred to them "the cultural soul of Raleigh" in Tuesday's meeting. Three fourths of the council meeting was focused on how to support the small and micro businesses that have been most impacted by the pandemic. This includes partnering with institutions, like Wake Tech, that are particularly concerned with woman- and minority-owned businesses. As an entrepreneur myself, I was encouraged to see how thoroughly the council is looking at the best ways to serve Raleigh's businesses.

The other priority, according to Mayor Baldwin, is the segment of our community who are food and housing insecure. Baldwin started off the meeting by congratulating staff and her fellow council members on raising $116,000 dollars to hand over to the NC Restaurant Relief Fund, Oak City Cares, and the Interfaith Food Shuttle to split among themselves and address the needs of the homeless and underserved residents of the city. And while there is more funding coming from federal Housing and Urban Development, to the tune of nearly 2 million dollars, the non-profit sector will still have an outsized influence on city staff on how that money will be spent. It's important to note how individuals that aren't elected can have input into how federal, state, and local tax dollars are spent on behalf of all of us. But, because of the way council chooses to address housing and food insecurity, there are a select few people that have a greater influence how the money is spent over the handful of non-profits in the city - including those who will be distributing the $116,000 dollars that the council just raised.

In Capital City: Gentrification and the Real-Estate State, city planner Samuel Stein defines what he refers to as the "real estate state"

"With wages flat, many people -- even those with full-time jobs -- simply cannot afford stable housing. Last year, as cities and states continued to pass punitive legislation against the poor, about 2 million people in the United States went homeless and 7 million more lived in precarious housing situations -- doubled or tripled up, couch surfing, or sleeping in shift beds. This opens the door to an entire industry of private homeless services, with philanthropic and real estate capital blended to find profits in extreme poverty."

While homelessness in Raleigh has gone from a crisis during stable times, to an emergency of epidemic proportions because of COVID-19, who is seeking to profit from their demise, and how?

In a recent memo sent to the city manager Ruffin Hall from the head of the department of housing and neighborhoods, Larry Jarvis, the following was described regarding coming 2 million dollars from HUD:

"Under the existing CDBG program there is a 15% cap on the amount of funding that can be spent on public services. That cap has been lifted for CDBG-CV. A staff recommended public service activity is operational support to non-profit service providers who are administering ESG-CV assistance programs or other responses to the pandemic."

In laymen's terms, a Raleigh staff member suggested that HUD funding meant to be used on public services (those created, regulated, and administered by the city or county) be given to non-profits as "operational support." What is operation support? Anything city staff and the non-profit recipient of the funding wants it to be. And because there is no cap, that could result in even less funding going directly to houseless and economically isolated Raleigh residents.

There was also mention in this same memo of a required public hearing concerning the details of Raleigh's plans for the funds, which will take place in May (the plans were first introduced at this week’s city council meeting). While we don't know what that hearing will look like in the age of social distancing, we do have an example of how the same department has dealt with this challenge. When it was apparent that the city would no longer be able to hold it's planned Affordable Housing Bond Town Hall earlier this month, they instead decided to send out a survey via their website and social media. The survey included a handful of multiple choice questions that were focused on gauging respondents' feelings around the idea of possibly doing a few things around affordable housing, or whatever! I mean, just tossing around some vague ideas, sound good?

It is truly distressing to know that there would be any decisions about the direction of the bond based on the answers to these abstract questions. But the fact of the matter is that little will be used from the survey responses in constructing the bond. If the data collected from this survey receives the same treatment as the responses from the police accountability roundtable discussions or comprehensive plan community input meetings that were held in the fall, we know that the data will be cherry picked until it, as if by chance, fits exactly with the priorities of the council, staff, and their business interests. Samuel Stein describes it this way:

A second phenomenon, the capitalist-democracy contradiction, is borne directly out of liberal governments' attempt to deal with the property contradiction. In a nominally democratic capitalist republic, the state and its planners have to perform a delicate balancing act: planners must proceed with enough openness and transparency to maintain public legitimacy, while ensuring that capital retains full control over the processes' parameters. The people must have their say, but their options must be limited. If the system is entirely opened up, people might demand the full socialization of land, the abolition of private property and all the rest. If the system is completely closed, however, they might revolt against an unjust and unaccountable government. Planners are therefore tasked with creating public processes that are open but rigged. From this capitalist-democracy contradiction arise the familiar landscape of "participatory planning" -- public comment periods, community boards, charrettes, and a host of other interventions.

This brings us full circle to the premise of this article -- the trouble with the outsized influence of private for-profit and not-for-profit interests in the distribution of resources and services, as well as the construction of policies, specifically pertaining to the needs of economically isolated residents. The input and ideas that City Hall is most interested in when it comes to affordable housing are those that were handpicked by Larry Jarvis's Housing and Neighborhood Development department. This list of individuals, the selection and vetting of which Raleigh's elected officials conspicuously had little say over, represent the donor class of Raleigh -- including major developer Paul Kane and Yvette Holmes of the non-profit development organization, DHIC -- and a few token seats dolled out to community members. Mayor Baldwin regularly speaks of her desire to replicate methods and practices that are working in other cities. Stein describes the city Planning Commission in his hometown:

"To take New York as an example, at the time of this writing the Planning Commission is made up of four members with backgrounds in commercial real estate promotion, two luxury developers, two development consultants, a realtor, a nonprofit developer, a corporate lawyer, a business improvement district president, and the building engineer behind Trump Tower."

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it?

It is important to understand Raleigh's present if we want to be able to influence it's future. The capital city is a "real estate state," a "government by developers, for developers." They come in all shapes and sizes, and they do not all agree on much except for the fact that they must hold the reins tightly, no matter what.

There is hope, however, that the residents of Raleigh can envision and create a more equitable, mutually beneficial, and publicly owned city. There is a way to de-privatize the mechanisms for assisting and uplifting the most vulnerable residents. There is a way for the citizens of Raleigh to have a greater influence on land use and development plans than we have ever seen before. But it will take a commitment to creativity, to assertive collective action, and a dedication to the "common good" over the "greater good"

5/6/2020 9:10AM - The post was edited to correct the date of the public comment period for the Raleigh CARES Act spending plan. This will update again when that date is finalized. Y

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