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Public Housing as the Front Line of Green New Deal

Public housing as the front line of Green New Deal

Originally published: Black Agenda Report (November 21, 2019)   | 

The AOC-Sanders initiative seeks to flip the racist script by revaluing public housing and its remaining occupants.

When Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced House and Senate bills to include what’s left of public housing in their sweeping Green New Deal environmental and economic salvation scenario, last week, the corporate media paid little attention. The Lords of Capital that own the press in the United States long ago consigned public housing to the dustbin of history, and have no intention of allowing the remaining 1.2 million units to escape privatization or demolition. Many cities now host only small remnants of public housing, having knocked the bulk of the buildings down and scattered their occupants–most of them to dwellings or sidewalks unknown–under the horrific Hope VI program and its successors.

In most localities, Black elected officials have worked hand in glove with developers and Black-phobic federal administrations to expunge public housing from the landscape–notably, in Atlanta, where a Black-dominated city hall used the 1996 Summer Olympics as an excuse to push the local public housing stock to extinction, finally demolishing the last building in 2011. Nationwide, as the New York Times reported last year, a quarter million public housing units have been demolished since the 1990s. Huge numbers of tenants–overwhelming Black and brown poor people–have been displaced in Chicago, Baltimore, Columbus, Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Tucson. Nearly every other city has sharply shrunk its public housing footprint. Only in New York City are public housing tenants a significant part of the population, with as many as 600,000 people  residing in 178,895 units at 334 sites–some of whom went for ten years without heat.

Gentrification and the war on public housing are inextricably entwined, as profit-seeking manifestations of anti-Blackness and hostility to the poor. Both are collaborative projects of the Black misleadership class, big capital and a white supremacist society– including sections of the Black population that are in desperate flight from racial stereotyping and actual crime.

Everywhere in the United States it is axiomatic that concentrations of poor Black people are bad, while high-rises full of affluent white people (Trump Towers et al) are good. White supremacy defines and shapes the housing “market,” in which both buyer and seller value whiteness and abhor Blackness. In the current era, this racist dynamic scatters Black people to the amenity-poor inner suburbs and lures whites to the amenity-rich urban core. The remaining pockets of poor Black and brown habitation–especially public housing projects–are anathema to Amerikaner notions of “renaissance.”

The AOC-Sanders initiative seeks to flip the racist script by revaluing public housing and its remaining occupants. From an ecological standpoint, concentration of populations and refitting of the nation’s housing stock is an energy-saving necessity that would also generate millions of jobs and reinvigorate the larger economy. As public property in dire need of repair after decades of neglect, the nation’s housing projects are the logical first step in the general overhaul. Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders have earmarked $180 billion over ten years to upgrade all 1.2 million units of public housing, creating a quarter million well-paying union jobs in each year.

The bill calls for “community workforce development,” so that pubic housing residents would get a share of those jobs, and for profits from public housing “community energy generation” to be controlled by public housing authorities, for reinvestment in the projects. This is in sync with the larger AOC Green New Deal resolution, submitted to the House last spring, which promises to direct economic development investments in ways that “build wealth and community ownership, while prioritizing high-quality job creation and economic, social, and environmental benefits in frontline and vulnerable communities, and deindustrialized communities.”

White people used to live in their own Jim-crow public housing complexes. Ever since whites vacated all but a very few of the remaining projects, the public housing population has not been treated as “communities,” but as blights and dens of pathology–and all the other euphemisms that are meant to denote Blackness. By fostering “community resiliency and sustainability,” the AOC Green New Deal and public housing bills would confer both respect for the people of the projects and a sense permanence of place. In short, it would call off the Dogs of Capital that have been looking forward to devouring the last morsels of public housing. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are attempting to protect–and even expand–public housing by including it in the new climate-change mix.

Will the Black misleadership class rethink its hostility to public housing? Yes, many will–but only in hopes of cashing in and corrupting the Green initiative in concert with their usual collaborators in finance capital. The only green they see is currency. That’s why it is so imperative that public housing tenants demand and wield decisive power over the radical recasting of the “projects” as the first line of defense against climate disaster.

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