The Tragedy of the Alaska Commons

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A tragedy of the commons is occurring in Cincinnati. It’s not the tragedy that economics students learn in courses extolling capitalist forms of resource distribution. This tragedy is real–90 units of permanent supportive housing for people who experience chronic homelessness likely won’t be built on Alaska Avenue in Avondale. And if past experience is any indication of the future, it will be an uphill battle to find a location for the housing anywhere in the city.

The plan to build the housing, called the “Commons at Alaska,” had already passed through several levels of oversight, including garnering the blessing of city council and several other groups both large and small. However, the process was stalled at an April 29th meeting of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), which oversees subsidized housing projects in Hamilton county, when representatives from National Church Residences (NCR), who were behind the proposed housing, asked for 60 to 90 days to re-evaluate the project, primarily to find a new location.

The opposition to the project comes from the Avondale 29, a group made up primarily of homeowners in the neighborhood. It’s important to identify them as homeowners, because this qualification is central to the majority of arguments the group puts forward. At the CMHA meeting much of the time was spent to allow for public comment. Even though NCR had already been granted their request to stall the project, members of Avondale 29 spoke out against it. As a group, the Avondale 29 seemingly unanimously cited maintaining their property values as a key reason for their opposition, and it was there that their reasoning diverged. While one homeowner foresaw the potential residents of the Commons at Alaska as a catalyst for neighborhood deterioration, another, who qualified themself as an expert criminologist, made a paternalistic appeal to pathos, saying the neighborhood was in no shape to provide the kind of care that recovering addicts would need (this ignoring the fact that Alaska street terminates just 2 blocks north of the hospital complex in Corryville).

In truth, the speakers who were worried about neighborhood decline really have very little to worry about. A recent study conducted by a third party in Columbus showed that neighborhoods with similar developments actually fared better over time than other locations, suggesting the Commons could provide a positive impact in the neighborhood whose residents have suffered from foreclosures and unemployment in a particularly harsh way since before the recession. Still, a third speaker, again a property owner, put forward a complicated metaphor about the baggage that residents of Avondale have to deal with every day. The speaker insisted that the baggage the new neighborhood residents would bring would be simply too much for the neighborhood to take on, and that the children who will attend a school close the the project should especially not be subject to that baggage laid bare.

These kinds of contradictions seemed endemic to the group. One member wore their badge, identifying themselves as a member of the Avondale 29, on a 1980’s era t-shirt promoting solidarity with the South African anti-apartheid movement. In the end, the group’s arguments illustrate the way home ownership, a social relation unique to capitalism, drives the development of contradictions and divisions among working people, who certainly make up the majority of the Avondale 29. Listening to the arguments put forward at the April 29th meeting, one wonders if the thoughts and interests of renters have any place in the group. A person who owned several properties in the neighborhood testified, but none of the voices of tenants of those properties were to be heard.

Avondale’s history provides a lens through which we can see these kinds of contradictions at work. Between 1940 and 1970, Cincinnati’s black population more than tripled. The new residents, coming mainly from the south, along with large waves of poor people cleared out of substandard housing in the West End to make way for the highways were forced to find new homes north of the city’s basin. By the mid 1960’s Avondale was the center of Cincinnati’s black population, and this was a far cry from the makeup of the neighborhood before World War II. New black residents of Avondale, especially those who were among the first to move into the middle class white neighborhood had to deal with realtors and landlords reticent to integrate and residents who held racist viewpoints. Some residents even required police protection from their white neighbors. Racial segregation was a matter of policy for many legislators who held the (unfortunately still common) belief that made blacks and poor whites out to be the cause of bad conditions in the neighborhoods they were relegated to, as opposed to the victims of a racist and classist economic and social regime. White residents met their new neighbors with animosity initially, and eventually simply moved away, their racist anxieties further fomented by opportunistic realtors who stoked the flames of racial tension in order to re-segregate the neighborhood and promote growth in the newly built suburbs.

Today, Avondale is a neighborhood that is forced to deal with some of the worst side effects of economic decline. Broadly, Cincinnati is a city with over 50% child poverty and nearly 10% unemployment; Avondale fares much worse on both accounts and likewise drugs and crime affect the neighborhood in ways foreign to most in the city. It’s no wonder why opponents of the Commons at Alaska cite these cases and wonder why Avondale, again, would have to deal with this. They wonder why poverty has to be further concentrated in their neighborhood. Why they must shoulder this burden. But it is one thing to see these effects and another outright reject the development in favor of revitalization plans deeply embedded in the same system which caused the rupture in the first place. The promotion of homeownership and calls to deconcentrate poverty as vehicles to neighborhood turnaround serve one end: capitalism.

The turn towards homeownership as a panacea, once a tragedy, is now a farce. Avondale has already seen the effects of the foreclosure crisis since the recession, ranking in the top ten every neighborhoods in completed foreclosures every year but one, when it was 11th. The crisis, one caused by the over-availability of housing and thus unprofitability under capitalism, has caused over 22,000 foreclosures in Hamilton County since 2006. The drive to homeownership in the beginning of this century has, in the end, been shown to be a boon only to the opportunistic redevelopers and holding companies who buy low and sell slightly less low. Residents who held onto their homes are left living in half abandoned neighborhoods while vacant homes go through numerous owners to eventually be sold for pennies or demolished. To get an idea of what the promotion of homeownership does to a community in poverty, look to Over-the-Rhine, where once affordable apartments now sell as condos for hundreds of thousands of dollars, displacing the original residents in a city with fewer and fewer affordable options. Which brings us to the second pillar of revitalization: the deconcentration of poverty.

Understood simply, deconcentration doesn’t do anything to actually end poverty, just move it around geographically. These calls claim, at best, that there is some suitable level of economic diversity that is the end goal. At their worst and most paternalistic, calls to deconcentrate poverty suggest that the poor can learn something from their proposed non-poor neighbors. As if poverty is a chosen condition or something culturally based. Even more alarming, to a degree is the way that opponents of the Commons at Alaska seem to echo the calls of the earlier residents of Avondale. One member of the Avondale 29, a long term resident of the neighborhood who had counted the number of steps from their front door to the proposed location, finished their testimony by simply saying “to this project, I say ‘No.’”

In Cincinnati, struggles around homelessness and affordable housing seem to eventually arrive at this “Not In My Backyard” breaking point. In the case of the Drop Inn Center in Over-the-Rhine, the discussion around moving the shelter focused mainly on the safety of the children who attend the School for the Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), just across Elm Street. Though, it’s relevant to mention that it was very rare that public fears were expressed in relation to the largely black attended Washington Park Elementary, which, until it was demolished, was just a block north of SCPA’s current location.

There’s also the Anna Louise Inn, which was regarded by Western and Southern and other upscale Lytle Park establishments to be a great neighbor until it was forced out of the park during an attempt to update and renovate the residence. The tenants, working class women who had found a refuge in the Inn, went from being ideal neighbors, as they had been for 100 years, to addicts and forniactors overnight.

And the same week as the CMHA meeting, it was announced that several halfway houses in Price hill were spontaneously found to be in violation of zoning after providing transitional housing in the neighborhood for years. The argument, again, is that the presence of recovering addicts undermines the family friendly atmosphere the neighborhood is aiming for. It’s notable that these kinds of properties are precisely the kind that some propose as an alternative to larger establishments like the Commons at Alaska.

In each case there is a necessary othering of the potential residents of the Commons at Alaska, painting them as less than human. For our movement for affordable housing (and eventually systemic changes) these cases show the limits of forming coalitions based around the ideas of property ownership and moralizing over the poor tenants, stripping them of their agency [I wrote about that in a previous piece]. There is an attempt to make them out to be the cause of the neighborhood’s issues and not the victims of a society that is unable to provide a place for all its members. It is the same way people make the unemployed out to the problem, and not the capitalist system which relies on built-in unemployment to doom the majority to poverty. The cases all point to the larger picture that is society’s treatment of those who need help the most. We live in a society that, on the one hand drives people to poverty and want, but on the other refuses to provide solutions to these conditions. We live in a society that values the right to property over the right to have a roof over one’s head. A society where an opponent of apartheid sees no contradiction in also being opposed to housing for the chronically homeless. Our society makes up quick to say “Not In my backyard.” Maybe to begin to heal we should be willing to say a little more often “Yes, please, in my backyard” and “my backyard is your backyard.”

This will appear in the upcoming edition of Streetvibes.