Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lords of Misrule


The post-Katrina decade has been a decade of wish fulfillment for our city's gentry.  It has been a "Shock Doctrine" style recovery where a crisis provides the opportunity for a dismantling of the social contract and the building of the less diverse and more exclusive resort town the city's upper classes only dreamed of previously.  

In other words it has been the Pres Kabacoff decade.
New Orleans is transforming. The city's poorly constructed levees meant that when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, it devastated the city, bringing in floodwaters that forced out residents and flattened neighborhoods. It also created an opportunity for developers and politicians to remake it anew. After the storm, New Orleans was often described as a "blank slate," which was problematic given hundreds of thousands of residents still lived within city limits. But for those who could afford to buy, demolish, and build, the term held some truth to it.

One of those people is Pres Kabacoff. He's one of the city's largest developers. His development company, HRI Properties, is focused on "inner-city revitalization" and he's done everything from convert loft buildings to develop entire neighborhoods from scratch in cities across the country—including St. Louis and Dallas. Kabacoff has a vision for New Orleans that has made him the center of a lot of controversy; he wants to see it "revitalized," which for many longtime residents and critics is just another term for gentrification.
It's sad that pointing to examples of Kabacoff being terrible is starting to feel kind of boring.  We've been at that for a long while now.  I suppose it's something that gentrification critics like Peter Moskowitz a) exist at all and b) are finally seeing what Kabacoff and the "New New Orleans" are all about.   On the other hand, it is at least 10 years too late.  Oh, and it won't make any difference.  I guess it will sell some books so that's nice.

Anyway, here is Kabacoff, for like the millionth time, saying again in public that the best way for cities to tackle poverty is to get rid of all the poor people.
The trick is to get market rate to come. The affordable will come. But if the market rate doesn't come, you end up with all the affordable and the issues they tried to unwind with these programs like Hope VI. On the affordable side, probably a third of those people you would love to have as your neighbor, another third—the kind of people who if their refrigerator stops working their life falls apart—if you can get them stable, you want them, and a third you just don't have the social staff to deal with the issues they're bringing to the table.

When we do developments, it's usually its one-third market, one-third workforce, and one-third former public housing—mothers with children on food stamps and all that stuff. There's a mixture of people. How do we afford to do the affordable piece? You need a lot of subsidy.
How well is your fridge working?  Because if that's a question that worries you in the least, Pres thinks you probably ought not to live here anymore. Again, none of this is new ground for Kabacoff or for the political class who listen to and work closely with him.  It is embedded deeply in the city's long political history of racial and class animus. Katrina provided the plutocracy with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do some things that were not politically possible before then. Kabacoff admits that freely.

How did Katrina remake New Orleans' housing model?

There's always a question of dollars—you get less rent, your building costs aren't different, so you need subsidy. The city got a lot from Katrina and BP. About $100 billion came through here after Katrina. That's juice that no other city really got. What we did is went to the state and federal government in concern; we knew the federal government would dump money here and without it we wouldn't be sitting here today. But we were concerned that they would just create housing projects again and concentrate the poor and we would be right back to where we were, which was a declining city. So I tried to influence the federal government to increase the tax incentive for affordable housing so it so it wasn't just for people making 60 percent of median income but 120 percent. That worked. Now, instead of making $20,000 you could make $40,000 to $50,000 in affordable housing, just to have a broader group, so when you did use subsidies you'd not only be dealing with the very poor but the working and middle classes.
Our policy choice in urban development has been to redirect funds away from combating poverty and providing services and instead put them towards subsidizing for-profit real estate development.  This is the essence of Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine" theory.  Where a crisis like Katrina could have been an  opportunity for societal soul-searching and a commitment to rebuilding a community that works for everyone, it was instead an opening for grifters to make off with a greater share for themselves. And, of course, for a city's Ancien Regime of plutocrats to settle some old scores.

I'd love to talk about how darned clever it was.  But the truth is anyone who knew anything about the city's politics prior to Katrina knew exactly what was going to happen.  On September 9, 2005, for example, I noticed this quote from James Reiss.. which really should be more famous than it is.
The power elite of New Orleans -- whether they are still in the city or have moved temporarily to enclaves such as Destin, Fla., and Vail, Colo. -- insist the remade city won't simply restore the old order. New Orleans before the flood was burdened by a teeming underclass, substandard schools and a high crime rate. The city has few corporate headquarters.

The new city must be something very different, Mr. Reiss says, with better services and fewer poor people. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," he says. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."
Before, Katrina, removing "the teeming underclass" was not something that could have been accomplished politically.  There were too many of  us and enough of us still voted. But with a crisis... with a "blank slate" mandate, all sorts of things became possible.

Suddenly you could just fire all the teachers and replace them with a byzantine system privatized education. Rather than pay any sort of political price, the architects of such a coup find themselves lavished with the highest of pseudo-civic honors.

"Of course, (being Rex) is tremendous to one's ego, but when you really put it in perspective, you see a continuum of those who have preceded you and those who come after you. ... My job is to uphold the traditions of the Rex organization but to keep it relevant for today and tomorrow."

The best example of that latter attribute, Hales said, is the Pro Bono Publico Foundation, which is the outgrowth of a December 2005 email from Brown in which he wondered about ways to give Rex a significant role in rebuilding a city that had been battered by Hurricane Katrina and then drowned when the levees failed.

The foundation takes its name from Rex's motto, which means "For the Public Good" in Latin. Since 2007, the foundation, which receives nearly all its money from members' donations, has given more than $3.5 million in grants to charter schools, charter-management organizations and other education-related initiatives.

"That doesn't just have Christy's fingerprints; it has Christy's heart," Hales said. "How good is that?"

Because the foundation was started as New Orleans was struggling to recover, Hales likened Brown to the businessmen who founded the Rex organization during the grim days of Reconstruction.
They say this city is changing. But in some ways, it's the same as it has ever been since "the grim days of Reconstruction."  Then, as now, wherever you find the white upper class reasserting itself in New Orleans, you can be sure to find Rex's fingerprints and heart involved in that somewhere.

Happy Mardi Gras. Let's hope the King's ride isn't too chilly.

1 comment:

Nolaresident said...

So what's going to happen when Pres and Mr. Reiss have run out of town all of the "working class" or "service industry" folks and they can no longer afford to live in the city? There's little or no connectivity between the public transportation of New Orleans and Jefferson or St. Bernard, and I don't see those folks commuting from Covington or Slidell. Do the rich really want to wait longer on their meals at Antoine's or Galatoire's or Commanders simply because those establishments can't keep a wait staff or back kitchen help? And Lord knows the workers in the service industry aren't going to live on the Point and take the ferry back and forth due to the reduced schedule it has now.

I don't think James Reiss and the rest of the elite got what they wanted with Nagin's 2nd term but they sure has hell have gotten with Mitch.