Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sustainable Development and Gentrification in Small Town Mississippi

I remember reading something a few months back with regards to the City of Ocean Springs and Sustainable Development.  At that time I knew nothing of Sustainable Development or, as the original letter writer called it, "Agenda 21."  Then I noticed that a particularly outspoken radio show commentator has a new book out by the same name...and I read it.  While the story is fiction, the reasons behind it is not.  Sustainable Development exists and is alive on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

While many people might say that Sustainable Development is just "getting back to the roots" of a community, I disagree.  Sure, back "in the day" Biloxi's Point Cadet area used to be a thriving community where you could walk to whatever you needed, seafood market, butcher, baker, dentist, school, etc.  Slowly, over the years, cities began to get more congested and people enjoyed their space.  Thus started the era of suburbia and the developments of sub-divisions.  Larger houses, two cars per family when there used to be only one.  Well, some people got it in their mind that this wasn't good...people were STRIVING for success and wanting to get a bigger piece of the proverbial American Pie....and "they" couldn't have it.  Thus began Urban Renewal.

Urban Renewal was the central planning concept of "revitalizing" a formerly bustling downtown area.  On the surface, not a bad thing...but let's take a look at where this can go wrong.  When you live, work, and play within less than a 15 minute walk from any place that you need to go, why do you need a vehicle?  A bicycle will be sufficient enough for your needs, and if need be, put a basket on the front of that bike to help you carry a few extra items.  If you need to go farther than that, well just simply ride that bike to the closest bus stop, that's why they created the "Bike 'n Bus" program.  You don't NEED a dirty, hydrocarbon burning, pollution machine, just ride the bus...and we have to pay more because of the new Carbon Tax that will be implemented in 2013 (FYI). 

The most humorous thing about the concept of Sustainable Development is that it was developed by Marxists in the 70's to limit the ability for people to over-achieve.  The ironic part is, that in order to fulfill the goal of urban renewal,  either the municipality or a private investor will have to build more buildings for people to live in along with more storefronts in those buildings...and that is just going to allow a small percentage to achieve.  Thus they created "Public-Private Partnerships"(PPP).  Now, when a city needs to build more housing, a public-private partnership is created with a local investor or contractor whereby the city has more control over the program than the private investor has over the project. 

Once cities start implementing this "New Urbanism," they will not be able to reverse the damage. Sustainable Development supporters seek to prevent the development in areas by creating new laws.  So, once urban renewal takes hold, suburban sprawl will not happen again.  The most upsetting thing that I have learned is the implementation of another action: gentrification.

Gentrification, I had heard this word only one time before, I laughed it off as a Ten-Dollar word...but never looked it up. What is gentrification?  Gentrification is when lower income areas are undergoing renovation and restoration and drives the lower income people out of an area.  Gentrification does many things, increases population, increases average incomes, lowers average family size, and decreases the average age of residents.  Okay, now that we're on the same page, let me explain how gentrification is being used in Ocean Springs.

If you've traveled through Ocean Springs recently you may have noticed new buildings being built along the downtown section of Washington Ave and Government St.  Several years ago, the city attempted to re-zone all areas 300 feet from Government St back.  Wait a minute...there's houses within that 300 feet.  Some people were able to appeal and kept their residential zoning.......then "the tax man cometh."  The Jackson County tax assessor began his rounds, and many of the unappealed properties are now being taxed at a COMMERCIAL rate based on the "improvements" to the area.  Which means, in one instance, assessed value for this particular structure went from $1,500 in 2011 to $43,000 in 2012.  All because that property was rezoned to Commercial.  That equates to an increase from roughly $200 in taxes last year to over $1,300.  How is this gentrification?  I'm glad you asked.

The residents between Government St and the railroad tracks are primarily African-Americans...and many of them are low income.  By converting their properties to commercial, unless they are 65 or older, their taxes  will be going up.  Honestly, if I had to pay $1,300, it would cause a significant financial much so, that I might say it's just easier to move....and that's what they are hoping.  When the resident moves and sells their house, hopefully for a fair price, it will most likely be bought by an investor and/or the city.  Then the waiting game begins until the investors or city buys up enough property for their needs.  And thus, the unwanted people will have been removed.

How does this tie in with Sustainable Development?  The key to Sustainable Development is to redevelop urban areas by removing single-family residences and replace them with mixed-use, multi-story, multi-family buildings.  That is to say, remove a house, replace it with large building 2 to 3 stories where there are apartments on the upper floors and store fronts on the bottom.  Thereby encouraging those people to shop even within their own building...why drive to wal-mart...why even OWN a car or a house when you can rent downtown and have EVERYTHING you want within walking distance.

When this was done in Portland, Oregon, one of the biggest things that changed was the demographics.  Where there were once families, now there are only singles or childless couples.  Where there were once varying incomes and responsible adults, now there are young adults with disposable incomes.  What once was a nice, quiet neighborhood became a busy, loud, urban area where on any given night you can see drunks stumbling out of a bar, on their way to the next.  It's getting that way now...and you think higher taxes and Sustainable Development are good things?