February 23, 2015

Don't Play Tug-O-War with the Poor

Just over a year ago I wrote a five part series about urban development and gentrification in Tampa. The series was titled There Goes the Neighborhood and used the Nehemiah Project in Sulphur Springs as a starting place for the discussion. It was well received and I have since been encouraged to continue writing about local trends that impact the poor such as that campaign did, and is, and will. 

I live in the Ybor Heights Neighborhood in an intentional community known as the Lake House as it is on Lake Ave. Our little neighborhood has seen the least rise in median income over the last twenty years of any of the neighborhoods to the south and the east of the Hillsborough River. If you remember I spelled out this trend in the post on Demographic Inversion from the series. Our neighborhood is fairly small, very diverse in age and ethnicity, and it has many of the struggles you might imagine exist in a working class inner city community. With the very active VM Ybor neighborhood to our south and the booming Seminole Heights community to the north we are sandwiched between two popular places that hip young professionals might buy an urban bungalow. 

Our own particular area, about 0.028 sq miles has somehow remained, economically speaking, a fairly stable place over the last twenty years, slowly inching up in median income by 5% over that time, while VM Ybor to the south increased in median income by 20% and Seminole Heights to our north shot up 33% over that same period. One possible reason for this is that during that time, while nestled between development to our north and south, we were also shoulder to shoulder with Robles Park and College Hill public housing to the East and West. Lake Avenue was the main drag that ran from one to the other. These neighborhoods were both tough places, full of struggling families, and under tremendous police occupation. 

This part of the city is full of beauty and it is also full of pain and poverty. There are many who live in homes their families have had for generations if they are owners and even more that are in rentals. In 2002, College Hill's post war style housing projects known as The Ponce De Leon Courts were demolished and replaced by Belmont Heights which were built and fully occupied by 2006. The two places are not even comparable in terms of construction or aesthetic. The built environment was greatly improved while there was a major cost to many families who had called College Hill home. Major displacement of residents occurred because of far less units in the new construction, the mixed income model, and significant restrictions that were placed on who was permitted to live in Belmont Heights (i.e. No students, no felons, etc.). By the time the 2012 census numbers were taken, College Hill had increased its median income over the previous 20 years by 109 percent! Since that time, Tampa has been on a steady campaign to tear down all of the old style projects and replace them with Belmont Heights style housing. Neighborhood by neighborhood, the poor are being displaced to areas like Suitcase City in the University area. Robles Park is still on the list but will take some time before it's turn in the queue. So our adjacent neighborhood has been a little less sought after for development than our neighbors to the North and South. 

The neighborhood has seen its share of new faces to be sure; we ourselves were transplants here albeit a decade ago. We came here intentionally to learn to live in community, establish relationships with and learn from struggling neighbors, and also to do our best to be a bit of a light on a very rough street. We were full of dreams, ignorance, and arrogance and this place has been our school, our recovery, our awakening, and in many ways our salvation. We love Ybor Heights and do not intend to leave it. We also do not intend to stand by while it is bought out from under the very neighbors we have come to know and love. 

It is always scary when folks move to the community from more affluent middle class neighborhoods because they can bring with them a certain set of values, values such as security & cleanliness, which when made priorities, can sometimes trump neighborliness or friendship. When a "not in my backyard" attitude moves into the community it is imperative that the neighborhood either engage the new folks  and open their eyes (or run them off) before code enforcement and law enforcement begin to be called on to "fix" what they perceive to be problems. Perhaps they don't even know the impact that such "improvements" can have on an already economically strapped and over-policed community. 

There's a white middle class family that moved into the neighborhood a little over a year ago that we have been very intentional about getting to know. They have turned out to be people that are committed to loving this neighborhood and sharing their resources to see the people around them thrive as well. They have opened their arms and doors to the community and also had a man who lived a street away from them move in with their family when he seemed to need that hand extended. It's beautiful and they have been intentional about working to gain the trust of the community around them. It is such a joy to see privilege and poverty meet in a way that heals and improves life for everybody involved. In sharing their life and resources and even their house with neighbors they have grown and learned and become more a part of this beautiful community. That community has also become a bit more beautiful because they have joined us. 

Across the street from this family is a huge house that has been renovated over the course of the year. As we have gotten to know them we have discussed the possibility of them purchasing the house so that there would be more space for others who need community, housing, and family. We knew that it would cost more than most other houses in the community because of its size and were prepared for that. As the house came closer and closer to being completed we started to realize that this house was being polished up to sell for large profit. Our guess was that it might list for 250k or maybe even 300k even though you can barely find a house in the neighborhood worth half of that. This place was very large and very well cleaned up, but also it is still on James Street, just off Nebraska ave between a radio tower and the interstate. It is hard to imagine someone who could afford this place wanting to move to this street. These neighbors were already on the block, already had demonstrated their commitment to the neighborhood over profit, and were the only folks around who might be able to buy such a place. We were all excited and waiting to see the price post since the house had been ready for a few days. 

Then one afternoon some painters rolled down the street and painted the neighbors house, the house next to the one for sale! (WTF?) We knew the price was going to be too high for the community but when they went to the trouble of changing the face of the street by cleaning and painting neighbors houses we knew...it's gonna be bad. That night it posted and here is the listing:

$419K!!! What the hell? Not only is this an outrageous amount for any house anywhere but in this neighborhood it is insane. It is also a huge middle finger to a community in which the most economically well off here could never afford it. It is a flag planted in our community by a hostile force. There is no way that the well being of the people who already live here in this community has been taken into consideration. Anyone who can afford that much for a house will not be ok with this neighborhood. They will not be ok with the dudes hanging out on the block, they will not be ok with the loud music, they will not be ok with the poorly kept homes, they will not be ok with the constant helicopters hovering over the street, they will not be ok with the local restaurants (Checkers and McD's) and they will not be ok with the neighbors that have to sleep in the park just a block away. Now I'm not saying they should be ok with all of these things, many of us want to see some of those things change ourselves but we do it by working in the community and not by force (as in code or police or economic leverage). 

In a neighborhood with 20% unemployment and 50% of its residents below the poverty line, this house is a disaster. We are not against development, though, often, when you are for the people you will not be on the side of development either. This house could be a tremendous asset to the work already being done in Ybor Heights but instead it is being paraded around as though it was the nicest house in Seminole Heights. It is not in Seminole Heights and we don't want to see what happened there happening here. 

Painting another house on the block is a particularly disturbing move. What seems like a nice gesture is done for the sole purpose of selling this house at an outrageous price. It will effect those neighbors housing value and will therefore affect the taxes they owe each year if they are owners. If they are renters it is just a matter of time till they are all put out to make space for better off (and whiter) folks who will pay higher prices. I am very tempted to engage in the exact same tactic of manipulating the 'broken windows' theory and tagging the neighbor's house (I actually could get their permission too), registering it on the sex offender list, and parking an RV out front of it. We can drag that house down just as they can lift our houses right out of our reach if we let them.* It shouldn't have to be this way. 

Communities will change as more money comes into them and it is so important that we guard against any displacement that might keep folks who have been there from benefiting from those same improvements. We cannot continue to watch poor folks pushed away from one community after the next because of flexing economic and political power. Either we need to face them, talk some things out and open there eyes to the realities in our community or we need to run them off. 

None of this is about being against. At least not primarily. We are for something. We are for peace and reconciliation. We are for justice and mercy. We are for community development and organizing. We are for the Kingdom of God. When you are for the Kingdom, you are to stand against every reality that is not consistent with that promised future. That future kingdom where the poor are cared for and where justice rolls like a river and righteousness like a never failing stream. 

Nobody here was asked. Nobody here has been considered. 

If I was asked though, this house should not sell for more than 300k...and first dibs should go to the community the house is in before offering it to just anybody with money. 

*While for me, such tactics are a temptation it has already been a reality for a few others as the house has been intentionally flooded once and also defaced with spray paint a time or two. I assure you the drug dealers see the same problem we see and you really don't want to be the family that buys that home.

February 3, 2015

Dearly Loved

The young woman stumbled into The Well's front desk and mumbled her name. She was wearing just a dirty white pair of men's tight boxers and a short t-shirt. Heading to the coffee station to fill her cup, she bumped into several guests. She hardly reacted as they expressed their displeasure at the hot coffee splattering on them and on the floor. That was my first encounter with the woman I came to know as Amy.

I immediately headed toward her that morning and tried to guide her to an empty seat in our Family Room. She was unhappy, incoherent and mumbling to herself. I went to the clothing closet and picked out a pair of comfortable capris and a clean t-shirt. I tried my best to not offend her as I encouraged her to go in the restroom and change her clothes. Visibly agitated, she mumbled something unintelligible to me but followed my suggestion and accepted the clothing.

The following morning, Amy came back and quietly checked in at the front desk as I went about my morning routine. After about 30 minutes, she left. Less than an hour later, she stumbled back into the coffee station grabbed a stack of napkins, wetted them and proceeded to bathe herself in front a room full of people. I stopped her and asked her to go the bathroom if she needed to freshen up. Again, she seemed angry and frustrated but didn't communicate with me directly. Amy and I continued to have similar interactions for the next three months or so. It was then that she stopped coming to The Well for several weeks and I became concerned that something terrible might have happened to this young woman who I'd never even really had a conversation with.

I was in the prep room one morning getting ready for breakfast, when one of our floor volunteers came to get me. Amy was at the front desk asking for me, they said. Surprised but relieved, I hurried out front to see her. She was well-dressed and sober. She hugged me tightly, and I hugged her back. I had never seen her lucid before and was shocked initially that she even remembered who I was.

Standing there in the Family Room, Amy excitedly told me the story of her arrest and how she begged the judge for help getting into rehab. She remembered me, and had even thought about me while she was in treatment. With pride, she introduced me to the case worker who, even though she was standing next to Amy the whole time, had escaped my notice. Amy handed me the rehab facility's information and asked if she could use me as her contact for the case worker. I agreed of course, and wished her well as she left smiling and pleased with herself. As people jostled by me in and out of the Family Room, I stood in the front doorway overcome by the exchange I'd just had with Amy.

I have always known the rational reasons why I come to the Well to serve every day. I often have doubts though whether my presence has any meaningful impact to the people around me. Amy and my interaction that morning left us both somehow changed. After no more than a quiet acknowledgment of each other for many months, the open affirmation of our relationship was healing for both of us. I needed her just as much as she needed me. Her smile that day was all the encouragement I need to continue doing the hard work in front of me, even when it feels insignificant or impossible. Now I know that my kindness had that same effect on her.

Amy has become a regular guest at The Well again. She has good days and bad days just like the rest of us. Now she often stays around after we close, and cheerfully helps us to clean the bathrooms, the floors and all the coffee and tea splattered on the walls and doors. We all appreciate her very much. I asked her once why she left rehab so soon. She replied sadly that she couldn't afford the payments for her treatment, and so was asked to leave. In that moment, I was saddened not for her but with her.

The reasons for our struggles are never simple, and fighting to overcome our weaknesses alone is incredibly hard. Amy struggles in her own way. I struggle in mine. My role is not to fix Amy or to judge her. Like me, Amy knows her own wounds. Picking at them over and over again only causes the infection to worsen. Our relationship reminds me that my role here at The Well is to be present, to encourage people when they're struggling. I celebrate with people when they have the courage to face their own demons. I mourn with them when they fail. They mourn with me when I fail.

The name Amy means "dearly loved." I think that we are all Amy. We struggle and fight and fail and try again. And to the extent that we face this life together, hand in hand, we are stronger for having each other, and we are dearly loved through all of it.