Malign neglect? What will urban policy look like under a Trump presidency

President-elect Donald Trump with his nominee for housing & urban development secretary, Ben Carson. Image: Getty.

As Niels Bohr, or maybe Yogi Berra, said: predicting is difficult, especially when it’s about the future. Perhaps even more so when considering Trump’s stance on urban policy – one of many issues the president-elect has never disclosed his position on, or even shown any particular interest in.

Actually, that might make prediction easier, not harder.

Why? It seems pretty clear that Trump doesn’t have much policy bandwidth; in fact, he may be the least policy-minded person to serve as president since Warren Gamaliel Harding.

What that means, I believe, is that when it comes to issues that don’t engage him on a gut level – and are not red meat to his base – he’s not likely to push any policy ideas of his own. Instead, he’s more likely to leave those issues to the Republicans in Congress, along with whichever right-wing apparatchik or mortgage lender becomes housing and urban development secretary.

That means that there’s not going to be much urban policy, period. The Republican party leadership doesn’t care much about cities, which are full of Democrats, minorities and poor people.

Programs with broad constituencies, like Community Development Block Grants and the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, will probably remain but shrink further; Low-Income Housing Tax Credits may stay under the radar and survive. After all, they’re good business.

Modest Obama initiatives like Promise Zones will disappear, and nothing will replace them. Cities have become used to getting relatively little help from the federal government to address their social and economic problems, and they will soon get even less.

Changes to housing policy are potentially more serious. The big issue is less about affordable housing – though if Congress decides to significantly reduce the number of vouchers in circulation, it could spell disaster for hundreds of thousands of struggling families – but rather with the nation’s mortgage system.

For the last decade, that system has been a makeshift hybrid of public and private actors, held together with the fiscal equivalent of duct tape. Everyone agrees that it needs to be changed. But with major policy differences separating the administration, different factions in Congress, lenders and advocates, nothing was done.

Now, that may change. Congress and the Trump administration could work together to privatise the mortgage industry, deregulate financial markets and declaw the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Those actions could further starve cities of the capital they need, reducing mortgage access for low- and middle-income urban households, and in low-price neighborhoods. A less likely but possible alternative could be a return to the worst excesses of the subprime mortgage scandal.


On the big issues that will affect cities’ futures, we shouldn’t expect much. If you start with the premise that climate change is a hoax, you’re not likely to see much point helping low-lying cities like Miami or Norfolk adapt to something that doesn’t exist.

There is, however, encouraging evidence that cities are already taking action on adaptation— even in red states where the phrase “climate change” cannot be spoken in public. Another positive sign is strong Republican interest in major infrastructure investment: Trump has called for spending $trn on infrastructure over the next 10 years. Unfortunately, Trump believes that money will come from private sources incentivised with “revenue-neutral” tax credits—a strategy that is highly unlikely to succeed. Infrastructure spending may help some cities, but if it favors projects that can draw private financing, a lot more money will end up in fast-growing urban areas like Houston or Denver than in the Midwest or Northeast.

Trump talked a lot about manufacturing jobs during the campaign, which may have swung a lot of rustbelt voters to his side. Certainly, a revival of manufacturing, and thousands of new, well-paying factory jobs, would be a great boon for the cities.

The problem is – as many of the people who voted for him may sooner or later realse – it’s all smoke and mirrors. (Interestingly, a wildly unscientific poll on attn.com has 91 per cent saying no to the question “do you think Donald Trump will restore manufacturing jobs?”) Sadly, those jobs are largely gone, for many and complicated reasons. Starting a trade war with China won’t bring them back.

The neglect part is pretty clear. What about the malign part? This is harder to predict, but there are some tea leaves to read. There’s an ominous line buried in the Republican platform that reads, “We expect Congress to assert, by whatever means necessary, its constitutional pre­rogatives regarding the District.” It goes on to say that Congress should pass a law “allowing law-abiding Washingtonians to own and carry firearms,” even though the citizens of the District of Columbia have voted for strict gun controls.

This is not an outlier. Other Republican-controlled statehouses – including those in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina – have sought to impose their preferences on cities and cut back municipal powers.

A good example came from North Carolina this past spring. Buried in the bill that mandated same (biological) sex bathrooms, which got the headlines, the legislature added a zinger with huge policy implications: a law that supersedes any local effort to regulate “wage levels of employees, hours of labor, payment of earned wages, benefits, leave, or well-being of minors in the workforce”. Goodbye to city ordinances setting minimum wage, or mandating parental leave or health benefits.

I suspect we will see more of this sort of thing at the federal level. Since Congress’ ability to directly dictate city ordinances is limited (at least, outside the District of Columbia), these provisions are likely to show up as conditions of federal funding, either at the city or state level. You want federal transportation funds? Legalise concealed carry. You want federal education funds? Require same-biological-sex bathrooms, etc.

History has shown that all the talk about “less government intrusion” and “the best government is closest to the people” quickly goes out the window – one might say is trumped – by any policy agenda that stirs the passions of the Republican base.

It’s likely to be a long four years.

Alan Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a US non-profit organisation which focuses on urban America. He is the author of the new book “America’s Urban Future: Lessons from North of the Border”.

This post was produced in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.