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Rebuilding America's Neighborhoods

Why we should encourage-and incentivize-immigrants to rejuvenate our ravaged cities, one thousand-dollar house at a time.We can learn a lot about our society's wastefulness by scanning the listings of bank-owned properties. These are homes that banks have foreclosed on and are now seeking to liquidate, and it's shocking to watch how far property values have tumbled in large swaths of the country. As you've certainly heard by now, in rust belt cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo, New York, homes can be purchased for as little as $500. Seriously.These homes mostly sit in deeply dysfunctional neighborhoods, where there are high crime rates and little access to meaningful employment-never mind supermarkets. Chances are also good that hungry people have helped themselves to anything with resale value that lies around: copper wiring, plumbing pipes, and water boilers.But there is something far more disturbing about the price tag. The difference between $500 and $0 is, well, just $500. In other words, these houses and the neighborhoods that contain them are being treated as though they are disposable. And given the amount of reusable buildings materials that already gets dumped, the idea of throwing away housing that could be renovated, made energy-efficient, and saved from landfill is highly problematic. The United States demolishes 250,000 houses every year. Coupled with waste from remodeled homes, we send 160 million tons of construction debris into landfills every year.Of course, reclaiming this housing requires a family willing to live in it. To many Americans, taking one of these homes and investing the sweat equity to bring them back to their former glory (or even basic functionality), just isn't worth it, or seems untenable. But perhaps we aren't looking far enough for potential residents.
Given the amount of reusable buildings materials that already gets dumped, the idea of throwing away housing that could be renovated, made energy-efficient, and saved from landfill is highly problematic.
Of the 1.9 billion children in the developing world, 640 million are without adequate shelter (that's one in three), and 400 million have no access to safe water (one in five). Surely, neighborhoods like Cleveland's Slavic Village or Buffalo's Broadway-Fillmore neighborhoods could be redeveloped into communities that again offer newcomers hope.America has a long history of allowing immigrants to redevelop blighted neighborhoods. It's easy to point to New York's satellite Chinatowns. In Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn, waves of Taiwanese and Fujianese immigrants invested in and renewed these communities. But this trend is even more notable in cities where blight and abandonment is the rule rather than the exception.Recently, while reporting on Camden, New Jersey's failure to sustain businesses in its upscale waterfront, I stumbled onto a Latino neighborhood in East Camden. At a Mexican restaurant there, my wife and I ate tacos al pastor and drank Mexican Jarritos soda. Around us, there were small markets with products from Mexico and Central America; multi-service storefronts offered long distance calling cards and remittances. While the waterfront, with its upscale bars and lofts, offered tax breaks and free land to big-time developers from Philadelphia in the hopes of luring yuppies to Camden-the idea was to use the city's storied industrial past as a calling card-the businesses in East Camden, with their more humble aspirations, were responding to the needs of the community that was already there.Camden isn't alone. Buried in gloomy reports from Detroit are the city's two bright spots. Even as hundreds flee the city each week, the city's Mexican community on the Southwest Side and the nearby Middle Eastern community, who have moved to homes near the border of Dearborn, are growing. On the Southwest Side, some light manufacturing jobs have even returned.Several years ago in Schenectady, New York, a one-time manufacturing base for the American Locomotive Company and General Electric, former Mayor Albert P. Jurczynski recruited Guyanese immigrants who couldn't afford to buy homes in Queens to own a piece of the American dream four hours from New York City. They have opened small businesses and stabilized many neighborhoods. Guyanese rehabbers have even begun to revitalize the Hamilton Hill neighborhood, where drug dealing remains a problem, raising the average home values from $16,000 to $60,000 in just 10 years.
These communities, like many immigrant neighborhoods in America, can be self-sustaining.
These communities, like many immigrant neighborhoods in America, can be self-sustaining. Dollars circulate numerous times before they leave. And as a need arises, it's often met. Until now, these transformations have occurred relatively organically. But as the drumbeat for both sustainable development and immigration reform grows louder, perhaps we can solve two problems at once. Since we've already seen immigrants redevelop so many communities, the government should offer an amnesty program to undocumented immigrants willing to revitalize communities where homes can be purchased for $10,000 to $20, 000. Through consulates in the developing world, we can also offer visas to prospective immigrants who'd commit to living and rejuvenating communities that need their help. In Schenectady, some homes were given to immigrants for just $1. This saved the city the estimated $16,500 apiece it costs to demolish vacant homes there.Of course, in order to sustain these communities, employment is also needed. President Obama's green jobs advisor Van Jones is committed to locating green jobs in cities like Cleveland and Camden. The government could provide incentives to companies that hire said immigrants, through tax breaks, low-interest loans, and grants. Further, given Obama's plans for high-speed rail lines, stations could be placed in these communities to encourage development and ensure these cities aren't economically isolated.These neglected neighborhoods also offer us a chance to develop sustainable agriculture. The large urban prairies that have formed as whole blocks have fallen into disrepair or been demolished can be developed into small-scale farms. This could ensure access to healthful food and create jobs. Buffalo's recently approved Wilson Street Farm-a planned farm on what was once an urban prairie-is great example of this. And North Camden, for example, lies just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia's Chinatown. What better place to grow bok choi and mustard greens?Obviously, redeveloping America's forgotten neighborhoods is a long and difficult process. But it's important to consider the alternatives. Do we want to be remembered as the society that buried fixable housing in landfill? I hope not.

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