Columns » Derek Jennings

Thinking crazy


When I used to live in the Maryland/D.C. area, my car windshield framed vistas of urban blight while I drove around. It irked me to see large, abandoned buildings. Viewed by themselves, they symbolized many things, including the decline of the cities as industrial centers and, in a broader sense, the waning of the way of life for blue-collar workers. But, considered alongside the teeming ranks of homeless people who inhabited the nation's capital and surrounding metropolitan area, these vast, post-industrial husks epitomized waste. On an epic scale. Wasted buildings, wasted resources, and worst of all, wasted people.

I'm an idealist at heart, and unapologetic at that--free-marketeers and social Darwinists be damned. I believe that, as humans, we have a fundamental responsibility to provide opportunities and support for our brothers and sisters. And given that I'm also a dreamer/problem-solver by nature, whenever I'd pass those big, empty boxes, my mind would wander, idly thinking of ways in which those properties could be better utilized, especially via conversion to housing for the poor. It made (and still makes) no sense to me to have folks jockeying for prime heating grates on the streets while mammoth buildings sit vacant. As I passed more and more buildings and people, my mental wanderings became more directed, my plans more detailed. Amid a sinking economy and social infrastructure, I mentally sketched images of "life pods," in which the reclamation of buildings and people could be accomplished.

The homeless and working poor don't just suffer from the lack of housing, there's a whole range of needs that they have: employment, education, vocational training, child-care. It's the totality of those needs (plus the callousness of our society) that serve to keep people trapped on the bottom rungs of the economy. I brainstormed ways in which those myriad issues could be addressed.

I've never done anything with these ideas, though, outside of share them with my wife and a few close friends. It was just me thinking crazy. Perhaps, if one day I ended up in politics (nah), or managed to secure the ear of an influential politician or businessperson, I thought, I could pitch the project. But I'm now coming to grips with the fact that I'm an idea person, who would never be able to implement all of my various schemes and dreams if I had a thousand lifetimes. And since some of these ideas are 10 to 15 years old, I figure I may as well throw them out to the public, in the hopes that someone could act on them, or at least in an attempt to spur some discussion of the issues.

Rehabilitation, or "rehabbing" of existing structures in cities is certainly not a new concept. Indeed, it's fueling the redevelopment (and gentrification) of many urban centers across America, slowly reversing decades-old trends of suburban flight. There's a definite upside to a carefully designed redevelopment plan. Baltimore is the poster child for this phenomenon, having completely transformed its Inner Harbor, creating a model that is being replicated across the country.

Baltimore was wildly successful in remaking a seedy, dirty, crime-ridden area into a municipal showpiece, a lucrative tourist draw and source of civic pride. The now-legendary "dollar homes"--stately, but decrepit row-houses near downtown--were basically given away to anyone with the means to repair them, and the formerly blighted brick buildings have been reborn as million-dollar residences for only the most affluent urban-dwellers. A seldom-discussed footnote on the picture perfect postcard of B'more's success, however, has been the displacement of the former inhabitants, who, with the renovation of the Harbor and, later, the demolition of several public housing projects, have largely made the exodus out into Baltimore County, problems intact, diffusing into communities which largely lack the services to deal with the needs of the emigrating population.

As with Baltimore's example, many of the urban reclamation projects envisioned or enacted locally have had the effect of creating new "high rent districts," a la the rebirth of old mill buildings in Raleigh or old tobacco buildings in Durham as high-priced condos or swank office/gallery space. Which is cool. That generates tax revenue, and is certainly a better use of the buildings than having them sit empty. But is it the best use? There's no shortage of places to live for folks with a lot of money. But for moderate and low-income people, affordable housing is a dire need.

Why not be creative and solve a lot of different problems at once? Planned properly, and with judicious use of existing grants and resources, we can create something that will have long-term benefits to low and moderate-income families, make better use of existing social services dollars, and eventually be financially self-sustainable.

Imagine a large, empty structure... its brick and steel skeleton is in good shape, but it requires extensive engineering and construction work in order to be habitable. Local contractors are allowed to bid for the work contingent upon their agreement to hire and train several apprentices from a local pool of unemployed adults and at-risk youth already receiving services. These construction companies are given tax credits to offset the amount of time they spend doing the training, and they pay their apprentices a decent and escalating wage as their skills and value increase. (Remember, job training for these workers would be paid regardless of the availability of a job or apprenticeship, so their getting paid and trained in the private sector defrays that cost).

One of the major impediments to women entering or remaining in the workforce is the lack of affordable childcare. And one of the biggest worries for any parent dropping their children off as they head to work is the scarcity of quality childcare. In this hypothetical building, the "life-pod," there would also be well-designed daycare facilities that would be staffed by state-licensed workers, as well as trainees (addressing the potential WorkFirst conundrum of insisting women put their children in daycare so they can provide daycare for other women's children). Another feature of the life pods would be preschools and various classrooms and training rooms adequate for the number of residents requiring those services.

Children would be a primary concern of the life pods, with a number of activities, technical and cultural enrichment, and early intervention services provided to help them overcome any disadvantage inherited with their economic standing.

As with planned communities for senior citizens, a number of essential services would be provided on-site, like health care and human services satellite offices. The concentration of poverty is one of the reasons why cities are tearing down the pj's (housing projects) to begin with. The life pod concept would combat that concentration by providing free housing to professionals and public servants who choose to live and work there. Police, social workers, teachers and health care providers could live in the community for free (or at a heavily subsidized rate). This would be a boon, especially for recruitment and retention in those fields where economic pressures often force people to rethink career choices. Doctors and therapists could be subsidized, or have provision of services tied to residency programs with local schools in exchange for scholarships.

The homework labs, adult education and vocational training programs could be taught and administered by a combination of full-time teachers and corporate volunteers. Local businesses would be offered tax incentives for having their employees staff a particular amount of service hours in these training centers for teaching and mentoring. In addition to the tax breaks, they'd also receive wonderful PR and valuable training experience for their employees. Additional credits could be provided to companies that hired (either as co-ops or full time) residents of the life pods.

In keeping with the holistic concept of this future community, the roof would house a high-yield hydroponic greenhouse fit for growing organic vegetables, herbs or other niche items which would be consumed by the residents and/or sold at the farmers' market. Small shops in the 'pod would allow residents to obtain both retail and broader business skills.

In addition, economic diversity would be furthered by the presence of some luxury apartments, geared toward the normal gentrification crowd, which would have the additional benefit of providing real human experience and interaction among classes of people who might otherwise never encounter each other. Terms of residency for low-income people could include lease-to-own options, in which they could realistically aspire to home ownership and eventual capital accumulation--a long-term prospect, to be sure, but far superior to paying rent in perpetuity on a shotgun shack or run-down apartment.

Would there be an overhead involved in this? A cost to the city/state? Assuredly. But when you tally up all the positives (creation of more taxpayers, costs defrayed through partnerships with private businesses for provision of services, and rent/mortgage from condo buyers), I think it is an idea that would have an eventual break-even point, and would provide exponentially more benefit to the recipients than offering these various social services in isolation. And it would certainly cost less than the incarceration of people driven to despair or folly by their depressing life circumstances.

In Raleigh, there's a particular big building that I have my eye on which would be perfect for such a grand experiment. It's on plenty of land and would provide a wonderful amount of space for children to play. It's the Dorothea Dix site, now being salivated over by developers who'd, no doubt, either raze it or turn it into a bunch more half-million-dollar condos.

If we pulled this off, Raleigh could be the epicenter for a nationwide movement to invest in both our citizens and cities. Folks would be flying here from all over the world to see what we'd done, furiously scratching notes on how they could achieve similar success.

Sounds like an idea worth pursuing to me. But I won't be surprised if people think using the old mental hospital to combat poverty and bring our community together, instead of handing it over to developers to make a buncha money, is nuts. EndBlock

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