Homelessness in the Welfare State

During June of 2017, Danish parliament passed an anti-begging measure to discourage panhandling. The following month, within a fourteen-day span, five people were arrested in Copenhagen by plainclothes officers for begging in public places. When my urban design professor mentioned to us during the first week of classes that panhandling is illegal in Copenhagen, I couldn’t believe there was even a homelessness problem to begin with. Coming from the United States, I had understood the Danish welfare state to be a relative utopia of democratic socialist policy without knowing how that might manifest in daily life. Even after going to Denmark and learning more about how the welfare state operates, it strikes me as a surprising struggle for a country with a famously tightly woven social safety net.

It doesn’t take much digging, however, to notice the increasingly complex approach to issues of squatting and homelessness in Copenhagen. As more central neighborhoods get tapped for redevelopment and public space is further commodified, homelessness is being relegated further away from the public realm. Local ignorance regarding homelessness in Denmark makes the decriminalization of homelessness and poverty unlikely, too. A study on perceptions of homelessness in Copenhagen and one of its suburbs identified a theme in residents’ understanding of homelessness: The Danish government provides assistance to those in need, so why wouldn’t someone take it if they had to? Homelessness must be a choice.

Generally, those most removed from daily urban life (in this case, residents of the more expensive and suburban Hellerup neighborhood) were more likely to hold such convictions. The interviewees from Copenhagen proper had more varied responses, with a more sympathetic bent. What the study found was, unsurprisingly, that homelessness is not a choice but rather a matter of repeated poor circumstances that strip away a person’s economic and social resources. This can make it difficult for folks struggling with homelessness, often along with addiction or mental illness, to go through the official steps to claim their benefits. They may not even know they are qualified for the benefits in the first place. And even then, there have been reports of government employees turning people away for their behavior while visiting the office to fill out paperwork.

Clearly, there are social and bureaucratic barriers that still keep those experiencing homelessness from getting the help they need. This condition is not unique to any city. Thankfully, Denmark has such a strong welfare system that homelessness is unlikely to reach the proportions it has in the United States. The criminalization of poverty and need, however, does nothing to help the most vulnerable residents in any city. Denmark’s recent anti-squatting laws are only the most recent legal apparatus developed for clearing urban space for more desirable occupants; but it is certainly not their first or most dramatic attempt to do so (for example, the destruction of the Youth House, which involved police violence and mass arrests). As redevelopment and gentrification continue here and in cities around the world, protection and resources for those least likely to benefit should remain a priority.

Public space is not public if it isn’t for everyone.

Highways of History: The Santa Monica Freeway and Sugar Hill, Los Angeles

At the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles had a population of about 100,000 people. In the middle of it all was the wealthiest neighborhood in L.A, West Adams Heights, located just west of downtown Los Angeles, and in recent terms just south of Koreatown. Architecturally, West Adams Heights had elaborate homes in practically every style, from Queen Anne and Victorian to Beaux Arts and Craftsman. Someone once described the central neighborhood as “an island in an ocean of bungalows,” referring to the more common style in the rest of L.A. This was just before the start of Hollywood, so the wealthy residents of West Adams Heights were mostly titans of industry, like oil barons and bankers.

The home of Benjamin Johnson, who helped found the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles (Source)

The neighborhood changed in the 1910s as the film industry moved to Los Angeles and actors began making their fortunes. They got off to kind of a rocky start, with older residents trying to prevent actors from moving in, but West Adams Heights was soon closely linked with the film industry and its stars. Whatever icons of the silent film era you can think of, they were probably living, or at least partying, in West Adams Heights. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were regulars at ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s huge parties, and later on, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney would frequent parties thrown by the director Busby Berkeley, who moved in during the late 1930s. Busby wouldn’t have had many neighbors, though, as many West Adams Heights residents would move out in the 20s and 30s. This was in part due to the development of a new neighborhood for the rich and famous- Beverly Hills. The arrival of the Depression in the late 1920s also meant that a lot of residents of West Adams Heights were forced to sell their homes, basically taking whatever money they could get. The rush to sell also meant that the restrictive covenant that had been adopted before all this, the one forbidding white residents to sell or rent to African Americans, was not the first thing on sellers’ minds. So, Black families began moving into West Adams Heights.

Louise Beavers (third from left) and Hattie McDaniel, c. 1948 (Source)

The Black population of West Adams Heights started taking off in the late 30s, after the Depression, when many of the historic mansions were still up for sale. Middle and upper-class Black folks from L.A and other American cities began making their homes in West Adams Heights, renaming it ‘Sugar Hill’ as a tribute to Harlem. Sugar Hill became an icon of Black Hollywood, acting as the home of stars like Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind, and Louise Beavers, who was popular for playing maids in several films including Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home. Mr. Blandings was essentially propaganda for white suburbia, which was booming at the time (How To Kill A City, 157). Meanwhile, Louise Beavers and her neighbors would soon become involved in legal action that would find restrictive covenants, like those keeping the suburbs white, unconstitutional.

By the mid-1940s, around 57 Black families lived in Sugar Hill. However, white residents were upset that the old restrictive covenant was being violated, so they sued to have the Black families evicted. Black residents began organizing. Hattie McDaniel held meetings at her home to plan their defense. Loren Miller, the attorney representing Black residents of Sugar Hill, argued that racially restrictive covenants were a violation of the 14th amendment. The presiding judge agreed, and in a historic legal victory, became the first judge in American history to find racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional based on the 14th amendment. Loren Miller would go on to argue Shelley v. Kraemer, another landmark case dealing with racially restrictive covenants which would go to the Supreme Court in 1948. That case would determine that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional, paving the way for the Fair Housing Act twenty years later. But, again, new developments began drawing residents away from Sugar Hill. This time Baldwin Hills played a major role, attracting wealthy Black actors and filmmakers beginning in the 1950s. So, we see the same cycle as Beverly Hills, with a second generation of residents. This period of decline made the neighborhood vulnerable to local planning interests. The Santa Monica Freeway was constructed through the middle of Sugar Hill in the early 1960s (The Color of Law, 130). This was a huge loss for the Black community of Los Angeles and of the United States as a whole, where Black neighborhoods were routinely destroyed in the name of modern infrastructure projects, particularly highways.

An aerial view of the Santa Monica Freeway under construction (Source)

Urban planning has been historically racist and damaging to communities of color, and this is just one example. Central Park was built on one of the most stable integrated neighborhoods in New York City. The 15th Ward, a poor Black neighborhood in downtown Syracuse was split in two by a highway in the 1950s. St. Louis bought out middle-class Black families in Kinloch in the 1980s so Lambert Airport could expand. Robert Moses, the notoriously racist and generally destructive urban planner from New York, divided and destroyed neighborhoods like the Bronx in the name of highway construction. There are countless more examples of the role urban planning has had in the 20th century in segregating cities and setting Black communities up for failure.

Construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway (Source)

These days, Sugar Hill is getting some much-deserved attention. People began repopulating the neighborhood in the 1980s, and that new generation is taking strides in protecting and restoring the historic homes in the neighborhood. A lot of the information I used in this story is from articles on the West Adams Heritage Association website, if you’d like to learn more. If you’re interested in how federal policies segregated American cities in the 20th century, I highly recommend Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law.

Better than AirBNB: The Affordable City

Better than AirBNB: The Affordable City

A little over a year ago now, I was walking around the Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon. It was my first time in Portugal, and I was overwhelmed with how gorgeous everything was. I admired the trams, sweet pastels against azulejo-tiled buildings, and the narrow medieval streets winding up and down hills with views of the Tagus River meeting the sea. I romanticized everything, like travelers often do, imagining that one day, maybe, I could move here.

Lisbon’s purported beauty was one of the main reasons we had decided to go at all, drawn in by the idea of a city not yet crowded with tourists, at least a small distance from the usual bucket list destinations like Paris and Rome. My first impression was of a city that was beautiful yet approachable, with a wealth of culture and history but still very much a people’s city. Turns out, I was mistaken, but Lisbon itself wasn’t to blame. During my walk that day in the Alfama, still soaking everything in, I came across a phrase spray painted on a wall: 

“Fuck AirBNB

We want to live here”

Despite how comfortable I had felt in Lisbon, local life was being affected directly by the thing I was benefitting from. The message was for people exactly like me. We had booked an apartment on AirBNB for the trip, without having encountered critiques of the service before. Seeing that message, nestled among other graffiti, I thought again about the apartment we had rented. When we had checked in a few days earlier, it was clear that it was not the only apartment our host owned. I hadn’t encountered such a commercial AirBNB before, as my only other AirBNB experience had been staying in the other side of a young couple’s duplex in New Orleans. And, despite being an urban studies student, I hadn’t come across the many articles on the perils of AirBNB that I would read soon after.

So, I was staying in one of several investment properties in a desirable neighborhood in Lisbon. A place where, because of those kinds of investment properties, local people were no longer able to live. I found myself indisputably part of the problem. Is it the fault of people like me that apartments have gotten too expensive, that long-term rentals are disappearing from the market to instead be listed on AirBNB, rented week by week year-round? I was also staying in an AirBNB because it was a third, if not a quarter, of the cost of a hotel. It was a sweet apartment, convenient, and for a few days I got to pretend I really was living in this incredible new place.

I am certainly on the privileged side of the AirBNB debate, the one who gets to stay in a nice apartment while others confront limited housing options. I haven’t personally been priced out of a place I used to live. But, even if I stopped staying in AirBNBs altogether (I do avoid them, due to my own ethical dilemma), there are plenty more people like me, which is why AirBNB is so successful to begin with. 

A tram in the Alfama District of Lisbon

It’s my responsibility to understand the implications of my choice to stay, or not stay, in an AirBNB property, but as an individual I am not able to change the impact the company has had, as much as I try to improve my own actions. What does have the capacity to protect communities and housing markets from AirBNB is strong local policy committed to prioritizing affordable housing and livable neighborhoods. 

New Orleans, which is now at the forefront of the struggle with regulating AirBNB, has introduced several policies in the last couple of years with the aim of protecting the hospitality industry that is so central to the city’s economy while promoting and preserving affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying city.

Most recently, New Orleans City Council member Kristen Gisleson Palmer introduced a ban on ‘entire home’ short-term rentals, allowing hosts to rent extra space as long as they are also on the property. This prevents homes from serving exclusively as short-term rentals, bringing different neighbors to a neighborhood every week, and removing housing from a market that desperately needs it. New Orleans ranked in the top ten cities at risk of a housing crisis last year, and while AirBNB is not the sole cause of the city’s housing troubles, stronger regulations are certainly part of the solution.

New York City faces similar issues, with an already deeply strained housing market and a bustling tourist industry. New York has also been found to have a large quantity of vacant apartments that serve as investment properties, like the one I stayed at in Lisbon. Stronger regulation of short-term rentals and vacant apartments, for instance taxing those investment properties as described by Adele Peters in an article for Fast Company, is part of a toolkit cities need to adopt in order to maintain, or perhaps regain, affordability.

That being said, the profound importance of public policy should not excuse individuals from their responsibility to promote inclusivity in their cities and towns. Yes, it’s unlikely that as an individual I can make much of a dent in AirBNB’s actions as a company or the massive scale on which they operate. However, I can vote. I can advocate for better housing policy. I can act in solidarity with those struggling to remain in their homes or find a home at all. Piece by piece, and lot by lot, we can all contribute to creating more equitable and inclusive cities. We have a responsibility to push our cities to be better, not as investments but as homes and communities. 

Winter 2019