The Quality of Whose Life?

Urban livability policies tend to disproportionately affect those who are already jeopardized

quality-of-whose-life

Image by Flickr user: Valdiney Pimenta / Creative Commons

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There seems to be a disconnect between the belt-tightening that’s going on in cities all over the United States and so-called “quality of life” initiatives that keep popping up in many of those same municipalities. The irony is that the backlash from both budget cuts and policies designed to make our cities more livable tends to disproportionately affect those whose quality of life is already most jeopardized, if not nonexistent.

Writing in Street Spirit (Nov. 2010), Paul Boden notes that in recent decades, as the United States has ramped up construction of prisons and jails, the country has created fewer and fewer affordable housing units, resulting in a growing number of homeless people. These same people, of course, are largely seen as the source of many of the problems quality of life initiatives seek to address.

Yet by limiting resources—including habitat—for the homeless and the poor, Boden argues, we’re creating public policies that are eerily reminiscent of Jim Crow–era laws and attitudes. Consider Los Angeles’ Safer Cities Initiative, which in its first three years, according to Boden, has “led to 27,000 arrests in a 50-square-block area known as Skid Row, which abuts a fashionable area the city is trying to develop.” Of Skid Row’s 14,000 residents, 75 percent are African American and one-third are homeless.

“The initiative has already cost taxpayers $118 million in arrests alone. . . . Los Angeles spends $6 million a year on the initiative’s additional 50 police officers, which is about the same amount it spends on services for the homeless. Over a 14-month period, it’s estimated that about $5 million was spent to enforce jaywalking in the area.”

All of which begs the question: In a zero-sum game, what happens to the losers?

Cover-MA11-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.