Breonna Taylor’s death reveals link between urban development and racist policing

A ground mural depicting a portrait of Breonna Taylor is seen at Chambers Park, Monday, July 6, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. The mural honors Taylor, a 26-year old Black woman who was fatally shot by police in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment. The artwork was a team effort by the Banneker-Douglass Museum, the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, and Future History Now, a youth organization that focuses on mural projects. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

A ground mural depicting a portrait of Breonna Taylor is seen at Chambers Park, Monday, July 6, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. The mural honors Taylor, a 26-year old Black woman who was fatally shot by police in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment. The artwork was a team effort by the Banneker-Douglass Museum, the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, and Future History Now, a youth organization that focuses on mural projects. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The three plainclothes officers who broke down Breonna Taylor’s door in the no-knock midnight raid that would end her life were part of a new Louisville Metro Police Department unit, called Place-Based Investigations. Louisville Metro Police created the squad to address what officials describe as “systemically violent locations.” The officers had obtained the warrant to Taylor’s home because of her connection to an ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, a renter at a suspected drug house located on Elliot Avenue within the Vision Russel revitalization area, nearly 10 miles away.

An affidavit for the warrant to search Taylor’s house claimed that Glover had received packages at Taylor’s address, which was later proven to be a false statement. According to the complaint, Glover’s residence was targeted in order to clear the area for redevelopment. Glover was arrested the same night that Taylor was shot to death.

Breonna Taylor’s family’s lawyers, earlier this month, included all of these details in an amended complaint linking her murder with a federally funded West Louisville revitalization plan called Vision Russel.

In the month prior to Taylor’s murder, the lawsuit states that eight homes along Elliott Avenue were demolished as part of the Vision Russel plan. Shortly after, Law Mar Inc., the entity that owned the property, began making arrangements to transfer the deed of 2424 Elliott Avenue to the Louisville & Jefferson County Landbank. On June 5th, 2020, the landbank acquired the property for $1.

“When the layers are peeled back, the origin of Breonna’s home being raided by police starts with a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project and finishes with a newly formed, rogue police unit violating all levels of policy, protocol and policing standards,” the amended lawsuit concludes.

The real estate project linked to the raid that led police to shoot Taylor and kill her is partially backed by HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program, the same federal funding source that is galvanizing revitalization efforts in Sharswood and around Bartram Village here in Philadelphia. The plan looks a lot like those projects and other projects that have reshaped Philadelphia since the 1990s.

City officials and leaders involved in the Vision Russell plan dismissed the lawyers’ claim as a bold leap and a “gross mischaracterization” (in an interview, a spokesperson for Mayor Greg Fisher office called the allegations “outrageous”). A follow-up published in the Courier-Journal the next day quoted local nonprofit leaders who explained that they have been working closely with the Russell community, and that the residents would like to see the area cleaned up.

Paul Stillwell, CEO of Keeping it Real Neighborhood Institute, a Louisville-based nonprofit housing group, told the Courier-Journal, “The truth of the matter is that Keeping it Real, in cooperation with Metro Government, has been, for the last four years, doing research in the area to know what the community’s desires are…and the desires are to clean up our neighborhood and get housing down there.”

But examining connections between these types of “revitalization” efforts to gentrification, systemic racism, violence, and increased policing and criminalization isn’t outrageous, it is important and absolutely necessary if we are committed to thinking about racism systemically.

Who benefits when ‘blight’ turns to boom?

Rasheedah Phillips, Managing Attorney of Housing Policy at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, was reluctant to speculate on any causal link between the revitalization plan and Breonna Taylor’s death because she isn’t familiar with the intricacies of the case and neighborhood, but acknowledged that it was likely there is at least a broad connection.

Redlining gets well-deserved attention as the key policy that ingrained racial inequity into the urban landscape. But today’s federal programs, based heavily on the principles of new urbanism and reliant upon public-private partnership models, can lead to gentrification and, as a result, perpetuate systemic racism and violence in different, albeit slightly subtler ways including displacement, negative health impacts, criminalization, and development-driven policing.

Similar to Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA)-led transformation plans that are in the works for Sharswood and Bartram Village, Vision Russell is partially funded by Choice Neighborhoods grants and includes demolishing existing public housing and rebuilding new, mixed-income housing in its place, boosting job creation, education, and economic opportunities, and improving public amenities.

The focus on reimagining neighborhoods to appeal to people with a wider range of income levels is consistent with the current theory behind federal housing policy today, says Sarah DeGiorgis, a Ph.D. student who studies housing policy at Rutgers Camden. As federal housing policy has evolved through its various iterations, DeGiorgis says, a fixation on creating mixed-income neighborhoods and “deconcentrating poverty” took hold.

First, the Hope VI program, which began in the early 1990s, revitalized public housing projects into mixed-income developments. The Choice Neighborhoods program is the most recent successor and emphasizes leveraging public and private money to support a more “comprehensive” and “locally-led” transformation of neighborhoods containing distressed public housing. While affordable units must be replaced according to the program’s mandates, the end goal has always been to bring wealthier people into public housing communities  and clear the visual signifiers of poverty that planners and officials define as “blight.” And it’s often worked.

“Certainly what we’ve seen in Philadelphia is that these kinds of Choice Neighborhoods processes can lead to increased gentrification, despite the intentions of the Housing Authority or the city in getting those grants,” said Phillips.

Phillips points to Sharswood, where the Philadelphia Housing Authority seized dozens of privately owned and occupied properties in 2015.

“You have this Choice Neighborhood process happening that’s supposed to be revitalizing the neighborhood and bringing more affordable housing, but what it ends up doing is destroying the affordable housing that’s already there,” Phillips said.

Phillips says that Choice Neighborhoods projects tend to impact entire neighborhoods, not only because residents are temporarily displaced while housing is rehabilitated — sometimes for as long as five to ten years — but because the neighborhood culture is “wiped out,” community connections and networks are broken, and the introduction of new mixed-income housing will have a “domino effect” on other neighbors through property tax increases and higher costs of living.

“They’re bringing back houses that are valued at several hundred thousand dollars each, which will impact the person who lives next door whose house is valued at $30,000,” Phillips said, “they’re going to at some point be pushed out of that neighborhood as well.”

And that’s just the people who haven’t already been bought out, often at an unfairly low price, says DeGiorgis. Once the neighborhood is declared “blighted” by the city in order to begin the process of eminent domain, the fair market value plummets. Owners often get a nominal fee for their property and are left limited options for the future.

In Sharswood, some of the last residents awaiting their settlements before relocating from their homes were faced with infestations of rats and vermin, dislodged from vacant properties as the PHA razed nearby vacant buildings.

Rapid gentrification is already well underway in Brewerytown, which shares the same zip code as Sharswood. The market value of homes in 19121 has nearly tripled since 2013 and new construction in the area is listed in the $400,000-$500,000 range.

Kingsessing will likely face a similar trajectory. In 2018, the Philadelphia Housing Authority was awarded a $1.3 million dollar Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Grant for the Bartram Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan, which includes planning and early action steps for the redevelopment of the Bartram Village public housing complex and the surrounding neighborhood.

“That area is prime real estate,” Phillips points out. “It’s right next to Bartram’s Garden and the river and all those beautiful things, so the threat of gentrification is really real there.”

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What could anti-racist urban planning look like?

A cornerstone of Choice Neighborhoods is an emphasis on community engagement and local involvement in the planning process. Advocates of the Louisville plan say that the goal is to create a community land trust along Elliott Avenue that would keep housing costs low, an outcome that residents have expressed strong support for.

But Shemaeka Shaw, founder of Louisville-based nonprofit Broken Hearted Homes Renters Association, expressed concern to the Courier-Journal that the city would ultimately displace renters on the street and criticized their delay in rehabbing the vacant property they have acquired, saying it has allowed crime to proliferate.

The success of engagement efforts vary project to project and the intentions of the people behind it may be well-meaning, but ultimately advocates say that if the community is given limited power to actually shape the outcome of the project, and if simple community requests have previously gone ignored, “community engagement” as we know it is little more than window dressing.

“I think it’s important to have clarity around what we mean when we use the phrase ‘community engagement,’” said Destiny Thomas, a former environmental and transportation planner and the Founder and CEO of Thrivance Project, based in Oakland, California.

In June, Thomas organized and hosted the “Unurbanist Assembly,” a 24-hour online teach-in and protest to discuss strategies for anti-racist urban planning, covering topics like community engagement, in response to all of the discussion — and specifically pushback to some of her ideas about racism and urbanism — that emerged following the murder of George Floyd and growing Black Lives Matter Protests.

“What I mean when I say we should have community engagement is much more simple,” Thomas said. “I think that residents, especially long-standing residents and elders, not only already know what types of infrastructural and land-use investments would benefit the community, but they’ve outright asked for it, formally through public comment processes, through maintenance requests, through various community organizing efforts.”

Phillips made similar observations in reference to residents of Bartram Village, many of whom have been living in subpar conditions for years while their requests for basic upgrades and repairs have gone unanswered. Plans to reconstruct housing may be seen as positive outcomes by members of the broader community, but offer no immediate relief to residents and require that they relocate, often well outside of the neighborhood, while the area is revamped.

The pattern, Thomas says, is pretty universal. “These communities have already told the local municipalities and public works agencies what they need. It’s not that we have to go and start a brand new conversation that takes three years, we just have to listen to what people have been telling us to do this whole time.”

Thomas sees establishing community planning — a system with lower barriers to entry, that’s inclusive of broader skill sets, from social workers to artists — as a step in the right direction, as well as developing a federal package to help address the immediate and straightforward needs of disinvested communities.

“We have gotten to a point where, the country and the citizens of this country in general, are becoming more aware of who is complicit in the continued harm and unwellness happening across many communities,” Thomas said. “Planners are complicit and that will be very apparent to people as they begin to study and do research about how to improve the lived experience of folks.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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