Among the many surprises in President Bush’s speech from Jackson Square in New Orleans last Thursday was his proposal for a federal urban homesteading program for the Gulf Coast region. As he put it: “Under this approach, we will identify property in the region owned by the federal government, and provide building sites to low-income citizens free of charge, through a lottery. In return, they would pledge to build on the lot, with either a mortgage or help from a charitable organization like Habitat for Humanity. Home ownership is one of the great strengths of any community, and it must be a central part of our vision for the revival of this region.”
When spoken with the President’s Texas drawl, the word “homestead” cannot help but call forth in my mind the memory of that famous Oklahoma land rush scene from William S. Hart’s Tumbleweeds (seen above), one of the greatest and most realistic Western action sequences of the silent cinema. (The one in Tom Cruise’s Far and Away was a pretty walk in the park by comparison.) Since 1889, when the original Oklahoma Cherokee land-strip rush occurred, the government has gotten a little more sophisticated about how it doles out its homesteading land, however, so you can all put your horses back in the barn.
Commentators have generally been stymied by the proposal. Cokie Roberts referred to urban homesteading as a new idea in her NPR commentary on the speech earlier this week, stating that the 19th century Homestead Act that made land available in the West was “one of the most effective and popular ideas in this country,” but that “we’ve never tried it in urban centers.”
Actually, we have. Or at least we’ve seen variations on this theme. Three years before the Homestead Act itself was repealed in 1976, Wilmington (Delaware), Philadelphia and Baltimore started their own “citysteading” programs, taking city properties acquired in tax foreclosures and offering them for sale to the public at low prices. The federal government began the process of rechanneling its interests in homesteading the following year with the passage of the Housing and Community Development Act, re-selling properties acquired in FHA mortgage defaults; by 1980, 90 urban areas, from Benton Harbor, Michigan to New York City participated in such programs.
Unfortunately, by 1989, it had come to light that many urban homestead properties that were intended for “low income working people” had been transferred illegally to ineligible people (i.e. speculators with capital). Under the HUD Equity Restoration Act of 1989, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development was given the power revoke home sales and impose civil penalties on well-heeled carpetbaggers. In 1997, President Clinton announced a new urban homestead initiative, attempting to improve city homeownership by “cutting mortgage closing costs, helping police officers buy homes, using rental subsidies for home purchases and cracking down on housing discrimination.” The Urban Homestead Initiative remained a part of the HUD strategic plan as late as 2000.
So, in one form or another, it’s actually an old idea.
However, I have seen surprisingly little study with regard to the success of either the federal programs or the myriad of state and local urban homesteading programs that exist to this day. It seems to be accepted as a given that such programs will help to facilitate urban revitalization. What seems less clear is that such programs do anything to improve the plight of the urban poor.
One of the interesting recurring anecdotes of the Katrina aftermath are the stories of New Orleans residents, now finding themselves in Houston or Florida or LA, confirming that they have no intention of returning to New Orleans. They perhaps sense that there is more opportunity for them in a new environment -- and judging by what we have seen, we can hardly blame them for that.
One wonders if an urban homesteading program would actually draw any of the people President Bush would hope to draw back into New Orleans, or whether drawing low-income people back into New Orleans just for the sake of having them there is an altogether good idea – particularly if job creation lags behind resettlement.
Although I have nothing against a nationwide urban homesteading initiative, it would perhaps be a better bet, for the short term, to find ways to fund the cost of moving and temporarily resettling people (giving the Katrina homeless financial assistance to deal with rental and utility deposits, for example) in areas where work and opportunity can be found -- followed by a more robust initiative addressing home ownership for low-income individuals, wherever they may be located. While the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast is a worthy and important goal, let’s hope that federal housing and urban policy focuses on some of the systemic problems that existed before Katrina hit (though illustrated in its wake) and that continue to exist in its aftermath.