Blog # 65 – The Scammification of Good Ideas


Progressive Planning and the Scammification of Good Intentions:
13 endangered ideas in urban affairs

“Watch what you say,” and particularly how you say it, if you want to make sure your meaning is clear. The language of urban planning and policy is full of treacherous terms, terms that are sometimes deliberately used to suggest a meaning the opposite of what their speakers actually intend — in short, language scams. A language scam is one that uses a term, a goal, a proposal, generally given a favorable democratic and social-justice- oriented term to cover over or even to justify actions that in reality produce injustice and reinforce existing inequalities of wealth and power. In other words, to turn a good idea into a scam.
Listed below are some language scams in current use, often innocently, sometimes not. They include:
1. Affordable
2. Diversity
3. Exclusion/Inclusion
4. Discriminnation
5. Community Control
6. Participation
7. Participatory Budgeting
8. Infrastructure
9. Investment
10. Community Economic Development
11. Density
12. Community Land Trusts
13. Ethics

1. “Affordable.” Mayor de Blasio’s current housing proposal is intended to provide housing for low and moderate income households unable to afford market rate housing because of limited means. As used in his proposals for inclusionary housing, a certain percentage (more on this below) of new market-rate housing should be subjected to a requirement of setting aside for “affordable” units. But to count as affordable a household earning up to 130% of the area median income in New York City is. That means folks earning up to $$110,000 a year are considered low and moderate. That means able to pay up to $2,700 a month in rent. That is virtually identical with what the market would produce without the inclusionary requirement, In other words, it purports to help people needing help, but does so at trivial cost to the developers of market rate and luxury housing. That use of “affordable” is a scam. If the intent is to help those really needing he help, it might be better called “housing for low and lower income households ,”often taken to mean below 30% for the former, below 60% for the later, and based at local, not metropolitan, income levels.

2. “Diversity.” Most people would consider diversity to be a good thing in housing: having people of different races, religions, genders, family composition, living together. Indeed, even Federal legislation, in the use, establishes “protected classes” against whom discrimination in housing is prohibited. The intent is presumably to expand the range of opportunities for those with limited options because they are the subjects of actual or potential discrimination. But taken literally , it can either mean the greater inclusion of, say, African-Americans or Hispanics or immigrants in conventional private housing of the better off, or the entry of the better off within the dominant groups into the housing of those protected groups: specifically, gentrification to provide “diversity” by displacing them in favor of the richer. Ringing poorer folk into richer neighborhoods is good diversity; bringing richer folk into poorer neighborhoods, without more, is bad diversity. And that “more” means making their accommodation feasible and productive for the newcomers, promoting interaction. (See Exclusion/Inclusion” below).

3. “Exclusion/Inclusion.” Exclusionary practices are almost universally condemned, at least in theory. Opening up all-white suburbs to black occupancy has long been a goal of progressive planning. Its purpose is seen as expanding he opportunities of those opportunities otherwise limited. But affirmative policies to expand such opportunities produces opposition from those ending with reduced opportunities by being placed lower on the waiting list for a given unit. The goal is fairer inclusion of those otherwise denied opportunities. That’s simply the nature of the beast: for every inclusion of one there is necessarily some impact on the possibility of including another. Where the possibilities are limited, an exclusion of another. The point is whom the particular policy helps and whom it hurts; does it promote fairness or reinforce injustice. A policy that limits the displacement associated with gentrification to some extent excludes some who would like to gentrify.
Further, “Inclusion” can simply mean the being together in some larger scale of housing, say a building or a neighborhood, at the same time, often judged simply by a count of how many of this kind are in that unit of measurement compared to how many of the others, i.e. is it 10% to 90% white or 30% black to 70% white. But simple occupancy statistics do not reflect the success or failure of the effort to produce inclusion. Indeed some who would otherwise not such good housing do get something better than they would otherwise have. But that result by itself might be even better obtained, and at less cost, elsewhere, without being “included.” Quantitative inclusion, inclusion measured simply by the count and location of households is not desired result of inclusion—integration, contact, communication, mutual learning and mutual respect, enrichment of experience, greater knowledge of the world, is what is wanted. Perhaps “interactive inclusion” and “oppressive exclusion” would be more useful formulations.
4. “Discrimination.” Chief Justice Roberts of the United States Supreme Court has said, in condemning affirmative action to overcome discrimination based on race: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” meaning stop taking race into account in considering any actions. Catchy the statement may be, but it’s obvious nonsense. How can you tell if someone or some policies discriminates on the basis of race if you don’t look at the race of those affected? If taking race into account to end discriminating on the basis of race, so be it: it’s using attention to race to prevent discrimination, not to practice it. If in individual cases the facts also operate to deprive a member of a discriminating group, from benefiting from membership in that group , whether that result is intended or not, is consistent with most concepts of justice, and is an inevitable result of the existence of discrimination in the society at large

5. “Community Control.” The principle of community control” is widely , and properly, considered a core principle of progressive planning It has been developed as a form of planning, community-based planning,” and is logically being pushed as a reaction to police oppression in minority communities in the form of community control of the police. There is no doubt of the intent here, but its application in practice is potentially treacherous. Giving racist and exclusionary communities control of planning promotes oppressive exclusion; giving a white racist community control of police in its community would promote, not restrain, oppressive policing. Calling what is desired “equitable community control,” or “community control in disempowered communities” might be an alternative. In the 60’s, “people’s control” might have worked, or “populist community control.” The important point is that there needs to be equity-oriented discrimination either in what communities are given enhanced control or in centrally established and binding standards for what action at the community level are permitted and which are not, coupled with requirements of participation (see below) and transparency and democratic representation in the involved communities, would be part of a progressives interpretation of community control.

6. “Participation.” Participation is a core concept in democratic governance, a front burner issue since at least Paul Davidoff and the early 1960’s. But what participation accomplishes depends very much on who is participating, for what, and with what effect. The implicit assumption is that many even in presumably democratic societies are in fact excluded from participating, and if the excluded were allowed in, the results would be better and more equitable. But the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Communities United case allowing unlimited money contributions political issues can also be termed, as indeed it as by the Court, a move to expand the rights of participation, by the poor very rich who shouldn’t be prevented from participating to the full extent of their ability. But their fuller participation in fact reduces the meaning of the participation of the large majority of the non-rich. The slogan of “participation” is intended to bring those non-rich more fully into the political process. In that use, it is and should be a politically loaded term, and speaking of “democratic participation,” with the adjective emphasized, is perhaps a better language to convey its progressive meaning.

7. “Participatory Budgeting.” Participatory budgeting is a front-burner demand in a growing number of communities, and is aimed at allowing expanded democratic participation into a part of government that has decisive impact on what government does but is usually substantially removed from detailed influence by the many affected by it. In New York City each City Council member is entitled to direct the expenditure of a limited amount of of the city’s budget to purposes of his or her choice, with almost unlimited discretion as to how this is done. Co-ordinated organizing efforts succeeded in involving hundreds of residents in community meetings where real alternatives were discussed and real decisions made. In the larger order of things, the results were very small, yet they were positive examples of how democracy is supposed to work. But it took major efforts to achieve those results, and if they end up giving the illusion that democracy has triumphed and control over the city’s budget has shifted, the result can be less, rather than more vigorous, participation where it counts more. Again, speaking always of democratic participatory budgeting, and constantly pressing for its expansion to a larger and larger scope, can help preserve the good intentions of the movement.

8. “Infrastructure.” Investment in infrastructure is often put forward as an unquestionable good: it promotes economic development, provides jobs, should protect the environment, is non-political. But in fact it is very political; it promotes certain types of economic development, does nothing for others – helps real estate development, by-passes issues of education or criminal justice, by-passes and excludes other needs. It is community economic development, but for some communities much more than for others.

9. “Investment.” As with infrastructure, investment is generally considered in principle a good thing, and non-political, but, as with infrastructure , both public and private investment have very clear distributional results, helping some, often at the expense of others , as when investment in automation brings lay-offs and unemployment. Without equity-oriented cost-benefit analysis, socially-oriented investment cannot be differentiated from mere profit-enhancing investment, and the difference can be great.

10. “Community Economic Development.” Without clear definitions as to what is meant – generally, development assistance to those with restricted opportunities living in poor communities, the phrase can equally well be used to justify development activities that simply increase the value of real estate in a community, result in gentrification and displacement of resident,, profits for a few (bringing up average incomes, but not medians – watch out! – and is much more and very differently desirable in some communities than in others. Equitable community economic development might clarify the intent.

11. “Density.” In New York City, at least “density” is a term very much in vogue. Increased density is presented as a good planning response to desirable population growth, and indeed it can serve that purpose. But increasing density can also mean encouraging high-rise luxury condominiums and towers for the financial industry, on the one hand, and over-crowding in squalid housing for many others. Mumbai, in India, for instance, is a graphic example of producing both at once. In New York City, the support of the Real Estate Board for proposals to encourage density suggests who the expected beneficiaries are likely to be. Discussing “density” without discussing its racial and class implications , produced a very one-sided content for the term

12. “Community Land Trusts.” Community land trusts provide a legal form of land ownership that removes the ownership of land from the speculative market and provides residents opportunities for reduced housing costs and increased input into the management of their housing and strengthened integration with their communities through a democratic composition of their trustee boards to include neighbors as well as residents, with very desirable results. But they do not provide a solution to the big problems confronting a growing segment of the entire population, which have to do with unaffordable costs, many of which are incurred in a private market system in which the ownership of land itself is only one component of the profit potential the housing system opens up, in which the costs of financing, for instance, lay an ever increasing role. And community land trusts can be, and were often historically, used to exclude, by giving existing occupants control over in-movers, as well as to broaden democratic. If community land trusts are seen as the solution to the problems of housing the majority face, they can be diversionary rather than exemplary . They are one good alternative form of tenure within the larger housing system, but not a remedy for all its ills. They require different considerations for different types of communities, which may run from inclusionary to exclusionary, poor to rich, integrated to homogeneous. And their relationship to economic development poses other challenges; for instance, for manufacturing areas, what does “community” mean? Community land trusts are a tool, not themselves a goal, unless they are first steps in a campaign to decommodify land as such.

13. “Ethics.” No one would argue that ethical behavior is undesirable, or that corruption is a good way of doing things. But ethics is the term for a course of individual conduct, not the characteristic of a system a social order, an institutional arrangement, a distributional goal. In planning, the requirement that planners act ethically has been interpreted by its professional association in its Code of Ethics, thus far at least, as imposing enforceable obligations of transparency, allegiance to client’ interests and avoidance of conflicts of interest, technical competence, honesty in representations made to others. Ethics, as thus viewed, does not address issues of social justice, equity in results, desirable distributional impacts of planning decisions; those are at best considered in the Code as aspirations of the profession, their consideration not enforceable mandates. Without considering justice at least one substantive and enforceable criterion goal of all professional activity, speaking of ethics of planning addresses only issues of how things are done, not what is done, and misrepresents the standards by which good planning should be judged.

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So all of the above terms are, as generally understood, rife with the values of social justice, equality, and democracy, but all are in danger of scammification, or perversion to achieve the opposite of what most take to be their intent .If progressive planning, is to Expose, Propose, and Politicize, the necessity to expose the ambiguity of such terms becomes a critical starting point—not to accept them as having an obvious and universally understood meaning, but rather to dig into them see what their real content is. Without clarifying their meaning when they are used they become hollow words, hollow concepts, and the danger of Scammification is great.

Progressive planning means practical radical planning that goes to the roots of problems as well as ameliorating their immediate undesired aspects. Therefore exposing what these terms, this language, actually means in any given situation, their potentials and their darker side, is an important and indeed unavoidable constant task for progressive planners. And it is not always an easy thing to do; the line between a well-intended but inadequately thought-through use of these terms and a scam is a sometimes a hard line to draw, but it has to be done.

Good planning, in our time, is still a very vulnerable baby, and its surroundings are full of hot air and very hot water. Scamification can scald it. Progressive planning can help protect it.

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