History, History Column

Neighborhood Composition Rule

Neighborhood Composition Rule

Written by Sarah Becker © 2016

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944In 1932 America was in the throes of the Great Depression. Thirteen million people were unemployed and, because of this, newly elected Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt was given unprecedented authority to jumpstart the economy. His first 100 days, starting March 4, 1933 were action packed.

Roosevelt traded Jim Crow and his newly created Neighborhood Composition Rule for Democratic passage of New Deal legislation. The Neighborhood Composition Rule assured southern Democrats, segregated cities like Alexandria that the new federal presence would not alter the existing racial composition of any given project area.

“The southern attitude toward the Negro provides the bedrock of southern sectionalism,” V.O. Key, Jr. wrote. “Democratic Congressman Howard W. Smith, of Alexandria, was even more extreme than Virginia Democratic Senator Harry F. Byrd.” Southern Democrats, typically segregationists voted as a Congressional bloc 85% of the time.

The Public Works Administration was created soon after passage of the National Industry Recovery Act of 1933. It was designed to make grants to Federal and local bodies for various types of construction, construction which included public housing. The PWA was a New Deal construction agency whose policies “effectively established…an overwhelmingly, inner-city, multi-family, rental non-white, public housing program.

“Because many urban neighborhoods then housed both black and white (mostly immigrant) low-income families, the Neighborhood Composition Rule resulted in placing all black housing projects in neighborhoods that were only partially black, further concentrating the black population.” The victim of late-19th, early-20th century segregation policies, Alexandria’s Braddock cum Old Town neighborhood (Census Tract 16) developed a disproportionate share of concentrated public housing.

Ramsey HomesThe Braddock neighborhood, mostly mapped in 1798, is of two eras. Described now as diverse, it is promoted historically as black. In 1870 census data was reported by ward. In Ward Three, the Braddock neighborhood’s black population was 1,724 or 37% of Ward Three’s total. In 1924 segregated black residents were 50.88% of the population. In 1947 they were 55.98%.

The Federal Housing Administration was the first federal agency to openly support racial division. Three out of every five American homes purchased between 1930 and 1950 were financed by the Federal Housing Administration. Fewer than 2% of FHA loans were made to non-white home buyers.

“If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes,” the 1947 Federal Housing Administration underwriting manual explained.

“In planning diversity typically refers to mixed land use,” Bill Klein, Director of Research for the American Planning Association explained in 2009. “But sometimes it includes socio-economic profiles, a diversity of population or outcome.” In Alexandria’s Braddock neighborhood concentrated public housing settlements are genteelly referred to as communities. On June 10, in the wake of Pierre Clark’s daylight murder, Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook referred not to concentrated public housing settlements, but “concentrations of poverty.”

“The term deconcentration has become central to Federal housing policy,” HUD’s Journal of Policy Development and Research said. “But what do we actually mean by neighborhood quality and income diversity? Neighborhood characteristics include access, especially to good schools and informal [referral] networks; presence of good adult role models and the absence of negative influence from peers, and low levels of crime and violence.”

In November 1941 the United States, not yet at war, “already equaled the world war I record for the number of American vessels sunk or damaged by torpedoes.” Federal workers sent to Alexandria to manufacture torpedoes found housing in short supply. The local Housing Registration Office “encouraged the conversion of Alexandria homes into multiple family dwellings as a means of relieving the housing shortage.”

In December 1941 “Alexandria’s Beverly Hills area together with the North Ridge Civic Association opposed a huge housing project favored by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Speaker after speaker, some 250 strong, warned that construction of the project would lop off more than half a million dollars from the aggregate value of adjoining residential properties.” Alexandria’s segregated Rule insured the intact survival of both neighborhoods.

The city’s first segregated public housing was constructed in 1942 in the Braddock neighborhood; the 90 unit white-only John Roberts and the still standing, 15 unit black-only Ramsey Homes. The Federal Public Housing Authority’s pre-fabricated, concrete slab Ramsey Homes—“an experimental project for Negro war workers”—was leased to the Alexandria Housing Authority, now the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, beginning November 1942. AHA acquired the Homes in 1947 and by 1957 its public housing program was “paternal in its management; crude and segregated.…”

“Inner cities will go on losing too much of the Negro middle class almost as fast as it forms until, in actual fact, the choice of remaining there no longer means an implied acceptance of ghetto citizenship and status,” influential author Julia Jacobs concluded. “In short, unslumming is at the very least inhibited by discrimination.”

Neighborhood construction continued through 1967, despite the 1954 Brown decision. In 1970 the Braddock neighborhood, Census Tract 16 was 92.2% black. Did the Braddock neighborhood gentrify or did bottled-up, middle class black residents amscr? Split by income and class?

From the City of Alexandria’s 1981 Annual Report: “The 1970-1980 population figures, by race, show that a geographical shift of the City’s blacks has taken place, so that the area immediately east of the RF&P Railroad Tracks (Census Tract 16), traditionally a predominantly black neighborhood, has lost over 1300 black residents in the decade.” Black lawyer and HUD employee A. Melvin Miller was among the middle class homeowners who fled. The 1968 Fair Housing Act, Virginia’s 1972 Fair Housing law were their path to freedom.

Scholars describe affordable housing as a means to an end. To house defense workers during world wars, to create jobs, and or to stimulate the economy generally. Today one-third of Alexandria’s Resolution 830 low income public housing units remain concentrated in the Braddock neighborhood. The 24 unit Pendleton Park Apartments and other recent set asides, including The Bradley, are in addition.

ARHA’s business model varies, and if Ramsey Homes is an example, its properties are poorly maintained. Financial accountability is wanting and city bailouts include ARHA-Glebe Park (2008). The issue is not availability of rental housing. It is price point; re-segregation and ARHA’s failure to consistently disperse. John Roberts was wholly off-sited.

Alexandria, in 1990, had the lowest level of owner-occupied housing of any Northern Virginia jurisdiction. Sixty percent of Alexandria’s total housing units were renter-occupied, the 17th highest in the United States. Today—25 years later—57.4% of Alexandria’s occupied housing units are renters. That said ARHA’s redevelopment plans, when combined with increasing land values and the failure to off-site, give Roosevelt’s Neighborhood Composition Rule new verve.

“Zoning is the filter for determining what actually gets built,” Klein reminded. “It is a local power and there are all these fiefdoms.” Fiefdom: something over which one person or group exercises control.

“Pulling poor people all in one place is terrible,” Klein who retired in 2013 concluded. “Concentrated public housing settlements are not a good idea. Residents should be dispersed.”

“The Braddock Road area has become familiar with tragedy,” The Alexandria Gazette wrote on June 16. “The [June 8] murder is the third within the same three block radius, near the Braddock Road Metro Station, in the last year.”

In Alexandria, “public housing was first created during the 1930s to provide decent, safe, and sanitary low-cost housing…to predominantly working-class and middle-class households,” the 2008 Braddock East Plan explains. “However, over time, public housing has evolved to house lower-income families…[today] over 83% of public housing households are extremely low income…The result is…less than desirable living conditions and other negative impacts for both public housing residents and the surrounding community.”

ARHA’s 2012 strategic plan does not include dispersal of the Braddock neighborhood’s public housing population. It claims dispersal is hard, an off-site cost is implied, and only 50+ unit buildings are profitable. ARHA’s land parcels date from the city’s segregated past. The settlements management structures differ; police and social services costs are rarely addressed, still ARHA residents speak publicly regarding domestic violence, murder and crime.

“If I lived here [Braddock] I would petition the Mayor and Council to disperse public housing,” a police official told the West Old Town Citizens Association on June 9. On July 2 a fourth murder occurred.

To paraphrase Johnny Cochran: if you contain it, you must explain it.

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