Sordid tale of redevelopment history 

It was a different town in 1964. Republicans actually frolicked in Union Square as, over in Daly City’s Cow Palace, they were about to offer up Sen. Barry Goldwater as their sacrificial nominee against President Lyndon B. Johnson. That year a young scholar named Martin Anderson published "The Federal Bulldozer: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal 1949-62," which chronicled the disastrous effects of the then-modern assault on property rights. The worst blows were dealt to the poor.

Apparently, city officials skipped Anderson’s book, among the first of the devastating studies of such grandiose urban makeovers. The poor — or shall we just call them residents of a "blighted" area? — wouldn’t be a problem. LBJ’s "war on poverty" would take care of them. The way was clear to bulldoze their dwellings in the Fillmore, all for what those officials imagined as human betterment.

The humane way to treat these targeted residents, reasoned the officials, turned out to be a model of how high-minded government too often thinks about flesh-and-blood individuals. If it hurts to be forced out of your houses and businesses, The City advised these people, just know that you’re doing it for your own good and for that of the community. And here, by the way, is a promissory note — good for well into the next century — that gives you and your children dibs on new properties in redeveloped areas.

Lo! The next century has arrived, and you might be forgiven if you suspect some of those planners didn’t plan on being around as their promises came due. The Redevelopment Agency dispensed with 4,719 of these certificates to families and 883 to businesses, casually expecting the thus blessed recipients to stick around. Or maybe not.

What we know now is that only 1,099 of the family recipients cashed in the notes, so to speak, on new homes. The other 3,055? The City has lost all contact with them. Only 39 of the business owners took advantage of The City’s advertised generosity. The other 590? Scattered with the winds.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi finds this sordid history unconscionable, understandably so, and has called for a hearing with the objective of holding the Redevelopment Agency accountable. It is not, however, clear what accountability means in this context, so many of the affected individuals and responsible players having truly moved on. And there are more universal lessons that this history, added to all the empirical evidence gathered since 1964, can teach.

One is the mischievous fiction that seizing private property can actually help the poor, whose tenuous grasp on something they can parlay into a future is no match for the coercive power of government. Another is that The City’s political class should burn this ugly episode into its collective heart before contemplating its next redevelopment projects.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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