Why Communities Must Pay Attention to the Shape of the Recovery Now

Written by Andrea Batista Schlesinger
The word “recovery” seems innocuous, even positive, but masks a set of decisions that will be made by people in power, decisions that will seem either neutral or inevitable. Yet, in each and every one of these decisions there will be winners and losers. We must learn now what is meant by recovery, what decisions will be made, and how best to leverage our collective power to influence direction and, therefore, the future of our cities.
If history is any indication, the people who are suffering disproportionately now will continue to do so in the recovery. In New Orleans, 10 years after Katrina, predominantly black neighborhoods such as New Orleans East had regained only 60% of their pre-Katrina population, while predominantly white neighborhoods with similar flood impacts had largely rebuilt. One factor in this disparity was the Road Home program, which funded home repairs and buyouts based on pre-storm market value rather than replacement value – leading to similar homes with similar needs receiving different levels of funding that closely tracked pre-existing racial divides. Over time and across crises, these disparities compound: a 2019 longitudinal study found that, between 1999 and 2013, white Americans living in counties that experienced major storms saw their wealth increase by $127,000, whereas black Americans in the same counties lost $27,000 in wealth. Indeed, white Americans in these counties were significantly better off than white Americans in counties unaffected by storms, while the reverse was true for black Americans. These gaps were statistically significant even after controlling for a variety of personal and locational factors.
The phases of virus-related action will be emergency response, stabilization, recovery, and then institutionalization. At each stage, decisions will be made that will have profound repercussions even if they don’t seem to be of great consequence. In the current, response phase of action, communities have finally gotten access to more – but still inadequate – testing. But who gets tested, and how? Until recently, in New York City, arguably the best transit-served city in the nation, 1/3 of testing sites required a vehicle to access; 55% of New Yorkers – and as many as 80% of households in some low-income communities – do not have a car. Cities are letting people out of jail for public health and humanitarian reasons. But why is there no plan for where these people will go for safe housing and access to health care?
Likewise, as we move into the recovery phase: Will environmental regulations be relaxed in the name of securing a return to economic strength? Will recovery require dependence on the commercial banking channels that currently under-serve small businesses, notably those operated by people of color and women? How will cities provide critical public services in the face of mounting fiscal deficits? Who will oversee recovery for local governments? Which projects will local governments put forward for federal funding? What do these financial and governance choices say about the vision for how a city will thrive going forward? More such questions could and should be posed with respect to the definition of essential workers and businesses; timing of lifting eviction and foreclosure moratoria; eligibility of populations to receive aid; and allocation of rent assistance, debt relief, and emergency resources.
The disproportionate suffering of vulnerable and marginalized populations is the result of public policy that has reinforced racism. We see this in the work that is valued (and even, permitted), in the capacity of health care facilities to tend to the ill, in individual health by race before this pandemic, and in the disregard for people living and dying in close proximity (homeless shelters, jails, nursing homes). These people are not visible as individuals; they are only their status.
This makes it all the more important that every decision about recovery must be interrogated, its apparent neutrality closely examined. Federal grantee community engagement requirements have been effectively eliminated, so communities will have to demand opportunities for input and engagement, to insist on more than fancy blue ribbon task forces of elites.
Of course, these same communities have the least amount of knowledge, organization, and power to influence the contours of the recovery. The organizations that serve these communities are already overwhelmed by the work of caring for and tending to those most devastated. There are exceptions, and we are already witness to brilliant organizing from some of our friends and clients, to cite three: LAANE in L.A. has won a right of return for laid off workers if those jobs come back. Pittsburgh United, the Riverside Center for Innovation, and the Economic Justice Circle achieved moratoria on evictions and utility shut offs, secured support for black-owned small businesses, and made it harder for landlords to commence eviction of tenants making complaints to the health department. The Texas Organizing Project, in coalition with partners, won $9 million to assist families excluded from the stimulus package in San Antonio, gained preliminary approval of a $15 million emergency fund in Harris County, and obtained a ruling that all Texans will have the right to vote by mail.
Creating a longer list of wins will require organizations with resources to support communities trying to engage in the recovery process — including learning the alphabet soup that is federal recovery programs, their timelines, requirements and parameters. If my experience is any indication, foundations are still in the emergency response phase, but now is the time to reserve some cash, energy, and focus to zero in on the decisions being made by localities, on their own or as required by the state and federal government for aid, and to make sure that the priorities of the communities that are typically left out are driving what is important. It will be too late for philanthropy to launch an initiative to address what comes of this recovery in a year.
The questions that communities will need to have the capacity to ask and, as importantly, have the capacity to be skeptical about the first answer they hear from the powers that be, will fall into the following basic categories: Who is making decisions, both formally and informally; what is within the purview of the locality? What is the process by which decisions will be made; on what basis and with what data? When will decisions be made, and, therefore, what are the moments of influence for effective organizing?
Animating my entire career has been the view that those who have access to the tools of power, the levers of policy making, win. This is especially true of the field of economic development, where power consistently tends toward the decisions that maintain racism and solicits gains for those who already have resources. I came to HR&A to work with communities around the country to seize the levers of economic development, so that they can coopt them and deploy them differently. I am up at night knowing that the forces with power are up at night planning for how this recovery can further their interests. Will the next pandemic hit our communities in these same disparate ways? If the answer is yes, we will all have failed.