Over the last few days, I’ve seen a number of urbanists claiming that even if Donald Trump does deport millions of undocumented immigrants, ban abortion, eliminate health care coverage for 20 million Americans, and devalue the lives of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities, at least he’ll be “good for cities.”
After all (the argument goes), Trump is a developer, and a New Yorker—which makes him fundamentally urbanist, right? I mean, check it out: Not only did he help build the biggest, most urban city in the nation, he made a promise to “rebuild America’s inner cities,” which could definitely use some sidewalks and pothole fixes. And he vowed to spend $1 trillion on “rebuilding America’s infrastructure”—which can only be good news for mass transit, sidewalks, and crumbling city streets. (Finally, a Pothole President!) And just think: By clearing away local and state regulations that hamper housing production—like environmental laws that keep housing away from freeways, and zoning restrictions that draw borders around developable areas–President Trump will clear the way for a new urbanist renaissance.
Bullshit. Trump would be a disaster for cities, and not just because his ascension represents a total rejection of the diversity of thoughts, ideas, opinions, and people that makes cities great. He would be a disaster for cities because every policy he has espoused is (like his largely rural support base) profoundly anti-urban—and if you believe, as I do, that Trump means what he says, then it’s time to take a gimlet-eyed look at what Trump has said he will do in, and to, cities. Urbanists must stop indulging in the fantasy that there is a “real” Donald Trump who supports investments in public transit, urban housing, and programs that will give poor people in cities opportunities to succeed. There is only one Donald Trump. Here is what that Donald Trump seems likely, based on his own words and actions, to do.
• Cut federal funding for mass transit.
When Republicans talk about transportation “infrastructure,” they mean, first, big highway projects, and second, roads and bridges in rural areas. The GOP platform adopted this year says this quite explicitly. “One fifth of (trust) funds are spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities,” it says. “We propose to phase out the federal transit program.” Sound Transit 3, which voters overwhelmingly adopted Tuesday, relies heavily on that transit program–it includes $5 billion in matching funds from the federal government—as do most of the transit funding measures passed by urban voters across the nation last week.
• Privatize roads, highways and bridges–and leave those that can’t turn a profit to crumble.
If you think a President Trump will not only renege on his party’s promise but reject it wholeheartedly then you haven’t looked at his infrastructure plan. In effect, Trump’s proposal would privatize the nation’s roads, bridges, and highways by providing tax credits to subsidize $1 trillion in private investment in infrastructure. Companies would make their money back for charging people to drive on those roads, bridges, and highways, and any project that doesn’t pencil out—that is, that doesn’t turn a profit for investors—won’t get built. (On Friday, Trump announced his pick to head up his “transportation and infrastructure” team—literal asphalt lobbyist Martin Whitmer.)
This will lead not only to a widening gap between poor counties and cities and wealthy ones, but a disinvestment in inner-city transit infrastructure. (picture wealthy exurban homeowners driving on pristinely maintained toll roads while overcrowded buses ferry carless city dwellers through traffic-jammed, pothole-riddled streets. Rail and express-bus lines that serve the suburbs will be able to pay for themselves through higher user fees, but public transit, which relies heavily on federal funding as well as local subsidies, won’t. (Think about it: Even if King County Metro raised bus fare to, say, $10 a ride—about what it would cost absent other funding sources—the vast majority of riders would be forced to stop riding, making the system unprofitable. Oh, and there’s that whole equity and social justice thing.)
Privatization also creates a perverse incentive for builders to cut corners and endanger public safety, by saving costs on bridge reinforcement, for example, or using less-reliable or less-durable materials. It also means that cities whose citizens can’t afford to pay for improvements themselves—say, struggling citizens of Flint, Michigan poisoned by lead in their water pipes, or parents in low-income school districts with school buildings that are unsafe and out-of-date—will be left behind. Inner cities aren’t the crumbling, post-apocalyptic hellscapes Trump made them out to be on the campaign trail—far from it—but his privatization plans would send them spiraling in that direction.
• Eliminate some federal housing subsidies, and abandon commitments to fair housing made by President Obama.
Trump hasn’t yet said who he’ll appoint to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and in fact, the issue of housing—particularly housing for the homeless, a population that has boomed in cities even as the economy has recovered—didn’t really come up during the campaign. That’s a shame, because it would be instructive to know how Trump plans to address the growing crisis, which has led three West Coast cities (including Seattle) and Hawaii to declare an official state of emergency.
Seattle, in response to HUD policies under Obama that direct federal funds into “rapid rehousing” vouchers, recently released a plan called “Pathways Home” that reflects this approach, but if HUD dramatically changes direction, reducing the federal subsidies on which cities like Seattle rely or relying on privatization schemes like the one Trump has proposed to pay for other kinds of infrastructure, cities could find themselves trying to dig out of an ever-deeper funding hole. (That’s assuming that those cities that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities” for immigrants, including Seattle, still receive any federal funding at all).
Trump’s family, famously, was accused of discriminating against African American tenants in New York City in the 1970s, when Trump was president of Trump Industries. (A New York Times investigation uncovered “a long history of racial bias at his family’s properties, in New York and beyond.”) On the campaign trail this year, Trump vowed to overturn a rule adopted by the Obama administration called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which requires local jurisdictions that receive federal housing funds to address housing segregation and other disparities in housing access, in part by encouraging affordable housing development in more affluent, whiter neighborhoods. Right-wing outlets and pundits, from the Daily Caller to the Daily Sturmer, effusively praised Trump for his promise to reject Obama’s efforts to, as one alt-right site put it, “force ‘diversity’ on white neighborhoods.”
One day after the election, Mayor Ed Murray said he would consider floating another levy (in addition to the $290 million housing levy voters adopted earlier this year) to address the city’s homelessness crisis. As the impact of Trump’s presidency sets in, we’ll see how serious he is about that idea.
• Adopt policies that make the homelessness and addiction crises worse.
Last year, the One Night Count of the homeless counted about 10,000 homeless people living in King County, about half of them sleeping unsheltered. (Service providers suggest doubling that amount to get an accurate figure). Reducing that number will require funding not just for housing but for drug and alcohol treatment, mental health care, and job assistance.
Trump hasn’t said anything specific about dealing with those root causes of homelessness, but his health care plan consists of repealing the Affordable Care Act, which will leave some 20 million Americans, most of them lower-income, without health care. That includes mental health care, including treatment for addiction. Meanwhile, Trump’s only public statements about drug addiction have consisted of wonderment that an opiate epidemic could exist in America’s beautiful rural areas (“How does heroin work with these beautiful lakes and trees?”), and a promise to build a wall with Mexico to cut off the flow of drugs, War on Drugs-style. Neither of these statements bodes well for reducing the addiction epidemic, or for helping people who are homeless because of addiction get housing and health care.
This is far from a comprehensive list of reasons urbanists, and those who love cities, should be alarmed about the next four years—there’s also the promised crackdown on religious and sexual minorities, the prospect of mass deportations, the rejection of climate science, and the imposition of a 1950s good-ol-boy culture that is fundamentally provincial, anti-intellectual, and conformist. The next four years will reveal how much of this vision Trump manages to inflict on America, and how much cities react by pulling up the drawbridges and becoming not so much urban archipelagos as urban islands.
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