By Richard Marcantonio, Public Advocates Inc., for CarsonWatch
The cuts Trump proposes to vital HUD programs and other domestic spending would exacerbate a trend going back more than 35 years. Activists, who are fighting these cuts in cities across the country, know how hard they have fallen on vulnerable families and communities.
But there is another side to the story: those same federal spending cuts also serve to enrich mega-developers like Donald Trump and Jared Kushner. How does that work? And what are local activists doing about it?
Federal cuts going back to the Reagan administration have forced cities to do two things: adopt austerity measures, and chase new revenues to make up for the lost federal support. As Jason Hackworth notes in in The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism (Cornell 2006),
“Because of the reduction of national interventions in housing, local infrastructure, welfare, and the like, localities are forced either to finance such areas themselves or to abandon them entirely.”
As a result, writes Peter Moskowitz in How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood (2017), “American cities are now forced to rely completely on their tax base to pay for basic services.” He continues: “That can mean attracting the wealthy to cities, pushing out the poor (who are a drain on taxes), or both.”
Jersey City is in the midst of this dynamic right now, with none other than the Kushner Companies. Jared Kushner’s firm has proposed twin mega-projects at Journal Square, just a short ride on the PATH train from Manhattan, catering to the wealthy with 1,500 luxury apartments and high-end retail. Number of affordable housing units? Exactly zero, in a city with an official poverty rate of 19 percent.
The issue has gone global, with Kushner’s sister, Nicole Meyer, crossing ethical lines by pitching investors in China. But the local dimension is equally important. The city council will soon decide whether to grant Kushner’s request for a 30-year tax abatement and $30.4 million in bond financing. (One of the towers has already been awarded $93 million in state tax breaks by the Christie administration.) The rationale offered by a Kushner spokesman, according to the New York Times, is that the projects will bring “$180 million in tax revenue for Jersey City over the next 30 years.”
Any city council today would be tantalized by the sales tax those wealthy new residents will bring. But local activists, organized as Evict Trump-Kushner, are having none of it. And they are making their voices heard.
In February, the group launched a petition on Change.org, and turned out 100 protestors. One organizer quoted in a press report said, “We are here to send a message to Donald Trump and Jared Kushner that they can’t attack our communities and expect to profit off them.” And in March, an NPR story quoted another leader, school principle Oscar Velez:
“Can you imagine after raising all those divisions, all those racist sentiments, all those anti-immigrant statements, anti-Muslim statements, and now they want to come and profit from their development in the city? Well, sooner or later, some of us have to just stop and say enough is enough.”
Now they’ve won over the mayor, Steven Fulop, who has publicly stated that he is not supportive of more tax breaks for Kushner. That story appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday. Mayor Fulop had posted on Facebook that “I don’t foresee the council voting in favor” of the tax break.
This victory is about more than whether a single city will line the pockets of the Kushner family. It unveils the deeper connection between federal funding cuts and local giveaways to mega-developers. As Prof. Hackworth noted more than a decade ago, “Cities are the sites of both the most acute articulation of neoliberalism and of its most acute opposition.” Activism in places like Jersey City is proving his point.