Monday, December 3, 2007

The Cost of Living

Members of our Saturday morning breakfast club listened as I shared with them my experiences of riding on the city bus. My brief experiment left me with an enormous admiration for the men and women who toil the way to get from point A to point B on public transportation.

It was the inspiration of a previous blog. The bus driver had to make a detour after missing a turn. The mistake meant those on the bus missed the transfer at the downtown bus terminal. After two days of riding the bus, I knew I lacked the stuff to do what those who travel on the bus do each day. I couldn’t handle the inconveniences that come with public transportation.

What followed disturbed me even more. Not one city official responded to my blog post. Not one. I send it to each of them, but no one serving on the city council, no one from the city manager’s office, felt the story was compelling enough to receive a response. Members of the Saturday morning breakfast club helped me sort out this a bit. It was clear to them, and to me, that the lack of reply is an upshot of the economic status of many who ride public transportation.

It saddens me to think of how hard life can be for those with limited resources. Riding the bus taught me a lesson-the people who make decisions for those with limited resources are functioning from the position of privilege. I know because of the assumptions I made before getting on the bus. I too believed that our public transportation system is suitable in meeting the needs of those who have no other option. That is not true. The system sucks!

The disconnection between the poor and those who decide for the poor leaves those lacking resources trapped in a vicious cycle of impairment. One thing leads to another, and another and then another. Public policies coupled with the greed of corporations leaves many left out in the cold with few options to pull themselves out of the muck.

Local examples of how greed, when married with government, can be a deadly combination are legion. As Durham resurrects its downtown and rebuilds the eyesores surrounding these developments, the poor suffer the most. The poor suffer when rent prices increase across the city while few jobs are created for those living on the fringes. Gentrification is a great occasion for those with the means to take advantage of all the change, while serving as the source of frustration for those who lack the means needed to find a way.

What happens to the poor when new things replace those dreaded places? Take a look at what’s happening down in New Orleans. Down in the Crescent City, the housing authority recently approved the demolition of 4,000 public housing units at five projects damaged by Hurricane Katrina. In their place, the authority plans to build mixed-income projects, large parts of which will not be affordable to previous residents.

The number of homeless men and women living under the bridges and in parks has increased. Social services providers say about 12,000 people are living in the city, about double the number before the storm.

Last week, FEMA announced that it would close all the trailer camps it runs by the end of May. More than 900 families are living in FEMA trailer parks around the city. In addition to the housing shortage, the cost for utilities has more than tripled over the past year, leaving many struggling to balance things.

It’s easy for us to point that wicked judgmental finger at officials in New Orleans. It’s always safe to uncover the dirt over there while failing to see the correlation to what you are doing over here.

The biggest threat to the poor in Durham is recent property-tax revaluations. Average assessed property values rose 135 percent. The biggest culprit is the revitalization of downtown. Greenfire, Scientific Properties, Maverick, and other developers, have received incentives from the city in the form of vast property tax breaks, while the citizens of Durham endure increases in their taxes due to the advances that come with the corporate incentive.

Increases in revaluations are passed through to tenants. These increases will impact the cost of renting in the city of Durham, a price that is already higher than in surrounding areas. Increase rent combined with rises in utilities makes it difficult for those void of resources to move past the drudgery of public transportation. They can’t buy a car, pay for the insurance, upkeep, registration and the high cost of gasoline, without letting something else go.

What would that be? They can’t afford health insurance. With rent and other necessities on the rise, they can’t afford to get sick. All of this while facing those with privilege who assume your state of existence is all because of some character flaw.

One thing leads to another. The hardest part is when the people driving their cars have no clue.