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Town & Gown
October 3, 2000

Town & Gown

How do racism, poverty, and inequality impact housing issues?

by Elliott Lauderdale

The Race Relations and Housing and Social Services Committees of Mobile United are sponsoring an Unfinished Business Conversation for the community at the Dearborn Community Center at 321 North Warren Street (Off Congress Street, East of Broad) from 7:00 to 9:00 P.M. October 18, 2000. Call Mobile United at 432-1638 for additional information about the meeting.

Panel participants will include Mobile Fair Housing, attorneys involved in the Mitchell Brothers, Inc. (MBI) housing discrimination lawsuit whose settlement established the Mobile Fair Housing office, representatives of the City of Mobile Environmental Court, Consumer Credit Counseling, and area bankers and realtors. This is an open community meeting for anyone interested in housing issue and in assuring fair housing practices for everyone in our region.

Unfinished Business Conversations started in Mobile as part of a 1998 initiative of the Center for the Study of the American South to commemorate a 1938 Conference for Human Welfare held in Birmingham. The original multi-racial meeting was interrupted by the Birmingham police, who insisted on the segregation of the races. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's answer to this dictum was to sit in the middle of the aisle between blacks and whites. One result of the recent Birmingham meeting was a New Southern Agenda which states: We believe that the multiracial, multicultural

South of the new millennium can and must lead the nation to the fullest realization of its stated ideals and principles." One of the five top-priority issues identified in this Agenda was "Every person in our community to have access to a safe, comfortable, and affordable place to live and grow, free from environmental hazards."

Mobile United and participants in Unfinished Business Community Meetings have kept the conversations on racism, poverty and inequality going. Meetings have been held at the University of South Alabama, Prince of Peace, Central Presbyterian Church, Dumas Wesley Center, the Civic Center, and the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission offices (SARPC). The race relations committee meets the first Wednesday in each month at SARPC. The next meeting, which will finalize planning for the October 18 meeting, will be held on October 4 at 7:30 in the SARPC conference room. All interested citizens are invited. Mobile United recently polled past participants and found that they would like to hold more discussions in their neighborhoods, and the Race Relations Committee has agreed to provide trainers to help neighborhoods hold future meetings. In past meetings during the past two years, committees have discussed a range of related problems.

Since housing is a regular concern, the Race Relations and Social Services and Housing committees of Mobile United decided to hold a community-wide meeting to address the history and nature of the problem and possible solutions. They have made every effort to invite stakeholders and citizens from all our communities. Notices have gone to past Unfinished Business (UFB) participants, the press, churches, day care centers, United Way agencies, housing associations, and day care centers. Sandi Forbus of Mobile United noted that several bank leaders have called asking about participating in this meeting. With broad public participation we have an opportunity to understand problems such as: habitability, access to mortgages and affordable housing, redlining, racial steering, weak transportation, walled communities, the lack of evenhanded development for all depressed areas, the need for integration within neighborhoods, white flight, unequal services for black and white neighborhoods, and other issues that have been noted at past UFB meetings.

One of the reasons that housing has come to the fore recently is the refusal of neighbors to welcome a facility for the homeless in downtown Mobile. As district attorney John Tyson noted in the August meeting of Mobile United, racism exists when people say things such as "that's their problem over there in Prichard." Pollution and crime are not confined by city or neighborhood lines. Similarly, a participant in an Unfinished Business meeting noted "Poverty is an issue we have in common...Safety and crime can be prevented if we build safe neighborhoods and neighborhood economies to provide meaningful work...We want to go anywhere and feel safe."

Envision Mobile-Baldwin also emphasizes the importance of fair access to housing. The Human, Class and Race Relations Strategies are to "provide flexible subdivision regulations and zoning that encourages mixed-use development with broad socio-economic characteristics to promote higher levels of neighbor interaction and reduced automotive traffic."

An advantage of the ongoing Envision process is its focus on Progress Indicators. One indicator available from census data noted in David Johnson's study, "Mobile County in Black and White," is Black/White residential segregation in the Mobile Metropolitan statistical area. In Mobile this index moved from an index of .69 in 1980 to .66 in 1990. This slight decline in segregation leaves us .06 behind the regional average, but .05 ahead of Pittsburgh.

In the section on infrastructure, Envision emphasizes the community goals of: providing affordable housing on a regional basis, addressing the problem of slum and absentee landlords, and enforcing minimum standards for rental housing.

Homelessness is a serious problem in our community that was noted is several community meetings. "One can find mattresses and clotheslines under our overpasses," said Sociologist Cecelia Formicella. Cecelia is working with John Bolland of the University of Alabama to examine the demography of homelessness, the characteristics of the homeless population, and agency responsiveness to needs. On the night of September 29, 2000 these researchers took a census of the homeless sleeping in and out of shelters.

The Unfinished Business meetings ask for examples of what is working. Some UFB participants noted the strength of mixed neighborhoods in the midtown area, Habitat for Humanity, L'Arche, Accessible Housing Programs such as the Independent Living Center and Volunteers of America, and some efforts of the Housing Board to provide quality affordable housing.

It is hoped that this meeting will move us toward doing better on the unfinished business of ensuring fair housing and building strong diverse communities.


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