Can we make Chattanooga “the best town ever, for everybody,” if we reject the democratizing effect of a free market?
This question arises from a reading of the report, “Negro removal in Chattanooga; the impact of market based displacement on communities of color,” put out by Chattanooga Organized for Action from the hand of Ken Chilton, an associate professor at Tennessee State University in Nashville.
By David Tulis / NoogaRadio 92.7
His 17-page study decries the loss of inexpensive housing and land in Chattanooga which comes from rising values and gentrification, the increasingly more profitable use of land in certain parts of town, purchased by middle- and upper-class white people. The damaging effects of gentrification are that poor people, minorities and others not well-to-do are pushed out of their cheaper homes in the city and forced to relocate, often with whites replacing blacks as sections rise in quality and dollar valuation.
The report blames insiders for some of the problems it describes. But then it appears to count on the same sort of people to be part of the solution.
Insofar as this report neglects an accounting of the lack of free market in property use in Chattanooga, it will keep from view the solution to the problems it describes and the data it lays out.
In a nutshell, the only way to address the inequities that appear to be unjust are to remove from the property use marketplace the government, zoning controls, land use regulations and other barriers to entry that make it more difficult for properties to find their best and highest use.
In an unfree market such as that in Chattanooga, decisions by big players controlling many properties tend to be undemocratic and to damage the poor, the study suggests. But the study does not review its own data and look twice at its own premises, and so does not propose that a freer market tends to have a more democratic benefit. A free market tends to make big insiders not as important. A free market reduces the role of any one large player, people with political clout, taxpayer-funded clout, government clout or wealth.
If there were a free market in Chattanooga, the power of the few is reduced and the power of each individual person not in that group is expanded.
Zoning and zoning control let us identify the leading and primary player in the Chattanooga housing market. And that insider is the city itself, its corporation and the people who are on it, often people with real estate connections and an interest in property values, places, structures and the city’s physical aspect.
The study rightly highlights this problem in the third sentence of its analysis at the end of the report. “The people who call these neighborhood’s home are stuck. The communities have been radically altered by public-private partnerships that promoted economic development over other values. The hopes and dreams of all Chattanoogans have not been represented in decisions that reward investors and speculators over working class households” P. 13 (italics added). The elite show up in the executive summary, too. ““Decisions about community development are largely controlled by insiders,” p. 2.
When government becomes involved in business and regulating business, it often operates through these very entities, “public-private partnerships.”
These always let insiders, wealthy business people, politically connected individuals, and old family representatives with money play an important role in what gets built and where.
In a genuinely free market in properties and houses, there are no insiders. People with money can obviously do more than people who don’t have money. But the distortion of a controlled economy always favors the insiders and always does disfavors the poor, as in this case, African-Americans and other minorities. The study chafes at the idea of insiders, but because it doesn’t offer a liberty oriented analysis, cannot escape their influence and cannot condemn them.
It refers to “a broad community coalition,” “community support” for a project. It refers to “signatories” of community benefit agreements (aka stakeholders). It talks about “civic leaders” and the need to embark on a new Renaissance. It talks about “leaders.” it mentions “new partnerships.”
These may sound fresh and new, but behind these words are the same old crowd of zoning officials, insiders, city council members, zoning appeal staff people, regional planning authority commissioners and staffers, and the big players in financing and development in Chattanooga.
A zoning-free Chattanooga is a free market and democratic. If we had a free city, no one could be accused of doing anything wrong in buying and selling land, tearing down structures and building new ones. The question of “justice” does not intrude into view. There is no injustice in neighborhoods gaining or declining, because the public authority is not involved either way. The question of justice arises when one person lords it over another with a legal advantage or a position of authority or superiority.
In a free market Chattanooga, the absence of superior people with the best brains (think John Bridger, head of the Regional Planning Agency, also wearer of a bow tie) means that the voting of the market control — that voting that is the result of dozens or even hundreds or even thousands of people looking out for their own best self-interest and the interest of their families, dependents and businesses — is a surer route for overall prosperity affecting the most people.
The shift of blacks out and whites into neighborhoods “are not the result of random market forces,” the study says. “[R]ather, they are a direct result of policies *** .” The affluent, education and mostly white people who came toward the city center were drawn by the use of legal and political machinery centralized in the hands of a few.
Because we have what’s called centralization incumbency, we have distortions in the housing sector that create monolithic changes. If we had no centralization of market and property allocation, but a free market, there would be allocations made in many tiny steps, with flexibility and suppleness that would be measurable in the data, and accompanied by a reduced sense of grievance among the poor and among minorities. Zoning scales up the changes. Liberty scales it down.
Hundreds of decisions at liberty would signify best use for property and prices, and the market would be able to serve the rich and the poor, the people of means who buy and those who rent.