How the Media Is Getting Mayor Pete’s Gentrification Story Wrong

South Bend, Indiana was a prosperous manufacturing town through much of the 20th century. It achieved a measure of fame for hosting the auto plant that built the Studebaker. But as the economy changed, so did the town’s fortunes. Between 1960 and 2010, its population plummeted by nearly 25 percent. Left in the wake of mass departure and economic stagnation was a rash of urban blight: thousands of homes and other buildings stood vacant, left to disrepair. With blight came decreased home values and a rise in crime.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, now a Democratic presidential candidate, launched an initiative in February 2013 he called “1,000 Homes, 1,000 Days.” The goal: identify 1,000 vacant or abandoned homes (about a third of the total) and either demolish or repair them. By November 2015, 427 homes “were repaired, 569 were demolished, 10 were deconstructed, 6 were set aside for repair by community development corporations, and 110 were under contract for demolition,” according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provided a block grant supporting the initiative. If Buttigieg’s reelection with 75 percent of the vote is anything to go by, South Bend’s citizens have signaled their approval. The city’s population has steadily increased since 2013.

Buttigieg has made the initiative’s success a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, so it should be no surprise that journalists have looked into it. But two remarkably similar stories published last week—in Buzzfeed and on CNN.com—said the initiative “smacked of gentrification.” That this odd phrase appeared verbatim in both stories is perhaps interesting. (Buzzfeed’s Henry Gomez, who published his piece first, should wonder where CNN’s Dan Merica and Vanessa Yurkevich got their inspiration.) What’s puzzling, however, is the decision to frame the demolition and rehabilitation of vacant and abandoned homes as akin to displacing minority communities. (Judging from 2011 and 2019 population estimates, no displacement appears to have occurred. What’s more, it’s hard to displace people from homes where no one was living.)

The two major challenges Buttigieg’s initiative faced were the town’s lackadaisical enforcement of building code violations and absentee owners of the targeted homes. One of the initiative’s biggest obstacles was determining if the blighted properties’ owners were both sufficiently willing and able to improve them. Both the Buzzfeed and CNN stories lean heavily on two sources: Stacey Odom and Regina Williams-Preston, two African American women who had purchased blighted properties. Odom purchased one, which she hoped to fix up and make her own home, without knowing that the initiative had already slated it for demolition. Williams-Preston had purchased three vacant homes “with plans to refurbish them and either sell them for a profit or create a business, like a day care for local kids,” CNN reported. Sadly, her husband fell seriously ill and money that would’ve gone toward their investment went toward health care instead.

Both stories strike a decidedly oppositional tone. Buzzfeed seemed particularly intent on framing the story as a conflict between a robotic, white, impersonal politician and a black community. (The word “data,” and the mayor’s abiding interest in it, somehow became grounds for opprobrium.)

Ironically, both stories show Buttigieg to have been an exceptional leader. Odom struggled to get her property off the demo list, but then, as CNN reports, she had a chance encounter with Buttigieg. What happened next was governance par excellence:

Odom was surprised that Buttigieg listened for 10 minutes, even though he was on his way to a meeting. His staff was anxious to get Buttigieg to move on, but the mayor handed her his card and the two struck up an ongoing conversation. Buttigieg later held a series of meeting with Odom and others to talk about the plan. She credits the mayor with getting her home off the demolition list — and because of pressure from the community, 40% of other residents’ homes were taken off too. “When I saw that he was willing to help, that’s what turned me,” said Odom. “That’s what said to me, this is a man that has the potential to be president.”

Williams-Preston’s properties were ultimately demolished, and her anger about it has fueled her own campaign for mayor of South Bend. But even then, the incumbent mayor has been admirably responsive to William-Preston’s criticisms. According to Buzzfeed:

Buttigieg launched South Bend Repair, an initiative composed of three programs and more than $1 million in investment at the city and federal level, according to the South Bend Tribune. The effort is aimed at helping homeowners make renovations small and large. One of programs, Love Your Block, includes a $25,000 grant from the national Cities of Service nonprofit, matched by $25,000 from the city. … [Williams-Preston] has developed a working relationship with Buttigieg.

If this counts as criticism, I’m sure Buttigieg would welcome more of it.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.