tells the story of how an overweening focus on economic development, in concert with biased housing policy practices, and a virtual abandonment of civic responsibility, has forsaken the urban poor in Cincinnati, Ohio. Alice Skirtz shows how the city has used legislation and the administration of public policy to serve the ends of privatizing public assets and displacing people who are perceived as undesirable because they lack economic power and privilege.
Skirtz argues that enactment and implementation of legislation grounded in contempt for the economically disadvantaged and schemes contrived to keep affordable housing off the market and to reduce or devolve essential social services have resulted in gross economic inequities, manifest in a collectivity she identifies as "economic others."
The book examines the constructs of economic others and econocide through three themes:
- The development of exclusion ordinances to remove economic others
- The indirect removal of economic others by means of policy decisions
- The privatization of governance to absolve the city of its social and ethical responsibilities
is more than just a profound history of a sociopolitical vicious circle, it suggests a way out of it – not just for Cincinnati but for all cities in which econocide is occurring. No one concerned with social work practice with the economically disenfranchised or, more generally, how public policy affects the urban poor can afford to ignore this book.
About the Author
Abbreviations and Acronyms
PART I. Contemporary Economic Inequities and Socioeconomic-Political Responses
Chapter 1: A Collectivity of Economic Others
Chapter 2: Like Genocide, So Econocide
PART II. The City and Econocide: Cincinnati, Ohio, and Policy-driven Elimination of Economic Others
Chapter 3: Beggars, Panhandlers, and Public Policy
Chapter 4: Design for a Pleasing City
Chapter 5: Drug-Exclusion Ordinance
Chapter 6: Schools, Pools, Hoops, and Shelters
Part III. The City and Econocide: Cincinnati, Ohio, and Policy-driven Elimination of Affordable Housing
Chapter 7: "ReStoc" Affordable Housing
Chapter 8: Housing Impaction Ordinance
Chapter 9: Hope VI: There Were Not Enough Houses for Us to Live In
Chapter 10: "This Little Pig Went to Market... this Little Pig Got None": Section 8 and Housing Choice Vouchers
Part IV. The City and Econocide: Privatization of City Governance – Ensuring Economic Homogeneity
Chapter 11: Planning Is... Planning Ain’t
Chapter 12: To Spark Economic Growth in the City
Chapter 13: A Slippery Slope to Deconcentration: Poverty and Beyond
Chapter 14: Considerable Community Debate... about Homeless Shelters
The call came shortly after 3:30 a.m. "Could you come to the emergency room to identify a woman who has died? The only identification she has is your business card tucked in the pocket of her slacks." The caller was a night-shift social worker from our largest hospital – the only trauma center, the hospital obliged to serve indigent patients. Aching from interrupted sleep, but now wide awake, I pulled on a pair of jeans and a warm sweater and drove in the dark night the half mile to the hospital, wondering who this could be. I hoped that the social worker assigned to the dead woman’s case would be one of my colleagues with whom I had so often worked getting emergency medical care for the homeless women clients of my agency’s shelter, the Emergency Home for Women and Children. Maybe together we could identify the dead woman and, using our social work training, locate her next of kin.
By the time I arrived, a nurse from another department of the hospital had made a preliminary identification. She thought the woman’s first name was Sophie – someone who had been in her inpatient unit several weeks earlier for chronic pulmonary problems. The nurse couldn’t remember Sophie’s last name, making a search for the hospital record nearly impossible, but she thought Sophie had signed herself out "against medical advice" while still quite ill. And, indeed, when the staff pulled the sheet from Sophie’s slender body for me to see, I knew immediately it was she, easily identifiable by her reddish-blonde, graying hair twisted under her best floral printed scarf, left askew after the medical team attempted to resuscitate her. She was also identifiable by her hands, with skin hardened and reddened by the chemicals in household cleaning products and years of hard work. There was no doubt, the unidentified woman was my client Sophie, cold, dead on the gurney in the middle of the night, alone, with my card in her pocket her only link to another human being.
Fortunately for me, the social worker on duty was one of my colleagues. Together we shifted to that well-practiced place in our social worker heads that protected vulnerable places in our hearts from fully feeling the impact of this early morning moment. My colleague related the details of Sophie’s arrival earlier in the evening. The life squad brought her in from a local hotel operated by a compassionate hotelier who provided single room occupancy (SRO) accommodation in shabby but clean rooms for single adults – the furnishings as threadbare as the lives of his clientele. He rented rooms by the day or the week – $13 per day, $69 per week – paid in advance, in cash. Rigid enforcement of the no guests policy kept out the dealers, pimps, and johns – no deals, no tricks – and made the privacy of the tiny hotel rooms safe for single women. In recent years, Sophie had stayed in the hotel intermittently, when she had enough cash earned cleaning houses, also at a daily rate, relieved when she had worked enough days in a row to accumulate $69 for a whole week. In a quiet moment of self-reflection, Sophie told me that she once she needed money so badly that she was driven to "turn a trick," but she was so terrified of the john, who she had found to be really "creepy," that she never tried it again. When she didn’t have the money for a room, she would come to the Emergency Home shelter of my agency; if the Emergency Home was full, she would sleep in a local 24-hour self-serve laundry or, sometimes, in warm weather, under the bushes in the park, hoping she could fall asleep unseen, praying that the police would not roust her out of the park, which closed at dusk. But that night, Sophie did not need the few dollars for rent, nor did she have the worry that our shelter would be full or the laundry closed, for she died in the emergency room with her singular connection to another human my name printed on a card. As I was to learn later, her lungs just gave out.
Sophie was 57 when she died, sick enough to be raced to the emergency room by the life squad, but not old and sick enough to qualify for Social Security and Medicare, nor sick enough to qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Medicaid for the disabled. I had recently helped her make an appeal of a denial of her application for SSI, based on the dual complications of establishing that her medical condition was severe enough to prevent her from working (after all, she was cleaning houses) and the missing documentation of marriage to her husband. He was a decade older than Sophie but had not been seen for years by anyone, including Sophie. The appeals officer was kind but, closely following all regulations, had ruled that Sophie was able to work and that she was not eligible to apply for Social Security with her husband, who was old enough to have included her as his spouse, if she could find him. Further, she couldn’t document that they were ever married, much less that he was still alive. So Sophie continued to work cleaning houses, when she could get the work, and to live between the hotel, the Emergency Home, and the laundry.
That night at the hospital, we phoned Mr. Browne, the hotelier, in desperate hope that his records of Sophie’s room rentals might reveal an emergency contact, an old address, or names of others who might know her. He searched old records and found no additional information, just as there was no information on Sophie’s current registration, which he had checked earlier in the evening at the behest of the life squad. She did leave a credit balance, as she had paid for the week. Hospital social workers eventually found the name of Sophie’s daughter in an old medical record, but as there was no current contact information, the county coroner removed her body to the morgue. Later, the hospital social workers did locate and contact her daughter, who lived in another state. She made arrangements for claiming Sophie’s body for burial.
This story of Sophie, like the stories of hundreds of other economically poor people living in urban areas of our most populous cities late in the late 20th and early 21st century, is a largely unseen part of a broader story of economic development, housing policy, and abandonment of civic responsibilities that have forsaken poor people. The location of this story is Cincinnati, Ohio. The story of Sophie’s hotelier, Ralph C. Browne (Browne, 1985), supplies another window through which to view the policy-driven legacy of growing economic inequity born of market economies and legislation of contempt for the poor. Several generations of Browne’s family were hoteliers, dating back to before the turn of the 20th century, post-Civil War. Specializing in small, residential hotels serving singles, Browne owned several of these affordable hotels in the Central Business District (CBD) of Cincinnati, conveniently located so hotel guests could walk to jobs in restaurants, downtown businesses, or union halls and day labor centers for daily hire. In earlier years, the hotels also served riverboat and railroad workers on overnight layovers from their jobs.
As recently as the 1970s, there were as many as eight or nine of these SRO hotels still in operation in Cincinnati’s CBD. Also serving residential needs of single adults were several nonprofit residences for women, the Anna Louise Inn (ALI), the Fontbonne, and the YWCA; for men, there was the Fenwick and the YMCA. All but the ALI have ceased residential hotel operation.
By the late 1970s, Browne’s hotels and the nonprofit residences were vulnerable to acquisition and demolition for economic development for public and private projects such as upgrade and expansion of the city’s Convention Center, the development of new high-rise hotels and condominiums, and new upscale rental housing. One by one, all of Browne’s hotels but two were picked off for economic development, and the nonprofits, save the ALI, were gone, taken for some public, but mostly private, purposes. Those that remained played significant roles in the privatization of the city’s economic development to follow. The public discourse at the time focused on expansive development and new construction to make the downtown area vibrant and attractive, and it became clear that the SRO hotels and residences were viewed as standing in the way of progress and as bringing blight and deterioration to the city. Browne was one of few who held a different opinion. In an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, he found voice to say, "People think of these hotels as flophouses. But there’ll always be a need for downtown one-room residences. There are many fine people who live in the one-room houses" (Goodman, 2008, p. B5). Sophie was one of the legions of "many fine people" whose housing options were to be removed and not replaced. These "many fine people" became as disposable as their housing; their presence stood in the way of the market and economic development.
What follows here is an account of how one city used, and continues to use, legislation and administration of public policy for economic development, housing, and privatized management of public assets to dispose of people, mostly poor and perceived as undesirable. Through use of principles of market economy and privatization, the "Sophies" of the community, the "fine people" of Browne’s compassionate ethic, and hundreds of others who are economically poor are systematically excluded from the market and placed in jeopardy of removal from the community and from the sphere of civic responsibility.
In this account of a late 20th-century entrepreneurial city, I argue that enactment and implementation of legislation grounded in contempt for the poor, privatization of public decision making, and schemes contrived to keep affordable housing from the market and to reduce or eliminate essential social services result in gross economic inequities. Those largely unseen economic inequities are manifest in a collectivity of poor people I am calling "economic others," those who have the least access to the market economy and to public decision making, who become disposable at the hands of those who have the most access to economic resources and privilege.
In this account, I document ways that, through relentless use of legislative policies and administrative procedures, economic others are repeatedly reputed to be the sole obstacle to economic development, the main cause of reduced property values, and the group solely responsible for downturns in business and that the remedy for such economic problems is seen as removal and disposal of economic others through policies grounded in contempt for their presence in the city. I argue that this is akin to elimination of undesirable populations through unrelenting policy maneuvers, a process I call "econocide" – drawn from the modern word "genocide," which has ancient Greek linguistic origins. In this instance, the genos is economic others, the cide is destruction or disposal of a collectivity of "undesirables" held in contempt by a larger, economically privileged community. Further, I argue that the disposal of economic others through this process of econocide leaves this population reduced to behaviors found offensive by the economically privileged, behaviors augmented by survival techniques that may compromise economic others’ moral standards, making them the object of further contempt.
This work uses the constructs of economic others and econocide to reveal and examine three themes found in relationships of economic inequity occurring across several socioeconomic-political divides during a period of shifts from city government to public-private partnership governance rooted in market-driven goals of economic homogeneity. With a focus on the relationships occurring across socioeconomic divides – accessed through the ebb and flow of actions, affects, and influences from past events along with meanings attached to places and public spaces – this study neither affirms nor excoriates those who promote market economies above all else; nor does it sentimentalize the plight of economic others or vindicate them for using survival techniques that offend the mainstream. The discussions of each of the three themes are informed by factual and affective information and are drawn from perspectives of social justice and civic participation.
The first theme concerns attempts to ensure economic homogeneity by removing economic others from the community through exclusion ordinances perpetrated to remove such individuals from certain places and through development maneuvers, codified by ordinance, that eliminate public and private spaces where groups of economic others congregate.
Unlike the first theme, which examines actual removal of certain people, the second pertains to virtual or indirect removal by policy decisions. It examines ways that local and federal housing policies used to regulate the private housing market and allocate public funds for assisted housing, combined with notions of "deconcentration of poverty," converge to remove economic others by eliminating their housing options from the market. Removal in this instance is of housing, not people, but this results in a contrived scarcity of affordable housing, eliminating economic others from the market and certain communities and neighborhoods.
The final theme traces ways that decisions made through privatization of governance to ensure economic homogeneity absolve the city from responsibilities in social-ethical spheres of obligation to all socioeconomic levels of the city and deny participation in deliberative decision making on public matters to residents at all socioeconomic levels. Privileging private authority over public decision making allows econocide to unfold and actualizes notions of deconcentration of economic others to facilitate their removal.
Alice Skirtz, PhD, MSW, LISW-S, is a long-time member of NASW. She has been active in social work with people who are homeless and economically disadvantaged since the 1960s, is a founding organizer of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, and continues to be actively involved in local issues of affordable housing and economic equity.
Alice Skirtz documents in impressive detail the tensions in Cincinnati between development and business interests on the one hand and the desperate needs of the poorest and most vulnerable in our community on the other hand. She brings the perspective of a social worker who walked the talk for many years attempting to address the problems of Cincinnati's homeless.
Alice is also a scholar who has done a masterful job of converting her Ph.D. dissertation into a very readable, even gripping account of events in Cincinnati over the last forty years. You cannot read her book without tears coming to your eyes at some point and without wondering why a supposedly enlightened society cannot better balance the needs of the least among us with overall economic health and viability. You will ask yourself why we cannot do better.
David S. Mann
private law practice
former Mayor of Cincinnati, OH
former member of U.S. Congress (D-OH)