Photo: Jack Kemp meets California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1967
Winning one for the Gipper: As a Buffalo Bills quarterback in 1967, Jack Kemp met then-California Governor Ronald Reagan. Later, they became political teammates. Mark Byrnes/CityLab/AP/Wikimedia Commons

In the 1980s, a pro football quarterback-turned-politician championed big ideas to revitalize America’s cities. It didn’t work.

Before each home game during his time with the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills, Jack Kemp would have seen the neighborhoods surrounding the city’s football stadium on the drive in and understood that something had gone wrong.

Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium, a WPA project described by Sports Illustrated in 1969 as “an arena that looked as if whatever war it was a memorial to had been fought within its confines,” was located on Best Street, where Grape and Peach streets terminated—evocative names that dated to the 1800s, when German immigrants on the city’s East Side “Fruit Belt” neighborhood grew orchards and gardens. In the 1950s, an influx of African Americans, many displaced by downtown renewal initiatives, moved in; they were soon followed by a new expressway that sliced through the Fruit Belt, along with other East Side neighborhoods.

The results were textbook: Residents with means moved out, property values plummeted, and a scattered, segregated, impoverished community with diminishing services was left behind. By 1973, the owner of Kemp’s team found a new, publicly subsidized suburban home for the Bills.

An average quarterback with an outsize reputation thanks to the team’s back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965, Kemp was by all accounts a good teammate and leader. He was a founder and president of the AFL Players Association and helped relocate the league’s all-star game out of segregated New Orleans after African American players boycotted over being denied access to local clubs and taxis. Later in life, he would recall his years of sharing team huddles with mostly black teammates as his introduction to the world outside his middle-class roots in Los Angeles. In 1970, Kemp retired from football and began his second career in politics. As a Republican lawmaker, he set about trying to address the urban poverty that plagued the kinds of places his teammates came from—places similar to or even worse off than the community Bills fans parked their cars in front of on Sundays in the ‘60s.

Kemp died in 2009; when his spirit is invoked these days, it’s as a call to decency in the face of a ruder, crueler discourse. A “bleeding-heart conservative” known as an enthusiastic member of the 1980s conservative uprising in Washington, Kemp represents a now-unfamiliar GOP, one that was determined to win over urban voters. “The greatest political potential this president, our party, the administration has ever had since 1864 on Lincoln's reelection, is in the cities, among people who have never thought that anybody cared about them other than New Deal Democrats,” Kemp said in 1989. “[Y]ou have a chance to split the New Deal coalition by showing compassion, care, interest, involvement, money, incentive, empowerment, whatever.”

That, of course did not happen. Kemp channeled the self-delusion and narcissism required to become a pro football quarterback into a successful career cheerleading for the private sector and the urban poor. His influence on what happened to American cities in the 1980s and ‘90s was significant. As the federal government transitioned from safety net for the vulnerable to unabashed advocate for private capital, it was often Kemp leading the way, pushing urban revitalization programs whose successors have prevailed in the 21st century.

But by failing to see the flaws in the ideas he championed, or question why his superiors seemed to only adopt the parts of his plans that benefited the already-rich, Kemp failed to deliver something better than what he was so eager to dismantle.

***

A former offseason intern for California Governor Ronald Reagan, Kemp just barely won his first political race. His gridiron popularity in the Buffalo area was strong enough to net 52 percent of the vote in the 1970 contest for a congressional seat in the city’s southern suburbs. He managed to win eight more terms with ease.

Kemp’s telegenic good looks and big-tent conservatism—expressed through exhaustingly positive, energetic speeches about freedom and prosperity—made him a respected presidential hopeful in 1988. He served as secretary of HUD in George H. W. Bush’s cabinet from 1989 to 1993, and was on Bob Dole’s failed presidential ticket in 1996 before finishing out his public life as a cheerleader for the same inclusive, supply-side economic vision he had always championed. New York Times Magazine once declared that Kemp “may have brought more zeal to America’s poverty problems than any national politician since Robert Kennedy… the only official to have won standing ovations in black ghettos by calling for a capital gains tax cut.”

In Congress and as HUD Secretary, Kemp preached the power of supply-side housing policy. (Reed Saxon/AP)

To win his self-titled War on Poverty, Kemp saw great promise in an idea first implemented in Margaret Thatcher’s U.K.: enterprise zones. These were designated areas where—as envisioned by supply-side economists—private companies could operate under limited taxation and regulations in order to revitalize derelict urban neighborhoods that would otherwise not attract new investment. In places like the London Docklands, new hubs of wealth were established at a lower cost to developers, while generating questionable benefits for everyone else.

Kemp picked it up as a congressman, introducing the Urban Jobs and Enterprise Zone Act in the spring of 1980 (with New York Democrat Robert Garcia) while Reagan endorsed the concept during his campaign for president, pitching a vision of unshackled private capital flowing into America’s decaying cities for the benefit of the urban working class and developers alike. It was eventually rolled out state-by-state throughout the decade.

Kemp’s urban-renewal model eventually made its way to decommunized Russia. In his 1992 Republican National Convention stump speech, he recalled a conversation with Gavriil Popov, the first mayor of post-Soviet Moscow, in which he credited the U.S. conservative movement for inspiring new urban revitalization pledges, including the establishment of a free enterprise zone downtown and private ownership of Soviet-era apartments. Bill Clinton defeated Bush that November, but he also liked those ideas, signing the Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities Act of 1993, which traced back to Kemp’s dream of getting the government out of the landlord business.

As a congressman, Kemp had already set his sights on getting public housing tenants to own their own homes for a program called Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere (HOPE), which took its first steps as federal policy upon George H. W. Bush’s signing of the 1990 Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act. The idea aligned with the Reagan administration’s scandal-plagued HUD of the 1980s, which had its budget slashed by more than 50 percent from Ford administration levels and saw the U.S. affordable housing formula dramatically altered by the introduction of the low-income housing tax credit. Bush credited Kemp for his efforts behind the 1990 legislation, and, to emphasize HUD’s culture change, the president made a point before signing the bill to note that Kemp ended the agency’s tradition of handing awards to residents for long-term occupancy.

An emboldened Kemp ran a cleaner, friendlier version of the department, while still carrying out a mostly Reagan-esque vision. Kemp touted three particular housing transformations, already underway by the time he arrived at HUD, as the path to a future in which the maligned brick towers and garden apartments associated with Roosevelt’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal, and Johnson’s Great Society would no longer be needed.

The first was Cochran Gardens, a publicly owned series of brick towers just north of downtown St. Louis that had begun to deteriorate in the late ‘60s. By 1976, tenants had taken over management duties under the leadership of longtime resident Bertha Gilkey and had turned it into an impressive example of what Kemp’s HUD wanted to see from every housing project. “They have built a community-wide empire: a $400,000-a-year catering business, five day-care centers, a cable television installation service for low-income neighborhoods and a limited partnership in several private housing complexes nearby,” explained the New York Times in a 1988 story on the complex’s management, which also employed 250 people, mostly Cochran Gardens tenants. Gilkey traveled the world to share her story and her business model, and the turnaround at Cochran earned a site visit from President Bush (at Kemp’s urging) in 1991.

Similarly, Northeast D.C.’s Kenilworth-Parkside homes, built in 1958,  had also fallen on hard times by the 1970s. In 1981, resident Kimmi Gray went on a quest to take it out of government hands in order to fix it, convincing D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to turn it over to the Kenilworth-Parkside Resident Management Corporation (which she chaired). She kicked drug dealers out, hired residents on welfare to work in her office, and increased rent collection by more than 75 percent. The improvements turned Gray into a GOP celebrity; Kemp called her a hero. The Bush administration made Kenilworth-Parkside their tenant-ownership testing grounds in which residents could buy their own homes by purchasing limited-equity cooperative shares, and the management corporation would continue to manage until there were no more apartments to sell. “There were times when Jack Kemp came into Kenilworth almost as often as I came home,” one man told the Washington City Paper in a 1995 story on the redevelopment.

But these two successes were short-lived. At Cochran Gardens, the previously lauded tenant management group had the complex taken away from them by the city a decade later for tax mismanagement. Vacancies shot up before the development was demolished and replaced with townhouse-style housing in 2008. Meanwhile, at Kenilworth-Parkside, renovations for 341 units ended up costing more than it would to build a replacement apartments from scratch. Over one hundred other units were still “boarded up and unlivable,” according to City Paper, by the end of the first Clinton administration. The District’s vastly improved economic fortunes in the 21st century has led to growing concerns about gentrification as an affordability crisis spreads to all of its quadrants. In 2016, the D.C. Housing Authority teamed up with two developers to demolish the remaining 290 Kenilworth-Parkside apartments for a mixed income complex and a plan to subsidize the affordable units through the profits of its market-rate homes.

But at least one early success has endured. Columbia Point, a 1950s housing project in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, had become plagued by crime, drug use, and a vacancy rate of nearly 75 percent by the 1980s. In a bind, the city turned management over to a private company in 1984, which then created a rebranded, redeveloped Harbor Point. It was the nation’s first effort to transform a public housing project by recruiting middle- and high-income residents (one-third of the units would remain subsidized for low income).

The transformation effectively became the model for Kemp’s HOPE vision. Despite its results, the new ownership was only saved from bankruptcy by a last-second investment from Chevron, an energy company looking to get in on the newly established low-income tax credits in 1986. It still lives on as a healthy, celebrated community thanks to dedicated management but also because of the site’s easy access to public transit, a state university, and the nearby Harborwalk.

***

Still, as HUD secretary, Kemp remained an enigma in the Bush cabinet. In a 1993 New York Times piece called “How Jack Kemp Lost the War on Poverty,” Jason Deparle described how Kemp repeatedly clashed with White House budget director, Richard Darman: “By refusing to invest more in poverty prevention, [Kemp] says, the ‘budgetmeisters’ courted more expenses later—in welfare, crime, and misery.”

American downtowns during this period, from Baltimore to San Diego, saw new skyscrapers, stadiums, and waterfront marketplaces redefine what urban life could be for a tourist or suburbanite. But for anyone who depended on low-income housing, not much improved. Kemp’s approach, Deparle wrote, carried a recklessness “that ignored their limitations, exhibiting a fervor that reminded one ally of an adolescent who had just read The Fountainhead.” Despite Kemp’s hopes for HOPE, only 135 of the country’s 1.3 million public housing units in existence during Kemp’s time at HUD were sold before he left the agency.

Kemp’s tenant ownership ideas, however, lived on through the HOPE VI program, passed by Congress one month before the 1992 election and embraced as the anchor of community redevelopment through the Clinton administration into the 21st century. By 2010, $6.2 billion in Revitalization Grants had been awarded around the country through HOPE VI, while the establishment of the Faircloth Amendment has capped the total number of public housing units in the U.S at 1999 levels. The ripple effects of this embrace of a Kempian path to affordable housing will likely be felt in American cities for years to come, as private developers have so far delivered mixed results in their efforts.

Public housing inventory dropped in cities across the country, often through the demolition of ubiquitous and often distressed brick towers and garden apartments. In Atlanta, where the first HOPE VI pilot grant was awarded, all of its publicly owned family housing buildings had been eliminated by 2011. Since then, median rents for a one-bedroom have skyrocketed while the city’s eviction rate ranks among the nation’s highest. In Chicago, public housing’s legacy is so potent that a National Public Housing Museum is expected to open in 2021 inside the only remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes. The most notorious of its public housing projects, Cabrini-Green, saw its mid- and high-rises demolished between 1995 and 2011. Located in the Near North Side, significant displacement has occurred while the local housing authority works on plans for redeveloping the area in a way that will meet demand for middle- and high-income homes, while also fulfilling its obligations to return hundreds of publicly owned units to the site.

The legacy of these initiatives resonated with UK musician PJ Harvey on a visit to Washington during the Obama administration. Harvey turned the notes she scribbled from the backseat of Washington Post reporter Paul Schwartzman’s car during a tour of Southeast D.C. and turned them into the first track of her 2016 album Hope Six Demolition Project. The song, “Community of Hope,” captures the never-ending effort to improve a neighborhood that had been essentially cut off from the wealth and power of the Nation’s Capital, settling for the removal of notorious public housing projects, and the promise of a new Walmart.  

As for enterprise zones, their spirit lives on through today’s Opportunity Zones, despite years of research proving that such programs have limited benefits. Formed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the program invites extremely wealthy people to avoid capital gains taxes by investing in (mostly) impoverished census tracts. So far, it has been great for investors, especially those who are friends or relatives of the celebrity developer-turned U.S. president. But it has done little to address the poverty and underemployment people already living in those tracts face as new luxury developments sprout up around them, if they’re close enough to a more prosperous census tract.

As ProPublica recently reported, it’ll be difficult to ever track the benefits for everyone else. Some Opportunity Zones aren’t even in poor areas, like in downtown Detroit, where mega-landlord Dan Gilbert’s preferred census tracts allow him to save money on higher-end hotel, office, and apartment projects that would likely have been built without the extra incentives.

The Buffalo neighborhoods surrounding the since-demolished stadium where Kemp made a name for himself on Sundays are now Opportunity Zones, too. Decades of population decline and continued disinvestment have slowly made way for an uncertain future in the face of a burgeoning, government-subsidized medical research campus nearby that has emerged since the turn of the century. These neighborhoods remain racially and economically separate from the private sector growth approaching their front doors, and fears over displacement—even among homeowners—have bubbled up in recent years over parking spaces, online map labels, and proposed market-rate housing in ways that make it clear that the people benefiting from the new wave of opportunities aren’t the ones who ever needed the boost.

This type of community tension between black and white, poor and rich, isn’t what Kemp would have wanted to see. But it’s in the urban renewal playbook he helped create.

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