Earlier this year during a Birmingham City Council meeting, the environment in chambers degenerated to a tangible plea for help from the city’s residents. There was anger, hostility and hurt.
Residents came out to give voice to the pain felt by the city’s changing face. While progress has been congruent with the historical pace of the city, there is movement to change the architectural façade of Birmingham.
New investments have breathed economic life into downtown and allowed certain parts of the city to flourish.
It is, to some, a nice facelift for a city lined with effusive wreckage from the Civil Rights era, both literally and figuratively.
To that point, a few of the city’s black residents have fear that because Birmingham is finally changing, that it will mean the hue of those who occupy space within the city limits will change as well.
Birmingham has had a black mayor since 1979, and the city council has largely consisted of black members as well.
But even with the city mostly run by Democratic black mayors, economic progress hasn’t shown itself for a city populated with poor black residents.
While the fight against segregation was seemingly won during the Civil Rights Movement, it partially served as a way for the city’s white residents to flee to higher and more prosperous grounds.
A 2014 report from City Labs shows just how segregated the wealthy tend to be from those who have less access to capital.
Where rich people are most segregated geographically, Birmingham, Alabama ranked second on the list. This city may be best described as a religious meritocracy where the talent and ability is ostensibly gained by the upper class due to wealth.
The study notes that the wealthy who deploy religion as a guiding life principle are more segregated financially from those who aren’t as rich. Along the stretches of the Bible Belt are where we find schism between the affluent and economically downtrodden.
The water fountains painted with signs of “for whites only” may have been long destroyed or tucked away in a historical museum, but the economic sanctions of that time period still belittle Birmingham’s residents — especially black people and the poor.
Residents who showed up at the city council meeting to voice their displeasure over the city’s changing exterior likely had other issues on their minds as well.
Paying for housing in Birmingham, especially if one is a renter, has gotten more expensive. Not only are some residents feeling stalled out by city leadership, they are being locked out economically as well.
According to information from a Harvard University study on housing, one in four renters in Birmingham pay at least half or more of their income for rental housing.
If you’re poor and living in Birmingham, the news gets worse. Living below the poverty line is so expensive that 80 percent of families that make under $15,000 per year are spending upwards of 30 percent of their dollars to rent a home.
One way to attempt to fix the issue of good affordable housing is to obtain help from the federal government. While some receive housing vouchers for rental assistance and may be eligible for help from the USDA for rural housing, funding for both programs has faltered due to budget cuts.
In fact, funding for the construction of new affordable housing quarters and assistance to those who need cheaper housing options has fallen. The USDA program responsible for building new affordable rental units in rural areas has not started construction on any new structures since 2011.
In turn, that has created a void and partial vacuum for low-income residents searching for economical places to live.
Those who are hurt the most by the lack of affordable, safe housing are black women and children. In cities like Baltimore and Milwaukee, the majority of those evicted from housing because they are unable to pay rent are women with children.
The same conditions are likely to be found in Birmingham as well.
Wages in Birmingham aren’t keeping up with the city’s elite class. As of 2014, 20 percent of the city’s top earners held nearly 51 percent of its accumulated income.
A study by The Urban Institute gave Birmingham an inequality index of 5.49, which measures inequality by educational level, income, homeownership, and etc.
Birmingham was just below large urban centers like Houston and Philadelphia but above areas such as Richmond and Detroit.
This all ties into why some have such malicious views of political leadership in the Magic City.
They’ve been trapped by segregation as the wealthy not only hoard their riches, but gate themselves off from the rest of the city.
Also, close to 60 percent of Birmingham’s poor live in a community with a poverty rate of 20 percent and above.
We seem to be a collection of people who congregate because of our zip codes and addresses. The poor should remain with the poor and the rich need only stay with the rich.
It’s no way for a big metro city to function, and frankly, it is not a way for Birmingham to climb out of its pit of despair.
The politics in the state are rotten — just look at the governor — and it seems that Birmingham’s leadership only wants the look of being a progressive city.
Birmingham’s economically depressed have reason to be angry and to shout at those we’ve elected to lead.
The city doesn’t have enough affordable housing and well-paying jobs to pay rising rental costs. Because of that, there is palpable anger.
Without a proper place to live and a job to pay for it, how else are they supposed to feel?
Much of what may be done to help our poor is in the hands of the federal government through voucher programs, housing assistance and the creation of new housing units for the poor.
But there is a lot that may be done here from local leadership to make the conditions better. With so much history to suggest that that progress isn’t a word that may be used to describe Birmingham, why should we have hope that conditions may get better?