Mayor Pete’s War on the Homeless

Pete Buttigieg is a charming man who speaks some Norwegian and wears wool socks. He also oversaw a wave of evictions and waged a campaign against South Bend’s homeless.

Pete Buttigieg is liberalism’s new flavor of the month. From glowing write-ups in major magazines to articles documenting his music preferences and exquisite taste, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana has quickly established a national profile. Considerably less has been written thus far about Buttigieg’s tenure in the mayor’s office — something that just might tell us more about his beliefs and how he would actually govern than his penchant for wool socks and James Joyce.

As a Harvard-educated former consultant with McKinsey & Company, Buttigieg unsurprisingly brought a managerial ethos to his administration. On paper, this implied setting measurable goals, gathering data, speaking to experts, and making improvements to city life. In practice, however, it has often been less innocuous — as evidenced by the mayor’s approach to both housing and homelessness.

With 14 percent of the city’s housing vacated or abandoned, Buttigieg had a task force identify every relevant property and recommend an overall course of action. Its conclusion? That the city should slap fines on homeowners to incentivize repairs and empower officials to demolish derelict properties at the owner’s expense. But it just so happened that most of the vacant homes were in low-income black and Latino neighborhoods, where some city residents had housing from deceased relatives or were still listed as owners despite having been forced out by pricey mortgages.

According to South Bend’s own records, in fact, both the fines and demolitions meted out thanks to the mayor’s policies tended to be heavily concentrated in these neighborhoods (one resident, for example, reported being fined thousands of dollars between 2012 and 2014 for infractions such failing to mow the grass).

South Bend’s eviction rate, meanwhile, doubled between 2012 (when Buttigieg was first elected) and 2016, now sitting at three times the national average.  

Amid rising condos and a booming downtown, things have been a bit cushier for South Bend’s developers, whose efforts have received considerable assistance from the mayor’s office. They got subsidies for luxury apartments, a multimilliondollar tax abatement for a high-end downtown office complex, and even an attempt to sell off a full quarter of the city’s parklands to for-profit owners. In the midst of it all, the city’s homeless population has been subject to arrests and the placement of “Do not give to panhandlers” signs on street corners. The space underneath South Bend’s Main Street viaduct, often used as a shelter by homeless residents, is now subject to frequent spray-cleanings and surveillance courtesy of newly installed cameras.

Buttigieg, who may yet emerge as the Democratic establishment’s leading Anything But Bernie candidate in 2020, undoubtedly has many points of difference from the Vermont senator — going right back to Sanders’s own tenure as mayor of Burlington, where he butted heads with developers. Faced with a scheme to convert subsidized housing into luxury condos, Sanders is said to have replied to one landlord: “Over my dead body are you going to displace 366 working families.”