The Long, Long Road to Fair Housing (Part 3)

I haven’t done a good job in this series delineating between fair and affordable housing. These issues are of course related – many of the policies that keep housing unaffordable also keep access to it unfair – but it’s important to understand the difference to avoid walking into the “it’s class, not race” trap.

If it were simply an issue of class, then stories about how black families were 80% more likely to receive subprime mortgages than white families after controlling for income and credit score wouldn’t make any sense. It’s also important to realize that conflating low income people with people of color is itself part of the problem driving inaccessibility. Lack of housing is an issue of both race and class.

Disturbingly, opponents to either fair or affordable housing often rely on similar language and assumptions about declining property values or the “character” of the neighborhood. Both provoke vocal opposition to government “meddling” or “social engineering” as well as quieter but more effective opposition (through zoning and permitting) to “changes in character” or “overdevelopment”.

For the final part of this series, I want to zoom in on a particular instance of affordable housing development to show you what the barriers look like on the ground. Keep in mind that while the primary focus of this particular story is affordable housing, the same tactics apply to almost any policy that affects fair or affordable housing.

First, some background. A recent CityLab article reported on Urban Institute research showing that there are no counties in the US that have enough affordable housing for their populations. Precisely zero places in the US have housing security according to widely accepted standards, at least at the county level.

Massachusetts gets closer to its goal than any other place I’ve ever lived, but it tops out at about 40-50% of its need met. Some of the Bay State’s relative success is due to a law known as Chapter 40B, which allows the state to challenge local zoning and development decisions against affordable developments if a city’s housing stock is less than 10% affordable. As you might imagine, 40B is a swear word in many circles.

Still, even with the force of the state and supposed good intentions behind affordable housing, it’s still a monstrously hard sell. This is true in places like Newton, a liberal, wealthy Boston suburb. The Boston Globe‘s Dante Ramos recently wrote about Newton’s struggle against affordable housing:

On June 5, the companies behind two stalled projects filed a complaint against the city with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development… One of the projects, by Boston-based Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, is an innovative effort to retrofit part of an aging office park as a mixed-use community with 334 housing units; the other, by Newton-based Marcus Lang Investments, is a small five-unit project on Goddard Street. Both projects would include some subsidized units. Both had been proposed under Chapter 40B … Newton has rejected both projects, on different grounds. And it’s trying to wiggle out of 40B altogether.

This puts in even sharper relief a news story I came across recently about affordable housing construction in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, Worcester’s richer neighbor to the east. A 300 unit development is in the works there that, thanks to 40B, has 75 units available for people with “low and moderate” incomes. Based on the local income limits calculated by HUD, low income in this case means earning as much as $65,800 for a family of four. That’s right: 25% of the units are for people who earn less than $66,000. Radical, right?

From the Worcester Telegram article about the development:

The Board of Selectmen and dozens of neighbors have vehemently objected to the project. The concerns include excessive building heights, potential reductions in property values because of the height and proximity of the buildings, impact on classroom sizes in the already crowded local schools, increased traffic problems on heavily-traveled Route 20, increased risks to pedestrians and child safety, economic impact from the loss of limited land zoned for industrial use and the project’s density.

…The only support came in a letter signed by 17 area business owners. They said the proposed residential development would stimulate the local economy, expand the local customer base and greatly improve the appearance of this section of Route 20. They also said the project would have significantly less negative impact on traffic than most of the commercial and industrial uses permitted in the district.

I tend to agree with the second opinion. It has to be seen as somewhat disingenuous that suddenly there is great concern for pedestrian safety or the economic potential of the land in areas that look like this:

One has to be somewhat attuned to the dog whistles of housing opponents to recognize the common tropes here: affordable housing brings “decreased property values,” “traffic,” “excessive heights”, “school crowding.” Look for the examples in your area, and I guarantee you’ll hear the same. Each and every affordable housing development in the country that is not an absolutely 100% economically segregated area has to deal with this.

So ask me again why I’m doubtful a tepid ruling from the Supreme Court and signs of life from HUD will result in real change. I hate to say it, but lack of affordable housing seems like a complete breakdown in the social contract rather than something requiring a minor fix.

I’ll end this depressing series with my pitch for a new slogan for housing advocates.

Housing: it’s not that bad. It’s worse!


The Long, Long Road to Fair Housing (Part 2)

I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s the really boring issues that have the greatest effect on people’s lives.

It’s those highly technical topics that are complex and dominated by special interests, and yet are essential to basic quality of life, that have a vast, invisible impact on our society and economy.

Housing policy is a clear example – almost sinister in its monotony. Everybody needs it and no one understands it.

Making meaningful changes in the field requires a knowledge of zoning rules about floor-to-area ratios, or construction project management, or the financing structures of the real estate market. These topics are difficult to understand for people who deal with them every day.

Add that housing is tied to poverty, race, property and schools – among the easiest topics to discuss in America – and you’ve got a perfect storm of dysfunctional politics.

Misconceptions About Fair Housing

If I go back to what my perceptions were about the housing market, say, after high school, I understand why many people have misconceptions about discrimination against poor people and people of color in housing. Here are the facts as I understood them:

  • There is a difference between de facto vs. de jure segregation. De jure segregation is now illegal, and you can’t do anything about where people choose to live.
  • People are mostly free to live where they want. Their housing decisions are guided by free choices in the open market.
  • There are a few bad people who discriminate, but they are isolated and on their way out. And they live in the South.
  • Government actions do not materially affect housing decisions anymore, and actions to decrease segregation usually backfire.

If you’re familiar with the field in anything more than a cursory way, you probably chuckled at a few of these – but such is the result of a public school education on civil rights and the history of the 20th century.

If you take these assumptions for granted, a whole worldview emerges. People should be able to move out of bad neighborhoods. Government has already done its duty to break down barriers. Individuals don’t benefit from discrimination in any ways that they have the power to change.

The reality is massively more complicated.

This country has a shameful history of private and public discrimination, mandated and abetted by every level of government. It’s taken place everywhere, not just the South, not just in conservative areas. As part of my continuing reeducation I have assembled a short, incomplete list of discriminatory policies and tactics that continue to affect us today. Some are for the exclusion of poor people overall, and are merely disproportionately targeted at people of color, others are used explicitly to foster segregation.

Ever-increasing List of Discriminatory Tactics in Housing and Mobility

Adding to the list, the question that emerges is not “why can’t poor people just get it together?” It is “why do we continue to dream up progressively more complex and sinister ways to segregate ourselves economically and racially?”

Housing segregation is just as harmful as educational segregation. If the housing you’re allowed to access isn’t as high quality, is a financial trap, or gains little value over the years, it is the difference between having the next generation’s college fund and not.

Discriminatory practices are the major reason for the wealth gap that exists today in black and white households today – whites have had several generations of access to high quality assets, and blacks have not.

Pew Wealth Gap
According to the Pew Research Center, the median white household has 13 times the wealth of the median black family. If you don’t count cars as assets, the gap increases to 69 times (Slate).

Imagine your family’s wealth was reduced to 1/13th (or 1/69th) of its current value and how it would affect your quality of life.

What exists today can seem like a minor barrier compared to Jim Crow or redlining. But small culturally enforced biases, backed up by years of government policy, cement into an insurmountable wall of discriminatory practices.

I told you not to come here looking for good news.

The Long, Long Road to Fair Housing (Part 1)

Segregation in metro Chicago

Recent news might suggest that the US is about to enter a golden age of fair and desegregated housing. There has definitely been better news recently. In the least noticed of a trinity of big wins for liberals/President Obama, The Supreme Court ruled that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) can challenge local policies that create segregation. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released new rules targeting segregation in housing across the US, something civil rights groups have been pushing for for decades.

Unfortunately, these actions aren’t really the victories that the headlines proclaim. Serious political leadership is still needed for these actions to be anything more than symbolic, and housing as a field has seen some decidedly non-symbolic setbacks in recent years.

If this seems pessimistic, you have to understand that fair and affordable housing in the US is not the place to come looking for a hopeful story.

Let’s start with the Supreme Court’s ruling. A bare majority of five justices held that the FHA allows the government to deal with discrimination arising from “disparate impact” – that is, policies that have a racial impact even when policymakers do not justify their decisions in explicit racial terms. This was an unexpected victory, but should be couched more in terms of dodging a bullet than moving fair housing forward. The ability to sue based on disparate impact is already a (barely enforceable) power that states, cities, and HUD had; no circuit court had ruled against HUD in previous court challenges. A Supreme Court ruling against the government would have made it impossible to prove discrimination unless government zoning documents, for example, read like a speech at a Klan rally.

There is a case for extremely guarded optimism on HUD’s new rules, which require municipalities to submit data on patterns of racial bias and a public report every three to five years. Many are probably shocked that HUD did not already collect and report on this kind of data. While moving towards better data and holding municipalities to higher standards is important, when it comes time to actually withhold HUD money – when states and cities really begin to howl – we will see how serious the government is about enforcing desegregation.

HUD hasn’t been able to play a major role in housing desegregation since George Romney (father of Mitt) was HUD Secretary in the 1960-70s and tried to withhold funding from areas that were not “affirmatively furthering” fair housing. Nixon slapped Romney down in this effort so hard that the sound is still reverberating around HUD headquarters, and HUD hasn’t been able to play a major role since. For a must-read account of this episode and its effect today, see Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 2012 ProPublica article “Living Apart“.

Nothing in HUD’s new rules proves the government ability to act on its findings of discrimination, and given the perception of the issue – some of which was on display in the Supreme Court’s dissenting opinion in the disparate impact case – it’s going to be an even harder fight now than in the 70s.

Is this pessimism really justified?  Racial segregation (although not income segregation) is slowly decreasing in most places, after all. Maybe these symbolic rulings are just hopeful signs as we make a committed cultural shift away from segregation.

The problem is that desegregation has never just happened on its own. Right now, even as people of different income levels and races are beginning to once again occupy many of the same physical spaces in cities, they are failing to occupy the same social spaces, and form a community.

We have a unique opportunity to mix things up to create more equitable housing patterns, but the gap between promise and reality is stark; if we continue on current trends, I am worried that we will just see an inversion of flight from cities in the 20th century, where the poor are forced out to crumbling suburbs as inner cities are “rediscovered”.

Symbolic actions shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Symbolism is extremely important in areas like housing that are intimately tied to government action and also important in challenging racism, as shown in recent debates about the Confederate flag. Symbolism can be the important first step. But it’s not time to congratulate ourselves yet.

The Bait and Switch

This tweet got me thinking about how the future of communities is tied up in current economic shifts:

I can’t help but feel the same way. I might just be feeling pessimistic from finishing George Packer’s The Unwinding yesterday (strongly recommended) but to my eye, recent history is full of examples of the economic bait and switch. There’s a recurring pattern of poor people and minority groups arriving at the chance for economic opportunity just a bit too late, with the economic advice of ten years ago, and paying for it dearly.

Home ownership was supposed to be a foolproof way to move up in the world – houses never go down in value, and exploitative lending practices weren’t the concern of the middle and upper classes – until the housing collapse wiped out generations of painstakingly accumulated wealth. In the last twenty years, as a university education has become more accessible to minority groups, college has become vastly more expensive, harder to finish, and the wage premium for a bachelor’s degree has ebbed lower than ever. While on average it’s still worth it to go to college, I understand why some have the distinct feeling that they did “everything they were supposed to” and ended up with nothing.

Much ink has been spilled showing that the wealthy are generally moving back to the cities as the suburbs are becoming poorer and more diverse. Poverty in the suburbs can be a big problem because the environment is not built for it: public transit is bad, infrastructure and housing can be poorly constructed, and the jobs, amenities, and social services are located far away. Although some suburbs will continue to be islands of wealth, some are already headed down the path towards concentrated poverty, and those are the very ones that tend to have the worst access to resources.

It’s not because of some evil puppeteer behind the scenes pulling the strings, but it is a natural and predictable result of an economy that punishes people behind the curve – naturally, those without a share of the wealth and decision making power. It’s easy to see how Saunders could be fearful: lacking the resources to stay on top of these trends makes people extremely vulnerable to personal circumstances or poor timing.

Just like the other bait and switches, we could probably find a way down from the ledge if we spot it soon enough and work hard to avoid it. If exploitative lending practices were not systematically reinforced and hidden from view, the crash of 2008 would have been a lot less harmful. If colleges work hard at serving their local population rather than the typical student of 2 generations ago (white 18 year old male attending full time), they become the engine for economic opportunity that they are supposed to be for all people.

The response to this problem is, first, to be aware of the trends. Not just “one thing” is happening in suburbs and cities: see Saunder’s typology of gentrification for a general theory about how different cities are evolving.

Second – and here’s where it gets really hard – only building new ties of community will break down this ugly cycle of displacement and neglect. Cities that successfully weather this storm will spend a lot of time thinking about how to break down the walls between new arrivals and old residents. We are at a moment of significant community “churn” when patterns of settlement are shifting rapidly for reasons that are not totally understood. In my most optimistic moments I feel like those changes can provide the pretext to create stronger, more diverse community bonds.

If that seems like a naive or simplistic solution, it’s never really been put in practice. Whether through segregation (racial or economic) or increasing community polarization (technologically or politically driven) communities have always been reactive rather than proactive, and in the worst ways. “Waiting to see what happens” has led us down the wrong path. My big dream for the next generation would be to jump on these trends as a new opportunity to create a shared sense of community – whether it be in suburbs, cities, or small towns.

My idealistic dream notwithstanding, Saunders is right to worry. Wealth and opportunity naturally follow one another, and if we don’t do a better job decoupling them, suburban concentrated poverty could lead to decades of unnecessary misery.

Must Read: “Dividing Lines” in Milwaukee

Milwaukee 2012
Almost 60% of metro Milwaukee voters lived in a ward decided by 30 points or more in 2012.
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel released an incredible piece of journalism in May in its multi-part series “Dividing Lines”. It examines political polarization through the lens of Metro Milwaukee, on most measures the most polarized and segregated urban area in America. It will really get you thinking about what the future holds and the cost of political polarization.

Polarization gets out the vote

I have been proceeding under the assumption that polarization makes everyone sad, and as a result they stay home from the polls. What if this is all wrong? What if polarization drives turnout? What if wider ideological gulfs are, in a certain sense, “good for democracy”?

From Part 3, “More polarized, more energized“:

In fact, Wisconsin’s festival of discord mobilized people on a massive scale, generating one record-breaking turnout after another.

In the last presidential election, Ozaukee County had the highest turnout of  voting-age citizens — 84% — of any county with more than 50,000 residents in America… Milwaukee had one of the highest turnouts of any big urban county in America (74%).

The suburban city of Brookfield (population 38,015), where Republican Mitt Romney won two-thirds of the vote, achieved something close to universal turnout: 90% of voting-age citizens went to the polls…

What happened to voter fatigue?

Segregation doesn’t go away on its own, and the different types of segregation driving us apart are mutually reinforcing

Which comes first, ideological or cultural isolation? Does racial segregation drive political segregation? Do they each cause each other? If this knot is tied as tightly tied as it seems, how can a place like Milwaukee break out of the cycle? In Milwaukee, we get a glimpse into what the future may hold in many American communities.

From Part 1 “Dividing Lines“:

Walker got 1% of the vote in 2012 in neighborhoods with the highest share of African-Americans; Obama got 99% in his race five months later. In metro Milwaukee’s whitest neighborhoods, the president won about a quarter of the vote and the governor won more than three-quarters. Obama won every ward in the metro area that was less than 70% white, every ward that was at least 30% Latino and every ward that was at least 15% black. The average metro Milwaukee ward carried by his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, was 1% black and 3% Hispanic.

That is just insane. 99% of the vote? You could invent a machine that dispenses free ice cream and donates puppies to charity and it wouldn’t get 99% approval.

There’s no clear way forward, and no political incentive for a different path

Also from Part 1:

In the combined counties of Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee and Milwaukee, Gov. Scott Walker has a  91% approval rating among Republicans and a 10% approval rating among Democrats over more than two years of in-depth polling by the Marquette Law School. President Barack Obama has a 93% approval rating among Democrats and an 8% approval rating among Republicans.

These levels of disagreement are beyond political differences. Even if inner-city Milwaukee and Waukesha County residents were sitting around the dinner table sharing their opinions (they aren’t), it would be difficult to see what they could talk about that would make much sense. Politics is informed by worldview. Divides like these point to cultural differences as stark as any two places in America, but down the street from one another.

Percentage of U.S. voters living in one-sided counties

The voters in metro Milwaukee literally cannot understand where the other side is coming from. To me this seems an unambiguously bad thing, never worth the “trade” of higher turnout. Assuming we agree on that point, what can be done to move us off of this path?

The gulf is widening and with no people or organizations to bridge that gap, there will soon be little common reality to agree on. Just because you don’t live in Milwaukee, you shouldn’t ignore it: these issues will start to see pop up in more places as our “Big Sort” continues. Enshrining the right to never have your opinions challenged is more than a passing concern. It threatens the foundation of democracy.