Housing Crisis in New York

Michael Greenberg in NYRB identifies the lack of affordable housing as a humanitarian crisis.

The cause of the crisis is the removal of rent stabilized apartments,

among the city’s most precious resources, as critical to its well-being, I would argue, as its transit system and public parks. In view of this extraordinary level of regulation, it may seem surprising that New York faces a crisis in affordable housing. But rent-stabilized apartments are disappearing at an alarming rate: since 2007, at least 172,000 apartments have been deregulated. To give an example of how quickly affordable housing can vanish, between 2007 and 2014, 25 percent of the rent-stabilized apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were deregulated.

Although rent caps are eliminated when the rent of an apartment exceeds $2,700 monthly, owners purchasing buildings at boom prices increasingly prefer to push out a building’s tenants in order to raise rents to cover astronomical financial costs to ownership. Indeed, sellers of buildings expect this to happen:

The clearing out of rent-stabilized tenants has become such a common real estate practice that it is added to a building’s value even before the fact. Landlords have found enough loopholes in tenant protection laws to make widespread displacement a viable financial strategy. A building in Crown Heights with one hundred stabilized units and a rent roll of $1.2 million might now fetch $40 million or more—and every tenant must be forced out for the investment to be recouped.

Perhaps not surprisingly the players in this game, with access to sufficient cash and credit to buy whole New York buildings, and to pay lawyers and court costs to see evictions through, are private equity investment firms, which makes Greenberg seem almost longing for the days of the “individual slumlord” of the outer boroughs.

Landlord-tenant relations are totally out of whack. One of the most perverse mechanisms Greenberg identifies is “preferential rent.” When landlords opt not to increase rents on stabilized apartments up to the full limit of the law, they effectively accrue the potential to ask for sudden, large increases of the sort that can induce tenants to move. After that, vacancy and capital improvements are often sufficient to raise rents above the $2,700 ceiling for rent controls. There are about a quarter million rent-stabilized apartments in New York where the tenants are paying preferential rent, and Greenberg makes clear that the residents of all of them are at risk.

These rent machinations throw the housing stock of affordable outer borough neighborhoods into the maw of the political-economic-cultural storm of gentrification, as apartment finding services create new frontiers for young, educated, and often white tenants. The cultural cachet of hipness, however, is less attractive to longtime tenants who perceive it, correctly, as a harbinger of pressure to move. Greenberg helps us to understand clearly that gentrification of this sort is not simply a “market” process. Financially interested actors intervene daily in the lives of tenants (not just when a building sells or a vacant apartment is leased) in ways that are often explicitly oriented toward pushing them out. Landlords harass tenants:

Some landlords bring tenants to court for putting up bookshelves (which may violate the letter of a lease that prohibits renters from drilling into walls) or for having a roommate or, in one case I know of, a pet canary. “Most people here don’t believe in the courts because they’re used to it working against them,” said Nefertiti. “That’s what landlords count on.” Many renters are unaware of the laws protecting them and have little knowledge of how New York’s intricate housing bureaucracy works, so they are easily intimidated by determined owners. A court date is also a missed day at work. Landlords don’t expect to win all of these skirmishes, but the barrage of lawsuits helps set the stage for a buyout: financially and emotionally ground down, the tenant agrees to relinquish his rights and depart.

An artist I know in South Williamsburg took flight after her landlord paid a homeless man to sleep outside her door, defecate in the hallway, invite friends in for drug-fueled parties, and taunt her as she entered and left the building. In East New York a mother tells of a landlord who, after claiming to smell gas in the hallway, gained entry to her apartment and then locked her out. In January, a couple with a three-month-old baby in Bushwick complained to the city because they had no heat. In response, the landlord threatened to alert the Administration for Children’s Services that they were living with a baby in an unheated apartment. Fearful of losing their child, they left, leaving the owner with what he wanted: a vacant unit.

If any of that sounds farfetched, here’s one San Francisco building owner’s confession: He conspired to burn his own building down to renovate it without the burden of its tenants. Of course not all landlords are criminals, but the market in “hot” cities gives even honest property owners strong incentives to push their tenants out.

So what can be done? As Greenberg notes, the city currently does work to preserve affordable housing under certain provisions, and offers tax incentives to developers to include below-market apartments in new buildings. The problem with 421-a is that it contributes to the oversupply of high-end housing, which might, under ordinary conditions of glut, slow down. The program also is projected to deprive New York of more than $10 billion in property tax receipts by 2020. And, perhaps most troubling, developers in partnership with the city have secured an expansive definition of need for housing assistance, such that a grossly disproportionate share of 421-a apartments are priced to cost the requisite 30 percent of the income of a household taking in the low six figures. Once developers have skewed the median rent of a neighborhood to approach five figures, it’s reasonable to declare that the modestly well-off can’t afford market rate rents. But the approach does little to help the lowest income New Yorkers. Nearly 3 million New Yorkers filed applications for a lottery to rent 4,174 apartments in 2013-15. One in 700 were successful, overall, but the count disguises a much lower rate of success, owing to low supply, of placing low-income tenants:

In a rush to rack up “affordable” units and get to the 80,000 he promised, de Blasio appears to have stocked the program with housing for upper-middle-income tenants who don’t need it. It costs more to subsidize the poor because they can pay so little themselves; the logical fiscal alternative is to subsidize those who can pay more.

This approach accounts for the hostility Greenberg reports between residents of neighborhoods like East New York and East Harlem for rezoning plans that would allow high-rise apartment towers. Residents feel, with ample reason, that the net effect of the projects, even with subsidized apartments, will be to displace the poor, leaving the city’s public housing system, with a waiting list of more than 255,000 families for 176,000 apartments as the last, inadequate, refuge for poor New Yorkers.

The political economy of housing is profoundly shaped by a problem that is familiar to me: the conflict between urban constituencies and suburban- and rural-dominated state legislatures. In Albany, representatives of suburban districts are prime targets for developer lobbyists, as they can oppose tenant protections and rent controls that affect New York City without political risk. Perhaps New York City should secede from New York State.

Short of that solution, Greenberg suggests a simple, yet radical solution: a significant local-option sales tax for New York City dedicated to actually providing housing. The proposal would allow New York to generate fiscal resources to create and preserve low-income housing independent of Albany and Washington, and would also, hopefully, bind New Yorkers together around two core ideas: affordable housing is a problem at many income levels, and, since New Yorkers are all affected by public policies toward private developers, an aggressive public commitment to affordable housing is not a special interest but a public interest.

With a sales tax devoted to housing, affordable buildings needn’t be confined to land the city already owns; enough money would be available to purchase lots all over the five boroughs, not just in poorer districts. The buildings could be woven into the fabric of the city, rather than clumped together in self-enclosed enclaves that promote a kind of psychological as well as physical segregation. New affordable housing would no longer be contingent on giving tax exemptions to the builders of private, market-rate projects: luxury developers would be free to charge whatever the market will bear for all of their units, not just 70 or 80 percent of them, and the city, in turn, could collect from these developers the billions in property taxes that it now forfeits under 421-a. Housing built with money from a special tax fund would be 100 percent affordable. Over time homelessness would decrease—especially among low-wage working families—as would the amount (currently about $1.6 billion per year) that the city spends on homeless services.

This would be an overturning of three decades of urban housing policy, repudiating the shrinking of the public sector and the corresponding turn toward the market. It would overturn the Bloombergian political economy of the city. It would be extreme. It may be the only thing that can help another generation of working class New Yorkers afford to live decently in the city.

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Good News, Bad News

A recent article by Issi Romem points toward the importance of historical perspective in urban policy arguments. By which I mean that not only are there historical patterns to the creation of exurban sprawl and its attendant social pathologies, but a useful understanding of how to reverse these effects requires policymakers (starting with the President!) to recognize that the political and cultural contexts of sprawl matter as much as land economics (indeed, are intrinsic to land economics). Romem offers a summary of key takeways that is pretty clear:

  • The link between housing production and outward expansion is unmistakable: cities that expand more produce proportionally more new housing.

  • Throughout the country, housing production is skewed towards low density areas.

  • Densification has slowed down across the board, and especially in expensive cities, undermining their ability to compensate for less outward expansion.

  • Unless they enact fundamental changes that allow for substantially more densification, cities confronting growth pressure face a tradeoff between accommodating growth through outward expansion, or accepting the social implications of failing to build enough new housing.

The good news is that articles like this point to the phenomenon beginning to be treated less as an artifact of “choice” and more as a product of a sequence of political decisions that have left the majority of Americans with suboptimal housing situations, on top of a historical support for racial and economic segregation and drastically different communities of opportunity.

To be sure, though, Romem looks first to the market:

Why has the pace of densification decreased? One reason is national in scope: despite some fluctuations, the total amount of new housing built each decade in the U.S. has remained fairly constant since the 1950s, but because of urban expansion the area absorbing it has grown much larger. Thus, new housing is spread more thinly, which amounts to less densification. Another way of putting it is that the demand for new housing – or growth pressure – per unit of developed land is less intense than it used to be.

But, a better way of putting it might be that the costs in terms of time, driving miles, and traffic-related social alienation have been gradually shifted onto home buyers and that costs in terms of infrastructure expansion have been shifted onto taxpayers. Despite what sprawl apologists argue (for instance, Wendell Cox at Joel Kotkin’s New Geography embraces a futility thesis critique of “forced density”lateral growth controls), this is not a case of housing priorities being set by rational consumers in a free market, or of liberal-urbanist social engineers tilting in futility against sprawl that is both inevitable and beneficial. Rather, a set of politically motivated and administratively maintained subsidies and incentives to banks, builders, and (in a more conflicted sense) buyers has created sprawl (see Dolores Hayden’s classic Field Guide to start), without the consent of the majority of the people whose daily lives are affected by it. Does not “forced” apply as well to a housing market that imposes a hundred driving miles a day on a home buyer? The equity effects of this form of development are severe; though there are exceptions, mobility in highly decentralized metro areas is a severe impediment to economic opportunity for the poor.

Elsewhere, Romem acknowledges the limits of the market as an explanatory scheme for sprawl, noting that in a real-world setting, markets are affected by choices about resource allocation, and whatever the potential preferences of free agents in the marketplace, the claims made on limited transportation and infrastructure funds by exurban highway expansion are at odds with the expansion of mass transit that is necessary to prevent people from simply bringing their cars into denser developments.

It would also require a leap of faith that in the chicken-and-egg conundrum of density and transportation infrastructure, density can come first.

It’s welcome to see discussions of housing that dig beneath the superficially cheaper houses for sale in sprawling metro areas to consider costs to people, the environment, and the quality of social life.

The bad news stems from Romem’s fourth bullet point: the political (and I’m talking about institutional and cultural forms here) difficulty of enacting densification reforms in already-urbanized areas. While there have been a spate of accounts touting The End of the Suburbs as a seeming market-based response–a back-to-the-city movement based on millennials’ distaste for buying and sitting in cars and Generation X’s reaching an upper limit for commuting endurance–is at best a partial solution, because urban housing is increasing in desirability without a concomitant increase in supply because of land use regulations, cultural norms, and uncoordinated planning and development. The prospect of car-free or car-lite living may be attractive, but as a Brookings Institution report from 2014 indicated, the reduction of car commuting by young workers, while significant, represents a small reduction (workers aged 25-54 showed a 0.9 percent reduction in car commuting between 2007 and 2013).

Romem’s conclusions are intriguing, but there are significant political-economic impediments to achieving them. As Richard Florida notes, Romem describes aptly a “trilemma” of development imperatives, in which cities and metros must balance three objectives, where at least one necessarily suffers.

But this view, as apt a description of the forward-looking policy problems of density and affordability as it might be, leaves out the politics of the trilemma, and the ways in which policies that create sprawl are less a sacrifice of the desire to prevent sprawl for the sake of affordability and growth, but an affirmation of the priorities of political interest groups (real estate developers, home builders, automobile manufacturers, oil companies) in a “sprawl lobby.” Where neither Florida nor Romem quite go is to the conclusion that making density more economic effectively means making sprawl more expensive. We’ll keep waiting for that, I guess.

 

Of course, there is a role to play for ideas and values in the political arena, and perhaps this seemingly impossible political shift could be enabled by a powerful normative shift around lifestyle. Romem calls, among other things, for an effort to normalize multi-family housing as a child-rearing environment. Again, thinking historically, multi-family, cooperative, and other housing models have been envisioned as not only acceptable, but preferable to the domestic isolation of the single-family house. The problem is, as Dolores Hayden has written, that while the suburban single-family house was a spatial fix for the needs of the real estate, construction, and banking interests of mid-century America as much as those of working families, it met many of those families’ material and emotional needs well enough to become established, and to make alternatives appear impossible.

I’ve shown this 1957 industrial film In the Suburbs to my students for several years in the past, and it always provokes interesting responses. Lizabeth Cohen wrote about it in A Consumer’s Republic, suggesting that it heralded a transformative moment in the public embrace of consumerism. I’m a little less sure of that. The film is only incidentally touting consumer goods; it’s really selling Redbook magazine as a marketing tool to tap the wallets of “young adults” moving to the suburbs. I’ve always been struck by the amount of cultural work needed to normalize what the film subtextually portrays as a new and bewildering lifestyle.

There’s no reason to think that density can’t be as effectively sold, if there is the will to do it.

When is a Budget Surplus a Bad Thing?

When it represents federal housing funds that are deliberately going unspent to avoid providing public and low-income housing.

Eve Ewing’s report in The New Republic identifies another looming scandal in Chicago, this time in the Chicago Housing Authority. That agency has been acting as though the middle word in its name (and its mandate) doesn’t exist, which is a problem.

For low-income people in Chicago, housing options are scarce. Ewing notes that approximately 280,000 people entered a lottery to get on a waiting list for CHA housing. A lottery, for a waiting list, which is 30,000 names deep for public housing units and 50,000 names deep for housing vouchers. Reaching the top  of the waiting list then entitles an applicant to wait more, between one and five years, for screening. Ewing notes that one applicant, whose use of a wheelchair makes it difficult for her to find suitable private housing and encourages landlords to discriminate against her, has been waiting for a CHA unit for 15 years. Another frustrated applicant says

“They operate at a level that just ensures that so many people are gonna be homeless.”

Such problems suggest a problem common to other public sector agencies in the age of the Tea Party–austerity budgets that have cut staffing and operational spending well into the bone. The IRS, for example, has been operating for years without the resources to answer its telephones or perform the basic task of investigating tax cheating and collecting the revenues legally owed to the government, notwithstanding that each dollar spent to fund such activity yields a 600% return in the form of tax collections. Indeed, the Chicago Housing Authority is running on a deficit of $430 million, which makes it impossible to even…

Oh, whoops, no. That’s a surplus of $430 million.

Wait, what? Yeah. $430 million in the couch cushions at CHA.

As Ewing reports, this surplus has derived from one principal source: a grant initiated in 2000 by the HUD for Chicago’s participation in a pilot Moving to Work program. Among other things, this program offered funds, with minimal federal oversight, for rehabilitation of about 25,000 units of public housing. The first phase of the program, demolishing 18,000 units most prominently associated with the Robert Taylor Homes and parts of the Cabrini-Green low-income community left standing after the CHAs 1990s wave of demolitions, proceeded apace. The problem, as Ewing describes, is that

the pace to rebuild or renovate has been slow—and particularly slow since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011. Between 2007 and 2010, the CHA rebuilt between 700 and 900 units each year. In 2011, that number plummeted by about half, to 424. The following year, only 112 units were built. Only 49 new units were constructed last year.

Some of the cleared land has been reallocated to private development, and in other cases, the CHA has simply not acted to replace lost housing units. CHA is also not returning usable units to circulation after eviction or vacancy.

J.L. Gross, a veteran with a disability who has lived in Lathrop Homes on the North Side of the city for 26 years, has seen this strategy in his own community. “As recently as a week ago, two people were evicted from Lathrop,” he said. “They [lived in] habitable apartments. They are now boarded up… It’s a comedy of errors.” Such boarded-up units are categorized by the CHA as being “offline,” or unavailable to rent for a variety of reasons such as “maintenance” or “pending redevelopment.” As of this summer, about 16% of CHA units—a total of almost 3,500 units—were uninhabited.

Gross believes that the decision to leave them empty is a strategic step to facilitate the eventual eradication of public housing. “Out of 925 apartments, you only have 128 units that are being used, and that was either through attrition or forced eviction,” he said. “But now that the numbers are so low and CHA is not filling those vacant apartments, you have a reason to close down Lathrop.” He compares this pattern with the process of public school closure in Chicago, where schools were shut down for being underutilized. “It’s the same thing. Public schools and public housing… I’m fighting for Lathrop. It’s my community and that means more to me than anything.”

How is this happening? Ewing notes that Mayor Emanuel has the power to personally appoint executives to the CHA, and that he’s made appointments that, like his appointment of Barbara Byrd-Bennett as the CEO of the public schools, have raised questions about the appointees’ ethics and self-dealing. Historically speaking, I would take issue with Ewing’s implicit characterization of the situation as corruption (to be fair, that characterization is most directly promoted by the headline, which TNR may have added on its own in the interest of pinning a scandal to an embattled and controversial mayor) . It’s much more a part of a continuum of shifting low-income housing from the public to the subsidized-private sector, and, as Larry Vale argues in Purging the Poorest (University of Chicago, 2013), of a redefinition since the early 1990s of housing authorities’ missions from creating and managing public housing to eliminating it. As much as I’ve enjoyed kicking Mayor Rahm Emanuel while he’s been down (though, paraphrasing Hunter Thompson’s masterful Nixon eulogy, I’ve kicked him when he’s been up, too), this is a problem that’s much bigger than a single city housing authority under a neoliberal administration. As Vale notes, the 1990s launched a revision of public housing policy through multiple iterations of local enactment of federal policies, which culminated in the kind of programs the CHA has implemented. While public housing is often associated with the Great Society as a provision of housing for the poorest of the urban poor, Vale shows that today’s non-housing housing policy has significant antecedents in the years between the New Deal and the Great Society, when local housing authorities envisioned housing as a social reform instrument to support the “worthy” poor, rather than the most economically disadvantaged. As Vale argues, this first wave of public housing

centered on selectivity and moral judgment… [a] moralist animus [that] has been reconstituted in much of US housing policy since 1990 (3)

Under the broad umbrella of the HOPE VI initiative in HUD, American public housing policy has shifted from the task of providing housing, Vale argues, to the task of reorganizing housing authorities around the demands of the marketplace, both in terms of the kinds of housing assistance they provide and, more importantly, the ways that they use public property to support private redevelopment interests. This is the historical trend that is most significant for understanding the problems with the CHA less as corruption and more as the logical extension of a set of policy directives. The extent to which CHA is willing to go not to supply public housing is astonishing–what public agency is funding its pension obligations ahead of schedule, at a point in time where other Chicago workers are getting aggressively stiffed?–which indicates a harmony of interest with both private actors and HUD policymakers. The CHA is following through on a host of Clinton/Gingrich era policies that have all led local housing authorities away from the business of providing housing.

The CHA was instrumental in advancing this shift through its troubled relationship to HUD and the federal government, as Vale’s account shows. After a 1995 Federal takeover of the CHA, the agency implemented even more aggressive plans to raze the Cabrini-Green complex just northwest of downtown than the CHA had previously contemplated. After a 1996 Near North Redevelopment Initiative was announced, without support from representatives of the Cabrini-Green community, the plan was denounced as “ethnic cleansing, Chicago-style,” as it proposed the demolition of more than 1,300 family-occupied apartments. Congress then mandated “viability tests” for federally-supported public housing. If vacancy rates exceeded 10% in large buildings, local housing authorities would be required to evaluate the costs of providing residents with vouchers, and pushed to demolish the buildings–a policy that led to 18,000 Chicago Housing Authority units being declared “nonviable” in 1997. And, while a consent decree negotiated with CHA tenants required the construction and setting aside of affordable, subsidized apartments in the private, market-rate successor developments on and around the Cabrini-Green site, developers have been able to establish screening criteria for settling low-income tenants that have resulted in about 80% of the applicants failing to meet the stated criteria. Setting aside units for subsidized low-income housing in what has otherwise been a land rush of epic proportions on Chicago’s near north side has not been the same thing as providing housing to low-income Chicagoans. As Vale notes,

Chicago’s broader urban development since the 1990s has been far more Trumpian than Teresan. Between 1995 and 2005, homeowners purchased more than $1.2 billion in residential property within two blocks of Cabrini-Green…. New Urbanist neighborhoods that have gradually superseded demolished public housing are part of a broader trend to reimage Chicago as a safe, green, and comfortable environment, especially for the middle class (282-283)

And, ultimately, the right-of-return promised by the CHA for displaced tenants has gone unfulfilled.

In Chicago, during the Plan for Transformation, 90 percent of CHA residents who were offered a right of return initially sought to exercise that right, rather than accept the one-time offer of permanent relocation using a HCV. Clearly, they believed that the CHA was going to offer them a desirable alternative that would enable them to remain in a neighborhood they valued. A dozen years later, however, only 11 percent of those families have gained a spot in one of the mixed-income communities that had long been so tantalizingly touted as the Plan’s policy centerpiece. And fewer than 25 percent of the right-of-return family households ended up receiving HCVs as their ultimate relocation option–even though this continues to be plugged by policymakers as the best exit strategy for nearly everyone…. Taken overall, despite the politically appealing rhetoric of the HCV and HOPE VI program, it is hard to vouch for genuine “housing choice” or to be certain that “housing opportunity” is indeed for “people everywhere.” (334-335)

And, for the last two decades, this orientation has been reasonably popular insofar as politically active and respected constituencies have approved it. Ronit Bezalel’s documentary Voices of Cabrini shows how residents in 1995 struggled against a prevailing tide of stigma against their community. Note how David Tkac, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s spokesperson for public housing redevelopment, felt empowered to present to a roomful of Cabrini residents a description of their own neighborhood as “not a pretty picture” while insisting that sketches of a new townhome development, illustrations notably lacking in their depictions of the presence of the poor, represented a desirable future (at 5:29):

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/8207992″>Voices of Cabrini: Remaking Chicago’s Public Housing</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user1390257″>Ronit Bezalel</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

What’s noteworthy about the current state of the CHA is that the agency’s dereliction of duty has been blatant enough to lead some politicians and citizens to actually advocate for more public housing, though the Authority had clearly been counting on the assumption that the stigma attached to “the projects” would make its lack of action palatable. From Ewing’s account:

“It’s really a tale of two cities,” says Gross. “Public housing has been stereotyped as a gang infested entity, as people who are not willing to work, to pull their own weight. It’s a broad-brushes stereotype of what public housing is about. … I consider myself blessed and lucky. I’m humbled to be where I’m at. I’m truly thankful. …Every day I wake up, I’m a blessed individual. I want people to see my community as a good community.”

Unfortunately, the CHA has been riding that public perception and a set of institutional priorities at the federal level that place providing public housing at the bottom of the list since the 1990s.

As Vale memorably contends,

Urban renewal and public housing renewal are not just about clearing sites, but about clearing sights–a cleaning out of things that should not be seen (30)

In Chicago and in the US at large, the sights and sites in question are those occupied by an increasingly precarious group of the urban poor. Ewing notes that Julian Castro, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development visited Chicago in July and stated his “concern” about a housing authority that has amassed a middle-nine-figure surplus by abdicating its essential mission. That’s nice, but it indicates a profound lack of commitment on the part of Castro’s HUD predecessors and a lack of oversight powers on the part of the Department today to respond to such dereliction with concern rather than with demands, directives, or an outright takeover. One supposes that Castro may ask the CHA politely to actually build and provide some housing with all of the federal government’s money it’s been sitting on, but based on the last quarter century of policy, one wouldn’t expect much more.

And finally, one must ask how much sex Black women must withhold, and from whom, to compel the CHA to spend 430 million dollars of the public’s money on housing.

Is The Suburban Persecution Complex Having Its Moment?

I wrote here a couple of years ago about a book published by Stanley Kurtz called Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities (and quoted at length a well-written takedown of same). Kurtz’s book generally used the spatial frame of city vs. suburb, which can be selectively interpreted as a set of spatial referents that help articulate a variation of the common core of the right-wing message: “regular Americans” are getting screwed over by liberals, bureaucrats, and social engineers to help minorities, which is futile because of the deficiencies of the recipients (they’ll waste the aid) and the inerrant truth of the market (which demands homogenous neighborhoods).

There is a strong basis for the appeal of this message. The suburbs are home to the largest number of Americans, and, while suburbs tend to be internally homogenous and differentiated from one another by racial, ethnic, class, and occupational distinctions, our most common image of the suburbs is of affluence and whiteness. The differentiation of suburbs from each other and from cities helps perpetuate economic inequality, organizes racial segregation spatially, and, most importantly, encourages affluent white suburbanites to develop deep emotional investments in the “quality” of their communities. Quality is very often defined by racial homogeneity as much as by uniform levels of affluence–recent research using video-based sociological experiments shows that whites subjects’ perception of the quality of the same neighborhood changed significantly for the worse when the otherwise identical scene included black people. When members of minority groups (and to a lesser extent, the white poor) challenge the identity of a community through their presence, those emotional investments are threatened–people perceived as “outsiders” can, by their presence in the community, trigger intense resentment and even repression by the authorities.

Which is why the timing of the Supreme Court’s recent decision (halfheartedly) supporting the application of disparate impact standards under the Fair Housing Act was so serendipitously timed with the release of the tape of the McKinney, Texas pool party police riot. McKinney was identified by the fair housing advocacy group that sued the State of Texas over the practice of distributing low-income housing tax credits in ways that concentrated low-income housing options (and thus, virtually by definition and certainly by design, racial minorities) in a small number of urban and suburban neighborhoods. The segregation of the community and the organization of public policy to consign affordable housing to one side of the city are essential contexts for understanding the McKinney police riot, which in turn graphically illustrates what happens without the aggressive pursuit of housing integration.

The Supreme Court’s decision by itself was by no means a mandate for an aggressively integrationist low-income housing policy. Anthony Kennedy’s opinion suggested that “redevelopment” was a goal equal in merit to “integration,” and that local housing authorities could satisfy the requirements of FHA by revitalization projects that set aside a number of affordable housing units in projects that otherwise gentrify and displace existing low-income populations (where the displaced are to live is unanswered). But by upholding the disparate impact standard, the decision did send the message that the practices favored by local and state governments with regard to distributing low-income housing can no longer expect to concentrate the poor and minorities in ways that protect property value, “character,” and emotional investments in affluent and mostly white communities with complete impunity.

What may potentially give the Supreme Court’s decision teeth was a subsequent policy directive from HUD that the department would require communities receiving HUD funds to “affirmatively further fair housing.” This language has been part of the legislation creating HUD from the beginning, though it’s been mostly ignored until now. It should be noted that HUD’s plan to promote an AFFH agenda is not unduly radical, requiring the creation of a central database of community-level socioeconomic and racial and ethnic data, which will be used by communities receiving HUD funds to set targets for reducing segregation. In extreme cases, HUD could withhold funding from communities that don’t participate or don’t succeed in reaching desegregation targets. Which, technically, the department has always had the authority to do.

So, while AFFH is hardly the fulfillment of the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program demands for “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace,” Kevin Drum notes that the rather clunky acronym of AFFH has begun to catch on as a boogeyman.

Mostly I just wanted to let everyone know that this thing called AFFH is the latest outrage among the conservative base. It fits in perfectly with their hysteria over Agenda 21 and their general belief that Obama wants to round up every well-off white person in the country and pack them like sardines into high-rise buildings in big cities. Now you know.

Drum’s not exaggerating much here. Kurtz, perhaps eager to have his book receive the attention it missed three years ago, writes at the National Review’s “The Corner” that

the regulation amounts to back-door annexation, a way of turning America’s suburbs into tributaries of nearby cities.

I wouldn’t otherwise link to the article on general principle, but you might otherwise think I’m making this up.

For Kurtz, there are two types of people: urbanites and suburbanites. Many of the latter used to be the former, the window of legitimacy for city-to-suburb migration has closed; indeed, while past migration was apparently democratic and free, any movement of current “urbanites” to the suburbs could only occur through the dread Government Social Engineering.

If you press suburbanites into cities, transfer urbanites to the suburbs, and redistribute suburban tax money to cities, you have effectively abolished the suburbs.

Revenue sharing, public or non-highway transportation infrastructure, and particularly dispersed affordable housing programs are, of course, not really tantamount to “abolishing the suburbs.” There have always been many kinds of suburbs, and different kinds of public policies, hand in hand with the market, have made some kinds of suburbs predominant at different times–the affluent enclaves enabled by road-building and the validation of exclusionary zoning at the turn of the twentieth century, the industrial suburbs enabled by municipal utility building and lax zoning outside the city limits, black and latino suburbs shaped by racial segregation and community-building efforts (by the way, read here for a story about how Hamilton County, Ohio essentially stole the wealth of a black suburb by annexation), and today’s inner-ring suburbs bypassed by successive waves of highway development, for example.

It’s more accurate to say that AFFH represents a threat to the particular sort of suburbs that Kurtz values: those in which the cost of housing ensures social homogeneity and protects privileged access to the networks of educational opportunity and social capital that develop there. Of course, it’s no longer entirely acceptable to declare one’s preference to exclude. Ideals like local control, harnessed to the slippery-slope fallacy, become useful:

It will take time for the truth to emerge. Just by issuing AFFH, the Obama administration has effectively annexed America’s suburbs to its cities. The old American practice of local self-rule is gone. We’ve switched over to a federally controlled regionalist system.

Michael Barone contributes an obtuse effort at defining “segregation” as complete exclusion, which would virtually define segregation out of existence while labeling actually-existing segregation through the market and “color-blind” institutional practices as something else entirely.

An approach more appropriate for a society where there is no significant forcible resistance to desegregation was advanced by Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent. “We should not automatically presume that any institution with a neutral practice that happens to produce a racial disparity is guilty of discrimination until proven innocent,” he wrote. “The absence of racial disparities in multi-ethnic societies has been the exception, not the rule.”

Keep in mind, Thomas’s opinion in dissent from the Inclusive Communities decision included the rhetorical gem that, since the majority of NBA players are black, disproportions in other industries must be above suspicion.

Nolan Finley uses his Detroit News column to rail against the specter of quotas and forced integration.

The intent here is to make every neighborhood “look like America,” the popular buzz phrase for arranging society by racial percentages.

More likely, the rule will make every neighborhood look like Detroit.

The Motor City should have settled the question of whether forced integration works. Its abandonment was accelerated by court-ordered school busing and government efforts to reorder neighborhoods.

These objections to AFFH are based in a highly selective and ahistorical interpretation of the development and settlement of metropolitan America: white and affluent suburbanites are innocent players in the market who have secured valuable property through their own efforts, property that would be unjustly devalued by government mandates for inclusive housing (as it was by the prior bogeyman of “forced busing”). My own work on the blog and in published work has touched on the ways in which this innocence narrative is bunk. But I’m certainly not the only scholar on that beat.

One of the most relevant recent books for illuminating this issue is UC-Irvine Assistant Professor of History Andrew Highsmith’s Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan and the Fate of the American Metropolis (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Highsmith’s thesis is that while Flint is often understood as a cautionary example of what happens when industrial elites and white workers abandon a city, the reality is more complex and both more hopeful and more frustrating. Rather than a product of abandonment and indifference, Flint’s current struggles are products of a series of efforts to improve the city and the metropolitan area. The problem of course being that the discourse of progress and improvement is fragmented; victorious plans for progress did not reconcile, but only temporarily concealed deep structural conflicts among metropolitan constituencies. The results of improvement initiatives have institutionalized the faults and omissions inherent of different actors’ vision of progress.

If we take Highsmith’s argument seriously (and we should), the fatal moment for metropolitan Flint was not when General Motors undertook workforce cutbacks in response to oil shock and recession in the 1970s, but when a plan for large-scale metropolitan government consolidation in the late 1950s was defeated by suburban voters. When General Motors lost faith in its ability to organize and order metropolitan government according to its understanding of progress, its commitment to keeping metro Flint as its center of production also waned (although dispersal to the Sun Belt and conflicts with the UAW contributed, Highsmith makes clear that the effects of the failed consolidation were more immediate). While one group of “suburban capitalist” property owners protected their immediate interests by preventing the central city from annexing their suburban neighborhoods (and consolidating school districts), they ultimately lost the war because the region’s truculent localism proved to be economically dysfunctional in the long run. This is an argument made by many New Regionalist social scientists, and Highsmith puts some historical meat on those conceptual bones.

I can’t do full justice to Highsmith’s argument here, but his book is a great achievement. It’s truly metropolitan in scope, linking the actions of Flint, Genesee County, and suburban politicians, the spatial practices of General Motors executives who distributed production around the metro area in the hopes of leveraging their economic power to consolidate metropolitan government, and the regional effects of federal housing policies on the distribution of property wealth in the region. Highsmith also draws connections between institutions that are frequently studied in isolation (schools, industry, lending, urban renewal) to construct a complex narrative of how and why a relatively small metropolitan area dominated by one employer still developed deep sociospatial divisions. The effects of GM’s contraction of its Flint workforce are only the final act of this story, and Highsmith never lets the dramatic end of industrial prosperity in the Vehicle City obscure the very serious problems that that prosperity helped create.

Notably, and quite relevant to the AFFH controversy, Highsmith argues that segregation in Flint was not just tolerated as a de facto consequence of the market, nor was it an unfortunate consequence of communities falling through the cracks of prosperity. Rather, segregation was encouraged as a development strategy and adopted as an administrative priority by government, philanthropy, and capital, both before and after the passage of the Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts. Indeed, political leaders both in the city of Flint and in surrounding Genesee County worked actively to preserve white neighborhoods, even after Flint voters became the first electorate in the country to support open housing in a referendum. Sadly, fair housing law in Flint did little to change what Highsmith terms “popular” segregation–the preferences of white individuals, families, and neighbors to maintain homogeneity–or “administrative” segregation–the enforcement, implementation, and crafting of policies that may be race-neutral, but work to expand and protect segregation–including the location of public housing, urban renewal, and the actions of organized real estate boards. Highsmith describes decisions about the construction, form, and location of public housing, urban renewal, and highway construction as examples of administrative segregation that shaped Flint’s segregated housing market. At the federal level, the decision not to enforce the AFFH mandate of fair housing laws is an excellent example of administrative segregation. And, in particular, the application of affordable housing policies in the 1970s through administrative decisions that concentrated low-income housing in a small number of inner suburbs and offered ostensibly “subsidized” mortgages that turned into predatory debt traps for lower-middle class black buyers in Flint predicted the effects of the 2000s subprime lending bubble in combination with the distribution of low-income housing tax credits in conformity with “popular” segregation mandates to preserve affluent and majority-white communities across the US. Although Kurtz or Finley might look to Beecher or any number of similar “suburban ghettoes” and conclude that forced desegregation was the cause of decline, Highsmith shows how deeply both federal and local policies were implicated in the extension of segregation beyond the city limits.

In Highsmith’s account, these two modes of segregation worked alongside “legal” segregation in the city until judicial decisions outlawed public segregation or segregation by private contract, but also continued well afterward. Highsmith relies on the interplay of administrative and popular segregation to demolish (pardon the pun) a false binary between “de facto” and “de jure” segregation. This binary is precisely the false dichotomy that Kurtz, Barone, and Finley apply to attach the AFFH initiative–if there is no explicit law requiring segregation, or no declared intention to discriminate, then patterns in the housing market, whether they be the architectural style of a neighborhood or the wealth or complexion of the people in it, are innocent and legitimate.

Highsmith offers a compelling historical account of why this isn’t so. Read the whole book.

Irregularly Recurring Quote of the Day

From Clarissa Rile Hayward’s How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces (Cambridge, 2013):

By the later decades of the century, NAREB’s narrative of Americans as a home-owning people–a people whose good is served by state support for private, profit-driven development–functioned as a frame to many ordinary stories. When prospective home buyers considered moving to Wexner’s New Albany, they did not tell themselves “I plan to take advantage of public subsidies for private housing for the privileged, which I endorse as legitimate,” but instead, “It’s in my interest to move here,” and “I like this place.” (167)

Hayward’s most insightful observations in a work that is provocative throughout are that, contrary to some PoMo ideas that identities are fluid narrative constructions, certain narratives, rooted in individual and group interests, can be materialized and institutionalized so that even when elements of the narrative become “bad stories” that (if we’re being optimistic about society) violate contemporary ethical norms (“blacks lower property values and should be excluded”) or are internally incoherent (“the private market built the suburbs without help from the government”), they continue to frame the stories the privileged tell about their situations, thus depoliticizing what are in fact highly political decisions about the allocation of resources.

Chapter 5, “White Fences,” from which this quote is drawn, is really an impressive piece of scholarship, integrating a critical legal analysis of private school subsidy jurisprudence, a takedown of public choice theory, and a cogent set of thought experiments that demonstrate that public schools in elite suburbs are the functional, moral, and political equivalent of “segregation academies” though of course are unrecognized as such.