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.

Trumpism’s Urban Roots

It’s tempting, though inaccurate, to look to articles like this weekend’s Washington Post piece following Jim Cooley, a downwardly-mobile former trucker on disability who packs an AR-15 to the local Georgia Wal-Mart while his wife uses Facebook to alert the local sheriff that his intentions are benign and unworthy of forcible response (illustrated thusly, a bit on the nose),


Photo Jabin Botsford, Washington Post

and conclude that Trumpism is a tide that laps the edges of metropolitan areas, but properly belongs to some here-be-dragons space off the map.

While this perception is largely based on the use of “non-college educated” as a shoddy statistical proxy for “working class” and ignores the higher-than-average incomes of Trump supporters, as well as their ample (if, perhaps, electorally insufficient) presence in American suburbs, it’s also worth noting that the key professional basis for Trump’s claims to the presidency (whatever their merit may be) is his career as a real estate developer. And, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that that career would be nothing without the regime of tax abatements and incentives that have characterized post-industrial urban governance in New York City and elsewhere.

Charles Bagli has that story in the New York Times. The long and short? Trump’s New York properties were built using tax abatement programs that lowered costs to Trump during development and shielded buyers of luxury condos from the full tax rate, allowing Trump to charge (and receive) higher prices to make more immediate profits. As Bagli writes, Trump’s Grand Hyatt hotel, which opened in 1980,

set the pattern for Mr. Trump’s New York career: He used his father’s, and, later, his own, extensive political connections, and relied on a huge amount of assistance from the government and taxpayers in the form of tax breaks, grants and incentives to benefit the 15 buildings at the core of his Manhattan real estate empire.

Since then, Mr. Trump has reaped at least $885 million in tax breaks, grants and other subsidies for luxury apartments, hotels and office buildings in New York, according to city tax, housing and finance records.

As a product of public subsidies that have created luxury for a privileged elite, starved the public sector, and stinted on obligations to provide affordable and integrated housing, while cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of competitive enterprise, Trump’s empire reflects the trajectory of urban America, uncomfortable though it may be to recognize.

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=”″>Voices of Cabrini: Remaking Chicago’s Public Housing</a> from <a href=”″>Ronit Bezalel</a> on <a href=””>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.

Stadium Financing Skewered by John Oliver

Since I will otherwise come off as a John Oliver fanboy, I will point out that he misuses the term “begs the question” twice in this clip.

Otherwise, it’s brilliant, and even features John’s best Coach Eric Taylor impersonation.

Some more serious stuff by me on stadiums and cities here and here, and of course the blog Field of Schemes is the leading source.

The Stadium Scam and Cities as Instruments of Democracy

I’m working on the edits for an article I’ve been working on in some way, shape, or form since 2010. Yes. 2010. Such is academic publishing. The article (no spoilers) deals in chief with the ways that cities as legal corporations might potentially serve as instruments of public democracy by expressing and acting in the public interest. I counterpose this kind of democracy with a prevailing privatized view of political participation defined by the contribution to a candidate or a single-issue nonprofit advocacy group.

Spoiler alert (OK, a little one): I contend that public democracy is better. However, a big problem for cities, where people have routinely demonstrated a desire to practice public democracy, has been the renewed opposition of state legislatures, substantially influenced by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to urban government action in response to democratic pressure.

What has made working on these edits tolerable and not a crushing reminder of the absurdities inherent in the academic publishing model is that current events keep reinforcing the argument. Today’s example comes from Deadspin, which, while nominally a sports blog, is routinely at the front of the line identifying the ways that sports (among other spectacles) have been leveraged by capitalists to transform cities and secure extensive public subsidies for billionaires (see also here and here).

The stuff that Bill Bradley describes could be happening anywhere, but it has particular poignance since it’s happening in Detroit, where local democracy has taken a considerable beating at the hands of capitalists and rural-suburban politicians). There, the city council has advocated requiring developers receiving public funds for major development projects to sign Community Benefits Agreements, legally binding contracts that would set terms by which the developer would be required to abide. These might address hiring, the number of construction and non-construction jobs to be established, the wages and benefits to be paid, and the proportion of local residents to be hired.

The precipitating events behind the proposed local law were many, but one stands out:

“We are allowing these large corporations—companies that could build a hockey arena without our money—to get in the corporate welfare line and take resources away from us,” Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan state representative who serves Detroit, told me. “In exchange for what?”

The hockey arena Tlaib mentioned is for the city’s beloved Red Wings, owned by pizza baron Mike Ilitch. The Ilitch family, whose net worth is estimated at $3.2 billion thanks in part to their Little Caesars pizza empire, received $284.5 million in public money to build a new, $450 million arena in the city’s Cass Corridor neighborhood. (They are desperately and vapidly rebranding it as the “arena and entertainment district.”)

While the Ilitch family was finishing up its honeypot stadium welfare deal last year—not to mention a wildly below-market rate $1 land transfer for 39 vacant parcels—they refused to sign a CBA that would ensure a certain percentage of permanent, non-construction jobs at the arena went to Detroiters. A group of locals formed the Corridors Alliance in an attempt to engage with the Ilitches, but their efforts were futile. The Ilitches did, however, agree to a mayoral executive order that demanded 51 percent of construction jobs go to residents and 30 percent of construction contracts go to local businesses. (The mayoral order, like Marathon’s hollow promise, is not legally binding.)

Take public money, the CBA reasonably insists, and deliver public benefits. Sounds about right? Not so fast:

The opposition made it all the way to the state capitol in Lansing during December’s lame duck session, where Republican State Representative Earl Poleski introduced House Bill 5977, which would “prohibit local units of government from creating a ‘community benefits ordinance.'” The bill, which died in December and was reintroduced in January, would ban Detroit’s proposed ordinance outright.

“House Bill 5977 sets up the state as a dictatorship telling local units of government that they cannot do what is best for their community, workers and residents when it comes to wages and benefits tied to economic development in that community,” Tlaib said in a statement.

I should also mention that the Detroit Regional Chamber Political Action Committee donated money to Poleski’s reelection campaign last summer, according to Secretary of State disclosures. And while it was a paltry and deeply stupid check for only $250, it’s worth asking why the Detroit Regional Chamber is propping up a state representative from Jackson, a county 80 miles west.

The reason of course, is that the concept of pre-emption, which plagued cities in the nineteenth century when urban special interests could leverage the anti-urbanism of rural legislators to stop cities from doing anything they didn’t like, has come back in with a vengeance. Whether it’s an idiosyncratic case like Detroit’s CBA initiative or the kinds of cookie-cutter pre-emption bills ALEC has distributed through the State Houses to try to kill off living wage bills or environmental protections, urban special interests of the stadium-building class have discovered that the states are a potent weapon against local democracy.


A find from the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library at Emory. This is from a market analysis study conducted by a consulting firm on behalf of a prospective developer of a downtown retail complex in 1954:

It is perfectly clear that the completed expressway will vastly improve the competitive position of Atlanta’s downtown retail district. It will bring the heavy population of the north and south areas much closer to the central stores and shops. By putting the huge retail magnet of the downtown as close to these populations as the expressway itself, figuratively speaking, it will serve further to decrease the possibility of successful, large-scale regional competition (which would no longer have a locational advantage except with respect to the relatively low-density immediate suburbs). The possibility of building up a large suburban market by pulling customers from a broad area is considerably lessened when the lines of attraction are cut by an expressway that can get the customers downtown to the major stores in a matter of only a few minutes.

OK then….

Obviously we know that this particular gambit worked out to be, as the kids say, an epic fail. But it raises a set of questions that aren’t so obviously answered. For one, the narrative of white flight and capital exodus from central cities was not a linear process, and within regional real estate markets, there were just as many folks betting on downtown for much of the postwar era. In Atlanta, part of that bet came from the certainty that business leaders like C of C (and later Mayor) Ivan Allen, Jr. had that federal highway and urban renewal policies were a tool at their disposal to make their property more valuable by manipulating and remaking property around it. But I wonder increasingly how much of that certainty was fed by these kinds of market reports. Armed with a set of market reports that said “bail out and buy tracts in the suburbs,” would downtown real estate holders have done differently? Many, including the Rich’s Department Store company began to hedge their bets by acquiring land along the proposed Perimeter Highway route (I-285), but for most of the 1950s professed publicly and planned around the premise that their downtown store was the company’s heart, soul, and meal ticket.

Had these interests bailed, instead of seeking to leverage urban renewal to protect and enhance their property, would central Atlanta be better off today? It’s hard to argue that the investment of millions of development dollars downtown in the era of white flight was a bad thing, but it’s important to recognize two things: the cyclical and repetitive nature of these projects, and the process through which redevelopment priorities were set. Atlanta’s downtown and adjacent areas bear the imprints of successive waves of “improvements” all promising what this report did, without delivering the anticipated returns, and while preventing the development of housing that could alleviate the overcrowding of many of the city’s most impoverished black neighborhoods. Irene Holliman raises important questions in an article in the Journal of Urban History that links the 1966 Summerhill Riot in the area near Fulton County Stadium to the disruptive effects of giant urban renewal projects conceived and executed without regard for the needs of the local public, whose increasingly militant opposition to conditions of poverty and overcrowding was turned against their communities’ very survival by urban renewal authorities who enthusiastically accepted that slum neighborhoods were intolerable, but balked at replacing the housing they destroyed in the name of renewal.

Holliman writes that while the riots shook the city’s complacent image as “too busy to hate,” they

should have come as no surprise to Mayor Allen, city aldermen, or any of the local urban renewal committees. The Council on Human Relations of Greater Atlanta… did not blame SNCC for the riot. In a news release, the council members talked about the city’s failure to delivers services, stating, “SNCC members are not responsible for [creating] parking spaces for 4,000 cars [for stadium goers] in the middle of an area which has no parks for children to play in” (Holliman, Irene V. 2009. “From Crackertown to Model City? Urban Renewal and Community Building in Atlanta, 1963—1966.” Journal of Urban History 35 (3) (March 1): 380. doi:10.1177/0096144208330402.).

Strangely enough, residents of Summerhill weren’t happy about having this


dropped next to their neighborhood. From the point of view of downtown, however, the recently-cleared parcel at the confluence of two interstate expressways was a perfect location to put a stadium to attract a ballclub that would flatter the vanity of local elites who had been clamoring for their city to join the proverbial big leagues for some time. If the interstates and the ocean of parking lots was the price to pay for drawing suburbanites and their wallets back into central Atlanta, even if only for 81 games each summer, the costs of the project were sufficiently remote that they seemed negligible.

April, 1964, from Georgia Info

April, 1964, from Georgia Info

The anthropologist James Scott would indict these projects as “Seeing Like a State–substituting the 30,000-foot view of central authority (be it public or corporate, or, as in Atlanta, a regime linking the two) for the locally-situated knowledge of residents. Urban renewal that involved these residents at the core of the planning process would have alienated the city’s business and banking establishment, but might have been able to use a more modest stream of funds to meet basic human needs. Had the city’s establishment not clung to the hope of making central Atlanta profitable, it might have had a better chance of becoming habitable.