Inclusive Housing: Aligning Policy With Practice

2 years ago Alger Mag Editor 0


15293165436_2f3f7b4047_bIn the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges and the Supreme Court’s remarkable recognition of marriage equality earlier this year, another critical civil rights ruling passed largely unnoticed by the general public: that of Texas Department of Housing v. Inclusive Communities, a landmark case on racial housing discrimination. In contrast to Hodges, this case was less a blow for civil rights than an uneasy affirmation of the status quo, and the ambivalence of the Court’s 5-4 ruling shows that there is still much work to be done in this area. Beneath debates on fair housing is a national question that has gone unresolved – and often unarticulated – since the era of Dr. King’s Poor People’s March: How can racial justice be extended to the economic sphere? Fear of a radical answer has kept us from an honest reckoning with the scorched earth left by discrimination.

The Court’s affirmative opinion in Texas v. Inclusive Communities begins with a comment on the confluence of Dr. King’s assassination and the passing of the Fair Housing Act. Justice Kennedy is right to link the two. There is more than a rhetorical connection between the FHA and the crisis of the civil rights movement; the Act was passed shortly after the Kerner Commission released its controversial report on the causes of the 1967 black uprisings in LA and Chicago. The Kerner report identified a lack of economic opportunity – reflected in and reinforced by residential segregation – as the central cause of black unrest. Dr. King called the report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” Recognizing that the issue now demanded at least symbolic attention, Congress passed the FHA in 1968 – just a week after King’s killing.

However, actually establishing discrimination, in its many and subtle forms, has been the constant defect of the FHA. It is around this tension that Texas v. Inclusive Communities revolved. The plaintiffs sought to use the Court’s “disparate impact” standard (established in employment discrimination cases) to prove that although Texas’s public housing department did not explicitly consider race, its selective distribution of low-income tax credits perpetuated ghettoization. The department only funded projects in communities that were already low-income, majority black, and environmentally hazardous, and avoided projects in the suburbs. In doing so, the plaintiff claimed, the department was demonstrating in their deeds what private developers used to acknowledge in their words: a refusal to integrate communities.

The Court upheld this allegation, but couched their interpretation of the FHA in narrow terms. The disparate impact liability “mandates only the removal of artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers”, and claimants must be able to point to the “direct result” of a policy in creating racial injustice, not just statistical disparity. Even as they protected this vital piece of civil rights legislation, the Justices limited its reach.

What’s more, inclusive housing still faces obstacles in a number of other areas such as restrictive zoning laws, lack of access to homebuyer credit, and shrinking federal funding for public projects. These will not be overcome easily. Many cities exhibit the same level of residential segregation now as they did in the 1960s.

The way out is going to require a total rethinking of how to promote housing justice. Rather than simply removing legal barriers to integration, as Texas v. Inclusive Communities sought to do, successful housing policies must be part of a larger development agenda. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new rules for Section 8 allocations, which require metropolitan housing authorities to demonstrate how their projects are furthering integration in order to receive federal funding, are a step in the right direction. However, they do not directly challenge the urban/suburban divide that is at the heart of America’s racial geography.

As long as housing policy operates on the premise that the suburbs are the sole terrain of the affluent, and that integration means the encouragement of low-income suburban living, its gains will necessarily be limited.

The problems with the approach are twofold. First, it is rarely a good choice for the working poor, who often depend on proximity to public transit and social services which is simply not present in most suburbs. Second, it is not forward-looking; demographic projections suggest that the latest generation of affluent professionals is turning inwards, toward the central city. The recent “rediscovery” of embattled urban residential areas by the young middle class in Brooklyn, Detroit, Cleveland, and the like presages a larger shift in economic geography.

This last point is probably the most significant. Integration matters, after all, because we believe there is something socially valuable in having people of diverse racial and class backgrounds living alongside each other. To this end, a truly integrationist housing policy would guide the living patterns of the privileged as well as those of the least advantaged. There have been many failed experiments in black suburban autonomy that, lacking influence over city policy, were not able to last long on their own – for instance, Cincinnati’s Lincoln Heights, which has been slowly dismantled by white flight and the forcible redrawing of its boundaries. Ferguson, Missouri is another such majority-black suburb that suffered from white disinvestment.

Kenneth Jackson recognized this cyclicality as early as the 70s in his book Crabgrass Frontier: “The typical model of urban growth in the US has been the sequential reuse of housing by progressively lower-income households”. A proactive housing policy would look past the suburban strategy and toward the planned revitalization of urban centers.

For some well-intentioned advocates, “revitalization” may evoke fears of gentrification. It is true that a booming housing market and limits on new construction have led to soaring rents and the displacement of long-term residents in some low-income neighborhoods. However, gentrification is by no means a universal issue. It’s easy, amidst hand-wringing articles about Brooklyn, to overlook the fact that fully three-quarters of American neighborhoods that were low-income in the 70s remain low-income today.

While some liberals are fond of quoting Jane Jacobs on the virtues of mid-century Greenwich Village, there is nothing admirable about wanting to preserve historic neighborhoods in amber, romanticizing the poverty of their residents. Alleviating persistent poverty should be the first goal of housing policy.

This will not be easy. Policies like rent freezes, mixed-income developments and vouchers are political anathema in most cities. However, with demographic tides receding from the suburbs and back to central cities, inclusive development is economically feasible. The struggle will not be to convince developers to return to the city, but to convince these new urbanites to share their space with low-income residents who probably look little like them. It is this deeply personal animus – that regardless of political affiliation, most people want to live amongst people like themselves – which makes housing segregation so difficult to overcome.

Yet overcome we must. Unless policymakers can articulate a clear alternative to the status quo, the procedural equality upheld by Texas v. Inclusive Communities will remain a hollow promise.