Fair Housing Needs More Than Heroes

Fair Housing Needs More Than Heroes

At the end of the Yonkers fair housing battle depicted in the new David Simon mini-series Show Me a Hero, 200 poor black and Latino families were housed on the affluent side of the city. But a quarter-century later, a long-standing pattern of residential segregation and concentrated poverty persists nationwide.

Fictionalized Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko is confronted by constituents in Show Me a Hero (HBO)

David Simon’s new TV mini-series Show Me a Hero shows the power of the urge to exclude when it sweeps through a community. At the end of the Yonkers, New York, fair housing battle it depicts, 200 poor black and Latino families were housed on the affluent side of the city. But that outcome was a pyrrhic victory. 

A quarter century later, a long-standing pattern of residential segregation and concentrated poverty persists nationwide—and is even getting worse. A study by Portland’s City Observatory found that the percentage of the nation’s urban poor living in neighborhoods with a poverty rate above 30 percent rose from 28 percent in 1970 to 39 percent in 2010. Of the poorest urban neighborhoods in 1970, three-quarters were still poor in 2010.

Resistance to change has not abated. Westchester County, where Yonkers sits, is currently fighting a federal order to put 750 units of low-income housing into towns that currently have none at all. Lisa Belkin, author of the book Show Me a Hero is based on, says that supporters of desegregation won the battle but lost the war. 

The aftermath of the Yonkers struggle was hardly the first such defeat for fair housing. In Detroit in 1949, white autoworkers broke with their union and elected a conservative Republican mayor who ran against public housing. Democratic machines elsewhere heard similar messages from their constituents, and most northern cities confined housing projects to primarily black and Latino neighborhoods.

Twenty years later, after President Richard Nixon took office, his housing secretary George Romney announced a plan to deconcentrate public housing. Instead of high-rises in the inner city, smaller projects would be built on scattered sites in the suburbs. The scattered-site housing program drew intense resistance, helping to fuel the “white backlash” that swept Nixon to a reelection landslide. Romney left office after the election, at which point Nixon called a halt to all construction of public housing.

Today’s right wing seeks to replicate these past victories. Stanley Kurtz, author of a best-selling attack on President Obama titled Radical-in-Chiefcharges that fair housing rules issued in early July by the federal government would “undo America’s system of local government” by “imposing a preferred racial and ethnic composition.” He and other right-wing writers pair attacks on federal government coercion with an uncompromising defense of another coercive power: the power that local governments exert through exclusionary zoning rules.

The threat these writers warn against is not just low-income housing, but any form of urban living. This, as political scientist Thomas Edsall points out, is a potent message that appeals not just to nativists, but to affluent, socially liberal homeowners as well. The idea that the single-family neighborhood must exclude all other forms of housing is deeply embedded in the American psyche; the most mundane-seeming zoning dispute can excite exclusionary passions like those seen in Show Me a Hero.

In Seattle, a city afflicted with rapidly rising rents, a mayoral commission last month proposed allowing two- or three-family houses anywhere in the city, as long as they were no bigger than a single-family house could be in that location. The idea quickly came under vociferous attack from conservative media, while much of the area’s anti-gentrification left sat on its hands. It died within days, repudiated by the mayor himself.

Marin County, California, a San Francisco suburb that was a hippie haven in the 1960s, strictly limited development in 1973 and has since gone upscale. Plans for affordable housing draw fierce opposition, and local environmentalists openly ally with right-wingers like Kurtz. 

Federal anti-discrimination laws now enable affluent African Americans to live, for the most part, where they want, but poor black neighborhoods are no fewer than a half-century ago. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California have laws against economic exclusion, but they remedy only the most egregious cases, and no new states have passed such statutes since 1980. 

Facts must be faced. A head-on assault against restrictive zoning in the name of racial integration and fighting poverty will repeat the failures of the twentieth century. American suburbs routinely forbid construction of even the most expensive apartments, and there is nowhere near a political majority for denying them that power. Where costly condos are unwelcome, low-income housing is unthinkable.

The heritage of a century of racial and economic segregation will not be overcome unless moral heroism is paired with political strategy. Fortunately, cities are changing in ways that create new openings for such a strategy. 

The growing popularity of urban living, running up against increasingly severe zoning restrictions, has brought across-the-board housing shortages, and in especially short supply are homes accessible on foot and by public transit. Rents are rising across the country and at all price points. The squeeze is tightest in the gentrifying inner neighborhoods of New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, but it is felt throughout these cities and in many others.

The housing shortage creates constituencies in need of new housing supply among voters of all income levels—not just the “hipsters” who fascinate the media, but young blue-collar workers, immigrants, and long-time tenants faced with soaring rents. It thus opens opportunities for cross-class alliances that join conscience to self-interest. The election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York demonstrates the potency of these coalitions.

Moreover, the shortage of specifically urban housing creates openings for policies that breach the barriers of housing segregation while avoiding a direct challenge to single-family zoning. Apartment buildings can be authorized near subway or light rail stations without threatening the zoning in areas farther from the stations. Inclusionary zoning laws can require a percentage of all new housing to be affordable. Permanently affordable apartments can be built by nonprofits or city governments in neighborhoods still in the early stages of gentrification.

Even in these less threatening forms, new housing can draw fierce resistance. Advocates will still need courage to resist the social pressure of angry neighbors, which can have the same intimidating force in a genteel upper-class suburb as in a Yonkers. They will need as well the wisdom to seek new allies; the plight of low-income renters must not be counterposed to the needs of others for more affordable and more urban housing. The quiet heroism of past generations of fair housing advocates will bear new fruit if married to a political strategy that fits the new urban reality.


Benjamin Ross is a transit activist in Maryland. His book, Dead End, is about the politics of urbanism and transit.


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