What's So Bad About Segregated Housing? Your Thoughts

As the Supreme Court narrowly rules in favor of housing integration, our readers debate the merits of affordable housing and whether the government should use race as a key factor in shaping policy.

Riverton Houses, an affordable housing complex in Harlem, is seen on December 2, 2008.  (Bebeto Matthews / AP)

Over the past six months, my colleague Alana Semuels has covered the contentious issue of affordable housing, reporting from places like Chicago, Detroit, Louisville, New York City, the Texas cities of Beaumont and Austin, and Amherst, Massachusetts. That issue came to a head on Thursday when the Supreme Court ruled that policies that result in segregating minorities in poor neighborhoods, even if unintentional, violate the Fair Housing Act. “This is a big deal for housing rights and civil rights groups, and a bit of a surprise,” writes Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog.

What exactly was at stake in this case? From Alana’s preview of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, posted over the weekend and updated this morning in light of the ruling:

[B]uilding more low-income developments in high-poverty neighborhoods perpetuates class segregation, and Inclusive Communities argues it also perpetuates racial segregation. [...] Though Texas might not have been intentionally discriminating against minorities in the allocation of its tax credits [for affordable housing], its policies still had a “disparate impact” on minorities by segregating them in high-poverty areas, Inclusive Communities argues.

The Supreme Court case centers on whether Texas had to be discriminating against minorities on purpose to be found unlawful. After all, it’s difficult to prove that anyone had the intention to discriminate. It’s much easier to prove that an action had a discriminatory effect—and the evidence is clear that the policies did segregate families in Texas.

A lot of readers don’t see that de facto segregation as something the federal government should be trying to fix. Here’s TwoHatchet, the most prolific conservative in our comments section:

White people wanting to live apart from black people is not white people oppressing black people. Angelina Jolie is not oppressing me by not wanting to have anything to do with me.

Commenter Ed takes issue with another quote from Alana’s piece:

“If you want people of color who are low-income to be able to have an opportunity to live in a suburban community, you have to get a tax-credit development out there,” [fair housing advocate John Henneberger] told me.

This quote is devoid of logic. If people can afford the suburbs, they can live there. If they can’t afford it, why should the government put them there? Stop with the social engineering and go find something else to prove you’re a saint on Earth.

(This July 19, 2013 photo shows Jesus Medrano and Edwin Chavez on the swings at an affordable housing complex in Watsonville, California. In the bricked plaza, strolling musicians blast a mariachi song, while Spanish-speaking shoppers bustle between farm stands. Welcome to an increasingly typical town in California, a state where Hispanics become the largest ethnic group this summer. As the Golden State becomes less and less white, communities are becoming more segregated, not less. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

ThinkingCritically has a more considered take:

No community can make a rule that minorities are not allowed. You are overlooking the common sense notion that people want to live among their economic peers, and that should be ok. Your economic peers are more likely to maintain their property at the same level you do. They won’t want to steal your stuff because their stuff is just as nice. And you probably don’t have worry about them setting a worse example for your children than you might already be setting.

So to use race and class interchangeably in this context muddies the waters. I for one would much rather live in a neighborhood where I am the only white person and all the other minority residents shared my same financial situation, rather than live in a big house in a trailer park full of destitute white people.

Race and class do have a correlation due to historical misdeeds, it is true. But depriving people of the right to live among those of their same socioeconomic status is not the only way to correct them.

TwoHatchet’s bottom line: “Government has no business in choosing to legally enforce segregation or integration, both of which can be executed by individuals exercising their choice.” Lisa Rice retorts:

Ahhh, but the problem is that for over a hundred years, our government did sponsor and support segregation. The Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 to remedy that.

My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates delved into that history in “The Case For Reparations,” which centers on the redlining of poor neighborhoods that prevented black families from getting federally-backed mortgages in Chicago for decades before the practice was outlawed in 1968.

(A 1939 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation “Residential Security Map” of Chicago shows discrimination against low-income and minority neighborhoods. Courtesy of LaDale Winling of urbanoasis.org)

While the conservatives in our comments section have some compelling points, the most interesting part of the housing debate is between liberals with the same general goal—improving the lives of poor minorities through government intervention—but who advocate for different approaches. One major approach is to encourage poor families to move to wealthier communities using vouchers and affordable housing. The opposite approach is to use that money to invest in poor families within their existing neighborhoods. (Of course many liberals want to pursue both tracks simultaneously, but to some extent the investment is zero sum.)

One liberal commenter, Harvey Marx, maintains that housing segregation isn’t necessarily a bad thing:

Putting poor people in rich neighborhoods doesn’t really work—for the poor people. Most things in the suburbs are more expensive in absolute terms even before you start flailing to keep up with the Joneses. And your household will be under constant suspicion and your kid is gonna wind up a scapegoat for unrelated normal suburban delinquency.

The poor shouldn’t be shuffled around. We should build better neighborhoods with more opportunity for the poor.

Applauding that view is Arclight, who has financed, developed, and managed affordable housing for more than a decade:

You are totally correct, Harvey Marx; suburbs often don’t have the public transportation or social service infrastructure you want to see with affordable housing, and they don’t have the same concentration of jobs as one sees in the urban core. Do we really want to use a federal incentive to attract investment capital to areas that are already on solid ground?

Having spent most of my career in this industry—and one that leans decidedly left—I would honestly say that 90 percent of the people I know would prefer that the Inclusive Communities program is overwhelmingly used to target disinvested properties. Many of these areas will just get more rundown, and I don’t think that’s a fair tradeoff so a couple hundred units get built in the suburbs every year.

JoshN1 details more reasons why suburbs “are not a good place for the economic well-being of poor people”:

A suburb typically forces a family to have at least two reliable cars. Even if one of the parents stays home, he or she will need a car to run errands and shuttle the kids around. Poor people cannot really afford to have two cars.

The “amenities” of suburbs are typically not accessible to the poor anyway. They are typically expensive (e.g., public pools that charge $400 a year in membership fees) or not open to the poor (e.g., expensive and exclusive private golf clubs and gyms). Moreover, suburbs typically have limited social services such as food pantries, social workers, domestic violence shelters, free medical clinics, and doctors who take Medicaid that poor people may need at some point.

Suburbs also typically don’t have good low-skill jobs nearby. Most suburban jobs require very high skills or are low-wage service jobs. Most suburbs have very limited jobs trades, construction, or manufacturing.

So, the only benefit identified is that a handful of poor kids get to go to school with rich kids. That is hardly good public policy.

(Newly-built and rebuilt houses line U Street in northwest Washington, DC, on February 27, 2004. Housing for the poor is trying to look as much as it can like the houses of the more affluent houses down the street. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)

Jerimiah Johnson argues that money invested in suburban housing doesn’t stretch as far as investment in poor neighborhoods:

Putting taxpayer funded housing in lower land-valued areas allows the programs to build more houses due to the lower-valued land. It funds more people who temporarily need a handout to help them become self sufficient.

JoshN1 adds:

You have to wonder if some self-styled “housing advocates” are really just looking for easy routes to do their advocacy. Building cheap apartments in a wealthy suburb is probably easier and more immediate than trying to improve a poor neighborhood over a period of decades.

Another “dedicated liberal,” bdphd, suggests that the entire housing debate is a distraction:

Section 8 vouchers themselves are a problem and would be better switched to pure income support. Frankly, most housing policy is a sideshow to the real problem: poor people without access to good, well-paying jobs and benefits. Tackle that and housing and segregation problems will largely solve themselves.

Christine, on the other hand, sticks up for integration:

Because without integration there is no real development. Poverty just remains entrenched. When you cluster poverty, it ends up having a multiplier effect in terms of social ills (violent crime, unemployment, blight, disinvestment, etc). When you decluster poverty and integrate, you introduce inter-generational mobility because the people encounter people unlike themselves and begin to strive more.

Complicating that view is my colleague Hanna Rosin’s 2008 piece “American Murder Mystery,” which shows how the spike in violent crime in parts of suburban Memphis after 1997 mapped perfectly with the relocation of citizens with Section 8 vouchers following the closure of housing projects in the inner city:

If replacing housing projects with vouchers had achieved its main goal—infusing the poor with middle-class habits—then higher crime rates might be a price worth paying. But today, social scientists looking back on the whole grand experiment are apt to use words like baffling and disappointing.

Commenter ptullis counters:

This article had it precisely backwards! Three NYU public policy professors have analyzed the data from Memphis and nine other cities and this is what they found:

We find little evidence that an increase in the number of voucher holders in a tract leads to more crime...There is strong evidence for the reverse causal story, however. That is, the number of voucher holders in a neighborhood tends to increase in tracts with rising crime, suggesting that voucher holders are more likely to move into neighborhoods when crime rates are increasing.

Here’s the full paper.

MaryOK, on the other hand, observes that “the Chicago Housing Authority found crime higher in neighborhoods with relocated people.” Here’s a great video from that link detailing those findings:

What about the reverse process—white people integrating into black, working-class neighborhoods? Here’s Abe’s Ghost on the g-word that rankles many liberals:

Wanting integration and not wanting gentrification are incompatible: either mixed-race neighborhoods are preferable or they are not. I found this piece by Daniel Hertz to be a fair take on the situation.

[“Let’s face it,” John McWhorter wrote back in February, in response to Spike Lee’s rant about white hipsters moving into black neighborhoods in Brooklyn. “The reason there were black communities like that was because of segregation…. [N]o matter how beautiful they would look when shot lovingly in films like Lee’s, it would signify racial barriers…. When racial barriers come down, people mingle, cohabitate, mate.”]

I want to do away with the disproportionate spread of economic and political power in our cities that results from our history of white supremacy but I don’t know the best way to go about it. I tend to think that mix-raced neighborhoods would help overcome that. But I don't really see the difference between integration and gentrification in this context and I tend to regard the tendency among my fellow progressives to praise integration while damning gentrification to be contradictory.

If I’m missing a meaningful distinction, I’d be glad to hear it.

As would we. Email hello@theatlantic.com and I’ll update the post with your best arguments or personal experiences with public housing or gentrification. And stay tuned for a full analysis from Alana on today’s ruling. (Update: here it is, have at it. And Garrett Epps tackles the ruling here. )

The aforementioned reader with a decade of experience in affordable housing emails his thoughts on Alana’s piece on Austin:

Certainly a fair number of voucher holders are seniors or those on disability whose incomes are basically fixed for the rest of their lives, and that is fine.  But people like Rufus Jones are not the majority of Section 8 voucher holders and are not the reason the program has earned the reputation it has. It’s one thing for Ms. Samuels to interview advocates for whatever position she cares to highlight and then find extreme and sympathetic examples that buttress that position. It’s another thing to go through the entire process of trying to get a project developed and interacting on a daily basis with the residents and learning about their lives on a more personal level than interviewer/interviewee.

I found Hanna Rosin’s piece plausible because it certainly aligns with my experience that voucher holders have more personal baggage than other tenants of affordable housing.  While I’ve certainly had some nightmare tenants, it’s not uncommon that the main problem is the boyfriend, son/daughter, or grandchild that comes to visit or stay with them. These disruptive problems follow voucher holders wherever they go unfortunately, and all you can do as a landlord or property manager is to get rid of them so they become someone else’s problem.