Working Class Concern About Low-Income Housing is Not Intrinsically Racist

Housing policy is a complex affair. But I want to get very basic about it here. Is it really fair for a woman to work her way out of low-income housing and into suburbia only to have the federal government change the zoning laws of her city to allow low-income housing and all its consequences to follow her there? We cannot simply dismiss her concerns by shouting racism. Not everything is about race. Most things aren’t. Not really. At least not to most people. If we believe in the value of aspiring to something better through hard work and obedience to law and making sure people are rewarded for adhering to those values, then we shouldn’t work against their efforts by redistributing misery. Of course, at the same time, we should be careful not to assume a priori that low-income housing brings misery with it.

In a City Journal article published in 2003, Howard Husock argues that, not only are big public housing projects “noxious environments for their tenants,” but they also “radiate dysfunction and social problems outward, damaging local businesses and neighborhood property values.” “Making matters worse,” Husock continues “for decades cities have zoned whole areas to be public housing forever, shutting out in perpetuity the constant recycling of property that helps dynamic cities generate new wealth and opportunity for rich and poor alike.” This blog is about dysfunction and social problems, so I want to quote Husock at length here:

“Public housing spawns neighborhood social problems because it concentrates together welfare-dependent, single-parent families, whose fatherless children disproportionately turn out to be school dropouts, drug users, non-workers, and criminals. These are not, of course, the families public housing originally aimed to serve. But as the U.S. economy boomed after World War II, the lower-middle-class working families for whom the projects had been built discovered that they could afford privately built homes in America’s burgeoning suburbs, and by the 1960s, they had completely abandoned public housing. Left behind were the poorest, most disorganized, non-working families, almost all of them headed by single women. Public housing then became a key component of the vast welfare-support network that gave young women their own income and apartment if they gave birth to illegitimate kids. As the fatherless children of these women grew up and went astray, many projects became lawless places, with gunfire a nightly occurrence and murder commonplace.”

Those lower-middle-class working families, many of whom were the descendants of recent immigrants, worked their way into a position to escape public housing and the surrounding area and did so by seeking and holding on to good-paying union jobs. Moreover, they had, since the institution of quotas on immigration in the 1920s, assimilated into mainstream American culture, a development often mischaracterized as “becoming white” (the truth is that they were always white). Those who worked hard and saved money did not depend on the government subsidizing rents in order to live in suburbia, albeit the government place a big role in creating the suburbs. Working people depended largely upon themselves and embraced the American Dream. Self-reliance moreover played a big role in strengthening the nuclear family. In contrast, subsidized housing or subsidies without time limits are associated with young single mothers entering and becoming dependent upon the system.

Under an Obama-era rule, jurisdictions receiving Housing and Urban Development (HUD) money were required to analyze their housing situations by using metrics of economic status, English proficiency, race, and other items to determine factors that might represents barriers to access and, if finding problems, develop remediation plans. Such an analysis is pursued with predictable findings. It is defined in such a way as to produce desired results, results that align with a particular ideological frame.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson, in rescinding the policy in 2018, argued that the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulation was “unworkable and ultimately a waste of time for localities to comply with, too often resulting in funds being steered away from communities that need them most.” He then asserted principle: “Washington has no business dictating what is best to meet your local community’s unique needs.” The policy replacing AFFH is Preserving Community and Neighborhood Choice (PCNC) and it defines fair housing as “housing that, among other attributes, is affordable, safe, decent, free of unlawful discrimination, and accessible under civil rights laws.” It defines the concept of “affirmatively furthering fair housing” (which originates in the Johnson Administration) to mean “any action rationally related to promoting any of the above attributes of fair housing.” This change in policy has proven controversial and has been used by progressives to push the narrative that President Trump is a racist.

I recognize that there are benefits accruing to those who move into affordable and low-income housing in more affluent communities. If those who live there become successful, then an association between goal and objective becomes demonstrable. And for many, increasing diversity is in itself a good thing. But there is a cost. Two of the more obvious are decreasing surrounding home prices and raising crime rates. The evidence concerning smaller-scale projects, especially when scattered throughout a residential area (dispersed housing), is inconclusive regarding this matter. My city of Green Bay has small housing units (duplexes and quads) scattered throughout and they are not hotbeds of crimes. However, larger projects do result in increased crime and the effect obtains across multiple types of affordable housing (non-profit rental, public, or supportive).

On the assumption that locating low-income housing in wealthier communities increase diversity, Inclusive Communities Project brought and won a lawsuit in 2008 in which it was argued that the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs practice of concentrating supported racial segregation. However, researchers at Stanford found in 2015 that, while new projects in wealthier neighborhoods drives down home prices, affordable housing projects in poorer high-minority neighborhoods increases surrounding home prices and reduces crime because it attracts higher-income homebuyers. Moreover, the latter increases diversity while the former decrease diversity.

Consider the NPR story Mike Herring Says Richmond Can’t Combat Crime Without Addressing Public Housing. According to the story, Richmond police made about 27,000 contacts with people between 2017 and 2018, and most of those stops were with blacks. For example, blacks made up about 90 percent of traffic stops for warrant violations. The article consults Liz Coston, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who tells them, “If we think about it largely in the context of what does the population of Richmond look like, 48 percent black, we should see roughly 48 percent of the stops being of black people for curfew violations.” But that assumes police do not have reason to pull over blacks in greater numbers than non-blacks. Crime data refutes that assumption.

Gilpin Court first opened in 1942.
Gilpin Court, Richmond, Virginia

More fundamentally, why do progressives approach the problem of poverty with policies that burden working people? What about policy that reverses the transnationalization of capital and jobs, i.e. off-shoring, mass immigration, so that we can rebuild a national economy that fosters working class solidarity and raises proletarian consciousness while reducing unemployment and upward pressuring wages so people black, brown, and white can afford to leave progressive-run cesspools of crime and misery for pro-social neighborhoods with high-quality schools, nice homes, and low crime rates? We know that since the 1960s, the percent change in media rents has outstripped wages. Wages fell sharply in the 1970s, as we see wages decoupling from productivity, rebounded in the 1980s and 1990s for various reasons, and then fell sharply after 2000, the consequence of ramped up globalization. We can explain these patterns. Are the neoliberals and progressives who peddled globalization going to reverse course? Of course not. There was no good will in these policies. The work of neoliberalism is to paralyze democracy via privatization and top-down bureaucratic control. The job of progressives is to legitimize the process.

I’m all for liberating people from dreadful conditions and having them join my family in better ones. There are great benefits to living the life I live. That’s why I am keen on preserving it. I am not opposed to small-scale scattered projects that bring low-income families into suburban communities, but this should be carefully planned and a matter for local government. What I am not in favor of is federal government unleashing conditions associated with low-income communities in my community.  To be sure, progressives responsible for the misery of inner-city America are going to smear those who mean to keep better lifeways as “racists” while imposing regulations triggered by assessments that are sure to find the patterns they’re looking for.

Progressives will always find these patterns until the country dedicates itself to a course of economic nationalism that provides good-paying jobs that raise the standards of living for all Americans. We do in fact live in a nation where life is de facto segregated, and there are historical reasons for this, but globalization, neoliberalism, and progressivism work to entrench these patterns not disrupt them. Leftwing technocrats stifle the democratic populism needed to bring back our country with policies and programs designed to enrich the corporate elite at the expense of working people.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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