September 25, 2005

Not In My Backyard

Via yet another excellent Digby post, here's a fantastic review article on the history of segregated housing in America:
One of the most useful aspects of the first chapter is Lamb’s description of the myriad ways that the federal government has contributed to racially segregated housing. He emphasizes the impact of federal mortgage guarantee programs that channeled money to the suburbs where middle- and working-class whites were able to buy new homes, the creation of the interstate highway system that made it possible for whites to commute from their homes in the suburbs to jobs in the city, and urban renewal programs that displaced African Americans from their communities without providing sufficient replacement housing. Government decisions about where to build public housing, the location of federal jobs in suburban areas rather than in central cities, and federal income tax deductions for mortgage interest also have contributed to the problem.
Interestingly, George Romney, Nixon's HUD Secretary, made several big attempts to promote racial integration in the suburbs, in part by proposing to build lots of low- and moderate-income housing away from urban centers. But the suburbs rioted, and eventually Nixon put a clamp on Romney, wresting control of "fair housing" programs away from HUD and taking the opposite tack. His was hardly the first administration to aid and abet segregated housing, but Nixon understood better than most the politics of doing so. As Lamb's book tells it, Nixon's "suburban strategy" played nearly as important a role as his "southern strategy" in his electoral victories. By "enunciat[ing] a policy declaring that the national government would not pressure the suburbs to accept low-income housing against their will," Nixon exploited and overcame one of the most divisive aspects of the Civil Rights movement. (A point James Nuechterlein touches on briefly in his recent First Things essay, "How Race Wrecked Liberalism"—northern whites were perfectly happy to extend the vote to blacks down south, but the prospect of living side by side with them shattered the consensus on civil rights and led to the '68 and '72 conservative landslides.)

That approach has persisted, more or less, to this day. Whatever else you want to say, good or bad, about the Bush administration's policies to promote homeownership (which has been the focus of housing policy over the past five years), they don't do much for segregated housing patterns in this country. Those who can't afford to buy a home—about 80 percent of all renters, many of them minorities—don't benefit from HUD's nifty downpayment grants and the like. And programs that have helped renters in the past, like Section 8 housing vouchers, have had their budgets slashed. Meanwhile, the homes that are affordable for many minority homebuyers tend to be located in poorer neighborhoods, which, again, just perpetuates the status quo. Policy and law aren't entirely responsible for housing segregation, but they certainly help. I don't have a good idea what a solution would look like, but then again, no one really wants to change anything; perhaps because, as Nixon knew perfectly well, there's no surer path to electoral oblivion.
-- Brad Plumer 5:07 AM || ||