image2.pngSource: Subdude London

Table of Contents

What is Gentrification?
History of Affordable Housing Crisis
Segregated New Deal Public Housing – 20th Century Housing Discrimination – Early Privatization and Ghettoization: Pre-1968 – False Promises of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and Predatory Inclusion – Urban Disinvestment and Neoliberalism, Disinvestment of HUD –  Privatization of Public Housing (1960s-present) – Modern Housing Discrimination – Great Recession, Disaster Capitalism, and Gentrification

Affordable Housing Crisis Today
Eviction Crisis
Impact of Home Sharing Rental Platforms (Airbnb, etc)
Affordable Housing Solutions
Strategies for Community Organizing to Fight Gentrification

Related Pages

Housing Discrimination

Segregation, Desegregation, and Re-segregation

DC Guide to Gentrification

What is Gentrification?


“Gentrification is the processes by which higher income or higher status people relocate to or invest in low income urban neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have been historically disinvested by both the public and private sector. As higher income people move to these areas its typically to capitalize on the low property values. In doing so they inflate property values, displace low income people and fundamentally alter the culture and character of the neighborhood…gentrification is further compounded by the legacy of racial inequality in America. The neighborhoods that are gentrifying in this country are disproportionately occupied by black and brown people and thus black and brown people are being disproportionately displaced…typically by the influx of white people.” Stacey Sutton – UPP, UIC

Gentrification: The process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents ” Webster

  • Exclusion
    • One consistent in most definitions of gentrification is the exclusion of marginalized populations in many levels from:
    • Political representation by local governments/federal governments
    • Equal access to jobs and community resources
    • Access to affordable housing, property and tenant rights
    • The right to continue living and/or raising a family in your local community and culture
  • Impacts of Gentrification
    • Continuation of systemic and spatial racism, racial and class wealth gap inequality
    • Raised rents beyond current wages (wage-rent gap)
    • Evictions/displacement of families who have lived in their homes for generations
      • Increased homelessness, poverty and gentrification-to-prison pipeline
    • Rapid expansion/redevelopment of housing only newcomers can afford
    • Rapid closing of POC-owned businesses
    • Disproportionately felt by communities of color

“I would also say that the current climate in gentrified spaces is one where newcomers typically come in, and instead of politically integrating, they do a political takeover. They start to take over the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) in D.C. They take over the city council seats. And then, they start instituting policies that relate more to their tastes and preferences and their idea of what they want the community to look like. They advocate for things like the bike lanes, coffee shops, and dog parks.” Derek Hyra (Race, Class, Politics in the Cappuccino City)

National Community Reinvestment Coalition: Shifting Neighborhood

Gentrification and Cultural Displacement in Americna Cities

Gentrification is a powerful force for economic change in our cities, but it is often accompanied by extreme and unnecessary cultural displacement.[1] While gentrification increases the value of properties in areas that suffered from prolonged disinvestment, it also results in rising rents, home and property values. As these rising costs reduce the supply of affordable housing, existing residents, who are often black or Hispanic, are displaced. This prevents them from benefiting from the economic growth and greater availability of services that come with increased investment. Gentrification presents a challenge to communities[2] that are trying to achieve economic revitalization without the disruption that comes with displacement.

This study found that from 2000 through 2013 the following occurred:

  • Gentrification and displacement of long-time residents was most intense in the nation’s biggest cities, and rare in most other places.
  • Gentrification was concentrated in larger cities with vibrant economies, but also appeared in smaller cities where it often impacted areas with the most amenities near central business districts.
  • Displacement of black and Hispanic residents accompanied gentrification in many places and impacted at least 135,000 people in our study period. In Washington, D.C., 20,000 black residents were displaced, and in Portland, Oregon, 13 percent of the black community was displaced over the decade.
  • Seven cities accounted for nearly half of the gentrification nationally: New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Diego and Chicago.
  • Washington, D.C., was the most gentrified city by percentage of eligible neighborhoods that experienced gentrification; New York City was the most gentrified by sheer volume. Neighborhoods were considered to be eligible to gentrify if in 2000 they were in the lower 40 percent of home values and family incomes in that metropolitan area.
  • The study lends weight to what critics say is a concentration not only of wealth, but of wealth-building investment, in just a handful of the nation’s biggest metropolises, while other regions of the country languish.
  • The strict tests for gentrification and displacement  in this study and the limitations of the data available likely undercounted instances of gentrification and displacement.
  • Most low- to moderate-income neighborhoods did not gentrify or revitalize during the period of our study. They remained impoverished, untouched by investments and building booms that occurred in major cities, and vulnerable to future gentrification and displacement.

Urban Displacement Project: Gentrification Explained

Understanding gentrification

Gentrification: a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood —by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in – as well as demographic change – not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents.

Gentrification is complex — to understand it, there are three key things to consider:

  1. The historic conditions, especially policies and practices that made communities susceptible to gentrification.
  2. The way that central city disinvestment and investment patterns are taking place today as a result of these conditions.
  3. And the ways that gentrification impacts communities.

Historic conditions:

  • Redlining: From the 1930s through the late 60s, standards set by the federal government and carried out by banks, explicitly labeled neighborhoods home to predominantly people of color as “risky” and “unfit for investment.” This practice meant that people of color were denied access to loans that would enable them to buy or repair homes in their neighborhood.

  • White flight: Other housing and transportation policies of the mid-20th century fueled the growth of mostly white suburbs, and the exodus of capital from urban centers, in a phenomenon often referred to as “white flight.”
    • Take the GI Bill as an example: the program guaranteed low-cost mortgage loans for returning WWII soldiers. But discrimination limited the extent to which black veterans were able to purchase homes in the growing suburbs.
    • In fact, the FHA largely required that suburban developers agree to not sell houses to black people in order for the developers to access these guaranteed loans.
    • Resource: Read about the history of residential segregation in America: “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017).” Rothstein, Richard.
    • Resource: Read about the suburbanization of America: “Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (1985).” Jackson, Kenneth T.

  • Urban renewal: Left behind in central city neighborhoods, low-income households and communities of color bore the brunt of highway system expansion and urban renewal programs, which resulted in the mass clearance of homes, businesses, and neighborhood institutions, and set the stage for widespread public and private disinvestment in the decades that followed.
  • Foreclosure crisis: In more recent history, the foreclosure crisis also contributed to making places vulnerable to gentrification. In low-income communities of color, disproportionate levels of subprime lending resulted in mass foreclosures, leaving those neighborhoods vulnerable to investors seeking to purchase and flip homes.

Central city disinvestment and investment patterns:

Today, both people and capital are flooding back into these historically disinvested neighborhoods. Why?

  • Relative affordability
    • In many US cities, the rental market has gotten increasingly expensive, and even moderate income earners are on the hunt for lower housing costs.
    • For example, in San Francisco, the median rent of a typical 2BR apartment went up nearly 70% between 2011 and 2017. Source: Zillow Data.
  • Older, historic housing stock that appeals to new residents
  • Close proximity to city centers, where jobs, restaurants, and art spaces are increasingly locating
  • Revitalization — cities are investing in some of these neighborhoods with improved transit access and infrastructure in part to draw in newcomers

On the ground, gentrification may look like:

Impact of gentrification on communities:

While increased investment in an area can be positive, gentrification is often associated with displacement, which means that in some of these communities, long-term residents are not able to stay to benefit from new investments in housing, healthy food access, or transit infrastructure.

Learn more about the forms displacement takes and its long-term impacts on families from our displacement explainer video and accompanying resources page:

Another impact of displacement to consider is cultural displacement: Even for long-time residents who are able to stay in newly gentrifying areas, changes in the make-up and character of a neighborhood can lead to a reduced sense of belonging, or feeling out of place in one’s own home.

What’s next?

On the whole, we cannot ignore that the adverse impacts of gentrification, ranging from individual health effects to the suburbanization of poverty, are only the most recent wave in a pattern of urban restructuring that has been imposed upon and negatively affected low income and communities of color over generations.

Public, private, and non-profit sector leaders have the opportunity to implement strategies that give long-time residents a chance to benefit from increased investment in their communities, and even be a part of driving how some of the changes in their neighborhoods take place.

Protection of residents, production of affordable housing, and preservation of existing affordable housing stock are all key pieces of preventing displacement. Check out our Investment without Displacement workshop series for more information.

Pushed Out: Displacement Today and Lasting Impacts

  • Increased police presence/ broken window policies
    • Communities experiencing gentrification often have significant increases in police calls
      • Long-term residents will get thrown into a criminal-justice system for nuisance laws that we’re never enforced before
        • loitering, dirty sidewalks, vandalism, public drinking, selling weed, fare evasion, etc
    • Broken Windows Policing
      • Theory that minor crimes, anti-social behavior and civil disorder create an urban environment that leads to serious crimes
        • Suggests policing methods targeting minor crimes help create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, preventing more serious crimed

“Culturally, I think the way that a lot of African American and Latino people experience gentrification is as a form of colonization. The gentrifiers are not wanting to share—they’re wanting to take over. One of the tools they can use to take over public spaces, he argues, is law enforcement…It’s not a question of how many people are committing the crime—it’s a question of where the police are directing their law-enforcement resources. Because wherever they direct the resources, they can find the crime…

…Gentrification also has long-lasting impacts on the criminal-justice system that go far beyond police surveillance. As cities become whiter, so do juries. In Washington, for example, it’s not unusual to have a predominantly white, if not all-white, jury in a predominantly black city. Jurors often have different life experiences based on their race. And so if the defense is ‘the police lied’ or ‘the police planted evidence,’ that’s something that an African American or a Latino juror might well believe or find credible. A white person might find that hard to believe based on that person’s experience with the police.” Paul Butler, Author, Chokehold: Policing Black Men

“When low-income neighborhoods see an influx of higher-income residents, social dynamics and expectations change. One of those expectations has to do with the perception of safety and public order, and the role of the state in providing it. The theory goes that as demographics shift, activity that was previously considered normal becomes suspicious, and newcomers—many of whom are white—are more inclined to get law enforcement involved. Loitering, people hanging out in the street, and noise violations often get reported, especially in racially diverse neighborhoods.” Abdallah Fayyad – The Criminalization of Gentrifying Neighborhoods

  • Negative impacts are often invisible to new white people
    • The impacts of gentrification are often compounded when there’s a lack of affordable housing

The Atlantic: The Criminalization of Gentrifying Neighborhoods

Areas that are changing economically often draw more police—creating conditions for more surveillance and more potential misconduct.

…the lawsuit—which has since made its way to the New York Supreme Court—argues that the NYPD recently increased “broken windows”-style arrests in Flatbush and East Flatbush, and claims that these “police actions have coincided with increased gentrification.” 

That claim is not just speculative. Over the past two decades, gentrification has become a norm in major American cities. The typical example is a formerly low-income neighborhood where longtime residents and businesses are displaced by white-collar workers and overpriced coffeehouses. But the conventional wisdom that image reflects—that gentrification is a result of an economic restructuring—often leaves out a critical side effect that disproportionately affects communities of color: criminalization.

When low-income neighborhoods see an influx of higher-income residents, social dynamics and expectations change. One of those expectations has to do with the perception of safety and public order, and the role of the state in providing it. The theory goes that as demographics shift, activity that was previously considered normal becomes suspicious, and newcomers—many of whom are white—are more inclined to get law enforcement involved. Loitering, people hanging out in the street, and noise violations often get reported, especially in racially diverse neighborhoods.

“There’s some evidence that 311 and 911 calls are increasing in gentrifying areas,” Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson told me. And “that makes for a potentially explosive atmosphere with regard to the police,” he added.

By degrees, long-term residents begin to find themselves tangled up in the criminal-justice system for so-called “quality of life” crimes as 311 and 911 calls draw police to neighborhoods where they didn’t necessarily enforce nuisance laws before. As Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., describes it, misdemeanor arrests are more reflective of police presence than the total number of infractions committed in an area. “It’s not a question of how many people are committing the crime—it’s a question of where the police are directing their law-enforcement resources,” Butler said. “Because wherever they direct the resources, they can find the crime.”

In 2013, the city of San Francisco launched Open311, a mobile app that allows residents to easily report public disorder like loitering, dirty sidewalks, or vandalism by snapping a photo and sending their location. The app can feel altruistic; residents, for example, are able to report the whereabouts of homeless people who seem to be in need of assistance. But some worry that the dispatches can result in unnecessary citations or harassment. And while broken-windows policing remains controversial, a 2015 poll suggested that it’s still largely accepted by the general public, so when people see something, they’re likely to say something. After the app launched, 311 calls increased throughout the city, and one study showed that gentrifying neighborhoods saw a disproportionate spike.

Butler, who recently wrote the book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, believes that this is a result of newcomers refusing to assimilate to longstanding neighborhood norms. “Culturally, I think the way that a lot of African American and Latino people experience gentrification is as a form of colonization,” he said. “The gentrifiers are not wanting to share—they’re wanting to take over.” One of the tools they can use to take over public spaces, he argues, is law enforcement.

Butler’s home of Washington, where he’s a law professor at Georgetown University, provides an illustrative example. On most Sunday afternoons, a performance group hosts a drum circle in Malcolm X Park, whose official name is Meridian Hill. The tradition dates back to 1965—shortly after Malcolm X was assassinated—and was intended to celebrate black liberation. While the drumbeats can still be heard today, the ritual was called into question when the surrounding neighborhood began to change in the late 1990s. New arrivals living in the blocks surrounding the park repeatedly complained about the noise until the police imposed and enforced a curfew on the drummers.

But increased police presence in gentrifying neighborhoods is not merely the result of new residents calling for service; police departments sometimes proactively deploy officers in areas that see bars and other alcohol-serving outlets pop up, as they tend to do in gentrifying neighborhoods. After conducting an analysis on economic development in 2013, for example, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department established its nightlife unit, which deploys officers to areas with budding or resuscitated nightlife scenes. “If you’re bringing in more bars, there’s going to be drunk people congregating in the street, so you need police to tamp that down,” Sampson said. “But that may lead to potential confrontations.” Officers can find themselves in altercations with both bar goers and longtime residents of the area.

Cathy Lanier, who was the police chief in Washington from 2007 to 2016, told me that when a neighborhood’s population and economy begin to change, certain problems are bound to arise. “You’re going to have traffic issues, you’re going to have parking issues, and you’re going to have everything that comes along with a rapidly developing community,” she said. “So you want to have that police presence there, and establish community engagement long before the change so you can work with long-term residents to help them through the transition.” Zero-tolerance enforcement, she said, can be avoided if the police are proactive in creating a safe and orderly environment in advance of any major economic disruptions.

Still, residents can feel overwhelmed by a sudden increase in security, which is not always confined to public law enforcement. Sampson said private security and third-party police contribute to a sense of over-surveillance. “In a kind of rough neighborhood that’s about to flip, there may be demand on the part of new residents for safety that goes beyond what the police can provide, which means more eyes on the street on the part of private police,” he said.

While low-income and minority neighborhoods are often subject to heavy police patrol regardless of their development status, gentrification and aggressive policing are two sides of the same coin and tend to reinforce one another. “The concern when there are misdemeanor offenses is that neighborhoods seem unsafe or disorderly and that decreases their attractiveness for gentrification,” Butler said. “So in a number of cities, people have observed that enforcement of low-level offenses against black and brown people increases when neighborhoods are prime for gentrification.”

A top concern in communities of color is that greater police presence amplifies the risk of police misconduct and violence. In 2014, when San Francisco native Alejandro Nieto was fatally shot by four police officers responding to a 911 call, many residents believed the incident wouldn’t have occurred had his neighborhood not gentrified. Nieto was accused of behaving suspiciously in a place where he’d lived his entire life, and it was a new resident who’d made the 911 call. After he had a brief altercation with a neighborhood dog, Nieto, who worked as a bouncer, was anxiously pacing with his hand on his Taser, according to the passerby who reported him. Police said that when they arrived, he pointed his Taser at them, which they mistook for a gun.

Gentrification and police violence don’t necessarily have a causal relationship. But stepped-up law enforcement does create conditions for more potential misconduct. That’d be true in any neighborhood that suddenly saw an influx of police—it’s a simple matter of numbers. “If you’re ticketing more people or patrolling more often, you’re stopping more people to ask questions on the street,” Sampson said. “Now, that’s different than pulling a gun and shooting someone, or beating someone up, but the more stop-and-frisks and the more interactions you have, then probabilistically, you’re increasing the risk for police brutality. So it’s sort of a sequence or cycle.”

Butler offered the example of Eric Garner, who first drew police officers’ attention because he was selling loosies, or individual cigarettes, in Tompkinsville Park on Staten Island, a widespread practice since New York City began to sharply raise taxes on tobacco products in 2006. The surrounding neighborhoods had experienced some economic development, and calls reporting misdemeanor offenses were increasing. After a landlord made a 311 complaint regarding illegal drug and cigarette sales taking place outside his apartment building, officers began to closely monitor the area. Several months later, when Garner was confronted by police as he attempted to break up a street fight, an officer moved to arrest him for having previously sold loosies. The arrest went awry—and subsequently drew national attention—when Garner died after an officer put him in a chokehold.

“Before there was this effort to gentrify the neighborhood around the [Staten Island] ferry, I think it’s fair to say that it hadn’t received much attention from the police,” Butler said. “And you can imagine that of all the crimes police have to worry about, selling loosie cigarettes shouldn’t be a priority.”

Gentrification also has long-lasting impacts on the criminal-justice system that go far beyond police surveillance. As cities become whiter, so do juries. In Washington, for example, it’s not unusual to have a predominantly white, if not all-white, jury in a predominantly black city. “Jurors often have different life experiences based on their race. And so if the defense is ‘the police lied’ or ‘the police planted evidence,’ that’s something that an African American or a Latino juror might well believe or find credible,” Butler said. “A white person might find that hard to believe based on that person’s experience with the police.”

The public debate over how to best deal with gentrification often brushes over these tensions, focusing solely on the economic impacts. There are some who argue gentrification is a natural part of urban development, while others say local governments should do more to regulate housing markets. But there’s one question cities haven’t really reckoned with as they evaluate changing neighborhoods: Are they prepared to decriminalize them?

Daily Beast: How Gentrification Brings Over-Policing for D.C.’s Black Residents

A store in the historically black Shaw neighborhood blasts Go-Go music. Has for years. No one minded until the white folks moved in. It’s the tip of a big iceberg.

The MetroPCS store on the corner of Florida and Georgia avenues in Washington, D.C., sits at the heart of the Shaw neighborhood. Once surrounded by boarded homes, fast food joints, and Howard University, the store, which sells cellphones and electronic accessories, is now wedged between luxury condos, hipster cafes, and a concert venue.

For 25 years, one thing hadn’t changed: Go-Go, a funk-like music unique to the district, blasting from the store. That was until a noise complaint threatened to shut it down.

“It started with condo residents writing letters to the owner, then noise complaints to police,” says Natalie Hopkinson, a Howard University professor and advocate for the store’s owner, Donald Campbell. “When they didn’t get their way, the residents threatened to sue.”

At first they were successful. Soon executives from T-Mobile, Metro’s parent company, notified Campbell that the music should be shut off. Corporate executives didn’t anticipate, however, that appeasing condo residents would ignite a firestorm of backlash from D.C. natives, leading to anti-gentrification protests. More than 50,000 people signed a petition demanding that the Go-Go music resume, and by late April dozens of protests—including live concerts in front the store—became a rallying call for black natives to take back D.C., at one point nicknamed “Chocolate City.”

After nights of demonstrations, T-Mobile CEO John Legere announced that the Go-Go music would resume. But the incident is one example of how communities in transition create cultural clashes between mostly black and low-income longtime denizens and rich, white transplants.

“Everyone thought it started from one noise complaint, but this was a coordinated campaign to shut the store down,” Hopkinson says. She says MetroPCS had already received multiple police visits, each one requiring the store’s employees to prove the volume was within regulation.

“Many white people, when they feel threatened by African-Americans, call 9-1-1 because they know the state will respond to their racial anxiety.”

“That’s harassment, which creates unnecessary interaction between law enforcement and people of color,” she says.

The store’s owner isn’t the only one facing increased police scrutiny. Across the District of Columbia, black natives complain that with each new resident comes increased targeting by law enforcement tasked with keeping their communities safe.

“Gentrification and police work can feel like they have the same goal,” says Paul Butler, a Georgetown University professor and former federal prosecutor. “Many white people, when they feel threatened by African-Americans, call 9-1-1 because they know the state will respond to their racial anxiety.”

According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, Washington, D.C., experienced the most “intense” gentrification of any major city in the country. Between 2000 and 2013, 40 percent of all low-income neighborhoods in D.C. experienced gentrification, displacing more than 20,000 African Americans. The District ranks third in the number of neighborhoods to transform overall.

Although African Americans remain the city’s largest ethnic group, their numbers declined since the 1970s, when a 70 percent population earned D.C. the nickname “Chocolate City.” A black majority ended in 2011, and the African-American population stands at 47 percent today. Butler says that rapid change can make people of color vulnerable to the prejudices of their new neighbors.

“[These studies] reflect the experiences of black Americans everyday and the fact that police are laser focused on them,” he says. “It feels like police are not there to serve and protect their communities but are part of the apparatus making them feel unwelcome in the neighborhoods they’ve been in for generations.”

Open The Government, a consortium of government transparency groups, and the ACLU, examined arrest data from the Metropolitan Police Department between 2013 and 2017, finding sharp disparities in arrests for minor offenses like noise ordinances, driving without a license, and marijuana consumption. Black residents were 47 percent of the city’s population but 86 percent of all arrests—a rate 10 times that of white people.

“The complaints we’re getting from community members are of officers stopping them or arresting them without probable cause,” says lead attorney Michael Perloff. “By and large the people complaining to us are overwhelmingly black.”

Disparities are citywide. Black people are disproportionately arrested in every D.C. neighborhood no matter its racial makeup or crime rate—making any link to gentrification difficult to determine. One element preventing the researchers from making that connection to is how many arrests stem from calls to 9-1-1 or 3-1-1.

“The Metropolitan Police Department is not doing a good job collecting data on stops overall,” Perloff adds. Metro police are required to provide data as part of a transparency law enacted in 2016. But Perloff notes researchers acquired the data via the Freedom of Information Act but are suing Metro police over what they consider further non-compliance.

Recent cases of police stopping black people for moving into an apartment or barbecuing originated from a 9-1-1 call. While the report’s researchers can’t correlate arrests to gentrification, research does suggest that changing communities nationwide lead to increased policing of black people.

According to Brenden Beck, assistant professor at the University of Florida who studies sociology, criminology and law, calls to police tend to be higher in gentrifying communities. That’s because as richer, mostly white transplants permeate once black and brown neighborhoods, with them come new standards and expectations. Cultural differences can result in new residents calling law enforcement to report neighborhood norms as nuisances.

“Early research already shows a pretty clear connection between gentrification and increased stops or arrests,” he says. “Whether looking at gentrification from a class, race or housing-market standpoint, it’s pretty clear that as race and class tensions get exacerbated, 3-1-1 calls to the police increase.”

By 2015, natives of D.C’s historic H-Street Corridor met with Metropolitan Police Department complaining of increased racial profiling and unwarranted stops. There, both law enforcement and longtime residents implored new residents to stop calling police on their black neighbors for mundane activities. Then-police chief Kathy Lanier promised better community relations; Hopkinson smirks when reminded of that meeting.

“Last week was the first annual D.C. Natives Day, a city holiday commissioned by the mayor in response to the anti-gentrification protests.”

Instead, she recalls a 2010 press conference when Metro police credited a drop in crime to their crackdown on the local Go-Go scene. Her book, Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, details how Go-Go has been stigmatized to perpetuate anti-black stereotypes of violence and danger.

“Even back then law enforcement’s rhetoric positioned itself as doing the work of gentrifiers,” she says. “It’s reinforced the power they now feel they have to take over parts of the city by weaponizing their whiteness and newness.”

The condo community’s campaign to mute the MetroPCS store may have failed, but Hopkinson still worries. While one native business stays open, more shut down or are under threat.

Last week was the first annual D.C. Natives Day, a city holiday commissioned by the mayor in response to the anti-gentrification protests. For many transplants, it was their first exposure to the rich, black history that has made the city a go-to destination in the first place.

Justin Johnson, an artist whose protests, combined with a social media campaign called #DontMuteDC, sparked an anti-gentrification movement, says Go-Go is for everybody, pointing to Metro Police’s community band as an example of engagement without the erasure. The band, whose make up is primarily black, D.C. natives, has performed in area schools since the 1970s, but only recently relaunched as a form of community engagement.

“We welcome anybody here in D.C.,” he says. “But learn about us, learn our history and our culture because we ain’t going nowhere. Cracking down on Go-Go culture and D.C. natives as a whole just makes us fight harder to stay.”

What we don’t understand about gentrification | Stacey Sutton | TEDxNewYork

The lesson of the city: No community should fight for improvements without simultaneously fighting for community control and permanency (against displacement). It plays into the hands of developers and the government officials doing their bidding. New stores will come, new sidewalks and trails, etc – they will celebrate the “improvement” and not mind one bit if the people who championed improving their communities are no longer around to enjoy it.”  Parisa Bonita Norouzi (Empower DC)


The Difference Between Gentrification And Revitalization

  • Gentrification
    • either purposefully or accidentally, inflates the cost of living and displaces a disproportionate amount of minorities from their homes
  • Revitalization (Reinvestment)
  • the rebuilding of a community from the bottom up, in which the community still remains affordable for low-income families and the existing community has power over the type of development.

Odyssey: The Difference Between Gentrification And Revitalization

“…while higher income families are moving to these neighborhoods or investing their money there, it’s not out of the goodness of their heart and it ultimately has negative consequences on the communities that have lived and put down roots there over the past few decades. Sutton (Stacey Sutton, a respected professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago) explains that higher income families invest their time and money into these neighborhoods to capitalize on the relatively low costs of housing and business opportunities. By doing this, property values become inflated due to the influx of new money, thereby displacing lower income families and disrupting the cultural integrity of the community as a whole.

Sutton touches on the aspect of racial inequality that plays into this equation, by citing Tom Slater, a professor at the University of Edinburgh. Slater asserts that gentrification displays “the spatial expression of economic inequality.” Black and brown people have often been and still are, at a social and economic disadvantage in this country. Because these lower income neighborhoods are filled with minorities, minorities are being displaced at a disproportionate rate.

In contrast, Sutton refers to revitalization as the rebuilding of a community from the bottom up, in which the community still remains affordable for low-income families. Gentrification, either purposefully or accidentally, inflates the cost of living and drives a disproportionate amount of minorities from their homes…

Systemic racism, which has thrived, for as long as we can remember has continued to play in large part in determining the distribution of wealth. These low-income neighborhoods have been perpetually pushed down and relegated to remaining low-income neighborhoods until such a point that high-income families see fit to gentrify these neighborhoods and run people from their homes.”

3 Bad Excuses for Gentrification that Mirror Colonization

  1. Gentrification Is Progress = Manifest Destiny
  • “There was nothing here before” myth
  • “Had to happen because the “lazy and irresponsible” communities of color who couldn’t take care of their neighborhoods” Myth
  • When explained only as progress, ignores the violence inflicted upon mostly low-income communities of color that used to make up vibrant/diverse neighborhoods
  1. Pre-Gentrified Neighborhoods Are Blank Canvases to Be Shaped in Our Image
  • Assume what’s best for community members, often without even talking to them
  • Many newcomers are invested only in what they can get out of where the live
    • not in what they can give to the already existing culture and community
  • Gentrification at its worst doesn’t care about people and culture that existed before
  1. Gentrification Makes Cities Safer = Neutralizes the Savage
  • Land developers/politicians claim to be creating a better, safer community
    • But gentrification doesn’t eliminate violence and crime
      • It pushes the issues elsewhere
    • The “safety” that it creates usually doesn’t benefit anyone but those who just arrived
      • who can afford to stay and face the skyrocketing housing costs
    • Sends the message only white folks or those with money are deserving of safety, resources, and community investment

Source: Everyday Feminism: 3 Bad Excuses for Gentrification that Mirror Colonization

“Gentrification and colonialism are the same processes largely because they share the same goals — dislocation, expropriation and the pursuit of profit.” Lacino Hamilton, Truthout

Voices from Gentrification

I have seen a neighborhood eat itself for dinner
look at its vibrant culture and call it a meal
when the food ran out
they opened a starbucks and called it community transformation
repeated the  process until property prices popped
suddenly every face on the block looked like it belonged in a Even Stevens episode
When years ago they were afraid to walk it

So here we are
The long awaited sequel to white flight
white return”

Dion Harrison and Kenny Carrol

Poem: “Gentrification”



Priced Out: Gentrification in Black Portland

Priced Out: Gentrification in Black Portland

“Gentrification displays the spatial expression of economic inequality.” Tom Slater, University of Edinburgh professor

“Ultimately, the fight over gentrification is what the fight over income inequality in America looks like up close today: a clash between the economic forces transforming our cities and a young, diverse, debt-saddled generation that is losing faith in capitalism itself.”  Andrew Romano, Garance Franke-Ruta


The Atlanta Way (Rough Cut)

Gentrification Is Not Inevitable: Care and Resistance | Winifred Curran

Truth-Out: The Gentrification-to-Prison Pipeline

“By telling my own story — a story shared by the many working-class Detroit residents who were forcefully displaced through the brutal “redevelopment” of the city’s Cass Corridor area — I hope to shed some much-needed light on how the capitalist profit motives that drive gentrification are a core cause of mass incarceration in this country.

City Planners Wreak Disaster on the Cass Corridor in Detroit

I first learned about people, about cruelty, about forced sacrifices, about being a hard worker [to build a life for others], about who is and isn’t important, and about fair speech and diabolical actions during the 1980s and 1990s, in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, under conditions of gentrification. I saw with my own eyes how economic and social development dismantled the downtown Cass Corridor area and created internal refugees of American citizens, many of whom join me in here, in prison.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Cass Corridor was suffused with vibrancy, joy and a tolerance of others that was clearly connected with Detroiters’ self-esteem and a general sense of optimism about the future. When Detroiters elected their first Black mayor, Coleman A. Young, in 1974, first-time home ownership was at an all-time high, and conflicts that plagued Detroit’s labor movement for over half a century appeared to be resolved. Then life changed.

I don’t know which came first, but the changes came hard and fast: mortgage foreclosures, the imposition of tax liens, governments seizing property through their power of eminent domain, the reduction and gutting of city services, city officials ignoring an influx of drugs and prostitution, rampant homelessness, and courts and prisons’ increased presence in our lives. But I am certain we were being pushed out of the Cass Corridor, displaced through a complex network of public and private interests. In the mid 1980s, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young announced that city dollars would be used to finance the development of downtown hotels, so that Detroit could attract convention business. Homes were foreclosed. Businesses were dismantled. And everyday decision-making power was shifted from families and local business owners to state legislators, venture capitalists and a combination of financial institutions and interests.

It was as if a number of bombs just went off. Almost overnight the Cass Corridor resembled a war zone. Vehicles that swept city streets and removed trash could be seen broken down on the side of the road. The stench from mountains of trash was unbearable. Two of the three supermarkets that provided food to the 2,000 or so residents of the Cass Corridor were burned down, never to be rebuilt. The city shut off power lines needed to keep the street lights on, giving a whole new meaning to the word darkness. Then, many men in the neighborhood took to scrapping, and the power lines were the first to go. At night on some streets, it was impossible to see three feet in any direction. I don’t think anyone felt safe, including myself. Three of the area’s four schools — Burton Elementary, James Couzens Elementary and Jefferson Junior High — looked more like abandoned factories than places of learning. Disinvestment made it appear as if every essential service required for a decent and safe living had come under rocket fire.

The immediate objective seemed to be to create unlivable conditions. The longer-term objective seemed to be to force us out of the Cass Corridor so it could be “renewed,” the new phrase at the time meant to hide and shift public dialogue into a direction favorable to economic power. To accomplish these twin goals, city officials became the linchpin of a strategy that involved radically reducing municipal spending — including spending on health, education and welfare — combined with giving greater resources and authority to police and prosecutors and expanding the criminal code before embarking on imprisoning many of the casualties of renewal.

I knew we were being pushed out but was clueless about what to do to push back. I just accepted the fact that we were being uprooted. Families were being broken apart and social stability was being destroyed. I did not have much help, not even from my parents. Both were incapacitated: My mother was dependent on drugs and my father was in prison. I had to improvise and fell into a lot of desperate activity. I learned how to make do with whatever resources were around — wit, audacity, determination and the drug trade. It was a confusing time. A climate of heavy-handed abusive policing intensified as the police attempted to run us out of the Cass Corridor. Eventually, Detroit police arrested me and my decades of incarceration began.

Gentrification’s Human Costs

When Detroit mayors Coleman Young and Dave Bing began to publicly acknowledge the need for the city to both shrink and radically reinvent itself, they [were] committing to additional outcomes besides “economic and social development.” Where were we, the poor, working class, predominantly Black population, supposed to go after being pushed out? A few families relocated and found housing in other parts of Detroit. A few moved to other cities. A tiny fraction moved to other states. But the overwhelming majority of families could not just up ad relocate. Some were housed in shelters and others [in] emergency placements. Many became homeless, living in makeshift tents that were considered eyesores and nuisances, and ultimately targeted for forced removal.

Foreclosing on mortgages, canceling leases and raising rents to prices that longtime residents could not afford, and thus forcing them to relocate, in some case was not necessary. Removal didn’t exclusively mean physical displacement. There was also cultural displacement. For example, it was a different kind of forced removal that took place when my friends and I did not feel welcome in houses of worship and social clubs built primarily to cater to white dispositions and cultures, or when we did not feel welcome in restaurants and retail stores built to cater primarily to affluent tastes and lifestyles.

The Cass Corridor became the shining example of how urban renewal could supposedly benefit Detroit. But before the 1980s came to a close, the emptiness of that claim was clearly apparent. The Cass Corridor virtually became a ghost town. There were two basic factors to explain this: first, the absence of an income-generating strategy for the poor and working-class people who historically took up residency there, and second, the absence of a democratic system by which area residents could participate in decision-making about the neighborhood. We were cut out of decision-making about the future of the place where we lived, learned, worked, loved, dreamed, created and did our best to resolve conflicts surrounding our lives. Perhaps we should ask society: What did all this development really mean?

How does gentrification alter the experience of everyday life? How does it affect the concepts of social participation, community and self-worth? How does it change education, work, family life and leisure? What are the implications for the environment, human health and disease? How does it serve to homogenize subcultures, or on the contrary, does it promote diversity and inclusiveness? And considering that gentrification (capitalist-sponsored development) influences competition, who gains and who loses?

This does not mean that all “development” is undesirable — but rather that every plan to gentrify a neighborhood or section of a city will necessary have predetermined destructive effects. It also means that social planners, policy makers, bankers, venture capitalists, elected officials, corporations and others who partake in gentrification schemes are aware of the consequences of such development, but choose not to share these consequences with the public. These consequences are often hidden from investigative inquiry through the imprisonment of those who are displaced. I call this the gentrification-to-prison pipeline.

The Direct Line From Displacement to Incarceration

Forcing people to evacuate a neighborhood or entire section of a city cannot be achieved by democratic means. It is inconceivable that anyone would vote to displace themselves, right? This explains why police, courts and prison are often used to remove and disappear some people. I was either stopped, arrested and/or conveyed to the police station once or twice a month for the entire 10 years I lived in and frequented the Cass Corridor, supposedly for “identification purposes,” by regular beat police. Mind you, these same beat police worked the area for decades and were familiar with me, my friends and extended members of my family. I was told that if I did not like the treatment, I could always move.

A number of comprehensive studies admit that neighborhoods in Detroit, Baltimore, Brooklyn and Chicago, among other places that have undergone gentrification, created large populations of internal refugees and displaced and disappeared people. Unfortunately, these studies do not say to where they disappeared.

A much more nuanced understanding of the social role of “redevelopment” is required in order for society to give up the usual way of thinking about imprisonment being the inevitable consequences of crime. For many of my friends and neighbors and me, imprisonment did not result from inevitable “crime,” but rather imprisonment was linked to the agendas of social planners, politicians and real estate developers, and resulted due to the extraordinary powers given to the police and courts.

Years after I was imprisoned, local newspapers and television stations began reporting that according to the FBI’s uniform Crime Report for 1998, one in every 13 murder arrests in the United States was made by Detroit police. Several investigations were launched around what were called dragnet arrests. These involved mass roundups and lockups of any potential witnesses until they talked. And if they did not talk, many were beat[en] and charged with manufactured crimes, like I was.

On July 8, 1994, I regret not running when I saw the roundup vans coming. Normally I would have, not because I had done anything wrong, but at a minimum, I knew I would be harassed. I never imagined I would be locked up, beaten up and charged for a crime of which I had no knowledge. The state’s star and only witness was a jailhouse informant who testified in numerous cases claiming to have received uncoerced confessions. If that is not unbelievable and tragic enough, the same thing also happened to several dozen other Cass Corridor residents who disappeared around the time I did.

The grim reality of gentrification for a large portion of the Cass Corridor’s population has been evident for years. In the eyes of city officials and the big corporations that now control that section of Detroit, the “limits of development” did not call for public participation but for confinement. We were viewed as obsolete commodities that had to leave whether we had some place to go or not, and many of us didn’t. This is how the city of Detroit’s approach to “social development” came to rely so dramatically on the bricks and mortar of prison at the expense of other responses that would have been both more humane and more effective — such as social development with people in mind, not profit.

If we are willing to take seriously the consequences of a justice system that is the extension of money and power, it should not be difficult to reach the conclusion that enormous numbers of people are in prison simply because someone else’s vision for the future did not include them. We were sent to prison not so much because of the crime we may have indeed committed, but largely for the expropriation of land (i.e., gentrification), which requires getting rid of the people who live on the land. Social development, urban renewal and the like are just new words for what sociologists in the past called imperialism, and what we can loosely refer to as colonialism. Gentrification and colonialism are the same processes largely because they share the same goals — dislocation, expropriation and the pursuit of profit.

My community’s experiences suggest that gentrification can and often does have substantial impacts on citizens returning to the larger society. Almost 25 years later, many of those who were forced out of the Cass Corridor and relocated to Michigan prisons are now being released. Released not only to a world that has technologically left them behind (as prison offers little more than a GED), but to a Cass Corridor that has erected nearly insurmountable barriers to education, housing, recreation and social services for working-class and poor people, prison’s majority clientele. People are being released into a permanent undercaste: This is how gentrification succeeds in disappearing working-class and poor people to make way for a more affluent population.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander writes that “prisoners returning ‘home’ are typically the poorest of the poor, lacking the ability to pay for private housing and routinely denied public assistance.” In other words, those of us who are able to get out usually lack access to the type of assistance that could provide some much-needed stability in our lives. Alexander goes on to write that “for them ‘going home’ is more of a figure of speech than a realistic option.” Gentrification not only forces people out but also prevents them from coming back. In moving toward a more complete understanding of why imprisonment patterns have been so persistent, we cannot limit our attention to characteristics of individuals and families, to policies targeting individual poverty, or to macro-level forces leading to growing income inequality. We must also consider places. We must consider the various forces that affect neighborhoods, cities and the ways that the trajectories of people and places are connected over time.

The conditions and circumstances that influenced my imprisonment have helped me to think outside the conventional framework of prison abolition. I believe we will only rid society of prisons when we also find a way to abolish gentrification.

Prison abolition has to be seen in the context of the broader set of economic and political forces that have served to maintain imprisonment trends for the last several decades. Abolishing the gentrification-to-prison pipeline requires us to take on the founding of a new society.

Sprawl vs Density

Atlantic: Density Versus Sprawl

LOS ANGELES — When developers unveiled the Solair, a 22-story luxury condominium designed for the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, even the mayor showed up for the ribbon cutting. Located above a subway stop at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, the Solair was supposed to embody the future of Los Angeles as a city focused on walking and mass transit. “Solair Wilshire is the perfect example of my vision for creating a transit-oriented city that brings business and housing to Los Angeles,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said.That was in May 2009. Nearly two years later, few windows in the Solair are lit up at night. The national real-estate crash had long since caused speculators to flee the housing market, leaving behind only serious buyers who actually intend to live in their properties — except, apparently, in the Solair. While the median price for home sales in Los Angeles County has inched up since the Solair opened — from $247,000 in April 2009 to $270,000 in January 2011 — the building has lowered its asking prices by more than a third, and they’re still falling. Many other condominiums in downtown Los Angeles are having just as much trouble finding purchasers.Did potential buyers of the Solair’s apartments flee to distant, sprawling suburbs instead? Hardly. Those suburbs are in equally bad shape. On the outer rim of Corona, a city of about 125,000 southeast of L.A. in Riverside County, declines in prices have been among the steepest in the state. Corona’s newest housing developments, built among outlying cow pastures, are made up of luxurious four-bedroom and five-bedroom stucco houses with swimming pools, hot tubs, and expansive lawns. But the residents talk about neighborhood deterioration and increases in crime. In Lancaster, a city in northern Los Angeles County, scores of homes that were built six years ago and purchased by middle-class commuters are now occupied by low-income renters using federal subsidies, while other houses stand empty. Gunfire often erupts after sunset.

So what do Southern California homebuyers want? To judge by the places  where price declines are least severe, upper-middle-class buyers have flocked to established neighborhoods or cities with modest, but attractive, older houses, typically with three bedrooms and two baths. Much of Beverly Hills has housing like this. So does the Miracle Mile, a neighborhood a few miles west of the Solair. Given more choices, buyers want single-family homes that are not in sprawling suburbs. They want to live close to town centers but not in dense high-rises. In short, they want to live in the year 1925.

The trouble is, we’re approaching 2025. By then, California is expected to add 7 million to 11 million people, about a quarter of its current population. (By 2050, the U.S. population is projected to reach 400 million, a 30 percent increase.) These new people will need homes, which can’t all be three-bedroom bungalows close to downtown. They’ll also need transportation. Automobile traffic and air pollution — already bad — stand to get worse.

The environmental costs of a sprawling population explain why the Democratic-run California Legislature passed Senate Bill 375 in 2008 with the goal of encouraging county governments to grow up rather than out. The legislation, signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, empowers the state’s Air Resources Board to set targets for emissions of pollutants, requires local governments to look for ways to handle a growing population without taking up more space, and gives first dibs on state transportation funds to locales devoted to mass transit.

Given the choices that California faced — permissive neglect or controlled development — legislators argued that the anti-sprawl law was the most sensible approach to managing air pollution, traffic congestion, and the loss of open spaces. Tall buildings such as the Solair usually put people within easy walking distance of stores and restaurants, without any need for new roads. The more they ride mass transit, the less they’ll drive cars.

Environmentalists and planning experts around the world are paying attention to California’s experiment in shaping housing patterns and urban growth. They see in the state’s big cities the same problems that other metropolises face: clogged roads; strained water supplies; and, above all, excessive carbon emissions. If a state famed for its urban sprawl can change its ways, other places can, too. And if the problems can be solved without reducing the overall quality of life — that is, without making everyone miserable — then California could become an inspiring model.

Will the experiment succeed? Nobody knows yet. In theory, the California law will bring big changes. But all urban planning rests on assumptions or guesses about people’s preferences, and those are often wrong.


Any serious attempt to judge the anti-sprawl law’s success must wait at least a decade, possibly much longer. Still, some urban planners see promising indications of an improved approach to planning throughout the state.

“I don’t want to be a Pollyanna about this, but so far I’m very impressed,” said Marlon Boarnet, a University of California (Irvine) professor of planning, design, and economics who, for the Air Resources Board, has pored over two years of data in assessing the law’s impact. Notably, he said, county governments have stepped back and — for a change — thought seriously about planning. Even city governments, often resistant to regional planning, have acted in good faith.

One thing the law has in its favor is that, despite the customary fear that regulation stifles economic growth, it might prove a boon for business. A study by University of California (Berkeley) urban planners Karen Chapple and Carrie Makarewicz found that most business growth in California during the past 15 years has been in locations with major infrastructure — roads, sewers, and such — already in place. Construction on cities’ peripheries has been far less common. That’s because typical business owners, like other people, enjoy working near residences, stores, and restaurants. A modicum of density allows a worker to walk to a Starbucks during lunch or stop at a CVS for mint-flavored floss. “By encouraging infill development” — building on land that’s already developed — the anti-sprawl law “could very well help, not hinder, California’s economic growth,” Chapple and Makarewicz concluded.

There are reasons aplenty, however, for skepticism about visions of a denser — and happier — future for the state that pioneered urban sprawl. For one thing, implementation is everything. In many cities, especially in Los Angeles, the ideal of “walkability” and mass transit has been invoked to justify intrusive and ugly projects that real-estate developers and other urban power brokers champion.

Cary Brazeman, the owner of a marketing agency, became an unlikely crusader for urban livability in 2009, when developers tried to build a hulking condominium in his neighborhood on the west side of Los Angeles. “It was going to displace more tenants living under rent control than it was going to add affordable units,” he said in an interview. “It didn’t make sense in our neighborhood, and the rules of the game were being changed without due process.” Since then, Brazeman has fought similarly high-handed planning all over the city.

Even when density is pursued for the most high-minded of reasons, after a while it offers diminishing returns, especially in reducing the use of cars. Kaid Benfield, a director at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, has pointed to studies showing that an increase in density per acre from one household to 10 will reduce the use of automobiles by half. But doubling the density again, to 20 households per acre, will bring an additional auto cutback of only a fifth, with even scantier reductions from there. This is important because many of the world’s biggest cities, including U.S. ones, already have a higher density than 10 households per acre.

Further complicating the prospect for density in housing to supplant — or complement — urban sprawl is that many cities in the American West are fairly new and poorly laid out for rail transit. By comparison, New York and Boston, with elaborate subway networks, were developed before the automobile was invented. But in other cities, especially in California, nearly all of the population growth and construction occurred while cars were already king. “We’re having to figure out how to go in and retrofit those cities to accommodate higher density levels,” UC professor Boarnet said.

Contrast that with the geography of growth experienced in Northern Virginia, which has seen extensive development along the subway lines that lead into Washington. Because the subway preceded the density, the town houses and condominiums along its route were built to take advantage of the Washington Metrorail system.


There’s another obstacle to encouraging denser development: Americans’ love affair with their cars. Even if auto-dependent cities successfully bring mass transit within reach of more inhabitants, Americans don’t necessarily want what they’re supposed to want. In a 2002 opinion poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, only 31 percent of Californians said they’d like to live in a neighborhood with dense development and mass transit. Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the living is dense and public transportation is extensive, 57 percent of respondents said they preferred a low-density, car-dependent lifestyle.

California’s new density measure also leaves municipal parking policies untouched. When your rent includes a parking spot or two, as is customary in Los Angeles, then you’re far more likely to fill that spot with a car, as University of California (Los Angeles) urban planner Donald C. Shoup notes in his book The High Cost of Free Parking. In fact, the zoning laws in many U.S. cities mandate that any new construction of office or residential space includes a minimum number of parking spaces — “like a fertility drug for cars,” Shoup writes.

Around the world, people love their cars. As University of Southern California economist Peter Gordon pointed out, suburbanization is an international phenomenon. “People everywhere want autos, and when they get them, they enjoy vastly improved range and mobility,” he said. “Trying to pin all this on U.S. policies, as many do, is silly. Have you been abroad lately?”

In fact, some Californians are so committed to holding on to their lifestyle that they’ve tried to sidestep the sprawl-or-density debate by simply freezing their communities in time. This is why a few cities have enacted slow-growth — or almost no-growth — policies. During the 1970s, for instance, the voters of Santa Barbara, a wealthy coastal town in Southern California, decided that the city population should cap out at 85,000. (It has crept up to 92,000.) For those who can afford to live there — increasingly, millionaires — Santa Barbara is still a dream of low-density, car-dependent living. A homeowner atop the hills of the Riviera neighborhood can hop in a car and be downtown on State Street, the main drag, in just a few minutes.

But slow-growth policies along with rapid population gains are bound to jack up the cost of living, as more and more people covet a limited supply of housing. Not surprisingly, Santa Barbara’s inhabitants have increasingly become rich and elderly, and people who work there must often commute great distances from more-affordable places with less-restrictive growth policies. If all of California adopted slow-growth measures such as Santa Barbara’s, the city’s traffic might improve, but the children of today’s Californians would wind up priced out of their native state and forced to move away. California has always been the place that people moved to.Ultimately, however, the question of whether Americans would rather sprawl or bunch up may prove to be a distraction. Many buyers care less about a lawn versus an apartment balcony than about safety and schools. Neighborhoods with low crime rates and outstanding schools command high home prices, regardless of their density. Suburbs have mushroomed because of middle-class residents fleeing bad schools and rising crime. A neighborhood that offers safety and quality schools could well succeed in luring families into high-rises that lack parking.Fixing urban schools is no simple matter, of course. But the crime problem is improving. In Los Angeles, the homicide rate has fallen to levels not seen since 1967, thanks mainly to a revamped police department. This in itself has attracted more middle-class homebuyers to the city, much as New York City experienced in the 1990s. Higher incomes, in turn, usually help to improve schools. All of which would bode well for California’s experiment in fighting urban sprawl — and for the Solair.

Further Readings on Density vs Sprawl

Grist: How suburban sprawl causes segregation and isolates the poor

Citylab: The Gentrification Puzzle

Saving Cities: An Honest Look at Gentrification & Sprawl (ADUs)

Washington Post:  Montgomery ADUS: Here’s why some people strongly oppose

WAMU: A Big Fight Over Small Apartments In Montgomery County

CityLab: Gentrification Doesn’t Mean Diversity

“Like many other cities, D.C. saw an influx of young people starting in the 1990s, encouraged, among other things, by local efforts to revitalize the downtown area. This back-to-the-city movement ushered in a new era for the U Street-Shaw corridor…

…For Derek Hyra, an associate professor of public administration and policy at American University, the neighborhood is the perfect grounds to study dynamics between different groups in what looks like an integrated space, but is actually a contested one. In his new book, Race, Class, Politics in the Cappuccino City, he lays out his findings:

In the book, you talk about how the black history of the neighborhood is being leveraged to advertise it to young urbanites. Could you talk about that?

In the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, if a neighborhood was branded black, it usually led to economic decline and white flight. And in the ‘90s and 2000s, you see low-income African-American neighborhoods being branded black and yet attracting whites. That is the unique dynamic of the Shaw-U Street area. Many of the developers are branding the buildings after iconic African Americans. There’s the Langston Lofts, there’s the Ellington Apartments. There’s Marvin’s, which is a restaurant that’s named after Marvin Gaye, who grew up in Washington, D.C. There’s Busboys and Poets, Andy Shallal’s restaurant, named after Langston Hughes, which is very well-known in the D.C. area and also around the country. There’s also a historic walking trail, and you can see where Alain Locke, who wrote The New Negro—the philosophy of the Harlem Renaissance—lived. There’s historic preservation related to this community’s black history that is appreciated by whites and some whites are moving to this area because it is a diverse area.

But I also write that some whites are moving to the area because they know it was once the former ghetto. They know 14th Street used to be an open air drug market in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And some white residents are looking for racial stereotypes. They’re looking for the iconic ghetto. They’ve seen shows like The Wire, and maybe New Jack City or Boyz N The Hood, and they have a connotation of what inner-city African-American areas that were once low-income look like. They’re actually moving here, in part, because they think that they’re moving to an area that they consider “authentic.” It’s not a homogenous affluent white area. It’s not in Georgetown. It’s not Foggy Bottom. It’s not Dupont Circle: It’s Shaw-U Street.

Elaborate on what’s positive and what’s problematic about this change, and with this perception of the neighborhood.

We have been so segregated in the United States and that now that whites are attracted and willing to move into what was formerly a low-income African-American neighborhood does symbolize some progress, in terms of race relations in the United States. That we have mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods, I think, is a very positive thing.

But that diversity not necessarily benefiting the former residents. Most of the mechanisms by which low-income people would benefit from this change are related to social interaction—that low-, middle-, and upper-income people would start to talk to one another. They would problem solve with one another. They would all get involved civically together to bolster their political power. But what we’re really seeing is a micro-level segregation. You see diversity along race, class, sexual orientation overall, but when you get into the civic institutions—the churches, the recreation centers, the restaurants, the clubs, the coffee shops—most of them are segregated. So you’re not getting a meaningful interaction across race, class, and difference. If we think that mixed-income, mixed-race communities are the panacea for poverty, they’re not.

During my research, for example, I had a lot of people tell me that they were pleased with the redevelopment because they felt it was associated with reductions in crime. They felt that it would be safer for their kids and their families. But then I would say, “What else is happening in this neighborhood?” “Oh well, the amenities are coming in that we can’t utilize or don’t want to utilize them.” “We’re losing our political power, because most of the civic associations used to be African-American, and then flipped.” So there’s a political loss that’s also occurring.

And then also you’ve got some people in this community that I say in the book are “living The Wire”—looking for iconic ghetto stereotypes. Some newcomers thought it was hip and cool, that it actually brought them more credibility because they were living in a neighborhood that was edgy and rough. Crime and blackness is associated in the minds of some newcomers—and that’s really problematic. Low-income residents, on the other hand, think crime is detrimental to their kids’ opportunities and to their health.

Sociologist Robert Sampson writes a lot about collective efficacy: that controlling crime brings people together across difference, as a community. But in a place where crime is perceived differently by a long term and newcomer populations, that’s not going to happen.

So, for newcomers, the diversity is an aesthetic or a superficial feature. It attracts them to the neighborhood, at times, because they have stereotypical ideas about the culture of that neighborhood. And once they start living there, they often don’t engage with neighbors—especially across racial and class lines—in a meaningful way. At the same time, you note in your book, that older residents are also suspicious of newcomers. What’s the reason that different groups are reluctant to talk to each other?

We just have to look at race relations in America to understand that there tends to be a mistrust of people who are different, regardless of whether you’re living miles and miles away, or whether you’re living next door to them.I would also say that the current climate in gentrified spaces is one where newcomers typically come in, and instead of politically integrating, they do a political takeover. They start to take over the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) in D.C. They take over the city council seats. And then, they start instituting policies that relate more to their tastes and preferences and their idea of what they want the community to look like. They advocate for things like the bike lanes, coffee shops, and dog parks.

There’s a great example in the book where the first off-leash dog park was developed in the Shaw-U Street area. It was advocated for by a civic association that was dominated by white newcomers and they got less than half a million dollars for it. I spent time doing my ethnography at this park, and I noticed that African-Americans, who had dogs, that were living around this park, didn’t enter it. I asked them, “You’ve got a dog, why don’t you use this space?” “Oh, no, no, no. We’re not going to use that because that space is not for us.” I said, “why isn’t it for you?” “It was put in place by a white-led civic association. They got the money and that’s their space.” This person felt like they weren’t included in the political process. Other residents mentioned how, for years before newcomer whites came in, they had been advocating for improvements in that park—and nothing occurred. So there was a lot of resentment by longterm residents.
What’s the best way to go about bridging this divide? If it wasn’t for affordable housing policies in Shaw, it would maybe be 90 percent white. Many of the African-American longterm residents who are living there are living in subsidized housing that dates back to the 1960s. And so we’ve got to preserve and maintain affordable housing in transitioning communities. That’s one. But if we just focus on housing and don’t go beyond that, we’re really not stimulating the benefit for low-income people.We really need community based organizations that are focused on bringing people together across difference. I call these neutral third spaces. Public policy isn’t geared toward funding community based organizations in gentrified areas that are trying to bring people together to dialogue about inequality or differences. It’s not going to happen organically. There are very few foundations, a few city governments using their Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money to focus on bridge-building. I really think we need that. We need affordable housing first, but we have to go beyond housing to make mixed-income, mixed-race communities work for everybody—to make them more inclusive.”

Washington Post: Lawsuit: D.C. policies to attract affluent millennials discriminated against blacks

For more than a decade, D.C. officials have celebrated the city’s economic renaissance, touting reinvigorated neighborhoods and glittering new attractions as evidence of Washington’s emergence as a world-class metropolis.

But a new federal lawsuit alleges that the policies that officials initiated to attract younger, more affluent professionals discriminated against poor and working-class African Americans who have lived here for generations.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by lawyer Aristotle Theresa on behalf of several African American residents, claims that the residential buildings springing up throughout the city — many of them with studio and one-bedroom apartments — catered to what urban theorist Richard Florida famously identified as the “creative class” and ignored the needs of poor and working-class families.

The lawsuit says the “New Communities” program initiated by the District to turn aging public housing complexes into mixed-income developments was meant to “lighten” African American neighborhoods and break up long-established communities.

D.C. policies that were intended to “economically integrate” neighborhoods, Theresa argues in the lawsuit, “are classist, racist and ageist” and “lead to widespread gentrification and displacement.”

“Every city planning agency . . . conspired to make D.C. very welcoming for preferred residents and sought to displace residents inimical to the creative economy,” Theresa wrote in the 82-page complaint.

The plaintiffs — Paulette Matthews and Greta Fuller of Southeast Washington and Shanifinne Ball of Northeast — are seeking in excess of $1 billion in damages.

Robert Marus, a spokesman for the District’s Office of the Attorney General, said the city would not comment on the lawsuit until it files its response, which is due June 25. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who is approaching the end of her first term, has focused on growing the city’s stock of affordable housing while celebrating the opening of new attractions such as the Wharf, a $2.5 billion mix of luxury housing, hotels and fine dining along the Southwest Waterfront.

As the District gentrified over the past two decades, income and wealth disparities between whites and blacks deepened. But Derek Hyra, an American University professor who has written about gentrification in Washington, said Theresa would have to produce evidence that D.C. officials were targeting a certain race to prove discrimination.

“Developers are looking at areas in the city where they can buy low and sell high,” Hyra said, pointing to traditionally working-class black neighborhoods such as Shaw and Petworth, which have drawn more affluent residents in recent years. “Developers want to maximize their return. This is not a conspiracy. This is capitalism.”

At the same time, he said, the D.C. government encouraged development, sometimes providing subsidies, “to maximize value and bring in greater revenue.” Even if the District hasn’t explicitly favored anyone, the development has “had a different impact” on whites and blacks, he said.

Theresa, an Anacostia-based civil rights attorney, has in recent years represented a number of community groups opposing massive redevelopment projects in neighborhoods such as Union Market in Northeast and the McMillan reservoir in Northwest, as well as at the Barry Farm public housing complex in Southeast.

In 14 cases, he has asked the D.C. Court of Appeals to overturn city approvals of projects, twice successfully. The rulings forced D.C. officials to review the projects, causing costly delays and widespread consternation among developers who worry that their projects will be slowed by legal challenges.

As a result of appeals filed by Theresa and others, the Bowser administration has proposed changes to the city’s land-use policies to block avenues for what it considers nuisance lawsuits.

Theresa, in an interview, said the federal lawsuit was an outgrowth of the work he has done representing communities fighting development projects. To accommodate more affluent newcomers, Theresa said, D.C. officials and developers over the past decade identified working-class black “communities that aren’t that sophisticated about the zoning process or politics. They slapped it on these communities and took advantage of people.”

He traces the District’s initiatives to the early 2000s, when, as the Internet proliferated and the technology sector flourished nationwide, Florida popularized the idea that cities could become newly prosperous by appealing to a “creative class,” an amalgam of entrepreneurs, tech specialists, artists and other purveyors of creativity.

In the District, according to Theresa’s complaint, which was filed April 13, it was the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) that embraced Florida’s view as it set out to broaden the city’s identity from government town to a magnet for technology entrepreneurs and others who were part of the “creative economy.”

From Shaw to Bloomingdale to the H Street corridor, developers and business owners descended on neighborhoods, constructing apartment towers, renovating rowhouses and opening restaurants, coffeehouses and bars that catered to new Washingtonians, younger and more affluent than previous generations.

To Theresa, the Fenty administration’s promotion of a “Creative Action Agenda” in 2007 represented a “paradigm shift” for D.C. government. Instead of prioritizing what was best for the land, it was focusing “on the predilections of a certain class of individual,” he says.

Fenty’s successor, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), also championed the creative economy by changing zoning regulations to “increase affordable space for creative businesses,” Theresa says. By targeting businesses that “produce innovative goods” or “use innovative processes,” the District offered tax breaks and other incentives that favored a “discrete class” and discriminated against more traditional modes of business, according to the lawsuit.

“District government has a clear preference for millennial creatives, making it somewhat harder for those residents that aren’t notable assets,” Theresa says in the lawsuit.

That focus on millennials had a greater impact on African Americans, he adds, because “they were disproportionately missing from the identified class D.C. was seeking to grow.”

As evidence, Theresa cites census statistics for several gentrifying neighborhoods, including Bloomingdale, which adjoins North Capitol Street, where the overall population grew by 1,000 from 2009 to 2016 but the number of African Americans fell. The population along the U Street corridor grew from 6,700 to 9,400 over a decade, as the number of whites increased by 1,300 and the African American population declined by nearly 400, the lawsuit claims.

Theresa also cites the neighborhood around the Navy Yard, which has exploded with growth over the past decade. As its population soared from 625 to 4,664, the percentage of whites — once 22 percent — rose to 66 percent. At the same time, the percentage of African Americans fell from 73 percent to 22 percent.

For projects larger than what the District’s zoning code allows, developers must seek approval from the Zoning Commission, which Theresa says has sought to “head off any dissent” by refusing to grant party status to neighbors opposing the projects at hearings. He also argues that D.C. officials have routinely failed to produce required reports that analyze whether proposed projects would drive gentrification.

“Such disregard for current residents’ concerns was calculated to re-segregate black communities into white upper class and creative class communities,” he writes in the complaint.

Theresa concludes his complaint by focusing on Anacostia, which he describes as “the newest close-knit black community slated for destruction.”

A number of residential and commercial developments are planned for the area, including the opening of a Busboys and Poets restaurant and a Starbucks franchise. Theresa characterizes the projects as delivering “housing that is for singles in an area that has a great need for family housing not kept in slum conditions.”

“Such development,” Theresa predicts, “will also bring retail out of step with the vast majority of local residents, displacing local, non-creative businesses.”

Rent Cafe: Top 20 Most Gentrified ZIP codes 2000-2016

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SW Conscious Rising: Building Social Capital to Secure Our Future

Not in My Neighbourhood | Movie Trailer | Release South Africa: 1 June 2018

Ruther Readings

DCist: D.C. Is Being Sued For Gentrifying. Here’s What To Know About The Case

Yes! Magazine: How Tenants Use Digital Mapping to Track Bad Landlords and Gentrification

Public Source: New white flight and suburban displacement: Study looks beyond gentrification in the Pittsburgh region

Citylab: The Complicated Link Between Gentrification and Displacement

Citylab: From Gentrification to Decline: How Neighborhoods Really Change

Citylab: Where Gentrification Is an Emergency, and Where It’s Not

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History of Affordable Housing Crisis


Sub Table of Contents

1. Segregated New Deal Public Housing
2. 20th Century Housing Discrimination
3. Early Privatization and Ghettoization: Pre-1968
4. False Promises of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and Predatory Inclusion
5. Urban Disinvestment and Neoliberalism
6. Disinvestment of HUD
7. Privatization of Public Housing (1960s-present)
8. Modern Housing Discrimination
9. Great Recession, Disaster Capitalism, and Gentrification
Further Readings on the History of Affordable Housing Crisis

1. Segregated New Deal Public Housing

  • The “New Deal” Public Works Administration (PWA) – 1930s
    • In early 1900s many urban neighborhoods were integrated
      • So workers of both races lived in walking distance of downtown factories
    • During 1930s as part of the New Deal
      • PWA demolished many integrated neighborhoods, deemed
        • slums, to build segregated housing instead
      • Built segregated housing instead
        • White housing would often be built well
        • Black housing was poorly built if built at all
  • Public Housing
    • 1937 Housing Act established US Housing Admin to build publicly subsidized housing
      • Only built segregated housing
      • 1:1 slum clearance ratio for every new public house built
        • To appeased Real Estate lobby to prevent falling rents and declining property values
    • While fed gov would provide funding, housing managed by local gov
      • Ensured communities could avoid public housing/determine project’s location
        • Ensuring racial segregation and concentration of poverty
      • Majority of public housing went in poor, under invested communities of color with little opportunity to escape poverty
          • Public housing tends to concentrate those who struggle the most economically into a specific area, further raising poverty levels
        • 98% public-housing units built in Chicago in 1950‑60s in all-black communities

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2. 20th Century Housing Discrimination

  • Housing Discrimination
    • Redlining, racial covenants, racial steering, banking/mortgage subsidies discrimination, predatory selling/renting, blockbusting, intimidation, etc
      • Maintained racial, economic and political segregation


  • Urban Renewal
    • 1950-70s fed funded projects demolished urban communities to “renew” blighted areas or make room for highways
      • Housing Act of 1949, 1954, Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956
    • Was social engineering by white majorities
      • “blighted” communities in the way of “progress”, often thriving communities of color, were displaced for the benefit of whites
        • These communities were often more “marginalized” than “blighted”, with less options to advocate against renewal than whites
      • 100,000s of people, mostly communities of color, were displaced with no option for return
        • in the ten years, 425,000 units of housing were razed under its auspices, but only 125,000 units were constructed
        • Increased spatial and economic segregation while making white flight (suburbanization) possible with more highways
      • San Francisco’s historically black Fillmore district
        • 1960s Fillmore launches an urban renewal program that displaces 17,000 black people
        • The Fillmore’s redevelopment caused San Francisco’s black population to drop by about 70% between 1970 and 2013.
          • Caused writer James Baldwin to famously say in a TV interview that “urban renewal . . . means Negro removal.”\

01-urban-renewal-map-cartogram.jpgNational Geographic Map Showing Urban Renewal displacements

“a large amount of good and salvageable affordable housing was destroyed: most estimates put the net loss of such units under Urban Renewal at close to a million. Under Urban Renewal, insensitive, inaccurate definitions and depictions of “slum housing” were used to justify the land use changes. Entire communities…were uprooted, with extremely serious consequences not only for subsequent housing conditions of the displacees, but in social and psychological terms.” False HOPE – Critical Assessment of the HOPE VI

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3. Early Privatization and Ghettoization: Pre-1968

  • Before 1950s Public Housing
    • Was originally for working class and well maintained
      • at least for white people, up until 1949
  • Housing Acts of 1949, 1954, 1960
    • Real estate lobby and other lobby groups were able to shift:
        • Gov building public housing to subsidize private developers making profit
        • Low density working class tenants to low income tenants living in high density projects
        • Often built to house displaced residents of color from very profitable urban development projects
        • “public housing was to have the special role of making private development possible by providing a place to put poor people uprooted by renewal” Rachel G. Bratt: What Happened to Public Housing?
  • Because of federal segregation policies
    • New public housing was concentrated in black ghettos
      • Concentrating poverty and limiting black people’s ability to escape the poverty
      • Public began to associate public housing, not housing discrimination, to poverty and crime
        • Reducing public support for public housing

“It is of course ironic that those who began by opposing public housing (real estate lobby) have been largely able to shape its destiny. They were able to determine its client population, then made it work for private sector interests as part of the urban renewal plan, and finally stigmatized it by playing on the fears created by these two factors. Never did they acknowledge their own role in the way the program turned out.” Rachel G. Bratt: What Happened to Public Housing?

2. White Flight, Suburbanization and Deindustrialization (1950-70s)

  • While fed gov heavily subsidized white people to move to suburbs
    • Black people had few options to move out due to housing discrimination
    • Public housing funding and its public support soon deteriorated
      • Causing less motivation to subsidize it or reform it
  • As more minorities found ways into white communities, whites fled to suburbs
    • White Flight/Suburbanization
    • “White only” Federally funded mortgage subsidies, GI subdivisions and highways encouraged move
  • Not just physical flight but economic flight as well
    • Jobs, schools, gov funding, followed
      • Loss of urban population decreased tax revenue, city services and caused urban decay

“When terrorism ultimately failed, white homeowners simply fled the neighborhood. The traditional terminology, white flight, implies a kind of natural expression of preference. In fact, white flight was a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by the shared racist presumptions of America’s public and private sectors. For should any nonracist white families decide that integration might not be so bad as a matter of principle or practicality, they still had to contend with the hard facts of American housing policy: When the mid-20th-century white homeowner claimed that the presence of a Bill and Daisy Myers decreased his property value, he was not merely engaging in racist dogma—he was accurately observing the impact of federal policy on market prices. Redlining destroyed the possibility of investment wherever black people lived.”Ta-Nehisi Coates – Atlantic

  • People of color couldn’t move into “white only” suburbs due to housing discrimination
    • Redlining, racial convenants, exclusive ordinances, lack of public housing, violence, etc.
  • Many industries/jobs followed white people to suburbs (deindustrialization, ghettoization)
    • Leaving inner city poor stranded with little economic opportunities
      • Forced many people of color in concentrated poverty (ghettos)
  • Disinvestment era
    • White flight, deindustrialization, Nixon scandals, Reagan disinvestments, privatization, etc.
      • Caused massive disinvestment in public housing

“The lack of housing choices available to African Americans removed the pressure from landlords to improve the quality of housing. African Americans were a captured market with nowhere else to turn…The result was African Americans paying more for inferior housing in comparison to whites who were being lured to new suburban developments. By the mid-1960s, these conditions had reached a breaking point. The 1967–68 urban uprisings—the largest wave of domestic riots in the twentieth century—were the result.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent

“In 1998, investigative reporters from the Dallas Morning News visited federally funded developments in 47 metropolitan areas. The reporters found that the nation’s nearly ten million public housing tenants were almost always segregated by race and that every predominately white-occupied project had facilities, amenities, services, and maintenance that were superior to what was found in predominately black-occupied projects. “Richard Rothstein – Color of law

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4. False Promises of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and Predatory Inclusion

“The federal government long ago abdicated the responsibility of directly producing affordable housing, instead outsourcing the task to private developers—while continuing to provide vast amounts of assistance in the form of guarantees, subsidies, and tax relief. As a result, it has absorbed the real-estate and banking industries’ historic embrace of racial discrimination.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent

  • Fair Housing Act of 1968
    • Outlawed housing discrimination
    • Declared “legal” housing discrimination unconstitutional
    • Prohibits
      • Racial steering, Racial covenants, Blockbusting, Redlining, intimidation, coercion, etc.
    • Many old and new discriminatory practices still continued regardless
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants
    • HUD founded as a Cabinet department in 1965, as part of the “Great Society” program of President Lyndon Johnson, to develop and execute policies on housing and metropolises.
  • Fair Housing Act directed HUD to “affirmatively further” fair housing
    • Imposed a special requirement upon HUD to “administer the programs and activities relating to housing and urban development in a manner affirmatively to further” fair housing
    • To receive HUD funding , localities are supposed to identify obstacles to fair housing, keep records of their efforts to overcome them, and certify that they do not discriminate.
      • HUD has rarely verified lack of discrimination in their grantees
        • Instead has sent grants to communities even after they’ve been found by courts to have promoted segregated housing or been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice.
    • George Romney only head of HUD to try to support “fair housing” with his “Open Communities” program
      • Pressured white communities to
        • build more integrated affordable housing and end discriminatory zoning practices
      • By rejecting HUD grants for projects from communities that fostered segregated housing
    • Was stopped and dismissed by Nixon

“I realize that this position will lead us to a situation in which blacks will continue to live for the most part in black neighborhoods and where there will be predominately black schools and predominately white schools.” Nixon, 1972 “eyes only” memo

  • Since then HUD has given over $137 billion to over 1,200 communities
    • HUD has only rejected 2 grants due to violating the Fair Housing Act
    • Despite evidence of discrimination and lack of addressing it in most communities that receive HUD grants

“In several instances, records show, HUD has sent grants to communities even after they’ve been found by courts to have promoted segregated housing or been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice. New Orleans, for example, has continued to receive grants after the Justice Department sued it for violating that Fair Housing Act by blocking a low-income housing project in a wealthy historic neighborhood.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, Propublica

  • HUD Act of 1968 (4 months after Fair Housing Act)
    • Shifted responsibility to provide public housing from the fed gov to the private sector
      • Provided billions of dollars to private industry
    • Mandate to produce 6 million new/rehabilitated low-income housing units in 10 years
      • “Real-estate brokers demanded a greater percentage of homes be “existing” or used and that more money be allocated toward rehabilitating dilapidated homes in urban neighborhoods. “New” housing was largely located in suburbs and “existing” housing primarily in cities, meaning that a color line would divide the types of housing available..” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent
    • Nixon decentralized HUD removing oversight over programs
      • Programs like low-income homeownership program was handed over to a racist real estate industry
        • Gave way to decades of predatory housing programs

Predatory Inclusion

  • Predatory Inclusion
    • With the end of FHA redlining meant that capital and insurance could flow freely into urban communities
      • Although black people could still not move out leaving them vulnerable to predatory real-estate practices
    • Federal subsidies and mortgage guarantees resuscitated urban housing that had been left for dead
    • “The poor quality of Black housing was driven by three factors. It was typically older and used, having filtered down to African Americans who were the newest arrivals in Northern cities. Its already distressed condition was then exacerbated by residential segregation that led to overcrowding, as Black residents were hemmed into a few clustered neighborhoods. Finally, the lack of housing choices available to African Americans removed the pressure from landlords to improve the quality of housing. African Americans were a captured market with nowhere else to turn.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent
  • Incentivizing real-estate speculators
    • To buy distressed urban properties for pennies, invest in minimal maintenance and repair, and then facilitate a home sale for thousands more to someone desperate for housing
      • Real-estate speculators sold thousands of homes with no water heaters, nailed-shut windows, leaking roofs, rat infestations, etc.
  • Miserable and dangerous housing conditions in the existing urban market
    • Led people to walk away from the homes they had recently purchased, and the numbers of defaults, foreclosures, and FHA insurance payments began to rise
    • By 1973, tens of thousands of FHA-assisted low-income homeownership program homes were in foreclosure
      • In May of 1974, HUD was in possession of 78,000 single-family homes
    • Corrupt mortgage lenders quickly foreclosed on new homeowners to cash in on lucrative fees and sprawling closing costs
      • While real-estate brokers moved in to quickly resell the broken property and start the lucrative process all over again
    • Almost all of the sales of junk properties were in cities
      • “Where “risk” had once been invoked to keep African Americans locked out of homeownership, the FHA mortgage guarantee now turned it into a get-rich-quick scheme.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent
  • By 1974, 28 HUD officials had been indicted for their role in the housing scandal
    • Along with other mortgage brokers and real-estate brokers
    • Conservative headlines claimed things like, “FHA Wastes $4 Billion and Creates City Slums”
      • Most articles did not mention the real failure was the lack of oversight over local fed agents and private-sector profiteers
    • “Instead of highlighting how the relationship between business and public agencies had undermined the function of government regulators or how Nixon’s doctrine of “new federalism” had left federal regulators ill-equipped to oversee a program ripe for corruption—especially given the history of the real-estate industry’s dealings with African Americans—the narrative turned on the perceived domestic dysfunction of Black families as the root of the problem. Black women’s homemaking skills were called into question, as well as their overall competence as homeowners.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent

“The real-estate industry’s history of racism has made it an unreliable partner in solving the United States’ longstanding shortage of dignified affordable housing. Black families are disproportionately affected by the lack of housing precisely because long-standing racist myths have been used to influence notions of value and community desirability. Government has a long and sullied history of invoking race to shape the housing market as well…Solving the perpetual U.S. housing crisis is complex, but it begins by disconnecting the power of government from the private sector’s insatiable profit motive.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent

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5. Urban Urban Disinvestment and Neoliberalism

  • Planned Shrinkage/Municipal disinvestment
    • Deliberate withdrawal of city services to blighted neighborhoods to displace residents/cope with tax loss
    • Narratives of blight and crime can give white city planners more power to displace
      • Emergency laws, redevelopment plans, etc.
      • South Bronx and Harlem(mid-1970s), Roxbury, Boston (70s-80s), New Orleans (post Katrina)

Wikipedia: Municipal disinvestment

Municipal disinvestment is a term in the United States which describes an urban planning process in which that a city or town or other municipal entity decides to abandon or neglect an unproductive zone. It can happen when a municipality is in a period of economic prosperity, and it seeks to improve its communities and infrastructure, and sees that its poorest and most blighted communities are both the cheapest targets for revitalization as well as the areas with the greatest potential for improvement.[1] When a city is facing urban decay, and has to compromise in allocating its resources, the poorest communities are the least profitable and investing in them seems unwise from a long term perspective, and so these communities are neglected as a matter of choice.[2] Disenfranchised neighborhoods are slated for demolition, relocation, and eventual replacement. According to one view, disinvestment in urban and suburban communities tends to fall strongly along racial and class lines, and intensifies and perpetuates the cycle of poverty exerted upon the space, since more affluent individuals with social mobility can leave the disenfranchised areas.[3] According to one view, municipal disinvestment is a direct consequence of local, state, and federal urban planning and urban renewal projects.

Change in urban development policy

Johnson responded to the radicalization of Black Americans Watts Riots by ceding control of local OEO’s to municipal authorities such as the mayor (a reversal of the original strategy of community-lead development) while funding was reduced and the practices of the offices and local community projects were more closely supervised.[5] Moynihan was startled by what he perceived as the consequences of the War on Poverty and changed his philosophy and its practice under Johnson. He found the social policies of the past decades naive for trying to fix the “tangled pathology” he described in the white paper he authored for the US Department of Labor, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.[1][5][6] When the administration transitioned over to Nixon, Moynihan remained as Counselor to the President, where he further pushed for dismantling the OEO.[5] Though it continued to exist into the Reagan Administration, the OEO was put under the control of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who more tightly controlled its function.[5] It is during this time that Moynihan suggests to Nixon that Black communities be treated with a “benign neglect,” a philosophy-of-action which would later be translated into the planned shrinkage policies of the 70s and 80s.

Benign neglect

Benign neglect is a policy proposed in 1969 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was at the time on President Richard Nixon’s staff as an urban affairs adviser. While serving in this capacity, he sent the President a memo suggesting, “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’ The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.”[7] The policy was designed to ease tensions after the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s. Moynihan was particularly troubled by the speeches of Vice-President Spiro Agnew. However, the policy was widely seen as an abandonment of urban neighborhoods, particularly ones with a majority black population, as Moynihan’s statements and writings appeared to encourage, for instance, fire departments engaging in triage to avoid a supposedly futile war against arson.[2]

Planned shrinkage

The large number of fires in the South Bronx after the city slashed fire service there serves as a symbol of planned shrinkage to critics.

Planned shrinkage is a controversial public policy of the deliberate withdrawal of city services to blighted neighborhoods as a means of coping with dwindling tax revenues.[8] Planned shrinkage involves decreasing city services such as police patrols, garbage removal, street repairs, and fire protection, from selected city neighborhoods suffering from urban decay, crime, and poverty. While it has been advocated as a way to concentrate city services for maximum effectiveness given serious budgetary constraints, it has been criticized as an attempt to “encourage the exodus of undesirable populations”[8] as well as to open up blighted neighborhoods for development by private interests. Planned shrinkage was mentioned as a development strategy for the South Bronx section of New York City in the 1970s, and more recently for another urban area in the United States, the city of New Orleans.[9][10] The term was first used in New York City in 1976 by Housing Commissioner Roger Starr.[11][12]


During the twentieth century, a boom in suburban growth caused in part by increased automobile use led to urban decline, particularly in the poorer sections of many large cities in the United States and elsewhere. A dwindling tax base depleted many municipal resources. A common view was that it was part of a “downward spiral” caused first by an absence of jobs, the creation of a permanent underclass, and a declining tax base hurting many city services, including schools. It was this interplay of factors which made change difficult.[13] New York City was described as “so broke” by the 1970s with neighborhoods which had become “so desperate and depleted” that municipal authorities wondered how to cope.[14] Some authorities felt the process of decline was inevitable, and instead of trying to fight it, searched for alternatives. According to one view, authorities searched for ways to have the greatest population loss in the areas with the poorest non-white populations.[12][2]

The RAND report

In the early 1970s, a RAND study examining the relation between city services and large city populations concluded that when services such as police and fire protection were withdrawn, the numbers of people in the neglected areas would decrease.[2] There had been questions about many fires that had been happening in the South Bronx during the 1970s. One account (including the RAND report) suggested that neighborhood fires were predominantly caused by arson, while a contrasting report suggested that arson was not a major cause.[15] If arson had been a primary cause, according to the RAND viewpoint, then it did not make sense financially for the city to try to invest further funds to improve fire protection, according to this view. The RAND report allegedly influenced then Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who used the report’s findings to make recommendations for urban policy.[2] In Moynihan’s view, arson was one of many social pathologies caused by large cities, and suggested that a policy of benign neglect would be appropriate as a response.[2]

Case studies

New York City

Partly in response to the RAND report, and in an effort to address New York’s declining population, New York’s housing commissioner, Roger Starr, proposed a policy which he termed planned shrinkage to reduce the impoverished population and better preserve the tax base.[16] According to the “politically toxic”[16] proposal, the city would stop investing in troubled neighborhoods and divert funds to communities “that could still be saved.”[16] He suggested that the city should “accelerate the drainage” in what he called the worst parts of the South Bronx through a policy of planned shrinkage by closing subway stations, firehouses and schools. Starr felt these actions were the best way to save money.[17] Starr’s arguments soon became predominant in urban planning thinking nationwide.[12] The people who lived in the communities where his policies were applied protested vigorously; without adequate fire service and police protection, the residents faced waves of crime and fires that left much of the South Bronx and Harlem devastated.[2] A report in 2011 in the New York Times suggested that the planned shrinkage approach was “short-lived”.[18] Under the planned shrinkage program, for example, an abandoned 100-unit development on one piece of land could be cleared by a real estate developer, and such an outcome would have been preferable to ten separate neighborhood-based efforts to produce 100 housing units each, according to advocates of planned shrinkage.[12] According to this view, a planned shrinkage approach would encourage so-called “monolithic development”, resulting in new urban growth but at much lower population densities than the neighborhoods which had existed previously.[12] The remark by Starr caused a political firestorm: then mayor Abraham Beame disavowed the idea while City Council members called it “inhuman,” “racist” and “genocidal.”[11]

According to one report, the high inflation during the 1970s combined with the restrictive rent control policies in the city meant that buildings were worth more dead for the insurance money than alive as sources of rental income; as investments, they had limited ability to provide a solid stream of rental income. Accordingly, there was an economic incentive on the part of building owners, according to this view, to simply let the buildings burn. An alternative view was that the fires were a result of the city’s municipal policies. While there are differing views about whether planned shrinkage caused fire outbreaks in the 1970s, or was a result of such fires, there is agreement that the fires in the South Bronx during these years were extensive.

In the South Bronx, the average number of people per [fire] engine is over 44,000. In Staten Island, it’s 17,000. There is no standard for manning areas of multiple dwellings as opposed to one- and two-family residences.

— A New York City battalion chief from the New York City Fire Department interviewed in the BBC-TV special “The Bronx is Burning,” in 1976.[2]

By the mid-1970s, The Bronx had 120,000 fires per year, for an average of 30 fires every 2 hours. 40 percent of the housing in the area was destroyed. The response time for fires also increased, as the firefighters did not have the resources to keep responding promptly to numerous service calls. A report in The New York Post suggested that the cause of the fires was not arson but resulted from decisions by bureaucrats to abandon sections of the city.[15] According to one report, of the 289 census tracts within the borough of the Bronx, seven census tracts lost more than 97% of their buildings, and 44 tracts lost more than 50% of their buildings, to fire and abandonment.[15]

There have been claims that planned shrinkage impacted public health negatively.[19][20] According to one source, public shrinkage programs targeted to undermine populations of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans in the South Bronx and Harlem had an effect on the geographic pattern of the AIDS outbreak. According to this view, municipal abandonment was interrelated with health issues and helped to cause a phenomenon termed “urban desertification”.[21]

The populations in the South Bronx, Lower East Side, and Harlem plummeted during the two decades after 1970. Only after two decades did the city begin to invest in these areas again.

New Orleans

New Orleans differed from other cities in that the cause of decline was not based on economic or political shifts but rather a destructive flood caused by a hurricane. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, planned shrinkage was proposed as a means to create a “more compact, more efficient and less flood-prone city”.[10] Areas of the city which were most damaged by the flooding – and thus, most likely to be flooded again – would not be rebuilt and would become green space.[10] These areas were frequently less desirable, lower-income areas which had lower property values precisely because of the risk of flooding.[10] Some residents rejected a “top-down” approach of planned shrinkage of municipal planners and attempted to rebuild in flood-prone areas.[9]


Roxbury, Boston

Planned shrinkage in Roxbury is not unique to the RAND policies enacted in the 70s and 80s. The area succumbed to numerous fires as out-of-town landlords sought out the only way to earn back some profit on homes that no longer sold. However, the neighborhood’s response to planned shrinkage through community action has made it an example to other neighborhoods of the success of people-first organizing. The neighborhood had worked with the Boston’s administration, but refused to give in to bureaucratic control by the city, protesting whenever the municipality neglected their redevelopment.[22]

Trailer: ‘Decade Of Fire’ Explores The Burning Of The Bronx In The ’70s

Synopsis: In the 1970s, the Bronx was on fire. Abandoned by city government, nearly a half-million people were displaced as their close-knit, multi-ethnic neighborhood burned to the ground. While insidious government policies caused the devastation, Black and Puerto Rican residents bore the blame. Now, Bronx-born Vivian Vázquez Irizarry exposes the truth about the borough’s untold history and reveals how her community chose to resist, remain, and rebuild.

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Interview with the Director
Open host Rhina Valentin sits down the Co-Director/Producer Vivian Vazquez and Film Score Composer Arturo Ortiz to discuss Decade of Fire, a documentary that unveils the Bronx fires in the 1970’s and the effect it has had on the community.

Majora Carter: Greening the Ghetto

Environmental Injustice: Start at 3:00
History of Disinvestment in the Bronx: Start at 5:35

On the morning of October 5th, 1977, President Jimmy Carter visited the South Bronx. Hands in his suit pockets, flanked on all sides by advisors, security, and media, the sitting  president paced through the middle of an abandoned Charlotte Street and took in the surrounding devastation. Historians pegged Carter’s visit as the moment when the deterioration of New York’s South Bronx emerged as a full-blown national phenomenon. In reality, however, the destruction of the neighborhood had been proceeding inexorably for years, the tragic result of the confluence of several significant trends in American society.
During the second half of the 20th century a new language developed to both express and conceal modern American racism. This new lexicon arose from changes in American society – mainly the increased population of African Americans in segregated neighborhoods in Northern cities and the unacceptability of formerly acceptable overt racism. Cities became the primary  battleground in the continued struggle by white Americans to maintain their hegemony and the South Bronx, one of the least white neighborhoods in America’s most prominent and rapidly changing city, became ground zero for this developing iteration of American racism. Throughout the coming decades, white Americans enforced black inferiority through the creation of what Murray Forman calls a Òpernicious white mythology about black culture grounded in the cultural fiction of the black ghetto,Ó which constructed Ònon-white urban environments as a visible and troubling blightÓ on American cities and society through racist national discourse.  Nowhere were the effects of this process more prevalent or destructive than in the South Bronx.
Between 1950 and 1980, the South Bronx went from a one-square mile, ethnic-white-middle class enclave to an almost entirely black and Hispanic, 20 square mile neighborhood known around the world as the America’s worst slum. To be sure, many forces propelled this transition. The rapid departure of scores of industrial jobs, citywide financial woes, the crumbling of New York City’s rental market by poorly structured welfare grants, and a host of other factors all pushed the South Bronx into collapse. However, there’s a reason why New York City’s South Bronx Development Organization made changing the perception [about the South Bronx] within the community and outside its principal goal. As the neighborhood became almost entirely black and Hispanic, a pervasive perception that continuously degraded the South Bronx and its residents in the interest of enforcing racial hierarchies developed and draped a pall over the neighborhood, ultimately supporting and accelerating the other forces furthering its deterioration.
This project specifically focuses on how modern methods of American anti-black racism implicitly attacked New YorkÕs South Bronx as a means of enforcing white superiority and hegemony. To start, I examine how media, politicians and regular citizens singled out specific cultural aspects of black and Hispanic life in the South Bronx Ð namely the high crime rate, the abundance of single-parent households, and the lack of traditional community organization Ð as  being responsible for the neighborhood’s problems. The cultural critiques became conflated with race, creating a profile that labeled the black and Hispanic people of the South Bronx and their neighborhood as flawed and inferior and enabled critics to blame the neighborhood’s failure solely on the residents without mentioning race. Next, I explore how trends in New York City and white American society’s popular discourse created an accepted image of the South Bronx that reinforced its sense of inferiority. After being continuously compared to an infectious disease or a war zone, the South Bronx name came to represent both a national symbol of urban and the prototypical all-black urban neighborhood, allowing the constructions that enforced its infamy to double as condemnations of black urban life in general. I then discuss how the racist perception of the South Bronx encouraged the further abandonment and neglect of the neighborhood by powerful public and private actors. In reaction to the idea of an inferior, dangerous, and contagious South Bronx, politicians hastened to embrace policies like benign neglect and planned shrinkage and the private sector disinvested in the area, compounding the South BronxÕs problems and plunging it deeper into despair. Finally, I view hip-hop, a global cultural phenomena that initially developed almost exclusively within the South Bronx during this period, as a means of understanding the impact of this entire process. A close study of hip-hop, specifically its ultimate commodification and deracination, exposes the effects and  pervasive popularity of the racist constructions of the South Bronx.
This paper should not only demonstrate the direct impact that racism had in encouraging, condoning and propelling the devastation of the South Bronx throughout the 1960s and 1970s  but also speak to the general implicit and ruinous nature of modern American racism. Americans are often willfully oblivious and uncritical of the role racism plays in every aspect of society from the mundane to the massive, from small interpersonal interactions to the destruction of large swaths of cities. Downplaying racism serves to reinforce white privilege and the perception of black inferiority. Racism needs to be properly understood and fully acknowledged if it is to be  properly addressed; otherwise, it succeeds in its never-ending quest to be as efficient as possible in dictating and enforcing inferiority. The only hope of extirpating racism is through exposing its insidious mechanics. Hopefully, this investigation of the tragic demise of the South Bronx is a step towards accomplishing that goal.

Click here for the rest of the paper

Some key takeways

“Accompanying the racialized spatial reordering of American cities like New York in the 1950s and 60s was a marked increase in racial tension. The Great Migration brought racial issues to the urban North in a previously unseen way and over these two decades the modern American city became “the primary space of racial division and racial tension” as “the apparatuses of urban racial segregation” took “new, sophisticated forms.” America’s racial tumult mounted throughout the decade, manifesting itself in U.S. cities in the form of palpable tension and explosive violent conflict.

In reaction, President Lyndon B. Johnson formed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, colloquially known as the Kerner Commission, an 11-member committee with the goal of investigating the racial problem in America’s cities as of 1967. The commission, headed in part by New York Mayor John Lindsay, issued a 50-page report that offers an illuminating look at the state of black urban life. The report states unequivocally that “our nation is moving toward two societies: one, largely Negro and poor, located in the central cities; the other, predominantly white and affluent, located in the suburbs and outlying areas.”

While the acknowledgement of this cleavage alone is important, the commission identified “white racism” as “essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II,” citing ghettoization of African Americans, “pervasive discrimination and segregation,” and white exodus as main causes. Ultimately, the commission warned, “to continue present policies is to make permanent the division of our country” and suggested “federal programs must be given a new thrust aimed at overcoming the prevailing patterns of racial segregation.” Despite the strong recommendations made by the committee, President Johnson rejected the report’s findings”

“Although flawed coverage was prevalent, its ill effects did not go unacknowledged. The 1967 Kerner report attacked “the media” for their “overall treatment…of Negroghettos,” citing the dangerous “exaggeration of both mood and event.” The single-minded and sensationalist coverage of violence in urban areas like the South Bronx led to “a series of moral panics” that ultimately “demonized inner-cityminorit[ies].”

“whites used factors like crime…as nonracial reasons to legitimize their preferences for largely whiteneighborhoods.”49 Instead of blaming race for their departure they “collaps[ed] race into culture and learned behavior,” ultimately conveying their belief that the “destruction of their old neighborhoods was caused by individual behaviors associated with flawed blackculture”50 like crime and violence. Using these distorted lies, the participants voiced their distaste for and the inferiority of their new, darker neighbors implicitly and did so only by relying on the fabricated link between black culture and violence. Though pervasive, crime and violence were just a few of the aspects of life in the South Bronx that critics used as a vehicle for veiled racial criticisms of black and Hispanic life.”

“In addition to the prevalent critiques of crime in the South Bronx, the dominant voices criticizing the neighborhood consistently focused on the area’s lack of political organization and strong nuclear families as a major reason for its deterioration.”

“As conditions in minority urban neighborhoods like the South Bronx deteriorated the depiction of these locations as diseases attacking the body of the larger city gained traction. To be sure, metaphors connecting urban ghettos with illness had been present for as long as American cities had existed but they took on a greater importance in an environment where racial hierarchies had to be enforced in a language purged of overt racial reference. Bradley Gardener explains this process, saying “one of the ways space is commonly used to conceal race is through urban planning language.” In this lexicon, the city is the body politic and “difference in the form of racialized groups is seen as a disease invading the city, a threat to its wellbeing.” Popular discourse quickly labeled the black and Hispanic residents of the geographically expanding South Bronx as a disease. It’sa powerful metaphor as the association of the expansion of black urban space with sickness justifies preventative measures associated with tackling an illness, which in the South Bronx manifested itself in efforts to contain the neighborhood, segregate of its black and Hispanic residents, and neglect the problems that arose within.”

“Private and Public Reaction to the New South BronxThe racist constructions that systematically tore down the South Bronx encouraged a private and public reaction that compounded, rather than addressed, the area’s devastating problems. The popular presentation of the neighborhood established it as a location populated by inferior people and worthy of abandonment. The policy makers, residents and those with an economic interest in the borough responded accordingly.”

“The major institutional reaction to racist perception of the new South Bronx was the policies of benign neglect and planned shrinkage, two political philosophies that claimed the neighborhood should be disinvested and left alone to die to improve the health of the city. Private actors, especially within the South Bronx’s real estate industry, also expressed similar feelings of authorized contempt for the area.When the real estate market collapsed due to the media-stoked hysteria surrounding demographic transitions and neighborhood change, landlords slashed services, knowing full well that dominant society had already characterized the area as blighted and would place blame not on them but on the racial flaws of the residents. Once the South Bronx had been built up as an international symbol of black urban failure it became labeled, in many ways, as a place not worth saving. That notion became a self-fulfilling prophecy as private and public actors found no reason to help the South Bronx, seeking instead to tear it down either in the name of saving the more “desirable” parts of the city or for personal profit.”

“Starr justified his plan by citing the same supposed flaws in black and Hispanic culture that his ideological predecessors like Moynihan did. By “denying the existence of the community’s social fabric and…evoking dysfunctional poor families” Starr “provide[d] the intellectual basis for massive demolition of the housing of thepoor.”102 He used the old critiques that cited black cultural inferiority as the cause of the neighborhood’s failure as grounds for its abandonment. The racist logic, a clear extension of earlier racist rhetoric, states that since the neighborhood’s current residents aren’t able to properly care for their neighborhoods in the way their white predecessors did, the city has no duty to provide for those neighborhoods in the way it does for others.”

“The South Bronx, the area that would supposedly not suffer from these service reductions, was devastated.Between 1970 and 1980, seven census tracts in the borough lost “more than 97% of their buildings to fire and abandonment and 44 tracts (out of 289 in the borough) lost more than 50%.” Some previously “healthy” areas in the South Bronx lost 80% of both housing units and population between 1970 and1980.109 Despite the fact that the vast majority of these fires started due to ordinary causes, conventional wisdom blamedarson.110 As the epidemic worsened, the falsified notion that the contagion existed because of arson persisted. Arsonists and criminals bore the brunt of the responsibility, continuing the phenomenon of misplaced blame that dropped responsibility for the South Bronx’s failures solely on the shoulders of its black and brown residents.”

Private Reaction

“The devastating reaction to the new South Bronx was not limited to the public sphere as private economic interests responded to the construction of the neighborhood as flawed and worthless. The real estate market in the neighborhoods that the politicians and media doomed with the name “South Bronx” crashed throughout the late 60s and early 70s. While many forces encouraged the collapse of the South Bronx’s real estate market, in a Housing Rehabilitation Task Force report issued in 1976 the New York City Urban Coalition proclaimed that what really killed the South Bronx’s real estate market was a loss of hope. “The owner loses hope in thebuilding, the banks in the neighborhood, and the tenants in the landlord…thus the building has nofuture.” As popular racist perceptions trumpeted the neighborhood’s death, destructive pessimism was inevitable.

The popular construction of the neighborhood led politicians, investors, and “owners and residents to redline the South Bronx as an area not worthsaving.”112 The landlord of a South Bronx building acknowledged that “white middle class people just don’t want to live in that kind of an area,” while a banker damningly claimed that by 1975 “you can write off the entire area south of the Cross-Bronxexpressway.”113 These vague, sweeping generalizations declaring the South Bronx’s worthlessness only made sense due to the widely disseminated, racist image ofthe neighborhood as destitute, inferior and deserving of abandonment.”

“Media, especially The New York Times, fueled the hysteria surrounding the South Bronx and its demise. As early as 1966, The Times lent support to the notion that the neighborhood’s changed racial composition had compromised its value. A July cover story blared the headline “Grand Concourse: Hub of the Bronx Is Undergoing Ethnic Changes” with the explanatory sub header stating “Transition Felt to Be Posing Threat to Stability ofArea.” A Bronx developer charged the story with the “ruination of thisneighborhood”  and Irma Fleck, a Bronx community activist, claimed that the article kicked off a “self-fulfilling prophecy. Landlords read that article and the real estate market fell immediately. No one wants to live in a neighborhood the Times has said is becoming aslum.” As the perception of the South Bronx as worthless disseminated,private sector disinvestment picked up, real estate demand plummeted and landlords quickly realized that they would have to resort to “unethical practices to reap profits from theirbuildings.”  The vast majority “cut down on maintenance, defer[red] paying taxes, rent[ed] to undesirable tenants or ‘problem families,’ aggressively collect[ed] whatever rents they could get, and ‘ran for thehills.”  The politically weak and disadvantaged black and Hispanic residents of buildings crippled by landlord abuse found their appeals for assistance were ignored and unheard. The rampant linking of the buildings’ and neighborhood’s squalor to the residents’ racial flaws and the desire of many of New York’s most powerful decision makers to abandon this part of the cityfurther drowned out their cries for help and support.The landlords’ exploitation of their now decrepit buildings often ended with burning them to the ground in order to cash in on fire insurance policies. Tragically, the landlords could shirk responsibility for the burned downed carcasses of their buildings as, despite data stating otherwise, dominant voices like those of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the RAND Institute continually “accused the poor of arson andmischief.”  Soon, the market crashed around the residents’ feet. The destitution that came to define the South Bronx grew worse and worse while the blame for these problems continued to be misplaced, falling overwhelmingly on its beleaguered black and Hispanics.”


“Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name.” George Monbiot – The Guardian

“Well, “neoliberal” is somebody who sees a social problem and does three things; privatize, financialize and militarize.” Cornel West

  • 1980s Neoliberal movement
    • Believe in rampant deregulation, privatization, and financialization of the “Public Good”
    • Movement to go back to economic liberalism, despite all the lessons learned
    • Leaders included Chicago School of Economics, Reagan, Milton Friedman (Reagan advisor), Thatcher
    • Spread internationally through Neo-colonialism, Cold War, World Bank, IMF, WTO, trade agreements, etc
  • 1980s Neoliberal massive spending cuts
    • starved the inner cities of amenities, housing and services
  • Reagan Neoliberialism
    • Drastically divested HUD, social safety net programs (Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, etc.), public health programs, education/job training
      • While increasing military budget/rich tax breaks (income, capital gains, estate)
        • Lowered top tax rate from 70% to 28%, while increasing payroll taxes/starting Social Security Tax
      • Cuts were especially focused on programs helping urban settings
      • Started a divestment trend that continued for decades
  • Launched epidemic of homelessness, public health crisis and significantly increased income inequality still being felt
    • Cuts
      • 500,000 lost eligibility for Aid to Families with Dependent Children
      • A million children lost reduced-price school lunches
      • 600,000 people lost Medicaid
      • Million lost food stamps
      • WIC could only serve 1/3 of those eligible
      • 500,000 lost eligibility for Aid to Families with Dependent Children
      • 250 community health centers
      • 294 urban hospitals and 309 rural hospitals
      • One million Native Americans lost access to Indian Health Service care
    • Impacts
      • Launched an epidemic of homelessness and a public health crisis
      • Significantly increased income inequality still being felt
      • Increase in infant mortality
      • Increase in preventable childhood diseases
      • 15% of the population lacked health insurance
      • Significantly hurt gov agencies ability to handle HIV, coli outbreaks and crack epidemic
      • 2% increase in the total poverty rate
      • 3% increase in number of children in poverty
      • Between 1982-85, poorest Americans lost 9% of their wealth
        • while the wealthiest gained 9%
  • Disproportionately felt by people of color
    • Life-expectancy-at-birth of black Americans decreased

“Nothing testifies to dog whistle racism’s transformation of American politics over the last half century so much as the recent willingness of 3 out of 5 white voters to support tax cuts for the super-rich, reduced social services for everyone, and a dramatic rollback of all government…dog whistle racism has helped convince many whites, arguably even a majority, that the greatest danger they face comes from a liberal government in hock to minorities, rather than from concentrated wealth and its plutocratic agenda. “      Ian Haney Lopez – Dog Whistle Politics

“The freedom that neoliberalism offers, which sounds so beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for the pike, not for the minnows. Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.” George Monbiot – Guardian

Gini Index

  • measure of inequality of wealth
    • 0 is most equal
    • 1 is least equal

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Back to Top of History of Affordable Housing Crisis

6. Disinvestment of HUD

Divestment in HUD (1980s-present)

  • President Ford
    • Asked Congress to fund 506,000 new low-income housing units, including 400,000 rent vouchers
      • High Water Mark of HUD Investment
  • President Reagan and the Neoliberal Movement
    • Neoliberal spending cuts, beginning in the late 1970s, starved the inner cities of amenities and services
      • Rampant deregulation, privatization, and financialization of the “Public Good”, Planned Shrinkage
    • Drastically cut HUD budget from $30 billion to $9 billion (60%)
      • Cut funding for public housing and Section 8 rent subsidies in half
      • Funding for new housing subsidies dipped below 100,000 units per year
      • Eliminating the antipoverty Community Development Block Grant program
      • Did little to enforce laws against discrimination in housing and lending
    • Used housing funds for GOP consultants
  • President Bush Senior, Clinton, Bush Jr, Obama, Trump
    • Steady disinvestment and privatization of public housing
    • By Clinton new housing subsidies dropped to 9,000 units per year

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The Nation: Reagan’s Real Legacy

“During his two terms in the White House (1981–89), Reagan presided over a widening gap between the rich and everyone else, declining wages and living standards for working families, an assault on labor unions as a vehicle to lift Americans into the middle class, a dramatic increase in poverty and homelessness, and the consolidation and deregulation of the financial industry that led to the current mortgage meltdown, foreclosure epidemic and lingering recession…

Many Americans credit Reagan with reducing the size of government. In reality, he increased government spending, cut taxes and turned the United States from a creditor to a debtor nation. During his presidency, Reagan escalated the military budget while slashing funds for domestic programs that assisted working-class Americans and protected consumers and the environment. Not surprisingly, both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush followed in Reagan’s footsteps. But, unfortunately, so did Bill Clinton…

Reagan’s fans give him credit for restoring the nation’s prosperity. But whatever economic growth occurred during the Reagan years mostly benefitted those already well off. The income gap between the rich and everyone else in America widened. Wages for the average worker declined and the nation’s homeownership rate fell. During Reagan’s two terms in the White House, the minimum wage was frozen at $3.35 an hour, while prices rose, thus eroding the standard of living of millions of low-wage workers. The number of people living beneath the federal poverty line rose from 26.1 million in 1979 to 32.7 million in 1988. Meanwhile, the rich got much richer. By the end of the decade, the richest 1 percent of Americans had 39 percent of the nation’s wealth.

After signing the Garn–St. Germain Depository Institutions Act in 1982, Reagan presided over the dramatic deregulation of the nation’s savings-and-loan industry. The law allowed S&Ls to end their reliance on home mortgages and permitted banks to provide adjustable-rate mortgage loans. The S&Ls began a decade-long orgy of real estate speculation, mismanagement and fraud. The industry indulged in a wild ride of merger mania, with banks and S&Ls gobbling each other up and making loans to finance shopping malls, golf courses, office buildings and condo projects that had no financial logic other than a quick-buck profit.

When the dust settled in the late 1980s, hundreds of S&Ls and banks had gone under, billions of dollars of commercial loans were useless and the federal government was left to bail out the depositors whose money the speculators had looted to the tune of over $130 billion.

Under Reagan, government’s role shifted from policing Wall Street and protecting consumers to a see-no-evil enabler, encouraging banks to engage in irresponsible practices. This was just the first chapter in the slide towards today’s financial crisis. Things got even worse—much worse—in the decades after Reagan left office. Both Bushes, as well as Clinton, took up where Reagan left off in granting banks and insurance companies permission to wreak havoc on consumers and the economy. This lead to the epidemic of subprime loans and foreclosures of the past three years and the costly federal bail-out of “too big to fail” Wall Street banks.

Reagan’s indifference to urban problems was legendary. Early in his presidency, at a White House reception, Reagan greeted the only black member of his Cabinet, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Samuel Pierce, saying: “How are you, Mr. Mayor? I’m glad to meet you. How are things in your city?”

Reagan not only failed to recognize his own HUD Secretary, he failed to deal with the growing corruption scandal at the agency that resulted in the indictment and conviction of top Reagan administration officials for illegally targeting housing subsidies to politically connected developers. Pierce and others rigged the allocation of subsidies for housing projects to favor Reagan’s campaign contributors and GOP lobbyists, such as former Interior Secretary James Watt. Fortunately for Reagan, the “HUD Scandal” wasn’t uncovered until he’d left office.

Reagan didn’t invent the pay-to-play game or the revolving door of top government officials becoming well-paid lobbyists and government contractors. But his hands-off attitude toward government oversight contributed to the deepening culture of corruption in our nation’s capital.

The 1980s saw pervasive racial discrimination by banks, real estate agents and landlords, unmonitored by the Reagan administration. Community groups uncovered blatant redlining by banks. But Reagan’s HUD and Department of Justice failed to prosecute or sanction banks that violated the Community Reinvestment Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in lending. During that time, of the 40,000 applications from banks requesting permission to expand their operations, Reagan’s bank regulators denied only eight of them on grounds of violating CRA regulations.

The declining fiscal fortunes of America’s cities began during the Reagan years. By the end of his second term, federal assistance to local governments had been slashed by 60 percent. Reagan eliminated general revenue sharing to cities, cut funding for public service jobs and job training, almost dismantled federally funded legal services for the poor, cut the antipoverty Community Development Block Grant program and reduced funds for public transit.

These cutbacks had a disastrous effect on cities with high levels of poverty and limited property tax bases, many of which depended on federal aid to provide basic services. In 1980 federal dollars accounted for 22 percent of big city budgets. By the end of Reagan’s second term, federal aid was only 6 percent. The consequences were devastating to urban schools and libraries, municipal hospitals and clinics, and sanitation, police and fire departments—many of which had to shut their doors. Many cities still haven’t recovered from the downward spiral started during the Gipper’s presidency.

The most dramatic cut in domestic spending during the Reagan years was for low-income housing subsidies. In his first year in office, Reagan cut the budget for public housing and Section 8 rent subsidies in half. Congress thwarted his plan to wide out federal housing assistance to the poor altogether, but he got much of what he sought. In the 1980s the proportion of the eligible poor who received federal housing subsidies declined substantially.

Another of Reagan’s enduring legacies is the steep increase in the number of homeless people, which by the late 1980s had swollen to 600,000 on any given night—and 1.2 million over the course of a year. Many were Vietnam veterans, children and laid-off workers.

In early 1984 on “Good Morning America,” Reagan defended himself against charges of callousness toward the poor in a classic blaming-the-victim statement. He said that “people who are sleeping on the grates…the homeless…are homeless, you might say, by choice.”

Timeline: Here’s what happened when Reagan went after healthcare programs. It’s not good.

“So what happened after Reagan’s budget cuts? A million children lost reduced-price school lunches, 600,000 people lost Medicaid, and a million lost food stamps. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) could only serve a third of those eligible. WIC provides low-income pregnant women and children with formula and healthy food staples. Nearly 500,000 lost eligibility for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (a less-stringent precursor to TANF). This caused a two-percent increase in the total poverty rate, and the number of children in poverty rose nearly three percent.

Lack of funding meant Public Health Service Hospitals and programs that deployed physicians to rural and urban areas were shut down. More than 250 community health centers were closed. Between 1980 and 1991, 309 rural hospitals and 294 urban hospitals were shuttered. Nearly one million Native Americans lost access to Indian Health Service care when eligibility was narrowed.

“History has taught us that such cuts in health and social service programs can have pervasive negative effects on health,” Williams writes. “Negative effects were soon evident in the health of pregnant women, children, and adults with chronic disease. There was an increase in women receiving no prenatal care. The overall decline in infant mortality slowed, and an increase in infant mortality in poor areas of 20 states was evident between 1981 and 1982. There was also an increase in preventable childhood diseases in poor populations.”

From 1982 to 1987, unintended pregnancy rates increased by nearly 8 percent. The increases were especially pronounced among those living below the poverty line. The uninsured rate skyrocketed. By 1985, 15 percent of the population lacked health insurance. The health of those cut from Medicaid deteriorated.

Under Reagan, life-expectancy-at-birth of black Americans actually decreased. By 1988, a third of Native American deaths were of those younger than 45; Native Americans were 400 percent more likely than the rest of the U.S. population to die of tuberculosis and 438 percent more likely to die of alcoholism-related ailments.

Agencies were also woefully unprepared to tackle the burgeoning threats of HIV and E. coli. By 1988, the Institute of Medicine declared that the American public health system had fallen into disarray. The then-president of the American Public Health Association responded that public health activities had been “inappropriately politicized.”

Back to Top of History of Affordable Housing Crisis

7. Privatization of Public Housing (1960s-present)

  • Privatization
    • 1968, HUD Act shifted the responsibility to provide public from Fed to the private sector
      • Focused building ‘new” homes in white suburbs and “fixing up” dilapidated homes in urban neighborhoods
    • Nixon’s New Federalism (States rights)
      • Decentralized HUD removing Fed oversight and outsourced programs to real estate brokers and banker
        • Caused massive fraud and predatory inclusion of which public housing, not the private sector or Nixon, got most of the blame
          • Nixon declared, “ the Federal Government has become the biggest slumlord in history.”
        • 1973, HUD announced a national moratorium on the construction or funding of all federally subsidized housing programs, including all of the FHA-assisted low-income homeownership programs
          • Aftermath was fed focused more on housing vouchers (section 8) instead of building new homes

Section 8 Housing Issues


“In the 1970s, when studies showed that the worst housing problem afflicting low-income people was no longer substandard housing, but the high percentage of income spent on housing, Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, further amending the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 to create the Section 8 Program. In the Section 8 Program, tenants pay about 30 percent of their income for rent, while the rest of the rent is paid with federal money” Wikipedia, Section 8 Housing

  • Section 8 Housing Vouchers (Housing Choice Voucher program)
    • Recipients pay 30% of their income toward rent
      • While the voucher pays the rest, up to a cap set at the local market rate
    • Most vouchers are too small to rent in middle class neighborhoods
      • Causing most to use it in poor segregated neighborhoods
    • When apartment rents rise, families are responsible for making up the gap
      • While the value of the voucher dwindles
  • 5 million low-income families use vouchers to maintain affordable housing today
    • More than 3 million families are stuck in this limbo
      • Either on a waiting list for a voucher or receive a voucher but can’t find a place to rent
  • Denying renters with Section 8 Housing Vouchers
    • Most states private landlords can denied renting to people w/ housing vouchers
    • A few states have laws against this practice (source-of-income laws)
      • In DC its illegal for landlords to refuse tenants on the basis of housing assistance

How Stuff Works: How Section 8 Housing Works

The Section 8 program has its roots in the Great Depression. In 1937, Congress passed the U.S. Housing Act, which represented the beginning of federal housing assistance in the United States. It provided funds to develop high-quality public housing units for low-income tenants. Local public housing authorities maintained and managed the units.

In 1961, the Housing Act was amended to create the Section 23 Leased Housing Program. Under this program, qualified low-income tenants were placed in private units leased by local housing authorities. Tenants paid a portion of the rent, and the housing authorities paid the difference between what the tenants paid and what the building’s owner might have received in the open market. The housing authorities also maintained the buildings.

The Act was amended again in 1974 to create Section 8. This new law signified a switch in focus. Instead of developing and managing public housing, it sought to help low-income people who were spending too large a percentage of their earnings on housing. Federal funds now paid a share of rent in units renters chose on the open market. Since 1974, legislation has refined and restructured the Section 8 program several times.

Today, people who qualify for Section 8 assistance receive a voucher that pays for about 70 percent of rent and utilities. The renter is then responsible for paying the remaining 30 percent. Recipients may choose to live wherever they want, as long as the total rent falls within standards set by HUD.

The voucher program currently helps about 2 million American households pay rent. In addition, vouchers may sometimes be used to help low-income people make mortgage payments or buy a house.

City Lab: See How Landlords Pack Section 8 Renters Into Poorer Neighborhoods

HUD and census data show how landlords nationwide shut their doors on renters receiving housing assistance. A new federal law would prohibit that.

Where to live is one of the most important decisions the leader of a household has to make. But for the most vulnerable families in the nation, there really isn’t any choice at all.Families with children who receive federal housing aid often live in neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty and lower opportunity. The decision’s just not up to them. Landlords decide. Specifically, landlords who refuse to rent to tenants that use Housing Choice Vouchers, via a federal program more commonly known as Section 8, have great sway over outcomes for these families.
There’s a bill before Congress that would prohibit landlords from discriminating against renters based on the source of their income, a cause that is already finding purchase (both for and against) at the city and state level. The problem warrants federal action: Discrimination against voucher holders exacts a heavy toll on cities. The biases of landlords are shaping inequality across the country.That’s one takeaway from a new mapping project on families and vouchers from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. This research shows how landlords’ decisions contribute to deep patterns of inequality and segregation. The interactive mapping tool—which shows the distribution of households that use Housing Choice Vouchers across America’s 50 largest metro areas, with a focus on families with children—reveals clear patterns of discrimination.For example, the researchers (Alicia Mazzara and Brian Knudsen) compile a variety of data to track housing units that are affordable to families using vouchers. Voucher-affordable units can be found all over most major metro areas. Yet families with vouchers cluster in majority-minority neighborhoods with fewer jobs, worse schools, and poor access to public transit.

This shouldn’t be the case, judging by the distribution of homes on the map. On average, 18 percent of all voucher-affordable housing units are located in high-opportunity neighborhoods (rated so by an index of jobs, schools, and other factors). Low-opportunity neighborhoods account for 21 percent of voucher-affordable homes, a similar share. But only 5 percent of families with vouchers actually live in high-opportunity areas—whereas 40 percent live in low-opportunity areas.


(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Poverty & Race Research Action Council)
Maps make this troubling trend clear. Consider Dallas, Texas, a metro that has served as a battlefield in recent court decisions about fair housing. Each dot on the map above represents 30 families (with children) who receive Section 8 assistance. They are found in far greater numbers in areas with higher rates of poverty.
The same trend is true with regard to race in the metro Dallas area. Families who get federal rental assistance are more likely to live in what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development describes as majority-concentrated neighborhoods.Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 5.23.18 PM.pngStill another view shows that families with vouchers live in low areas of opportunity. (This opportunity index is based on five of HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing indices, pertaining to school quality, poverty, labor market factors, access to jobs, and access to public transit.) Once again, families with Section 8 vouchers are hard to find in high-opportunity parts of metro Dallas, namely the affluent suburbs to the north and west.

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 5.23.54 PM.png

In a sense, all these maps are pointing to the same phenomenon: Race, wealth, and amenities are inextricably linked to place, no matter where you look in America.

But a fourth map holds a surprise: Voucher-assisted families could live almost anywhere in the Dallas metro area. Landlords simply won’t let them. The researchers use HUD and census data to track rental units that should be affordable to families using vouchers under the payment standards set by state or local housing authorities. Based on affordability alone, Housing Choice Vouchers ought to give families in Dallas the choice to live practically wherever they like. There are thick cluster of red circles, each one of which indicates 100 voucher-affordable rental units, in higher-opportunity areas downtown and in those northern suburbs.

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That same phenomenon is also true beyond Dallas. Across all 50 large metro areas in the U.S., the share of families using vouchers in low-opportunity neighborhoods exceeds the share of voucher-affordable units located in those neighborhoods—meaning that Section 8 households are disproportionately packed into poorer areas. Their decisions are guided by rejections from landlords.Sometimes this opportunity gap is small, as in Seattle or Boston. In Jacksonville, Florida, on the other hand, it’s vast. A little more than 30 percent of voucher-affordable homes are in that city’s low-opportunity neighborhoods, and a whopping 75 percent of voucher-assisted families are living in those neighborhoods. Which is to say: Landlords in more affluent parts of Jacksonville are shutting their doors on an awful lot of vulnerable families.
Bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator Tim Kaine and Senator Orrin Hatch would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against renters based on the source of their income. Oklahoma, Utah, North Dakota, and eight other states, plus the District of Columbia, already have such laws in place; about 50 cities and counties prohibit discrimination against voucher households. (Texas passed a law preempting cities from passing Section 8 anti-discrimination bans.) San Jose and Baltimore may be the next cities to pass source-of-income ordinances.
While laws like these are subject to irregular standards of enforcement, they make a difference. In jurisdictions with these protections in place, far fewer landlords reject tenants with vouchers out of hand (35 percent, as opposed to 77 percent in places without the non-discrimination laws). Tenant protections alone can’t do the trick, though. Virtually all of the voucher-assisted families in the Washington, D.C., metro area live in concentrated poverty in the District’s Ward 7 and 8—despite the fact that opportunities abound beyond, and much of the metro area enjoys progressive tenant laws.
Where voucher-assisted households live in the D.C. area measured with the poverty rate. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Poverty & Race Research Action Council)
Where voucher-assisted households can afford to live in the D.C. area measured with the poverty rate. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Poverty & Race Research Action Council)
Addressing systemic segregation and poverty concentration may not be within the reach of the 116th Congress. Federal law can’t counter the misconceptions that many landlords have about the Section 8 program: that they have to accept any and every voucher-holding applicant (false), that they can’t charge them security deposits (false), that they can never raise the rent (false). Certainly, federal law can’t change landlords’ minds about whether or not Section 8 tenants make good tenants. (According to research, they do).
And federal tenant protections are only a part of the solution to the underlying dynamic. The sheer number of housing agencies, and dysfunction among some of them, makes it hard to implement the improvements to make the Section 8 program more attractive to landlords. Housing mobility is crucial for any family looking to ensure their children’s chances for success, and Congress should approve the Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration program to that end. In the long term, areas of concentrated poverty represent systemic policy failures that badly need to be addressed.But a federal source-of-income law can give renters the assurance that they can use Housing Choice Vouchers the same way they would use any money to pay the rent, and landlords can’t hold it against them. Right now, the status quo is denying them any choice.

Further Readings on Section 8 Vouchers

Center on Budget and Policy Prioities: Prohibiting Discrimination Against Renters Using Housing Vouchers Improves Results

Bloomberg: Black Poverty Is Rooted in Real-Estate Exploitation
A new study in Chicago shows how the dream of homeownership was converted into a poverty trap.

The predation didn’t end in the 1960s. It evolved. There was the FHA scandal of the 1970s, in which indiscriminate federal lending and outright corruption enabled speculators to sell inner-city homes to blacks at inflated prices, resulting in widespread foreclosures. There was the subprime boom of the 2000s, in which blacks were steered into inappropriately expensive loans that enriched a whole ecosystem of mortgage-industry professionals, but often left borrowers with nothing but an eviction notice and a bad credit history. In the wake of the subprime bust, investors including private-equity firms have again targeted the same neighborhoods, buying up houses on the cheap and renting them back to black and other minority tenants — sometimes under contracts very similar to those of the 1960s.

  • Clinton’s HUD (1990s)
    • Reinvented HUD
      • Instead of managing community development programs sent funds to states/cities with few strings
      • Attempted to privatize the majority of HUD assisted housing projects, more than 3 million units
    • Urban Revitalization Demonstration program (HOPE VI) – 1990s
      • Privatized HUD assisted housing projects into mixed redevelopment without a 1:1 public housing replacement rule
      • Awarded over $4.5 billion grants to redevelop 165 public housing sites in 98 cities in first 9 years
      • To offset public housing costs developers generally gain partial ownership
        • “mixed-income” redevelopment
        • Abolished the requirement that demolished public housing units be replaced on a one-for-one basis
          • Estimated only 19% of households of HOPE VI were able to return
        • Since 2008 Hope VI gave away an estimated billion dollars of public housing to private developers
        • Significantly reduced the number of public housing available
          • The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found 1/6 of demolished public housing units have actually been rebuilt, with no funds to build additional public housing for two decades.
        • Resident of these redevelopments have little rights or say in the process
    • Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) – 2012 – Present
      • Transfers public housing to private sector to access more funding
        • Issues with right of return, lack of transparency, no long-term guarantee housing will remain affordable after 40 years

“HOPE VI plays upon the public housing program’s unfairly negative reputation and an exaggerated sense of crisis about the state of public housing in general to justify a drastic model of large-scale family displacement and housing redevelopment that increasingly appears to do more harm than good…federal auditors in the mid-1990s found that HOPE VI increasingly appeared to target not the most severely distressed public housing, but those sites that are most amenable to higher income redevelopment.” False HOPE – Critical Assessment of the HOPE VI Public Housing Redevelopment Program

  • Obama/Trump Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) – 2012
    • Transfers public housing to private sector to access more funding
    • Developers sign initial 15-20-year contracts to provide public housing
      • only have to renew once
      • No obligation to continue property as affordable after that
    • 60,000 public housing units converted to Section 8 rentals since 2012
      • Due to real estate industry lobbying group congress has authorized 185,000 units to be converted in total
    • As more HUD budget cuts are potential coming current HUD Director Ben Carson is championing this program
      • He also proposes raising the rent for tenants in subsidized housing as well as enabling public-housing authorities to impose work requirements.
    • Issues with right of return and lack of transparency are already piling up from this program, reminding people of HOPE VI and urban renewal.

“In 40 years, when the contracts with developers expire, the new owners will be able to convert the buildings to market rate rents, forcing out low-income renters, essentially ending public housing . . .” Right to Housing Alliance

“One explanation for the failure of federal housing policies to actually produce “fair” housing is found in the state’s continued reliance on the private sector as the sole provider of housing in the United States. The federal government long ago abdicated the responsibility of directly producing affordable housing, instead outsourcing the task to private developers—while continuing to provide vast amounts of assistance in the form of guarantees, subsidies, and tax relief. As a result, it has absorbed the real-estate and banking industries’ historic embrace of racial discrimination.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent

Bad Affordable Housing Redevelopment Strategies


  • Predevelopment of public housing
    • Having no community oversight or community commitment while local gov:
      • Give public land or public funds to developers
      • Redevelop public housing as “mixed-income”, with less affordable units
      • Enacts or sustains “exclusionary zoning”
  • During “mix-income” development
    • Not replacing all the affordable housing, no 1:1 replacement
      • Reducing family sized units
    • Displacing residents during development
    • Not ensuring right of return
  • Post Development
    • Not enough units for need
    • Not affordable, AMI too high to begin with
    • Restrictive entry to “affordable housing” like credit, eviction, background checks
      • One strike, you’re out policy
        • Tenants living in housing projects or receiving housing assistance from the fed gov, can be evicted if they, or any guest or visitor, engage in criminal activity on or off the premises of said housing
        • “ ‘one strike’ policies have been a stain on the federal government’s efforts to provide affordable housing to those in need, standing as a barrier to family reunification and contributing to the cycle of recidivism.” Rep Maxine Waters

Empower DC Slides from a Presentation on DC Affordable Housing & Gentrification

screen-shot-2018-06-04-at-3-00-30-pm.pngSource: Slide from Empower DC presentation

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8. Modern Housing Discrimination


“the homeownership gap between whites and African Americans, which had been shrinking since the 1970s, has exploded in the decade since the housing bust. It is now wider than it was during the Jim Crow era” Equal Justice Initiative

  • Race Neutral discrimination
    • Affordability
      • “70 years ago, many working and lower middle class African American families could have afforded suburban single-family homes that cost about $75,000 (in today’s currency) with no down payment. Millions of whites did so. But working and lower-middle class African American families cannot now buy homes for $350,000 and more with down payments of 20 percent, or $70,000 The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited future discrimination, but it was not primarily discrimination (although this still contributed) that kept African Americans out of most white suburbs after the law was passed. It was primarily unaffordability…the advantages that FHA and VA loans gave the white lower-middle class in the 1940s and 50s has become permanent.” Richard Rothstein – Color of Law
    • Discriminatory Credit Scoring
      • Studies found proprietary credit score algorithms have discriminatory impact on borrowers of color
      • Credit scoring model does not factor consumer data on rent, utility, and cellphone bill payment
      • Which disproportionately hurts minorities, young people and first-time homebuyers
    • Exclusionary zoning
      • Use of local zoning ordinances to exclude people or actions from communities
        • Seems race nuetral but often used to exclude poor people and minorities from middle class/upper class white communities
        • NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) people
      • Single Family Units only (too expensive for many people), banning multi-family buildings that allowed for affordable housing, population denisty controls, etc.
      • DC Affordable Housing Units
      • image12
  • Racial Steering, modern redlining, racist landlords
    • Estimated 4 million housing discrimination experiences a year
  • Devaluation of black homes
    • Black homes undervalued by $48,000 on average
      • Amounting to $156 billion in cumulative losses
  • Reverse redlining
    • Subprime loans
      • POC 2.8x more likely to be denied for a regular loan
      • POC 2.4x more likely to receive a subprime loan
    • Foreclosures of 2008
      • POC 2x as likely to enter foreclosure during the 2008 recession
    • “(2001) Wells Fargo settled its discrimination suit for more than $175 million. But the damage had been done. In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71% of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.”” Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Atlantic

Century Foundation: Attacking the Black–White Opportunity Gap That Comes from Residential Segregation

Ongoing Discrimination by Realtors, Banks, and Government Officials

To this day, forms of discrimination stymie racial integration and housing opportunities for black Americans. Attorneys and academics alike identify realtor bias and racial steering as factors that continue to disadvantage black people in the housing market. African Americans frequently encounter discrimination when searching for housing at all stages: they are more likely to receive subpar service when interacting with realtors, and are shown fewer homes for sale or rent than are whites. A 2003 study found that realtor steering of residents away from neighborhoods due to their racial composition is shockingly persistent, even if illegal. The practice showed up in up to 15 percent of tests that made their determination based on clear and explicit indications by the realtor.45 Some scholars have explained that “agents typically accept the initial request as an accurate portrayal of a white’s preferences but adjust the initial request made by a black to conform to their preconceptions. In the case of houses with visible problems, agents refuse to accept the initial request that whites want such a house, but have no trouble making this inference for blacks.”46 Now, there is evidence that such discrimination might have moved onto new platforms, with technology reinforcing human and societal biases. In March 2019, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced a lawsuit against social media giant Facebook, alleging that the platform allowed advertisers to use data in order to exclude certain racial groups from seeing home or apartment advertisements.47

Relatedly, black homebuyers are also more likely to be steered toward high-interest and high-risk loans when seeking to purchase a home, regardless of income or creditworthiness. A black family that earns $157,000 per year is less likely to qualify for a prime loan than is a white family earning $40,000 per year, which means that white families can borrow heavily at favorable rates, while black families are far less likely to receive a safe, fair loan product.48 In 2006, 53.7 percent of blacks and 46.6 percent of Latinx applicants received high-priced loans; only 17.7 percent of white borrowers did. This pattern remains even after controlling for borrower characteristics (income, credit score) and the amount of the loan, though the gaps do become less stark. Interestingly, these disparities actually worsened at higher income levels.49 Because predatory lenders are more likely to set up shop in predominantly black neighborhoods, their actions wind up leading to generational wealth loss in communities of color. One study indicated that, since 2005, more than half of all borrowers who were issued subprime loans could have qualified for lower-cost loans with more favorable terms.50 Because of their costs and risky nature, subprime loans are more likely to result in foreclosures, which have been disproportionately located in low-income and predominantly black neighborhoods. In the run-up to the subprime mortgage crisis, federal regulators failed in their obligation to recognize the targeting of African Americans and enforce the laws against bad actors who participated in this predatory behavior. The result was a staggering collapse of wealth among black communities; in Prince George’s County, Maryland, for example, during the crisis, “high-earning blacks were 80 percent more likely to lose their homes than their white counterparts.51

Current public policy choices hardly indicate that government will readily act as a reliable partner in seeking housing desegregation. To this day, public policy choices by state and local officials tend to steer public housing units, which are disproportionately occupied by black and brown residents, into high-poverty areas with fewer resources and opportunities. And the federal government’s two major programs that seek to help low-income people rent homes in the private market—the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program and Section 8 housing vouchers—often perpetuate economic and racial segregation.

To this day, public policy choices by state and local officials tend to steer public housing units, which are disproportionately occupied by black and brown residents, into high-poverty areas with fewer resources and opportunities.

The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which allocates a certain number of tax credits for states to distribute to developers according to housing needs, allows consideration of several factors that help determine where new housing will be located. Because housing agencies can consider community support levels when determining housing locations, and more affluent areas are more likely to organize in opposition to such developments, this housing is more likely to be steered into already-low-income communities.52 The nation’s largest low-income housing program—Section 8 vouchers—is directed toward individuals rather than state agencies or developers, in theory giving people more control over where they live. But despite this program’s potential advantage for integration, the limited nature of the vouchers does not provide sufficient support for families to rent in higher-income and more-advantaged areas. Moreover, some states actually allow landlords to reject Section 8 housing vouchers, as income (unlike race) is not a protected class.53

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9. Great Recession, Disaster Capitalism, and Gentrification

2008 Great Recession

  • Most significant economic downturn since Great Depression
    • In 1933 the Glass-Steagall Act was passed separating commercial and investment banking, to prevent future depressions
    • Repealed in 1999 by Republican congress/President Clinton in an effort to expand neo-liberal free market investments
    • 8 years later, unregulated toxic mortgage lending and shady investment practices caused a massive recession
  • Approximate Effects of Great Recession
    • 4 million homes were foreclosed each year of the Grat Recession
    • 7 million jobs
    • American households lost roughly $16 trillion
    • 5 million businesses were shuttered
  • 2010, President Obama signed Dodd-Frank Act giving gov some regulatory power over the financial sector
    • GOP are currently fighting to curb/overturn Dodd-Frank Act
  • Effects disproportionately felt by people of color
    • Blacks were 2.8x more likely to be denied for a regular loan
      • Latinos were 2x more likely
    • Blacks and Latinos were 2.4x more likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants
      • Black/ Latino families making more $200,000 were more likely to be given a subprime loan
        • Than a white family making less than $30,000

“As the early-2000s housing bubble was peaking, African Americans were 50% more likely than their white peers to receive a subprime loan. Those loans, it is widely understood today, were more expensive and carried higher interest rates. The terms of these loans increased the probability of their failure, and their concentration in Black neighborhoods promised not just to ruin an individual’s credit but to undermine the stability of entire communities. The real-estate industry created the idea that Black homeowners posed a risk to the housing market and then profited from financial tools promoted as mitigating that risk.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent

  • Black families were 2x as likely to enter foreclosure during the 2008 recession than whites

“Not only did the crisis wipe out decades’ worth of hard-won financial gains for African Americans, but it stole their homes as well. In 2010 almost half a million African Americans were at risk of foreclosure, and by 2014 more than 240,000 had lost their homes. This historic collapse in Black homeownership is an important part of why the wealth gap between Black and white Americans is larger today than it has been in decades. In 2007, right before the crash, the median white family had eight times the wealth of the median Black family. By 2013, that figure had risen to eleven times, and it has tapered off only slightly since.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Dissent

Disaster Capitalism

“In September 2005, the New Orleans real-estate developer Finis Shelnutt told a German newspaper of the opportunities Hurricane Katrina had created for his business. “The storm destroyed a great deal,” he said, just weeks after Katrina had killed more than one thousand people and expelled tens of thousands more from the city. “And there’s plenty of space to build houses and sell them for a lot of money.” Moreover, he added, “the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they don’t come back.” Colin Kinniburgh – New Republic

  • In 2005 Hurricane Katrina displaced 250,000 people
    • FEMA vouchers offered one-way tickets out
      • sending people to Houston, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Utah and Minnesota
    • The displaced were overwhelmingly black, and many never came back
      • By 2015 New Orleans has 100,000 fewer black residents than it did in 2000
    • City’s demographics shifted, as developers courted wealthier, whiter residents who paid higher rents
    • Today 35% of New Orleanians devote at least half of their income to rent
      • the city has become the second-least affordable city to live in nationwide
  • Mass privatization of New Orleans School System
    • After the storm state legislature and a state board elected by Louisiana’s white majority
      • Took over the school board from the local board elected by the city’s Black majority
      • Privatized majority of schools
        • 92% of New Orleans students are enrolled in schools run by charter boards
      • Dismantled the teachers union and fired 7,000 school employees
        • Replaced with thousands of low paid, few benefits, contract workers
      • Long list of civil rights complaints filed on behalf of immigrant students, students of color and students with disabilities who were denied access to public education
        • Because schools had discriminatory enrollment and disciplinary policies, or were simply inaccessible.


“…The practices derided by the Kerner Commission, including white flight, exclusionary zoning, and outright prejudice, are continuing to create black areas and white areas, but this time around, those areas exist in both the cities and the suburbs…

…In the 1960s, white families moved from cities to suburbs when they saw black neighbors move in next door. Now, they move from suburbs to farther-out fringe areas often not counted in academic studies “hunkering down in all-white neighborhoods, affluent gated communities, or unincorporated housing developments at the exurban fringe,” the researchers write.

And more white Americans, drawn by walkable neighborhoods or transit, are moving back into the inner cities that were once shunned. Young whites and baby boomers, for example, are moving to areas of central cities such as Washington, D.C., which was, for years, a majority-minority city. That, in turn, prices out minority residents.” Alana Semuels, White Flight Never Ended

  • Pattern of Hypersegregation
    • Great migration
      • Black people migrating/fleeing to large cities often moved to inner-city to gain industrial jobs
    • White flight
      • The influx of new black residents caused many white residents to move to the suburbs or (white flight)
    • Redlining and deindustrialization
      • “White only” federally funded mortgage subsidies and highway redevelopment encouraged white flight
      • Black people were unable to follow due to housing discrimination
      • Industry leaves inner-city often to follow white flight to suburbs
      • Loss of white tax base and economic opportunities in communities of color
      • Predatory renting/selling stole billions from black people
    • Disinvestment and concentration of poverty
      • Planned Shrinkage, municipal disinvestment, benign neglect
      • Myth of blight, urban redevelopment
      • Neoliberalism, Reagan
      • Concentration and disinvestment of public housing
      • Mass incarceration, War on drugs, school-to-prison pipeline
      • Concentration and proliferation of poverty in communities of color
    • Gentrification
      • Intentional devalued communities sold for redevelopment causing mass displacement

“For those that were left behind during earlier waves of white flight, the sudden interest in their communities has been bittersweet, to say the least. Enclaves of low-income communities typically contain cheaper real estate, and with a shortage of affordable housing across the United States, that property is enticing many back to areas once seen as “undesirable.”

It’s a scenario that for some is reminiscent of an ugly American tradition of pushing minorities out of spaces they were once pushed into — as seen in Tulsa’s Black Wall Street and elsewhere. Overt acts such as race riots have been replaced with more subtle means, as gentrifiers have started changing the landscape of communities across the country…

…For other newcomers, it’s nothing more than a smart economic move that allows them to purchase land or rental space at a discounted rate, then move into a neighborhood with the intent to “fix it up.” In cities long left under-served and with limited resources, an influx of new dollars can result in positive changes to the community in the form of fresh landscaping, renovations and more, but it can come at the expense of longtime residents, who suddenly find themselves unable to afford neighborhoods they’ve lived in for years, a phenomenon that largely displaces Black and Latino residents.” Cecilia Smith, Gentrification: Reversal of Historic White Flight Is Creating a New Black Flight

“The practices derided by the Kerner Commission, including white flight, exclusionary zoning, and outright prejudice, are continuing to create black areas and white areas, but this time around, those areas exist in both the cities and the suburbs…

…In the 1960s, white families moved from cities to suburbs when they saw black neighbors move in next door. Now, they move from suburbs to farther-out fringe areas often not counted in academic studies “hunkering down in all-white neighborhoods, affluent gated communities, or unincorporated housing developments at the exurban fringe,” the researchers write.

And more white Americans, drawn by walkable neighborhoods or transit, are moving back into the inner cities that were once shunned. Young whites and baby boomers, for example, are moving to areas of central cities such as Washington, D.C., which was, for years, a majority-minority city. That, in turn, prices out minority residents.” Alana Semuels, White Flight Never Ende

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Further Readings on the History of Affordable Housing Crisis

Dissent: How Real Estate Segregated America

As the government got more involved in regulating and subsidizing housing, these ideas translated directly into policy. The notorious redlining maps issued by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s, to take one early example, were based on existing maps used by local banks and brokers. It’s not hard to see why: starting in this period, real-estate executives were recruited to develop government housing policies because of their former roles within the private sector. Over time, the real-estate industry, in turn, would seek out former government employees for their valuable connections to the state. With this “revolving door” in place, public and private networks formed an insular feedback loop mostly concerned with maintaining a brisk housing market. The real-estate industry flexed its enormous influence over national policy again and again over the following decades, including when it vociferously—and successfully—lobbied to hobble public housing in the 1940s and 1950s.

But the modern iteration of this destructive public-private apparatus was born with the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Act of 1968. While the Fair Housing Act is widely recognized as a landmark in U.S. policy, the accompanying HUD Act is virtually unknown today despite its equally seismic shift in American housing policy.

The HUD Act was passed in August 1968, four months after Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law. It was a historic piece of legislation that decisively shifted the responsibility to provide housing for poor and working-class people from the federal government to the private sector.

In the years of urban uprisings that roiled the mid-1960s, poor and substandard housing was repeatedly listed as a catalyst of Black rage. For example, a report on the causes of the Black rebellion in Philadelphia in 1964 found that 100 percent of rat bites reported in the city (and the resulting deaths) happened in segregated Black neighborhoods. From lead poisoning to a lack of indoor plumbing to general dilapidation, urban housing occupied by African Americans was overwhelmingly in substandard condition.

The poor quality of Black housing was driven by three factors. It was typically older and used, having filtered down to African Americans who were the newest arrivals in Northern cities. Its already distressed condition was then exacerbated by residential segregation that led to overcrowding, as Black residents were hemmed into a few clustered neighborhoods. Finally, the lack of housing choices available to African Americans removed the pressure from landlords to improve the quality of housing. African Americans were a captured market with nowhere else to turn.

Meanwhile, the government was heavily subsidizing the construction of exclusive suburbs, whose value for upwardly mobile whites was based in large part on their distance from Black neighborhoods and exclusion of Black people. Where white suburban neighborhoods came to be valued as appreciating assets for the households who lived in them, Black urban neighborhoods were prized by the real-estate industry for their extractive value. If the real-estate industry was eager to keep “white neighborhoods” and “black neighborhoods” apart, then, it was not because of prejudice alone—it was because of profit.

The result was African Americans paying more for inferior housing in comparison to whites who were being lured to new suburban developments during this same period. By the mid-1960s, these conditions had reached a breaking point. The 1967–68 urban uprisings—the largest wave of domestic riots in the twentieth century—were the result.

Passed through Congress even as the wreckage of rebellions was still visible, the HUD Act, in tandem with the Fair Housing Act, was intended to transform American cities and suburbs. Unlike Fair Housing, the HUD Act produced no partisan rancor and instead was celebrated by Democrats, Republicans, and of most significance, the real-estate and banking industries. Both parties promoted homeownership as a way to give Black urban residents a stake in society in hopes of quelling the uprisings. But there was also the added motivation of developing a new market. The legislation emphasized “private enterprise” as the cornerstone of urban renewal. The federal government enticed the participation of the real-estate industry and mortgage lenders essentially by paying them to produce housing for low-income people. Its most significant features included a federal mandate to create 26 million units of new and rehabilitated housing within ten years, including 6 million units for low-income residents. It also included a low-income renter program allowing nonprofit organizations to buy residential buildings cheaply with low-interest loans, with the aim of passing the savings onto renters. Finally, Section 235 of the bill created a homeownership program for low-income people through a combination of interest-rate subsidies, a low down payment, and the promise of mortgage insurance from the federal government.

In 1967, a year before the Fair Housing and HUD Acts were signed, a summer of riots had compelled the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to finally end its three-decade-long practice of redlining urban neighborhoods, while unveiling multiple new initiatives aimed at increasing the rates of homeownership in Black urban areas. A consortium of life insurance companies donated $1 billion to create a mortgage pool for single-family homes and multifamily buildings in areas that would have previously been redlined. This meant that money was finally available, but only to buy within the city—not outside of it. Ending the urban housing crisis required going a step further; it required actively providing African Americans with access to safe, sound, and affordable housing inside and out of cities, especially in areas where they had long been denied it.

The HUD Act’s mandate to produce 6 million units of low-income housing seemed to deliver on this promise, and for this reason was welcomed by many Black buyers and renters. But the legislation also revealed fault lines within the industry. Homebuilders were ecstatic about the new legislation because it put federal muscle behind building new homes, but real-estate brokers demanded a greater percentage of homes be “existing” or used and that more money be allocated toward rehabilitating dilapidated homes in urban neighborhoods. “New” housing was largely located in suburbs and “existing” housing primarily in cities, meaning that a color line would divide the types of housing available. As a result, builders became advocates of fair housing, while real-estate trade groups, hoping to preserve the existing housing in segregated cities, denounced it as “forced integration.” They couched their critique in terms of defending consumer “choice,” including the right to choose one’s own neighbors.

Compounding the problem was the fact that the HUD Act was never really Johnson’s legislation to implement. Within months of being passed, it was inherited by the Nixon administration.

At first, there were signs that Nixon might see the fair housing initiative through. The first director of HUD he appointed was former Michigan Governor George Romney, regarded as a racial liberal who had helped Michigan pass statewide fair housing laws. But Nixon’s political fixation on maintaining his white “silent majority” electoral coalition quickly came into conflict with the objectives of the new housing legislation. Nixon grumbled to his aides about “forced integration” and argued, instead, for a vaguely defined “open society” with “open choices”—including the right to not choose integration.

Meanwhile, senior officials dismissed federal fair housing regulations as red tape that hampered the abilities of business. If there was ever a need for strict oversight and a high-functioning regime of civil rights law enforcement, it was during the initiation of a massive low-income homeownership program directed at African Americans. Instead, the Nixon administration pursued a doctrine of “new federalism”—an analog of states’ rights—which allowed decision-making and oversight of implementation to be deferred to the multiple and new local installations of HUD. Romney’s efforts to decentralize HUD’s operations (largely at Nixon’s behest) by unnecessarily dividing smaller regional offices into even smaller local offices helped to siphon powerful oversight authority away from HUD’s headquarters into the hands of local housing agents. The Nixon administration lauded local control over the dictates of so-called “Washington bureaucrats,” and HUD became a test case not for centralized oversight but for Nixon’s commitment to local control.

This would have real consequences in the implementation of all of the new programs outlined in the HUD Act, but especially when it came to making low-income Black renters into low-income Black homeowners. HUD’s new homeownership program relied on real-estate brokers and mortgage bankers to operate. Brokers held lists of houses for sale and they, in collaboration with mortgage lenders and agents from the FHA, determined which buyers qualified for the low-income homeownership program. In effect, the federal government outsourced the role of its inaugural low-income homeownership program to an industry long predicated on racial segregation.

This is how decades of exclusion of African Americans from much of the housing market gave way to a period of predatory inclusion. The end of FHA redlining meant that capital could flow freely into urban communities, but African Americans could not get out, remaining locked in the cities or segregated suburban neighborhoods. The absence of genuine mobility in the housing market left Blacks still vulnerable to predatory real-estate practices. And with the backing of a federal program, those practices were multiplied exponentially. The Federal Housing Administration, now a subsidiary of HUD, unleashed new money, including the billion dollars from the insurance industry, with the promise to insure any mortgage it was presented with. “For the businessman and the resident of the inner city,” President Johnson stated upon signing the HUD Act, “the vital flow of property insurance will be assured.”

This policy incentivized real-estate speculators to buy distressed urban properties for pennies, invest in minimal maintenance and repair, and then facilitate a home sale for thousands more to someone desperate for housing. With FHA backing, bankers and brokers were on the hunt for potential clients. Government subsidies and mortgage guarantees amplified exploitative real-estate practices. The FHA guarantee encouraged the invigorated home sales through a variety of government-sponsored programs (not just Section 235). The HUD Act had also created a secondary market just for the sale of low-income homes, Ginnie Mae, guaranteeing that every low-income mortgage would be bought, packaged as a security, and then sold to long-term investors. The practice promised an unlimited flow of available cash, making the low-income housing market ripe for plunder.

There was no shortage of people living in American cities desperate to find a place of their own. Speculators preyed upon Black single mothers on welfare who were particularly desperate for housing. In St. Louis, one real-estate broker sent thousands of postcards advertising Section 235 housing to residents of the crumbling Pruitt-Igoe homes in hopes of luring them into buying a house. Real-estate speculators sold thousands of homes with no water heaters, nailed-shut windows, leaking roofs, rat infestations, and worse. Federal subsidies and mortgage guarantees resuscitated urban housing that had been left for dead.

Miserable and dangerous housing conditions in the existing urban market led people to walk away from the homes they had recently purchased, and the numbers of defaults, foreclosures, and FHA insurance payments began to rise. By the end of 1973, 10 percent of Section 235 homes were in foreclosure, along with tens of thousands more in other FHA-assisted low-income homeownership programs. In May of 1974, HUD was in possession of 78,000 single-family homes. Corrupt mortgage lenders quickly foreclosed on new homeowners to cash in on lucrative fees and sprawling closing costs, while real-estate brokers moved in to quickly resell the broken property and start the lucrative process all over again. Almost all of the properties were in cities. In an emergent age of investigative journalism, newspapers from around the country took note of the foreclosures, but more importantly, of the role of HUD in facilitating the sale of junk property to poor people. These were not only scandals, but crimes that had been committed against poor and working-class Blacks and Latinos. In cities as diverse as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Jose, and Columbia, South Carolina, real-estate brokers, FHA officials, and mortgage bankers were arrested and indicted for a criminal conspiracy to commit fraud. By 1974, twenty-eight HUD officials had been indicted for their role in the housing scandal along with other mortgage brokers and real-estate brokers. The FBI was conducting another 1,930 active investigations for fraud.

Republican-aligned newspapers like the Chicago Tribune took delight in headlines like “FHA Wastes $4 Billion and Creates City Slums,” but these failures were hardly the result of “big government” alone. Instead, their failure was rooted in a lack of oversight reflecting the deference of federal agents to private-sector profiteers. Where “risk” had once been invoked to keep African Americans locked out of homeownership, the FHA mortgage guarantee now turned it into a get-rich-quick scheme.

Instead of highlighting how the relationship between business and public agencies had undermined the function of government regulators or how Nixon’s doctrine of “new federalism” had left federal regulators ill-equipped to oversee a program ripe for corruption—especially given the history of the real-estate industry’s dealings with African Americans—the narrative turned on the perceived domestic dysfunction of Black families as the root of the problem. Black women’s homemaking skills were called into question, as well as their overall competence as homeowners. Even as federal agents in the FHA were arrested for their role in the HUD-FHA scandal, the nation’s attention was trained on the poor program participants. Nixon officials used the spectacular collapse of low-income homeownership programs and the literal implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe homes in St. Louis (the city began demolishing the complex in 1972, less than twenty years after it was built) as evidence that the government should get out of the business of housing poor and low-income people. The highly visible collapse of the low-income homeownership program also allowed officials to gain support for keeping poor and working-class Black people out of white suburban communities.

In January of 1973, in his last act as HUD Secretary, George Romney announced a national moratorium on the construction or funding of all federally subsidized housing programs, including all of the FHA-assisted low-income homeownership programs. Months later Nixon would tell Congress, “All across America, the Federal Government has become the biggest slumlord in history. . . . Leaders of all political persuasions and from all levels of government . . . agree that the federally subsidized housing approach has failed.” Instead, he suggested, “of the policy alternatives available, the most promising way to achieve decent housing for all of our families at an acceptable cost appears to be direct cash assistance.”

This was the beginning of the federal turn to Section 8 housing vouchers, first issued in 1974. The introduction of vouchers was coupled with a demand from the Nixon administration that the “existing” housing stock be utilized for low-income housing while new construction of low-income housing was to be scaled back. Further cementing the racial division in low-income housing, the Nixon administration secured $3 billion for the construction of new low-income homes. The qualification of new construction all but guaranteed this housing would be placed in suburbs and largely reserved for white residents. With existing housing in the cities for Black renters and new construction in the suburbs for white buyers, Nixon’s segregated vision for housing in the United States was fulfilled. But the destructive role of real estate and mortgage bankers in the operation of the FHA-assisted homeownership programs was essential to the process.

The real-estate industry’s history of racism has made it an unreliable partner in solving the United States’ longstanding shortage of dignified affordable housing. Black families are disproportionately affected by the lack of housing precisely because long-standing racist myths have been used to influence notions of value and community desirability. Government has a long and sullied history of invoking race to shape the housing market as well. But government can be malleable to the demands of political protests and organizing, and changes of political representation can make it even more responsive to the public. Solving the perpetual U.S. housing crisis is complex, but it begins by disconnecting the power of government from the private sector’s insatiable profit motive.

New Republic: How to Stop Gentrification

Individuals moving to newly-hip neighborhoods admit they are part of the problem. What can they do?

In September 2005, the New Orleans real-estate developer Finis Shelnutt told a German newspaper of the opportunities Hurricane Katrina had created for his business. “The storm destroyed a great deal,” he said, just weeks after Katrina had killed more than one thousand people and expelled tens of thousands more from the city. “And there’s plenty of space to build houses and sell them for a lot of money.” Moreover, he added, “the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they don’t come back.”

Shelnutt’s uniquely forthright comments distilled the essence of gentrification, as Peter Moskowitz explains it in How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. Gentrification, in this account, is not just about twenty-something white dudes with beards riding their fixed-gear bikes into unfamiliar neighborhoods, nor filament-bulb-lit craft beer bars opening up alongside bodegas. It is not really a cultural phenomenon, as it is so often depicted, nor one driven by individuals with a little more disposable income than their new neighbors. It is about profit and power, racism and violence on a massive scale. It is, in Moskowitz’s words, “the urban form of a new kind of capitalism.”

How to Kill a City is one of several new books that seek to deepen our understanding of this widely used but little understood term and the upheaval it describes. The most recent additions to this collection—Gentrifier, by John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill and Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City by Brandon Harris—share Moskowitz’s goal of probing the structural, socioeconomic forces that drive gentrification. Like Moskowitz, who was raised in the West Village and wrote How to Kill a City in Brooklyn, each of these authors grapples with their own paradoxical position in the process: that of being both gentrifier and gentrified. The authors of Gentrifier even write themselves into their definition of the term:

We are gentrifiers. That is to say, we are middle-class people who moved into disinvested neighborhoods in a period during which a critical mass of other middle-class people did the same, thereby exerting economic, political, and social pressures upon the existing community.

These authors scoff at the “everyone but me” attitude that so often characterizes conversations about gentrification: “Gentrifier,” much like “hipster,” is almost always a term reserved for someone else. Instead of trying to avoid guilt, they examine how the places we live and socialize reproduce and exacerbate inequalities. What role do individual residents play in shaping the process of gentrification, and what responsibility do more affluent new residents bear toward those displaced? Who, ultimately, pulls the levers? And what the hell do we do about it?

Moskowitz does not dwell long on the personal stakes. Instead, How to Kill a City sets out to expose the forces that are pulling the rich back into America’s cities and pushing everyone else further and further out. Drawing on earlier urban scholars, Moskowitz breaks the process down into four basic steps. First, individuals seeking cheap rents begin moving to a disinvested neighborhood, sometimes forming their own sub-communities: artists, radicals, and so on. Before long, more middle-class people follow, and real-estate interests catch on. Soon enough, the new middle-class residents take their place in the neighborhood’s institutions and begin reshaping power dynamics, attracting more amenities (and, notably, police), as well as bigger-money developers. By the time “managerial-class professionals” find their way to the neighborhood, the original gentrifiers can no longer afford it and get pushed out, starting the process over again in another neighborhood.

To these four steps, first laid out by MIT urban studies professor Phillip Clay in 1979, Moskowitz adds two more. The culmination of the process, Moskowitz writes, is when global capital so defines a neighborhood that it serves more as an investment portfolio than a place to live: Midtown’s “billionaire’s row” and its empty condos, worth tens of millions of dollars each, are the quintessential example. One developer summed up this phenomenon neatly when he described today’s luxury buildings as safe-deposit boxes for the global elite.

At the other end of the process, Moskowitz adds “stage zero”: a crisis that opens the door to sudden change. In New Orleans, Moskowitz argues, it was Hurricane Katrina; in Detroit, it was the 2013 municipal bankruptcy that allowed Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to install an unelected emergency manager with powers over the city government. While the “stage zero” chronology doesn’t always hold up (many Detroit gentrifiers, from the aspiring urban farmers to Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert, set their sights on the city long before it officially went bankrupt), Moskowitz makes a strong case for the broader logic: Gentrification, at its most elemental, is a form of disaster capitalism, and its widely bemoaned cultural flourishes mostly just add insult to debilitating injury.

The New Orleans case is perhaps the most extreme. Half of the city was still underwater when developers, politicians, and pundits alike began celebrating the unique opportunity Katrina provided. Nearly half of the city’s population—some 250,000 people—was displaced as a result of the storm, and columnists like David Brooks encouraged them to stay out while the city lured in more “ambitious and organized” people to take their place. Federal agencies, consciously or not, fulfilled Brooks’s prescription: FEMA vouchers offered one-way tickets out, sending people to Houston, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, even as far as Utah and Minnesota rather than sponsoring their return home. The displaced were overwhelmingly black, and tens of thousands of them never came back. As of 2015, New Orleans has some 100,000 fewer black residents than it did in 2000.

This wholesale displacement of one-fifth of the city’s population created the kind of opening that real-estate developers and their political allies could only dream of in other cities. Property values were at a low, and the potential for remaking the city unprecedented. What Marxist geographer Neil Smith called the “rent gap”—the difference between the current value of a property and its potential value—was at an all-time high across much of the city. Little surprise, then, that the city’s demographics shifted, as developers courted wealthier, whiter residents who could stomach the higher rents. Today, with some 35 percent of New Orleanians devoting at least half of their income to rent, the city has become the second-least affordable city to live in nationwide.

The developers couldn’t have done it without government support, from the federal to the state to the city level. Take Freret, a once-derelict neighborhood near Tulane that is now a near-caricature of a gentrification hub, complete with yoga studios, a farmers’ and flea market, cocktail bars, and $4 coffees. It even has its own website,, and associated social media accounts.

What happened? The explanation is simple enough: Freret was designated a “cultural district” by the state in 2012, allowing new businesses—but not existing ones—to operate tax-free. A slew of restaurants opened in quick succession, turning Freret Street into a “dining hot spot” for young, white, subsidized crowds while long-running businesses like the local barber shop were left to fend for themselves. “It’s not sharing the table,” as longtime New Orleanian Ruth Idakula told Moskowitz. “It’s coming here and shoving our shit off the table and then demanding we eat your shit.”

As Idakula notes, it’s not the new residents’ food and drink preferences that are the problem so much as their attitude toward the neighborhood’s longtime residents. Moskowitz reports a 2013 meeting where a hundred-odd residents debated a proposal to hire a new private security patrol in Freret, which would be paid for by hiking local property taxes. The proposal’s defenders, all white, eventually conceded to their black counterparts’ concerns that an additional patrol would only add to already severe police harassment of black residents, and the proposal was scrapped. But the fact that it was even proposed betrays a reflexive invitation to state—or, in this case, para-state—violence that never lurks far from the surface of gentrification debates.

Critics of gentrification have long noted its link to heightened policing. But Moskowitz goes a step further, portraying the subsidies and incentives that fuel the process as a form of state violence in themselves. Moskowitz offers as exhibit A “one of Detroit’s premier new loft conversions,” a building christened “The Albert” by its new owners:

Broder and Sachse bought the building at 1214 Griswold Street in 2013…. Before 2013, the building housed about a hundred low-income seniors who were able to afford the building thanks to Section 8 housing vouchers. All were evicted by Broder and Sachse, given vouchers to move elsewhere, and scattered throughout the rest of the city. Now the building houses mostly white millennials. Apartments at the Albert now start at $1,200 a month. Broder and Sachse received a ten-year tax abatement from the city when they began their conversion.

In a few plain but cutting sentences, Moskowitz links the two chief actors driving gentrification—profit-hungry real-estate firms, on the one hand, and the state on the other—and exposes the fundamental violence of the process. As Jerome Robinson, a 72-year-old-former autoworker, says of his former apartment at 1214 Griswold, “People can say whatever they want about these rich people coming in and doing this that and the other, but I was comfortable down there. I wanted to stay there. And they kicked me out.”

The authors of Gentrifier are skeptical that a definition of gentrification that includes Katrina-level disasters is a useful one at all. And it’s true: The shock-doctrine template doesn’t quite transfer to cities like San Francisco, which was doing just fine economically before it became a Silicon Valley playground.

Yet they largely agree with Moskowitz on the set of factors that have driven today’s gentrification crisis. The most important is the segregation that resulted from a combination of suburbanization and urban renewal programs around the midcentury. Both suburbanization and urban renewal were backed by copious federal spending: Mortgage subsidies and highways encouraged an ascendant white middle class to escape the city, while redlining and redevelopment schemes kept the mostly black urban poor in. White areas were neatly demarcated from the black ones that didn’t. This set the stage for widespread disinvestment from urban cores. To secure a federal loan, one Detroit developer in the late 1930s built a literal wall separating his new homes from an adjacent black neighborhood. Direct federal construction played a role too: As Richard Rothstein documents in his landmark new book The Color of Law, the years leading up to and during the Second World War saw a spate of aggressively segregated public housing construction, which homogenized even previously integrated neighborhoods.

After the war, cities began to deindustrialize as factories followed whites to the suburbs, leaving the urban poor increasingly stranded in ghettos with diminishing job prospects. Neoliberal spending cuts, beginning in the late 1970s, compounded their plight, further starving the inner cities of amenities and services. Sometimes the neglect was targeted: In 1976 alone, the city of New York shut down thirty-four fire stations in poor, largely black and Latino neighborhoods; by the end of the decade, seven Bronx census tracts had lost virtually all of their buildings, and another forty-four tracts had lost more than half.

Economic isolation and the fraying of the social safety net contributed to record levels of crime in inner cities, with public housing complexes hit particularly hard. Policy elites’ response was to blame the buildings themselves and, wherever they could, tear them down. Between 1990 and 2008, some 220,000 units of public housing were razed nationwide—about half of them under Bill Clinton’s signature “redevelopment” program, Hope VI, which provided for only 60,000 mixed-income units to replace them.

Federal, state, and city governments did not feed this vicious cycle out of pure malice, transparently racist as officials’ motives often were. Rather, their decisions corresponded to the interests of business: those of the realtors who lobbied to demolish slums but not to replace them, for example, or of the builders who lobbied for new housing towers but no funds to maintain them. Where necessary, realtors also took matters into their own hands. The notorious blockbusting schemes of the postwar period provide just one example of how real estate has actively courted racial tension in the service of profit.


Who Killed New York City? Jeremiah Moss’s “Vanishing New York” and Tamara Shopsin’s “Arbitrary Stupid Goal” look at what gentrification means for the city—and who’s to blame.

The path from the rampant deregulation, privatization, and financialization beginning in the late 1970s—the explosion of the finance, insurance, and real-estate sectors and their increasingly arcane methods of packaging debt—to the housing market crash of 2008 is by now well documented. So is the decimation of black wealth in the ensuing mortgage meltdown: In 2007, the average black family had a net worth of one-tenth the average white-family’s; by 2011, that number had dropped to one-sixteenth, or roughly six cents in black wealth to the average white family’s dollar. Wall Street, as ever, found innovative ways to profit off the collapse: hedge funds, large investment firms, and private equity companies snapped up foreclosed homes and converted them into rentals, making them some of America’s biggest landlords. “The reach of global capital down to the local neighborhood scale,” as Neil Smith puts it, has reached a new extreme. And with it, Moskowitz writes, has come the “destruction of black urban life … the canvas on which gentrifiers now paint.”

Landlords, developers, financiers, and the arms of the state that they twist to their advantage: these, all three books agree, are the real gentrifiers, “the true authors of this blood-sodden land’s next evolution,” in Harris’s words. The forces of gentrification, in short, are the same ones driving inequality at large. The squatters and punks who battled cops at Tompkins Square Park in 1988 summed it up neatly: “Gentrification is class war.”

So what is to be done? In cities ranging from Oakland to New York to Barcelona to Cape Town, grassroots movements have proposed, wherever possible, decommodifying housing—seeking to transform it from real estate into home, as David Madden and Peter Marcuse sum it up in their 2016 book In Defense of Housing. Steps along the way can include everything from enacting and strengthening rent control laws to taking land off the speculative market using community land trusts. Grassroots groups nationwide and internationally have long been fighting on these terms and, little by little, gaining ground. For gentrifiers conflicted about their own role in the process, there is no more straightforward answer than to recognize your own stake in these fights and join in. Your outrageous rent is not only making your life hell, it’s driving up everyone else’s, too. When you organize to reduce it, everyone wins.

But the fight against gentrification must go a step further. At its core, it demands a robust defense of the public sector—including, perhaps especially, public housing. Increasingly privatized or demolished, and dismissed as an inevitable hotbed of corruption and crime, public housing may be the most maligned iteration of New Deal-era social policy. In some respects, rightly so: there is no question that the projects of midcentury were designed to actively enforce segregation by race and income, with staggering consequences. Harris quotes Jay-Z’s description of the projects, including his native Marcy Houses, as “huge islands built mostly in the middle of nowhere, designed to warehouse lives.”

The housing projects of the twentieth century did much to concentrate poverty and anchor inequality in the urban landscape. But it is testament to the failings of the market that even these spaces of gross neglect, where they still exist, are not only fiercely defended by their residents but remain a highly sought-after housing option among the urban poor. (Some 257,000 families are on the waiting list for New York City public housing alone.) Nor are they spaces absent of community, as Jay-Z himself acknowledges in the 2011 memoir Harris quotes. Ashana Bigard, a longtime resident of New Orleans’s demolished St. Thomas houses whom Moskowitz interviews, looks back on the barbecues and music that were a constant feature of life in the complex and remembers, “That’s what connected us.” Even residents of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe—perhaps the most notorious development in U.S. housing history, demolished after barely twenty years—looked back fondly on the sense of community at the complex when they first moved in. It was only after the elevators broke down and the trash piled up, through no fault of the residents’, that crime spiked. And despite it all, today a majority of residents in the New York City Housing Authority, the country’s largest, express satisfaction with their living conditions.

If conscious policy decisions got us into this mess, then conscious policy decisions can get us out.

A new public housing, of course, would need to be carefully designed to remedy segregation and inequality rather than entrench them as the previous generation of projects did. It might take inspiration from the successes of limited-equity cooperatives like New York’s union-developed Penn South, community land trusts like Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, or offshoots of those models like mutual housing associations. (Publicly seeded coops have their precedents abroad as well as here in the United States.) If there is one consolation to be taken from the disastrous social engineering that produced today’s gentrification, it is that conscious policy decisions got us into this mess, and conscious policy decisions can get us out.

With the country’s most boorish real-estate tycoon of all now in the White House, it can be hard to avoid the feeling that the challenge for housing-rights advocates—as for all those fighting for justice—is Sisyphean. But the time to start building is now. Already, backlash to the Trump agenda has made popular appetite for a reinvigorated public sector all the more apparent. Some 57 percent of respondents to an April Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll believe that “the government should do more to solve problems and help people”—a record high since the poll began in 1995—and only 39 percent believe “the government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals.”

In New York, groups like FUREE, led by public housing residents, and Picture the Homeless have long been setting out blueprints for truly affordable, democratic, and achievable forms of housing, and politicians are finally beginning to take note. City councilmembers like the Bronx’s Ritchie Torres—who grew up in NYCHA’s Throggs Neck houses and testified at a recent rally to the “transformative power of affordable housing”—are also taking a proactive approach. Under pressure to counterbalance the Trump agenda, more liberal politicians can be swayed to do the same, and we have little choice but to keep pushing them.

Our own positions within the everyday class warfare of gentrification may be conflicted; certainly this is true of all the authors of the books under review here. And it is important not to lose sight of the ways that personal attitudes and actions daily aggravate the crisis of gentrification. But it is telling that even Harris—despite being black and, for most of his time in Bed-Stuy, poor—contributes in his own way to the “great social experiment” making the neighborhood unlivable for people like himself. If the forces of private profit are so irrepressible that even he cannot escape their grinding contradictions, clearly they need to be attacked at the root. Housing rights activists across the country have long been acting accordingly. Join them.

The Nation: 151 Years of America’s Housing History

From the first tenement regulation to work requirements for public-housing residents, these are key moments in housing policy.

1867: The first tenement-law regulation in America is enacted in New York City to ban the construction of rooms without ventilators and apartments without fire escapes.

1923: Under Mayor Daniel Hoan of the Socialist Party, Milwaukee completes construction of the country’s first public-housing project.

1926: New York State passes the Limited Dividend Housing Companies Act, the first significant effort in the country to offer any kind of subsidy for affordable housing.

1934: The National Housing Act establishes the Federal Housing Administration, which insures mortgages for small, owner-occupied suburban homes as well as private multi-family housing.

1937: Congress passes the Housing Act of 1937. Originally intended to create public housing for poor and middle-income families, it is whittled down to apply only to low-income people.

1942: The Emergency Price Control Act establishes federal rent control for the first time. By January 1945, Scranton, Pennsylvania, is the only city of more than 100,000 residents with unregulated rents.

1944: The GI Bill provides mortgage-loan guarantees for home purchases by veterans.

1955: New York State introduces the Mitchell-Lama program, which subsidizes the construction of over 105,000 apartments for moderate- and middle-income residents.

1965: Congress establishes the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in a largely symbolic move to bring housing and slum-clearance programs
to the cabinet level.

1968: Congress passes the Fair Housing Act, which outlaws discrimination in housing and in mortgage lending.

1973: The Nixon administration issues a moratorium on almost all subsidized-housing programs.

1974: The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 establishes Section 8 housing programs as a replacement for public housing.

1976: The Supreme Court rules, in Hills v. Gautreaux, that the Chicago Housing Authority contributed to racial segregation in Chicago through discriminatory practices. HUD begins offering vouchers in the city to address poverty and segregation.

1982: Under Ronald Reagan, HUD’s budget is slashed to under $40 billion, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 1976, when it was $83.6 billion.

1986: Reagan introduces the low-income housing tax credit, which remains the primary source of federal funding for low-cost housing today.

1992: Congress authorizes the HOPE VI urban-revitalization demonstration program to provide grants to support low-rise, mixed-income housing rather than high-rise public housing to address a severe lack of funding for repairs. Atlanta uses its funds to clear slums and construct mostly private housing, an approach copied by cities across the country.

1996: Bill Clinton announces the “one strike and you’re out” initiative to evict public-housing tenants who have criminal convictions.

2005: HUD conducts its first official point-in-time count of homeless people in the country.

2007: The housing market crashes. Nearly 3 million homes are foreclosed on in both 2009 and 2010.

The Obama administration creates the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which authorizes the transformation of public housing into private-sector Section 8 housing.

2012: The Section 8 waiting lists stretch so long that nearly half of them are simply closed.

2018: HUD Secretary Ben Carson proposes raising the rent for tenants in subsidized housing as well as enabling public-housing authorities to impose work requirements.

Century Foundation: Attacking the Black–White Opportunity Gap That Comes from Residential Segregation

Residential segregation between black and white Americans remains both strikingly high and deeply troubling. Black–white residential segregation is a major source of unequal opportunity for African Americans: among other things, it perpetuates an enormous wealth gap and excludes black students from many high-performing schools. While some see residential segregation as “natural”—an outgrowth of the belief that birds of a feather flock together—black–white segregation in America is mostly a result of deliberate public policies that were designed to subjugate black people and promote white supremacy.

Because the federal, state, and local policy arenas were the laboratory for engineering black–white residential segregation, that is where people must work to help undo it. In order for these heinous differences to be reversed, people in government at all levels have to be proactive in eliminating policy that supports segregation and in creating anti-segregation policies.

It is time for bold action. The first part of this report outlines why all Americans should care about black–white residential segregation: the perpetuation of an opportunity gap between blacks and whites. The second part delineates the ways in which black–white segregation is rooted primarily in deliberate government policies enacted over generations. And the last part of the report sketches a four-prong strategy for undoing this horrible creation.

First, policymakers should address the legacy of generations of racial discrimination in housing by implementing the “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” provision of the Fair Housing Act and providing new mortgage assistance to buy homes in formerly “redlined” areas. Second, government should seek to reduce contemporary residential racial discrimination by increasing resources allocated to fair housing testers and reestablishing the federal interagency task force to combat lending discrimination. Third, officials should counter contemporary residential economic discrimination that disproportionately hurts African Americans by curbing exclusionary zoning, funding “disparate impact” litigation, adopting “inclusionary zoning” policies, banning source of income discrimination, and beefing up housing mobility programs. Fourth, policy officials should respond to the re-segregating effects of displacement that can come with gentrification by revising tax abatement policies that promote gentrification, implementing longtime owner occupancy programs, and investing in people, not powerbrokers.

How Black–White Segregation Perpetuates an Opportunity Gap

Residential segregation between black and white Americans remains very high more than fifty years after passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. An analysis of U.S. Census Data from 2013–17 found that the “dissimilarity index” between blacks and non-Hispanic whites for metropolitan areas was 0.526 for the median area—meaning that 52.6 percent of African Americans or whites would have to move for the area to be fully integrated. (A dissimilarity index of 0 represents complete integration between two groups, while 100 represents absolute apartheid.) The index for black–white segregation was higher than it was for segregation between non-Hispanic whites and Asians (0.467), and segregation between non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics (0.407).1 And while the nation is also seeing increasing residential segregation by income, racial segregation today remains starker and more pervasive than economic segregation.2 Analyzing data over time, Paul Jargowsky of Rutgers University writes of African Americans: “Few groups in American history have ever experienced such high levels of segregation, let alone sustained them over decades.”3

Residential segregation matters immensely, because where people live affects so much of their lives, such as their access to transportation, education, employment opportunities, and good health care. In the case of black–white segregation in particular, the separateness of African-American families and white families has contributed significantly to two entrenched inequalities that are especially glaring: the enormous wealth gap between these races, and their grossly unequal access to strong public educational opportunities.

White tenants seeking to prevent blacks from moving into the Sojourner Truth housing project erected this sign in Detroit, 1942. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is well established that historical and contemporary racial discrimination has given rise to a substantial income gap between black and white Americans. African Americans make, on average, about 60 percent of what whites make.4 But housing segregation helps explain the ways in which African-American families are further disadvantaged compared to white families who have the same income and education levels. Typically, higher levels of education and income translate into higher levels of wealth and less exposure to concentrated poverty. In the case of African Americans, however, residential segregation by race imposes a penalty that interrupts these positive patterns. Stunningly, African-American households headed by an individual with a bachelor’s degree have just two-thirds of the wealth, on average, of white households headed by an individual who lacks a high school degree.5 Equally astonishingly, middle-class blacks live in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates than low-income whites.6 As the following sections will show, these negative outcomes are largely a result of residential segregation; furthermore, when black–white segregation is reduced, outcomes for black families are shown to improve.

How Residential Segregation Affects Wealth Accumulation

Racial residential segregation inhibits home value appreciation in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Research finds that some white families remain distressingly resistant to buying homes in predominantly African-American neighborhoods; for example, even when all other characteristics of homes and neighborhoods are identical, white respondents view predominantly black neighborhoods as less safe and less desirable than predominantly white neighborhoods.7 Fewer potential buyers—particularly among the whiter and thus usually wealthier segment of the market—means significantly lower rates of home appreciation.

Because homes are typically the largest financial asset for most Americans, segregated markets significantly reduce the accumulated wealth of blacks. This phenomenon—on top of the penalties endured during the historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow—helps explain why the black–white wealth gap is so much larger than the black–white income gap. While median income for black households is 59 percent that of white households, black median household net worth is just 8 percent of white median household net worth.8 (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1

The segregation-driven wealth gap imposes enormous burdens on African Americans. Having or lacking wealth influences many of life’s big decisions—from financing a child’s education to saving for retirement.

How Residential Segregation Affects Exposure to Concentrated Poverty, Particularly in Schools

Racial residential segregation also means that African Americans are more likely to be steered toward high-poverty neighborhoods, further contributing to the opportunity gap. Typically, families with higher levels of income have access to more-affluent neighborhoods, which tend to have more amenities, and, in particular, higher-performing public schools. Yet persistent racial residential segregation (and the wealth gap it creates) means even middle-class black families are more likely to live in concentrated poverty, and thus are more likely to send their children to high-poverty schools than are low-income whites. In fact, sociologist Patrick Sharkey finds that middle-class African Americans earning $100,000 or more per year live in neighborhoods with the same disadvantages as the average white household earning less than $30,000 per year.9 Living in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty is associated with a variety of learning disadvantages, including lower scores on cognitive tests. One study by Harvard University’s Robert Sampson and colleagues on African-American children in Chicago found that living in a high-poverty neighborhood was associated with lower scores on vocabulary and reading tests that were roughly the equivalent of a full grade of school learning.10

Even middle-class black families are more likely to live in concentrated poverty, and thus are more likely to send their children to high-poverty schools than are low-income whites.

Some students can use public school choice policies to circumvent residential segregation to attend integrated magnet or charter schools outside their neighborhood, but most cannot. Seventy-five percent of American students attend a neighborhood public school—that is, they are simply assigned to the school nearest their homes.11 This inability of most students to attend schools beyond their neighborhood is troubling, because low-income students who are given the chance to attend socioeconomically integrated schools are shown to achieve at much higher levels than do low-income students in high-poverty schools. On the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) given to fourth graders in math, for example, low-income students attending schools that are more affluent scored roughly two years of learning ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools.12 Controlling carefully for students’ family background, another study found that students in mixed-income schools showed 30 percent more growth in test scores over their four years in high school than peers with similar socioeconomic backgrounds in schools with concentrated poverty.13

Because of racial residential segregation, low-income African Americans are much less likely to be afforded the opportunity to attend socioeconomically integrated schools. According to a 2017 analysis by Emma Garcia of the Economic Policy Institute, 81.1 percent of poor black children attended high poverty schools in 2013, compared with just 53.5 percent of poor white children.14 (See Figure 2.) That is to say, less than one in five poor black children had access to a predominantly middle-class school, compared to almost half of poor white children.

Figure 2

When Racial Segregation Is Reduced, African Americans Have Better Outcomes

Would outcomes for African Americans improve if residential racial segregation were reduced? Because levels of black–white segregation vary across the country, it is possible for researchers to examine different outcome levels for African Americans in communities with higher or lower levels of black–white segregation.

Scholars have found that African Americans in moderately segregated metropolitan areas have much better employment levels, earnings, and mortality rates than do African Americans in metropolitan areas with very high segregation levels. The University of California at Los Angeles’s Richard H. Sander and Jonathan M. Zazloff, along with Yana A. Kucheva of the City College of New York, looked at outcomes for African Americans in metropolitan areas where the black–white dissimilarity index was below 0.60 outcomes and compared them with outcomes for African Americans living in areas with a dissimilarity index above 0.80. The outcomes were consistently better for African Americans living in moderately segregated areas than highly segregated areas, both in absolute terms and when compared with non-Hispanic whites living in the same regions.15

The unemployment rate for black men ages 25–34, for example, was 17.4 percent in highly segregated areas, compared with 10.1 percent in moderately segregated areas. Unemployment was 3.48 times the level of non-Hispanic whites in highly segregated areas, but 1.44 times the level of non-Hispanic whites in moderately segregated areas. Earnings for black men aged 25–34 were $4,000 higher in moderately segregated areas than in highly segregated areas, and, relative to non-Hispanic whites, the earnings were higher—68 percent in moderately segregated areas compared with 47.6 percent in highly segregated areas. (See Figure 3.) Likewise, for all blacks, age-adjusted mortality (relative to non-Hispanic whites) was better in moderately segregated regions (1.14) than in highly segregated areas (1.42).16

Figure 3

Part of the reason for better outcomes, the authors of the study suggest, is that blacks are more likely to live in concentrated poverty in metropolitan areas with high levels of racial segregation than those with moderate levels of racial segregation. The researchers found, for example, that 17 percent of low-income blacks living in moderately segregated metro areas reside in concentrated poverty, compared with 33 percent of low-income blacks living in highly segregated areas.17

The Deliberate Social Engineering of Black–White Residential Segregation

Both currently and historically, segregation is best understood as a tool used to promote and preserve white supremacy, deployed to make it easier to isolate, divest from, surveil, and police black (and brown) people concentrated in certain communities. The ingenuity of this racist tool is that its evil use creates its own justification—that is, once employed, it creates perspectives and data that seem to support its further use. As communities of color suffer under the deprivations that come with segregation—economic disinvestment, political disenfranchisement, educational inequity, and unfair, ineffective policing practices—those who build and install resilient and enduring racist systems that sustain segregation explain their decisions in terms of protecting and promoting safety, strong schools, and stable housing markets. These indeed are desirable neighborhood attributes—but they are the very same attributes that the conditions of segregation disrupted for blacks.

The ingenuity of this racist tool is that its evil use creates its own justification—that is, once employed, it creates perspectives and data that seem to support its further use.

In fact, regarding neighborhood characteristics, African Americans express the same values and desires as most Americans, even though they have much more difficulty in realizing them. According to a study of black Long Islanders, residents considered the most important neighborhood characteristics to be a low crime rate (89 percent), landlords/homeowners who maintain their property (81 percent), high quality public schools (80 percent), and good public services (78 percent). Yet only 16 percent rated their local public schools as excellent, and 43 percent of residents reported feeling that their local government services were not a good value for the taxes that they pay.18

Extensive evidence suggests that black residents in many segregated communities do not believe that their needs and desires are met in their current environments. Survey results indicate that most Americans prefer integrated neighborhoods, but white and black Americans define “integrated” differently. For African Americans, an integrated community is one where between 20 to 50 percent of residents are African American. White definitions of integration indicate that they accept diversity only when they can continue to dominate, defining integration as a scenario where only 10 percent of neighborhood residents are black.19 A recent Pew Survey found that blacks are much more supportive of integrated schools than are whites, particularly when that integration necessitates children going to schools outside of their neighborhoods. Sixty-eight percent of blacks say that “students should go to schools that are racially and ethnically mixed, even if it means some students don’t go to school in their local community,” compared to just 35 percent of whites.20 Given the close relationship between housing and school integration, such data exposes how the African-American value of integrated school options is crushed by the reality of racially isolated neighborhoods.

Certainly, integration is not a panacea for past and present injustices. In fact, pro-integration advocates should respect the ways that integration might lead to new hardships for black folks—increased discomfort and fear of police encounters, elevated levels of surveillance and suspicion from neighbors, disproportionate discipline of black children in predominantly white schools, and so on.21 In large part due to the very attitudes that sustain segregation, communities of color have a reasonable desire to live in a safe and affirming space when living in a discriminatory society; and despite typically having fewer resources to work with, black and brown people so often foster loving, culturally rich, and affirming communities for themselves. And so one challenge of contemporary housing integration efforts becomes how to dismantle the racist system of policies that created and continue to sustain residential segregation without simultaneously destroying valuable cultural and economic institutions that black and brown communities have created in response to it.

Integration best functions (and is best incentivized) when public policies and private citizens tackle the myriad of inequities and indignities that complicate, and sometimes limit, the lives of African Americans. Despite this caveat, it remains true that (1) both historically and currently, black people have risked their comfort, livelihoods, and sometimes lives to gain access to integrated spaces; and, most importantly, that (2) segregation itself is a white supremacist practice that has proven both durable and highly effective at limiting black wealth and opportunity.

Racial housing segregation, residential poverty concentration, and diminished housing access did not emerge accidentally. Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, contends that this enduring segregation results from “a century of social engineering on the part of federal, state, and local governments that enacted policies to keep African Americans separate and subordinate.”22 Those engineers were both liberal and conservative, dwelling in multiple branches and levels of government—as the following sections will show.

From Racial Zoning to Economic Zoning

Members of government and private entities began to deliberately segregate residential areas by race in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, largely by prohibiting blacks from purchasing homes in majority-white neighborhoods. After the Civil War, those newly liberated black people dispersed throughout the United States, but an abrupt end to Reconstruction ushered in an era of heightened white paramilitary violence, exploitative sharecropping arrangements, and Jim Crow laws. As anti-black discrimination formalized and intensified, many communities systematically expelled African Americans, excluded them from public goods and services, and adopted policies that forbade blacks from residing in towns, or even remaining within town borders after dark.23 Communities who forbade blacks from being within their borders after dark came to be known as “sundown towns”; by 1930, at least 235 counties had “sundowned” black people, often enforcing their rules through violence.24

Pioneered by Baltimore in 1910, racial zoning quickly emerged as an effective way to further subjugate and segregate black folks. Baltimore’s then-mayor did not mince words when discussing the motivation for such an ordinance: “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into nearby white neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the white majority.”25 Soon, similar policies spread to other cities, including Atlanta, Birmingham, Dade County (Miami), Charleston, Dallas, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Richmond, St. Louis, and others.26

A map showing the distribution of race and ethnicity in Detroit, Michigan. Red is white, Blue is African American, Green is Asian, Yellow is Hispanic, and Grey is Other. Source: Flickr/Eric Fischer

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1917 struck down explicit racial zoning with its decision in Buchanan v. Warley, arguing that such ordinances interfered with the rights of property owners.27 The ruling failed to put an end to segregation, however, instead motivating a new wave of racist creativity by white leaders and communities. Localities quickly found a way to circumvent the ruling and preserve the racial caste system in housing. Some localities created and enforced laws in flagrant violation of Buchanan. Richmond, Virginia, for example, passed a law prohibiting anyone from moving onto a block where they could not marry the majority of people on that block. Because the state had then-enforceable anti-miscegenation laws on the books, the ordinance effectively prevented neighborhood integration without explicitly mentioning race.28

Other localities were slightly more subtle. Switching from race-based zoning to economic zoning, cities and localities designed policies now known as “exclusionary zoning,” which require that neighborhoods consist exclusively of single-family homes, have minimum lot sizes, and/or have minimum square footage requirements. These policies rapidly proliferated. In 1916, just eight cities had zoning ordinances; by 1936, that number had risen to 1,246.29

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the practice of exclusionary zoning in Euclid v. Ambler (1926), finding that zoning ordinances were reasonable extensions of police power and potentially beneficial to public welfare. While arguments against placement of factories or landfills next to residences can reasonably be said to protect public safety, when it came to siting residences, the opinion in Euclid stated additional concerns: that an apartment could be “a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of a neighborhood,” adding later that “apartment houses . . . come very near to being nuisances.”30 Of course, because many blacks could not afford to buy around the expensive housing restrictions, such “race-neutral” economic zoning policies had a racially discriminatory effect.

Restrictive Covenants, Redlining, and Racial Violence

This supposedly “race-neutral” form of economic discrimination emerged alongside longstanding, more explicit political and economic racism. In order to continue to exclude middle- and upper-class blacks from white neighborhoods, public and private interests conspired to establish a web of racist policies and practices surrounding housing and homeownership. One practice for many white homeowners was to band together and adopt racially restrictive covenants in their neighborhoods, which forbade any buyer from reselling a home to black buyers. Initially upheld in Corrigan v. Buckley (1926), the U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that covenants were private contracts not subject to the Constitution.31 But the Court’s logic was faulty, because (1) private contracts are not enforceable except through the power of the state, and (2) the state was using that power of enforcement. In city after city, courts and sheriffs successfully evicted African Americans from homes that they had rightly purchased in order to enforce racially restrictive covenants.32 The racist contracts were so widely accepted that the commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration continued to recommend their use well after the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in Shelley v. Kramer (1948), dismissing the ruling and declaring that it was not “the policy of the government to require private individuals to give up their right to dispose of their property as they see fit.”33 Still today, racially restrictive covenants appear in real estate records, even if they are unenforceable.34

In order to continue to exclude middle- and upper-class blacks from white neighborhoods, public and private interests conspired to establish a web of racist policies and practices surrounding housing and homeownership.

The official position of the Federal Housing Administration—which underwrote $120 billion in new housing construction between 1934 and 1962—was that blacks were an adverse influence on property values.35 In response, the FHA warned against insuring mortgages for homes in racially mixed neighborhoods, and counseled lenders to reject or give poor ratings to loan applicants from black and brown neighborhoods. Baking racial exclusion into programs designed to promote homeownership, an FHA manual suggested that the best financial bets were those where safeguards—such as highways separating communities—could prevent “the infiltration of lower class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups.”36 The FHA’s chief economist Homer Hoyt designed a racial ranking system that positioned “Mexicans” and “Negroes” as the least desirable neighborhood residents, and worked with the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to map cities and design areas into various risk categories congruent with that racial hierarchy. Homebuyers seeking to purchase in “red” zone neighborhoods—those with high percentages of black residents, regardless of the wealth of those residents—would likely be denied a mortgage loan and received no federal support. The FHA provided the strongest financial support to green-zoned areas that, as one appraiser noted, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.”37 In 1940, the FHA actually denied insurance for a white developer with a project located near an African-American community until the builder agreed to construct a half-mile, six-foot high concrete wall to separate the two neighborhoods.38 Not only did this practice of redlining explicitly encourage and perpetuate racial segregation, it also shut black Americans out of key opportunities for one of the country’s most effective wealth-building strategies: homeownership. Of all of the homeownership loans approved by the government between 1934 and 1968, whites received 98 percent of them.39

A covenant signed by both John J. Buckley and Irene H. Corrigan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately struck down racially restrictive covenants in Shelley v. Kramer (1948), but even then, many black families faced grave risks when attempting to move into white neighborhoods. Extralegal violence became an all-too-common method of maintaining segregation through intimidation and fear.40 In one case, when a middle-class black family moved into an all-white neighborhood in a suburb of Philadelphia, some 600 white demonstrators gathered in front of the house and pelted the home and family with rocks. Shortly after, several whites rented a unit next door to the family, hoisting up a Confederate flag and blaring music throughout the night. Klan and community members burned a cross in the family’s yard. Law enforcement largely declined to intervene, with one sergeant suffering a demotion to patrolman after objecting to his orders not to interfere with the rioters.41 In Richmond, California, members of the neighborhood homeowners association insisted that they could enforce a racially restrictive covenant against a black war veteran and his wife after they purchased a home there—four years after the Supreme Court had ruled such covenants unconstitutional. When the black family arrived, a mob of 300 gathered outside of their home, threw bricks at the house, and burned a cross in the front yard. As in Pennsylvania, the police refused to step in for several days, only intervening after the NAACP pressed the governor to do so. Still, no arrests were made.42 In Los Angeles, of the more than one hundred incidents of move-in bombings and vandalism between 1950 and 1965, only one led to arrest and prosecution.43 This harassment and racial terrorism was not declared a federal crime until the Fair Housing Act made it so in 1968. Still, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that, in 1985–86, only one-quarter of these incidents were prosecuted.44

Ongoing Discrimination by Realtors, Banks, and Government Officials

To this day, forms of discrimination stymie racial integration and housing opportunities for black Americans. Attorneys and academics alike identify realtor bias and racial steering as factors that continue to disadvantage black people in the housing market. African Americans frequently encounter discrimination when searching for housing at all stages: they are more likely to receive subpar service when interacting with realtors, and are shown fewer homes for sale or rent than are whites. A 2003 study found that realtor steering of residents away from neighborhoods due to their racial composition is shockingly persistent, even if illegal. The practice showed up in up to 15 percent of tests that made their determination based on clear and explicit indications by the realtor.45 Some scholars have explained that “agents typically accept the initial request as an accurate portrayal of a white’s preferences but adjust the initial request made by a black to conform to their preconceptions. In the case of houses with visible problems, agents refuse to accept the initial request that whites want such a house, but have no trouble making this inference for blacks.”46 Now, there is evidence that such discrimination might have moved onto new platforms, with technology reinforcing human and societal biases. In March 2019, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced a lawsuit against social media giant Facebook, alleging that the platform allowed advertisers to use data in order to exclude certain racial groups from seeing home or apartment advertisements.47

Relatedly, black homebuyers are also more likely to be steered toward high-interest and high-risk loans when seeking to purchase a home, regardless of income or creditworthiness. A black family that earns $157,000 per year is less likely to qualify for a prime loan than is a white family earning $40,000 per year, which means that white families can borrow heavily at favorable rates, while black families are far less likely to receive a safe, fair loan product.48 In 2006, 53.7 percent of blacks and 46.6 percent of Latinx applicants received high-priced loans; only 17.7 percent of white borrowers did. This pattern remains even after controlling for borrower characteristics (income, credit score) and the amount of the loan, though the gaps do become less stark. Interestingly, these disparities actually worsened at higher income levels.49 Because predatory lenders are more likely to set up shop in predominantly black neighborhoods, their actions wind up leading to generational wealth loss in communities of color. One study indicated that, since 2005, more than half of all borrowers who were issued subprime loans could have qualified for lower-cost loans with more favorable terms.50 Because of their costs and risky nature, subprime loans are more likely to result in foreclosures, which have been disproportionately located in low-income and predominantly black neighborhoods. In the run-up to the subprime mortgage crisis, federal regulators failed in their obligation to recognize the targeting of African Americans and enforce the laws against bad actors who participated in this predatory behavior. The result was a staggering collapse of wealth among black communities; in Prince George’s County, Maryland, for example, during the crisis, “high-earning blacks were 80 percent more likely to lose their homes than their white counterparts.51

Current public policy choices hardly indicate that government will readily act as a reliable partner in seeking housing desegregation. To this day, public policy choices by state and local officials tend to steer public housing units, which are disproportionately occupied by black and brown residents, into high-poverty areas with fewer resources and opportunities. And the federal government’s two major programs that seek to help low-income people rent homes in the private market—the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program and Section 8 housing vouchers—often perpetuate economic and racial segregation.

To this day, public policy choices by state and local officials tend to steer public housing units, which are disproportionately occupied by black and brown residents, into high-poverty areas with fewer resources and opportunities.

The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which allocates a certain number of tax credits for states to distribute to developers according to housing needs, allows consideration of several factors that help determine where new housing will be located. Because housing agencies can consider community support levels when determining housing locations, and more affluent areas are more likely to organize in opposition to such developments, this housing is more likely to be steered into already-low-income communities.52 The nation’s largest low-income housing program—Section 8 vouchers—is directed toward individuals rather than state agencies or developers, in theory giving people more control over where they live. But despite this program’s potential advantage for integration, the limited nature of the vouchers does not provide sufficient support for families to rent in higher-income and more-advantaged areas. Moreover, some states actually allow landlords to reject Section 8 housing vouchers, as income (unlike race) is not a protected class.53

Rachel G. Bratt: What Happened to Public Housing?

A Study Guide for the film DOWN THE PROJECT: THE CRISIS OF PUBLIC HOUSING with commentaries by Rachel G. Bratt, Richard Broadman Public Housing him Project, Cine Research Associates

America’s public housing projects were once considered some of the best housing in the nation. What happened to stigmatize thiis program?


by Richard Broadman

The Free Market in Housing and the Alternative Tradition

The free market in housing and real estate is a hallmark of the American system. Americans take pride in owning property and buying, improving, and selling real estate. Many strive to own their own home, and to own a second piece of property as an invest-ment is seen as a sign of “upward mobility.”

But this free market in real estate has also brought decaying buildings. falling property values, and neighborhoods labeled “ghettoes.” In these areas’ landlords are not motivated to invest the money for needed repairs, and profits are often achieved by over-crowding. Historically, these areas existed throughout America’s cities in the era before government intervened in the housing market.

Today these two sides of the housing market remain pan of the American landscape. Despite a half-century of government pro-grams designed to eliminate overcrowding and renew “blighted* areas, places like the South Bronx or Watts remind Americans that there is an underside to the American dream of investment and upward mobility.

The Free Market

The free market in housing and real estate is inseparable from the forces of supply and demand, investment and profitmaking. During much of the development of our cities, regulation of building was scanty and what was built—and how—was determined largely by the possibilities for financial return. Countless exchanges between sellers, builders, and buyers produced the great variety of struc-tures that came to make up each city. Those seeking housing on the free market had to contend with standards and prices determined by the circumstances of past financing and construction as well as present demand.

While would-be rentors had to cope with the legacy of past mar-ket decisions, those speculators building or renovating units in an older, industrialized city often faced an expensive enterprise. Improving old housing could be too expensive to easily ensure profits. The high cost of purchasing vacant land which has been sold and resold at ever higher prices might force a developer to create luxury housing and exclude low- and middle-income people from an opportunity to rent or acquire new housing. When such factors as expensive land, high costs of demolition or renovation, and the high cost of borrowing converge, investors have been unwilling to create homes for any but the wealthiest Americans.

When urban housing was constructed on the free market for poor people, it often lacked the basic amenities that most of us would consider desirable—roominess, light and air, and sturdy construction. In general, the search for profits has meant that good quality housing has gone to well-off people and the poor have gotten older, less well-kept housing or cheaply constructed units.

In the nineteenth century, the failure of the market to produce adequate housing for poor people led to two types of reform movements. One tendency—typified by the efforts of the photographer Jacob Riis—sought the answer in regulating the private market (i.e., making laws that required adequate ventilation, prevented over-crowding, etc.) and in promoting non-profit housing ventures. Other groups, spurred by the protests of the propertyless, backed land reformers like Henry George (calling for sweeping changes in taxation) and demanded systemic change. These two reform traditions carried over into the twentieth century.

Alternative Trends: Public Financing and Planned Development

Public Financing and tire Example of Berlin

One alternative to unplanned speculative development arose in a Europe devastated by World War I. In ruined cities, housing had to be created quickly and in new ways. There were many innovative experiments—built and financed by trade unions or by local or national governments.

Before 1914, Berlin had been plagued by land speculation—it was simply too expensive to buy land for needed construction. During and after the war, in spite of dire housing shortages, there was little building and the market in land remained unstable. Land prices fell and the government seized the opportunity to freeze them and put into effect its own building plans. By the 1930s, the municipal government owned one-third of the city’s land. In the years immediately after the war, two-fifths to four-fifths of all land used for dwellings was in the municipal domain. In 1921, a tax was levied on all buildings built before the war and the funds used to provide mortgages on low-cost housing. Between 1919 and 1931 a devastated Germany used these methods to produce three million dwellings.

Planned Developments in Europe As opposed to the more random nature of development inspired by free market speculative forces, several European nations developed construction programs emphasizing planning for the needs of particular constituents. Sweden, England, Germany, and Austria boasted new planned communities. In addition, the “new architecture” of Walter Gropius and other innovators encouraged functional design and economies of scale. These architects attempted to influence the industrial production of housing in such a way as to mass produce more livable units at lower costs. Both this new design initiative and the concept of public financing of land acquisition and construction came to America during the Great Depression.

America’s Lobbyists: “Public Housers” vs. the Real Estate Lobby

After the stock market crash of 1929 the American financial system collapsed, and with it the production of housing. Houses were foreclosed, rents were uncollectible, and the building trades were struck by massive unemployment. In this situation, private enterprise was incapable of producing housing on a large scale. Special interests in the construction and home finance industry began to lobby to have the old methods of building resuscitated through government sup-port, while reformers saw a chance to intervene with methods based upon European models.

The “Public Housers”

The “public housers” were advocates of government financed and built housing. They were drawn together in 1932 in the National Public Housing Conference (NPHC) and the Labor Housing Conference (LHC). The NPHC leadership was composed largely of well-to-do reformers linked to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the tradition of Jacob Riis, they advocated low-income housing construction and slum clearance (the demolition of “sub-standard” housing). The LHC at the outset was inspired by European models of government-sponsored development. They opposed slum clearance because it would reduce the housing stock and minimize the effect of adding new units, as well as being more expensive.

Catherine Bauer was a major figure in the effort to bring new European housing ideas to the United States. She and the other housing activists working with labor claimed that the NPHC position was aimed at bolstering falling private property values rather than creating a new kind of housing system. The LHC organizers called for stronger measures: an end to company housing, a union wage on every construction job, rents on new units to be held to levels wage-earners could afford, demonstration projects in every industri-al center, and enabling legislation for the government to condemn and take land needed for housing. In order to gain New Deal sup-port for public housing, they would ultimately give in on many of these demands. (It should be noted that within this split among the “public housers” were the seeds of the later controversy over the national urban renewal program of the 1950s and 1960s, which authorized the demolition of “slums” that other reformers saw as viable neighborhoods.)

The Real Estate Lobby

Arrayed against the public housers were the representatives of the forces that had created America’s housing stock. Each lobbied for a housing hill that would serve the needs of its constituency. The National Retail Lumber Dealers’ Association, for example, called for the construction of housing made of wood, opposing construction with concrete, masonry, brick or steel. The United States Savings and Loan League (USSLL) represented those credit institutions that financed housing, opposing direct government financing of land acquisition and mortgages. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) together represented the interests of millions of large and small property owners and developers, and worked to shape a bill that would not create housing that competed with the private market. In addition, the United States Chamber of Commerce represented the business community generally through its many local chapters. These groups formed a broad conservative coalition that advocated public support of the private sector while resisting government interference in general.

These groups espoused the creed of the private market in real estate. They spoke the language of the small entrepreneur, defending property ownership as an inalienable light, ‘end attacking infringements of private property as un-American. The NAHB, NAREB, and Chambers of Commerce were national organizations composed of thousands of local chapters, having ready access to virtually every type of person with an interest in the private market. With strong, clear rhetoric and a well-organized base they represented a massive challenge to the coalition of reformers seeking systemic change.

The Housing Act of 1937 and the “Predestination” of Public Housing: A Series of Compromises

The Public Housers Struggle to Agree on a Bill

The housing reformers were split between the NPHC reformers, radicals like Catherine Bauer, and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions that made up their largest base of public support. These groups had first to come to agreement among themselves before a bill could be put forward.

The radicals who initiated the struggle for public housing wanted to put in place new mechanisms for acquiring property and building developments that would effectively remove private profit makers from the process. They wished to enlist labor’s support for legislation that would provide social services—health care and community programs—that would improve working people’s lives. The AFL building trades had developed pragmatic positions on most labor issues and exhibited conservative tendencies when faced with these positions. Labor leaders might believe that housing was part of a broader set of social concerns affecting workers’ lives, but such positions were viewed by the AFL leadership as beyond the scope of the current legislation. Far from demanding a total change in the way the American system produced housing, the union leadership acted, like the members of the conservative coalition, to protect the immediate interests of its constituent membership. As a-result, the 1934 AFL convention recommended that the radical organizers they were working with reduce the scope of the proposed legislation. By 1935, most of the radical provisions had disappeared. The AFL leadership had seen fit, however, to support provisions like the one advocating a union wage on every job. The activists had won on one provision they cared deeply about, though: the bill put forward with labor’s support had no slum clearance provision, which meant that housing in “slum” areas would NOT have to be destroyed to produce new housing units. The radicals considered this critical because their goal was an expansion of the housing stock leading to less crowding, more sanitary living conditions, and a gradual decrease in rents. Though this position was contrary to that of the old-line reformers in the NPHC, it remained part of the original public housing bill because the congressional leadership recognized that labors support was crucial to the bill’s passage.

The Conservative Response Forces a Limited Housing Act

The response of the conservative coalition was another matter. They fought the key provisions of the reformers’ bill and forced through several amendments that greatly affected public housing’s future:

  1. They insisted on the slum clearance provision that was an anathema to the radicals. “Equivalent elimination,” 1:1 destruction of units for each unit built, was to be included in the legislation. In the NAREB view, expansion of the housing stock in a massive way could lead to falling rents and declining property values.
  2. They called for—and got—a 4:1 ratio of income to rent. This formula would determine the economic class of people eligible to live in the new housing. (A 4:1 ratio, for example, would necessitate that a family spend one-quarter of its income on rent; a 3:1 ratio, one-third of its income. The latter family would be the poorer group, having to spend more of its income simply for housing.) The homers had called for a 5:1 income/rent ratio, which would permit normal, stable working-class families to live in the housing. In demanding the 4:1 ratio. the conservative coalition was arguing for a poorer client population. They wanted to ensure that public housing tenants would be those least likely to compete for middle-income housing on the private market.
  3. They worked to prohibit elaborate or expensive design and materials, so that public housing would not be competitive with private housing. This would later cause housing officials to practice “stark economies, squeezing down space, minimizing community facilities, eliminating anything that could be thought of as ‘glamorizing.'” 2
  4. They demanded that public housing be self-supporting insofar as management and operations were concerned. Real estate interests did not wish to compete with subsidized developments that did not have to pay their own way and at the same time added to the general tax burden. Catherine Bauer, whose familiarity with European housing experiments had stimulated her initial involvement in public housing advocacy in this country, had been aware from the fist of the contradictions inherent in proposing systemic change:

There is no getting around the fact that “modern housing” and much of the framework of contemporary western society are mutually antipathetic. The premises underlying the most successful and forward-pointing housing developments are not the premises of capitalism, of inviable private property, of class distinction, of governments bent on preserving old interests rather than creating new values. And the full implications have as a rule been better understood by the jealous guardians of the old order of things than by the advocates and the direct beneficiaries of housing. In a sense the housing achievement has constituted a world within a world, hampered by all the contradictions and insecurity attendant on such an anomalous position.

The creation of the Housing Act of 1937 was in many ways a working out of this dynamic. After all, it was only the dislocation of the economy caused by the Great Depression that caused the AFL and the conservative coalition to he interested in anything other than “business as usual.” All of these groups wanted to get the system moving again. The idealists of the public housing movement coin-promised first with their allies in labor and then with their opponents from the private sector in order to get a housing program through Congress. Those compromises in turn did much to deter-mine the shape of public housing to come: its intent, its design, its client population, its reception by the public at large, and its long-term future.

The First Years of Public Housing

In the years following the 1937 act some 160,000 units of public housing were built across the country. By the standards of that day they easily fulfilled the requirements of “safe, sanitary, and decent” housing. Compared to units available to people of modest means on the private market they were uniformly clean, well-managed, and had superior sanitary facilities. (A toilet in each apartment and hot and cold running water were not common amenities in the 1930s.) They had low rents that included heat and electricity.

The slum clearance provision caused distress in those communities where public housing was to be built. Whole neighborhoods had to be cleared to conform to the equivalent elimination requirement. Then there was the income limitation, which meant that some displaced families would be making too much money to move into the new housing, while others were excluded because they did not make enough to pay the rent. In addition, there was simply no assurance that displaced families would be priority candidates for the new housing. The particular rules and the level of enforcement depended largely on the local politics of the city or town where the housing was built.

Politics: The Boston Example

In the 1930s and 1940s public housing was considered a political “plum,” coveted by politicians because it provided local employ-ment and new homes cheaply for people in a given ward. Other politicized characteristics included the site selection process, the admission process, and the degree to which the income limitation and other rules would be enforced. The policies of a given project were determined largely by the relative strength of the real estate lobby versus the New Deal-oriented reformers and labor representatives in a given area, as expressed in the makeup of the local housing authority board.

The early years of public housing in Boston provide one example of how the 1937 act was implemented. Boston was home to some of the first projects (the Public Works Administration—PWA—built Old Harbor Village in South Boston in 1935) and the city had the largest number of units per capita built anywhere in the country. That a city the size of Boston had the largest total number of units after New York City indicates its strength in the New Deal political hierarchy. James Michael Curley (then governor) had been an early Roosevelt supporter and congressman John McCormack was a ranking “bread-and-butter” Democrat.

Throughout the period of demolition and construction by both the PWA and the local housing authority, local real estate groups organized protests of people being evicted, placed test cases before the courts, and agitated against the program as “state socialism… making its debut.”3 But in fact only two constituencies seemed to be unhappy with the way the program was working our in Boston—the realtors and those displaced by slum clearance. For the most part people liked the housing and wanted to live in it.

One other political factor was obvious in the implementation of this program in Boston: the income limitations were not enforced. The various political machines holding power in this Democratic city between 1935 and 1950 allowed many ‘over-income” people to reside in the housing, including many who worked for the city. Here the price of holding political power included returning favors to the well-organized wards and building trades that supplied Democratic candidates with votes. Whether Democratic officeholders were con-servative or- liberal made little difference—there were few votes to be had in the 1930s by supporting the 4:1 income limitation in this city, or by opposing the construction of public housing. For Boston those conflicts awaited a later time.

The Housing Act of 1949 and Its Results

During and after World War 11 a fundamental realignment occurred in housing politics. While in the 1930s the driving force was the desire to resuscitate a collapsed system and send people back to work, policymakers of the 1940s were concerned that massive unemployment not reappear when the war came to an end and millions of American troops came home. This position was most clearly espoused by the Committee for Economic Development (CED), formed in 1942 by leaders of major corporations with an interest in long-term planning.4

The conservative lobbies remained on the scene, led by the Chamber of Commerce and, on housing issues, the NAREB. These right-wing groups were consistently against public programs, unions, and the income tax. Supported by small business and sectors of big business, they generally resisted participation in the CED-sponsored planning effort, which they deemed likely to lead to “big government” and big federal budgets.

The pro-housing lobby was still composed of the old reform elements and labor. By 1944 this coalition called for the creation of a housing program that would provide units for the returning veterans as well as jobs building those units. But in other ways their position was very different from that of the Depression era. Rather than seeking a massive government-financed public housing program, pro-housers pushed for a package which would satisfy forces interested in slum clearance and private developments while allowing the old public housing program to continue. In fact pro-housers had become a part of the New Deal administration, and their position was now closely tied to the planning-oriented CED elements.

In the housing plans sponsored by Roosevelt’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal, public housing was to be part of an overall scheme of federally subsidized clearance and housing starts in which the major impetus was the subsidy for private-sector developments. Public housing itself was to be built by private developers, with its bonds sold to private investors, and its client population (as before) those who could not afford to live in private-market housing.

This new vision of postwar housing clearly linked growth in the private housing industry to the nation’s economic wellbeing, with government subsidies provided when needed to get large developments started, insure mortgages, etc. This was a far cry from the original vision of the public housers, who had looked to government landbanking, direct financing, and construction to keep housing costs from spiraling ever upwards.

The Conservative Lobby Attacks the New Housing Bill

The battle for a postwar housing bill lasted several years and was pan of a broader political struggle. Truman’s Fair Deal was opposed by conservative forces which opposed big government, big budgets, the Marshall Plan, a full employment bill, and coexistence with the Communist bloc. The position of the real estate lobby was argued by Joseph McCarthy, among others, who entered the senate in 1946. The fight over the bill was particularly vicious, especially over the public housing clauses, which the right wing attacked as “socialism.” Truman countered with a sustained attack on the real estate lobby, calling for a congressional investigation of its activities. When the act passed in 1949, it was by only five votes.

The legislation bears the marks of this battle. Once again the issue of income limits for housing residents was key. McCarthy forced the insertion of this phrasing:

Every contract shall require that, as between families of equally low income otherwise eligible for admission…the agency shall not discriminate against any such families because their incomes are derived, in whole or in part, from public assistance. In assisting tenants the question of greatest need shall be given due consideration.

In addition, first priority was to be given to families which are to be displaced by any low-rent housing project or by any public slum-clearance project or redevelopment project…

The new emphasis on welfare recipients indicates the degree of compromise forced on the pro-housers. The original intent of idealists like Bauer had been to house the working class and build strong communities based on the European housing model. She had serious doubts about the stability of projects made up largely of a welfare population.

In fact the primary goal of the act had nothing to do with public housing, but “renewal.” Now that there was to be a general plan for each city, public housing was meant to fulfill those roles not profitable for the private sector—relocation housing for poor people uprooted by renewal and units for those incapable of supporting themselves without public assistance. Other measures afforded private developers a profit margin by having the government acquire and clear land and sell it to them, and by guaranteeing 90 percent of the cost of each unit.

It was the real estate lobby that had focused the debate on the public housing issue and determined its client population. On the local level it attacked the site selection process and raised local animosities over the slum clearance provisions in the bill. And the real-tors were successful: organized in every city and town, they were able to limit public housing construction to 84,000 units over two-and-a-half years, 50,000 less than was authorized by the act.

Public Housing in the 1950s and 1960s

The Boston Example: Post-1949

The Housing Act of 1949 opened an era of conflict and decline for the public housing program.

In Boston, the implementation of the act had a profound social impact. Here, as in other cities. early public housing had been generally well received. But after 1949 larger, denser projects were built which were used as a dumping ground for those uprooted by the urban renewal program, and they became linked in the public mind to racial conflict and poverty.

The Boston case is illustrative of how the private sector reacted to this public program and shaped it as part of the postwar dynamic of economic growth.

The initial reaction of the local private forces to the 1949 legislation was negative. The Boston Real Estate Board (BREB) inveighed against public housing as socialistic, costly, and as government interference in the business of real estate. The election of a business-oriented mayor in 1950 (Hynes) led to the enforcement of income limitations in the housing after fifteen years of domination by the more traditional Democratic political machine. As a result, some over-income city employees connected to past administrations were forced out.

But the fact that federal funds were available for public housing construction provided the incentive for massive building by those developers who received the contracts. In this period Columbia Point, Bromley Heath, and Mission Hill Extension were built. These projects were built on cheap land or near the older small projects; and they were high-rise, greatly increasing project density. In their first years they were, like the older units, desirable as inexpensive new homes. They attracted little attention in the midst of the post-war boom in single-family homes spurred by federally underwritten mortgages and loans to veterans. But while the suburbs were growing, Boston proper was not a center of growth that attracted private Investment. Rather it was perceived to be in decline, having lost much of its manufacturing base to the South.

In this setting some Boston leaders began shaping a plan for the “renewal” of the city. Such planning was encouraged as the key to getting federal funds for private development by the housing acts of 1949, 1954, and 1960. As early as 1942 CED planners working with Boston businessmen had identified solutions for a stagnant regional economy (see previous page). These were now brought forward in a modified form and included highway construction and university and medical facility expansion. By the mid-1960s they would reach tangible expression in Route 128, a highway circling Boston’s perimeter and providing access for many new high-tech industries, and an urban renewal plan that provided federal subsidies for the expansion of Boston’s many cultural institutions.

Boston’s major period of redevelopment began in 1960 with the election of John Kennedy as president. It was clear that if a plan was put in place, federal monies would be there to support it. In December, a $90 million program was approved for funding which was intended to affect one-half of the city’s population and one-quarter of its area. It was supported by the whole business community because of the size of the undertaking and the amount of money involved. Even the BREB approved, for here public housing was to have the special role of making private development possible by providing a place to put poor people uprooted by renewal.

By 1963 a specific set of plans was ready which heavily favored university and hospital expansion and residential developments in a number of poor and working-class neighborhoods. As land takings began, public housing was forced to accommodate people from all over the city. Mission Hill, Columbia Point, and other dense developments soon became centers of conflict as stable housing developments attempted to absorb a new and often troubled population. (The story of the racial confrontation this created in one neighbor-hood is depicted in Mission Hill and the Miracle of Boston, another film distributed by Cine Research.) Housing Authority budgets did not keep pace with the new demands for social services’ and repairs. This is the era when project grounds were blacktopped for easy maintenance, when a largely white housing authority staff stopped making repairs, and the more stable families left the projects.

But the effects of urban renewal were much wider. Neighborhood residents across the city reacted vigorously to the spread of conflict around them as well as to the land takings in their area. From Brighton to Mission Hill, neighborhood groups organized against the plan. Elements of the business community split with the BREB for not representing the interest of small property-owners and entrepreneurs. Finally, in 1965, Boston’s “development czar Ed Logue was forced to withdraw some neighborhoods from the plan. But the public’s view of public housing was irrevocable. From this point on locating projects in any Boston neighborhood would be a political impossibility. Other types of projects might be constructed under different formulae, but the neighborhood population was now critically aware of pure ‘public” housing as an invitation to trouble—because it was synonymous with poverty, new populations, and violence.

Public Housing Today

The Issues of Race and Class in Public Housing The politics of race and class are seldom discussed in relation to the public housing program, but they have been an important factor. In the early years there was de facto segregation, with all-black projects being built in black neighborhoods. Projects built after 1950 were sometimes integrated by public housing administrators, as was Columbia Point in Boston. After 1950 the opponents of public housing, who were organized on a town-by-town basis, were able to frustrate the site selection process by raising local fears about the federal government’s intent to integrate new projects. The 1950s had seen the arrival of many southern black migrants who eventually came to live in the big projects of New York, Chicago, Boston, and other major northern cities. With the coming of urban renewal and the use of projects as dumping grounds, the fear of forced integration and the spread of conflict was ampled.5 In many working-class communities residents could be made CO fear the effects of new poor or displaced populations—be they black or white. Sinking property values and racial conflict seemed to come hand in hand with the projects, and real estate lobby spokespeople made constant reference to public housing in these terms. In this way, race and class became the basis of the public housing stigma.

The Public Housing Legacy

It is of course ironic that those who began by opposing public housing have been largely able to shape its destiny. They were able to determine its client population, then made it work for private sector interests as part of the urban renewal plan, and finally stigmatized it by playing on the fears created by these two factors. Never did they acknowledge their own role in the way the program turned out.

In the 1970s and 1980s the real estate lobby continued to push for private sector subsidies like the “turnkey* and other programs. In recent years, private industry operatives have been key in the administration of HUD, which oversees the public housing program. This constituted the death-knell of the old housing reformers’ control of the program, which is dying a slow death through under-funding while the HUD leadership pursues initiatives like the “privatization’. of public housing—selling it to tenants and letting it become part of the private market. But for most public housing there is no easy solution. Many projects are large and continue to bear the stigmas of class and race, and selling units is not easy. Nor has the original problem gone away: these units are still needed to provide safe, sanitary, and decent housing to those whom the private market provides nothing. As homelessness increases through-out the nation, Americans may well ask themselves what happened to the vision of a viable public housing program.

Despite the decline of the public housing program, many projects throughout the country remain desirable. In New York City, a very expensive housing market, public housing is in great demand among poor people and is in good repair. The same may be said of some projects in Boston, like Old Harbor Village, or of projects in smaller cities and towns. But public housing has been stigmatized. Working-class and middle-class people often avoid living near—or even passing through—these developments, and often resent and mistrust the municipal and federal authorities that built these projects in their neighborhoods. This is largely a result of the conflicts and problems engulfing the housing authorities in the major urban areas. These may in turn be attributed to the uses of public housing put forward in its enabling legislation in 1937 and in 1949.

Did the program have to turn out as it did? The conventional wisdom of the 1980s and 1990s might well say yes. We live in an era in which public institutions—like the post office and even the weather service—are under attack from forces seeking privatization, in which -socialism’ and nationalized industries seem discredited. Private enterprise has fostered growth, money, and power for those in the upper tiers of our society.

Yet many Americans have not shared the benefits of these changes, and fear of recession is endemic. And the probability of recession is measured in pan by any decline in housing starts. In these ways the world is not so different from that world in which public housing and other public initiatives were conceived. In Europe and throughout the world public housing programs exist without stigma. Depending on the country, they house people of mixed races and cultures and in a variety of income brackets. Many governments continue to build public housing, with landbanking and government financing as part of the programs. As with all institutions, some of these programs have problems, some are better and some worse. But the fact that their housing is considered a public benefit should lead us to re-evaluate our own views on public housing, and to reconsider both its history and its original vision.


by Rachel G. Bratt

(The following commentary analyzes bow structural characteristics of the public housing program produced unanticpated long-term results and bow the program has worked in recent is taken from Rachel G. Brats, REBUILDING A LOW-INCOME HOUSING POLICY,Temple University Press, 1989.)

The Background to the Program’s Fiscal Problems

From its inception, the public housing program was aimed at providing housing only for the deserving, temporarily poor—the “submerged middle class.” The program therefore targeted those who could not find decent, affordable housing on the private market, but not the so-called unworthy poor and those with no means to pay rent.

The expectation that tenants should pay their own way expressed itself in the formula the federal government devised for financing public housing. Tenant rents were to cover all operating expenses, independent of debt service. Only the principal and interest on bonds, which. were floated by local authorities to construct the buildings, were paid by the federal government, through annual contribution contracts. Thus the federal government covered the long-term debt financing, while ownership and management were vested in local public agencies. This arrangement worked well during the early years of the program

After World War II, however, the country’s demographic picture began to shift, and so did the population served by public housing. As Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA) mortgage insurance and guarantee programs became available to vast numbers of new home buyers, and as the interstate highway system took form, most of the submerged middle-class residents of public housing surfaced, to assume full-fledged suburban middle-class status. As a further concession to the private construction industry, the 1949 Housing Act limited public housing to very-low-income people by requiring that the highest rents be 20 percent lower than the prevailing rents for decent housing in the private market, and by authorizing the eviction of above-income families. Publicly provided housing was now available only to the very poor…

But by the 1960s, serious problems with the financing formula had surfaced. Inflation was having an increasing impact on operating costs, while rental income remained static. Starting in 1961, the Public Housing Administration (later merged into HUD) made the first in a series of attempts to alleviate this problem by authorizing additional subsidies up to $120 per year for each elderly household. Within a few years, these subsidies were also provided in behalf of handicapped, displaced, large, and very-low-income families.

During the 1970s, the overall problems facing public housing worsened. Inflation continued to boost operating expenses, and many buildings that were, by then, twenty or more years old, began to show signs of aging and a need for major repairs. At the same time rental incomes were either declining or, at best, keeping up with expenses.

In an effort to insulate tenants from having to make up for operating cost shortfalls, Senator Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) sponsored legislation (known as the Brooke Amendments, 1969-1971) that capped rentals at 25 percent of income and provided additional operating subsidies. Between 1969 and 1972, operating subsidies nationally rose from $12.6 million to $10278 Million. Between 1971 and 1982, operating subsidies jumped more than tenfold, to $1.3 billion. And for fiscal years 1988 and 1989, the Housing and Community Development Act of 1987 authorized a total of more than $3 billion, with an appropriation of $1.45 billion for FY 1988.

Since 1975, operating subsidies have been provided through a mechanism known as the Performance Funding System (PFS). Funding levels under the PFS are set by examining the costs of a sample of housing authorities considered to be well managed and then using these costs to determine reasonable expenses for all authorities. One of the major criticisms of the PFS is that operating subsidies are based on past funding levels of well-managed authorities and do not take into account the actual cost of providing an adequate level of management services.

Thus the original funding formula, by excluding funds for operating and maintenance costs, undermined the public housing program. Despite the assistance provided by operating subsidies, many repair problems worsened to such an extent that very large sums of money were needed to remedy the most physically dilapidated projects. Altogether, the current modernization program, called the Comprehensive Improvement Assistance Program, and its predecessors received $7.9 billion from 1975 to 1986. During the middle years of the Reagan administration, funding declined considerably, with only $707 million expended in 1986, down from $1.26 billion in 1983. With the passage of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1987, the modernization program received a major boost, with an appropriation of $1.7 billion.

The Results of Voluntary Local Participation

The highly polarized nature of the debate surrounding the 1937 Housing Act also helped shape the administrative structure of the public housing program. Administration was to be decentralized, and participation by localities was to be voluntary.

This meant that decisions about public housing—whether to build it and where to locate it—would be made by local officials, who would be under significant pressure from their constituents. The decentralized structure also eliminated the potential for the federal government either to enforce more progressive policies or override local decisions.

The right of local communities not to participate in the public housing program guaranteed that within metropolitan areas, public housing would be most prevalent in large cities. As a result, low-income people, already lacking housing options, were to be restricted still further; the choice to move to the suburbs usually was not available to them. Local control Over the program meant that little or no public housing was built in more affluent areas.

As the program evolved, accommodating increasing numbers of blacks and other minorities, local control over public housing contributed to patterns of racial segregation with white areas effectively keeping out blacks. Large cities, with large minority populations. also served a high percentage of minorities in their developments. As of 1976, 83 percent of public housing tenants in twenty large cities were members of minorities, compared to 61 percent for the overall public housing population.

Thus, opposition by the private homebuilding industry, maintenance and operating fund shortfalls, and class and racial segregation have continuously plagued the public housing program. As early as the 1950s, even some of public housing’s most ardent supporters began to lose heart.

In 1973, President Nixon called a halt to all federally subsidized housing programs. Since then, the program has limped along, with the full impact of the moratorium being felt from 1976 to 1978: With very little new money appropriated during the 1980s, production declined, once the projects that had been in the pipeline during the Carter administration were completed.

The Domination of Private Sector Programs

The history of public housing not only reveals how several key forces and decisions shaped the program but also reflects how the federal government has changed its thinking about its role in subsi-dizing housing for low-income people. Although the public housing program started out with management and ownership resting solely with the local public housing authority, as the program came under attack in the mid-1960s, the private sector was looked to as a way to deal with the nation’s low-income housing needs.

The Section 23 program was authorized in.19.65. Known as the leased-housing program, it served as a prototype for the housing allowance idea and enabled low-income families to rent units in privately-owned housing. The housing authority entered into long-term contracts with landlords and paid the difference between the unit’s market rent and a proportion of the tenant’s income. Over 100,000 units were financed through this program before it was superseded by the Section 8 Existing Housing program in 1974.

The ‘turnkey” form of public housing also was introduced in 1965. Under this program a developer entered into a contract with a local housing authority to construct a project. The developer then sold the project (or “turned the key” over) to the housing authority at the stipulated price. Since 1965, about one-third of all new public housing projects have been built in the turnkey method but it is unclear whether it has reduced either the time or costs of development or improved quality. From the developers’ viewpoint, the turnkey program was enormously popular. In 1968, the president of the National Association of Home Builders suggested that new public housing authorizations be directed primarily at that program. Calling it the first attempt in the 30-year history of public housing to use, for the lowest income brackets, the tremendous resources and productive capacity of the private homebuilding industry,” he cited the turnkey program for exemplifying “the proper role of government in helping private industry to expand into areas not attain-able without such help.’

In addition to these changes, new programs (Section 202, Section 221(d)(3), Section 236, Section 8) were initiated that bypassed public housing completely, in effect subsidizing the entrepreneur to pro-vide private housing.

Thus, while the early history of the public housing program was characterized by staunch opposition by the private sector, over the past two decades private interest groups have evolved into active supporters of most housing subsidy programs. Although they are still opposed to conventional public housing, they are certain to show support for government programs explicitly geared to stimulating the homebuilding industry and providing investment opportunities.

Observations about the Record of Public Housing

  1. Popular perceptions concerning public housing tenants turn out to be relatively accurate. A majority of residents are nonwhite, with estimates ranging from 62 to 86 percent. White residents tend to be much older than nonwhites, with the latter generally having at least two children. Over three-quarters of all public housing households are headed by single adults, usually an elderly person living alone or a single parent with children. Finally, more than half of all public housing tenants depend on welfare for their income.
  2. While conventional wisdom assumes low satisfaction levels among public housing tenants, many surveys of public housing resi-dents make clear that the majority of residents report positive feel-ings about their housing.
  3. Despite its concentration in large cities, public housing is still far more dispersed than many believe. Almost two-thirds of all public housing units are administered by the 2775 housing authorities that operate fewer than 6500 units; the 22 largest public housing authorities administer the remaining one-third of the units. In addition, most public housing developments (54 percent) are relatively small, having fewer than 200 units; most family public housing units (75 percent) are in low-rise buildings (four or fewer storeys); only 7 percent of all family public housing projects are both high-rise and have more than 200 units; and as of 1980, public housing projects were, on average, seventeen years old.
  4. A 1988 study conducted by Abt Associates under contract to HUD calculated that about $22.2 billion is needed to repair and modernize the public housing stock; of this, $9.3 billion is needed to repair or replace existing architectural, mechanical, and electrical systems and $12.9 billion is needed to upgrade and modernize the public housing stock.
  5. included in the above estimates is the cost of repairs and modernization for a segment of the public housing stock that may be too distressed to fix. The current number of units in projects that are not economically or socially viable ranges from a HUD estimate of 73,000 with another 95,000 that could fall into this category to an estimate by the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities of some 138,000 units that are facing serious difficulties.
  6. The conventional wisdom of what constitutes a physically bad project is not borne out by the evidence: Most stereotypical projects do not exhibit severe problems. Although projects with stereotypical characteristics present problems more frequently than the rest of the public housing stock, they represent only a small percentage of all public housing developments.
  7. By going along with the notion that public housing should provide only minimal accommodations, public housing administrators may have given the opposition its greatest ammunition. Indeed, many public housing projects, overly modest and austere, did evolve into bad housing. The public sector’s quest to provide no-frills housing, combined with the private sector’s unrelenting demand that public housing be different from the rest of the housing stock, undermined the notion that public housing could also be attractive housing.
  8. Management has a significant impact on the quality of public housing. Since the 1960s, inadequate management has been cited as a serious deficiency of many large housing authorities. Problems have revolved around two broad issues: financial mismanagment, and inadequate or insensitive handling of tenant-related matters.
  9. Over the years, HUD has instituted a series of programs to encourage better management procedures. Overall, the results of these initiatives have been mixed. Some of the programs were not fully implemented or evaluated, while others were only one-shot efforts. One of the most significant efforts to upgrade management was the National Tenant Management demonstration, a program modeled after tenant management corporations In St. Louis and several other cities.
  10. Until passage of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1987, HUD did not offer any programs to local housing authorities to support the creation of tenant management corporations. With the passage of this act, Congress authorized HUD to spend some $5 million in fiscal years 1988 and 1989. Although this is a significant step, it is of such a small scale that tenant management will not, at least at this point, become a dominant feature of local housing authorities’ operations.
  11. The image of public housing as inaccessible to public services and other facilities is frequently accurate. Because public housing in many large cities was developed quite late in their stage of development, much of the best land was often already built upon. In addition, public housing development casts had to fall within prescribed limits, which also put pressure on local housing authorities to acquire the cheapest land available, usually in less desirable locations. But the most important factor contributing to the location of public housing relates to a key administrative aspect of the program discussed earlier, the power of local governments to determine the location of developments. Opposition to proposed projects was usually vehement, as a result, projects tended to be located less in existing neighborhoods than in more out-of-the-way areas. Local city councilors and chief executives were reluctant to antagonize community residents. Therefore, the easiest and most expedient solution often was to build public housing in areas where no one lived or wanted to live. Boston’s notorious Columbia Point public housing project was located on the cite of the former city dump.
  12. Public housing generally has not furthered the goal of racial integration. In addition to the program’s decentralized administrative structure, which gave local housing authorities the freedom to dis-criminate at will, segregation in public housing was also the policy of the federal government during the early years of the program. The Neighborhood Composition Rule, formulated by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, stated that housing projects should not alter the racial character of their surrounding neighborhoods. Although housing authorities were permitted to offer units to whites and blacks on an “open occupancy” basis, most authorities chose to provide “separate but equal” housing. As a result of these policies, the earliest public housing projects were built for occupancy either by whites or by blacks. The original plan for Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis was for two segregated projects, Pruitt for blacks and Igoe, across the street, for whites. Segregation patterns in Boston’s public housing were also finely drawn. In 1940, the first project to accept blacks was completely segregated. The second project open to blacks had specific buildings earmarked ‘the colored section.” Notwithstanding this effort and other changes in HUD site selection procedures. years of discriminatory practices have had their effect. At present, public housing, particularly family public housing, is still often segregated. In many cities, such as Boston, predominantly white projects and predominantly black projects may be only a few blocks from one another. It is important to emphasize that in its racially segregating policies, the public housing program was operating within the norms of society. Discrimination in the private market was standard procedure, and public housing did nothing to challenge the system.
  13. Equity (in the sense of “fairness”) is also cited as a major reason for opposing public housing and the other subsidized production programs in favor of income supplements. For example, the 1982 Report of ibe President’s Commission on Housing pointed out that past housing programs were not equitable ‘because they provide a few fortunate tenants very high-quality housing at a price less than their neighbors pay for lower-quality housing.” Those who wave the banner of equity when assessing rent-subsidized production programs appear to have a misplaced sense of social justice: The benefits of the nation’s largest housing subsidy are enjoyed by households far more affluent than public housing tenants. All homeowners, regardless of income, are entitled to deduct mortgage interest as well as property tax payments from their income for federal tax purposes. The result is that about $40.billion in tax revenues are currently being lost to the federal government, with this amount • expected to increase to over $50 billion by 1993. Even more alarming is that the beneficiaries of this subsidy are those in the upper-income groups. The Low Income Housing Information Service has calculated that about two-thirds of the total homeowners’ subsidy is received by those earning over $50,000 a year. Thus, large’ benefits to public housing tenants are not nearly as large as the savings enjoyed by upper-income households.
  14. The comparative costs of public housing can be summarized as follows. First, although the comparison is not a fair one because, in the case of public housing, new units are built, and in the housing allowance programs they are not, it is less costly to subsidize a household through the Section 8 Existing Housing program than to subsidize the construction of a new unit of public housing. Second, the cost of subsidizing households in existing public housing units is no higher than the cost of subsidizing households in existing private units through the Section 8 program. Third, although no definitive conclusions can be drawn about the present cost of budding new public housing in comparison to the other types of subsidized housing programs that have been utilized in the past, public housing does emerge in a relatively positive position.
  15. Another component of the cost issue relates to who owns the housing when the subsidy period terminates. Privately owned subsidized housing is earmarked for low-moderate-income occupancy for limited periods of time. In contrast, local public housing authorities own public housing in perpetuity.
  16. The vast majority of public housing developments are financially viable. Although operating subsidies and modernization funds have often been -too little” or ‘too late,” they have managed to keep the vast majority of projects running. In a relatively few instances, local housing authorities have abandoned seriously distressed projects. Some notable examples are Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Columbia Point in Boston, and America Park in Lynn, Massachusetts. In each of these cases, however, inadequate funding to upgrade the buildings was probably not the major reason for abandoning the low-income projects. Instead, poor location and long-standing social problems may have precluded the continuation of those particular low-income developments.

Down The Project: The Crisis of Public Housing – PREVIEW

On the Media: The Scarlet E, Part IV: Solutions (History of Public Housing)

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We have an eviction crisis, which is really just one part of a broader housing affordability crisis. Incomes are too low for rents. Rents are too high for incomes. The barriers to home-buying are growing, especially for younger Americans. The wealth gap between black and white Americans is spreading, driven largely by inequalities in housing. The shockwaves from the foreclosure crisis continue. And in some cities, gentrification drives up costs and drives away low-income families.

Luckily enough, there are solutions — quite a few of them, in fact. In this fourth and final episode of The Scarlet E: Unmasking America’s Eviction Crisis, we evaluate the proposals, which range from subtle to significant.

First, a look back on a solution that worked in some places and was allowed to fail in many others. We visit Atlanta, home to the nation’s first public housing projects. We learn how the city has since destroyed or converted all of its public housing. And with the help of Lawrence Vale, author of Purging the Poorest: Public Housing and the Design Politics of Twice-Cleared Communities, we look at one public housing project, in Boston, that continues to thrive.

And then we look at solutions, both proposed and in-play. Again in Atlanta, we meet landlord Marjy Stagmeier, whose unique model improves nearby schools’ performance — and still turns a profit. We speak with sociologist Matt Desmond about the need to fully fund our Section 8 housing voucher program, and to encourage, or compel, landlords to accept voucher-holders. And we touch on the housing proposals from several Democratic candidates for president. Matt wonders whether our federal housing policies — for instance, the mortgage interest deduction — are subsidizing those most in need. We also ask New York City Councilmember Mark Levine and South Carolina legislator Marvin Pendarvis about possible reforms in our housing courts. We hear from Marty Wegbreit, director of litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, about how Richmond turned its shame over its high eviction rates into policy. And we consider ways that some cities might increase their affordable housing supply by doing away with restrictive, exclusionary zoning policies.

Why did we build high-rise public housing projects?

Further Readings

NY Times: How Homeownership Became the Engine of American Inequality

The Atlantic: White Flight is Alive and Well

Vox: White America is quietly self-segregating

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Back to Top of History of Affordable Housing Crisis

Affordable Housing Crisis Today

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What is affordable housing?

  • Housing expenses shouldn’t be more than 30% of income
    • Leaving 70% of income for food, clothing, transportation and other necessities
    • Spending over 30% income on housing is “overburdened” or “rent burden”
  • “Affordable housing” is an industry centered housing at 30% or below
    • There are dozens of programs designed to make housing more affordable.
    • Can refer to both for sale and rental housing.
    • Over 80,000 apartment communities are assisted with government assistance
  • Types of Affordable Housing
    • Divided into three parts:
      • “Tenant based” or “ Section 8” subsidies to help with rent at private households
        • Also Section 8 homeownership program
      • “Project based” subsidies given to the owner of housing units that must be rented to lower income households at affordable rates
      • “Public Housing”, which is usually owned and operated by the government.
        • Some public housing projects are managed by subcontracted private

Affordable Housing Online: What is affordable housing?

“We as a country have generally agreed that housing expenses shouldn’t be more than 30% of what you earn, leaving 70% of your income for food, clothing, transportation and other necessities. If you spend more than 30% of your income on housing expenses, you are considered “overburdened”.

A broader definition of the term “affordable housing” describes an entire industry centered around the provision of this type of housing. There are dozens of programs designed to make housing more affordable.

Many of these programs you think of immediately like the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. Other programs that make housing more affordable are very common but people don’t think of them as “government programs”.

One such “affordable housing program” is the mortgage interest deduction. In fact, this is the largest of all housing subsidy programs. More than 34 million homeowners claim the deduction each year claiming more than $68 billion in housing subsidies. Unfortunately, the way the MID is structured, more than 34% of those benefits go to families earning more than $200,000. So in this case, an “affordable housing” program is subsidizing large, luxury homes for the wealthy making those homes “more affordable”.

Affordable housing can refer to both for sale and rental housing. There are many homeownership programs (in addition to the MID) that help lower income persons and first time home buyers purchase modest homes at reasonable rates. Many Americans have relied on these homeownership programs to help them get started in their first home.

Rental housing is made affordable by many Federal and state programs. More than 80,000 apartment communities across the country are assisted with one form or another of government assistance. These apartment communities make renting an apartment affordable for millions of Americans.”

Wikipedia: Affordable Housing

“The federal government in the U.S. provides subsidies to make housing more affordable. Financial assistance is provided for homeowners through the mortgage interest tax deduction and for lower income households through housing subsidy programs. In the 1970s the federal government spent similar amounts on tax reductions for homeowners as it did on subsidies for low-income housing. However, by 2005, tax reductions had risen to $120 billion per year, representing nearly 80 percent of all federal housing assistance. The Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform for President Bush proposed reducing the home mortgage interest deduction in a 2005 report.

Housing assistance from the federal government for lower income households can be divided into three parts:

  • “Tenant based” subsidies given to an individual household, known as the Section 8 program
  • “Project based” subsidies given to the owner of housing units that must be rented to lower income households at affordable rates, and
  • Public Housing, which is usually owned and operated by the government. (Some public housing projects are managed by subcontracted private agencies.)”

What is Affordable?

“The federal government calculates the affordability of housing across the country, using what’s known as area median income, or AMI. Even though the official terminology can be different at the local or state level versus the federal level, the concept is broadly the same: Housing should cost no more than 30 percent of a household’s monthly take-home pay.” Oscar Perry Abello, New Cheat Sheet Shows Who Can Afford Affordable Housing

  • HUD says affordable housing
    • Is 1/3 of income often based on the Area median income (AMI)
      • AMI is the household income for the median — or middle — household in a region.
  • 2018 DC Area median income (AMI) is $117,200 – family of 4
    • DC 2017 median income was $75,506
      • Below 80% AMI
    • DC 2016 median income for white families was $127,369
      • over 100% AMI
    • DC 2016 median income for black families was $37,891
      • 32% AMI
    • Earning $15 an hour, 40 hours per week
      • Earns $31,200 a year (27% AMI)
    • Annual salary to afford average 1 bed unit is $80,466.67
      • Or $41.90 per hour
    • 1 in 4 DC renters spend more than 50% income on rent

“The number of apartments deemed affordable for low-income families across the US fell 60% between 2010-16. Most new construction of multifamily housing generally serves high-income renters” Freddie Mac

Empower DC Slides from a Presentation on DC Affordable Housing & Gentrification

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Affordable Housing Crisis

  • National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) has found that
    • More than 7 million extremely low-income families do not have an affordable place to call home
    • Half a million people are living on the street, in shelters, or in their cars on any given night
  • Federal housing resources serve 5 million low-income households
    • Only 1 of 4 eligible families receives needed rental assistance due to chronic underfunding
    • Nearly half of the nation’s 43 million renting households are rent burdened
      • 2 million severely cost-burdened renter households ((50% income on rent)

“Each year, Congress spends $200 billion to help house American families. 3/4s of these resources go to help subsidize the homes of the highest-income households through the mortgage interest deduction (MID) and other homeownership tax benefits. This means that we spend more to subsidize the homes of the richest 7 million households, who earn more than $200,000 a year, than to assist the 55 million lowest-income renters, those with the greatest and the clearest needs.

Today, federal housing resources serve approximately 5 million low-income households, but the needs of millions more go unmet. Due to chronic underfunding, only one out of every four eligible families receives needed rental assistance. The national Housing Wage of $21.21 per hour for a two-bedroom apartment indicates that the average full-time worker earning the minimum wage will need to work 117 hours per week to afford a modest two-bedroom rental home. The high cost of housing has resulted in more than 11.2 million severely cost-burdened renter households spending more than half of their income on housing.

National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) has found that more than 7 million extremely low-income families do not have an affordable place to call home and half a million people are living on the street, in shelters, or in their cars on any given night. The problem is systemic and is reaching almost epidemic proportions. Rents are soaring in every state and community at the same time when most Americans haven’t seen enough of an increase in their paychecks.” Rep. Keith Ellison & Diane Yentel – The Hill

Empower DC Slides from a Presentation on DC Affordable Housing & Gentrification

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Further Readings

Washington Post: America’s affordable-housing stock dropped by 60 percent from 2010 to 2016

Rent Burden

“We have a rapidly diminishing supply of affordable housing, with rent growth outstripping income growth in most major metro areas. This doesn’t just reflect a change in the housing stock.  Affordable housing without a government subsidy is becoming extinct. More renters flooded the market after people lost their homes in the housing crisis. The apartment vacancy rate was 8% in 2009, compared to 4% in 2017. That trend, coupled with a stagnant supply of apartments, resulted in increased rents.” David Brickman, VP of Freddie Mac Multifamily


Empower DC Slides from a Presentation on DC Affordable Housing & Gentrification

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“The national Housing Wage of $21.21 per hour for a two-bedroom apartment indicates that the average full-time worker earning the minimum wage will need to work 117 hours per week to afford a modest two-bedroom rental home. “Rep. Keith Ellison, Diane Yentel – The Hill


  • 3/4 DC renters with housing cost burden in DC are extremely low-income
    • Below 30% of area median income, or $33,000 for a family of four
    • Less than 1/3 of new rental units produced by DC’s housing programs have been affordable to this group

Rent Café Blog: 8 Out of 10 New Apartment Buildings Were High-End in 2017, Trend Continues in 2018

  • % of new large scale apartment buildings (50+ units) constructed as high end
    • 2012, 50%
    • 2015: 76%
    • 2017: 79% (1,270 of the 1,600 apartment buildings)
    • 2018: 87% for first half of year so far
  • Of the nation’s 30 largest cities
    • there are 6 urban areas were renters saw nothing but high-end apartments in 2017

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Washington Post: In expensive cities, rents fall for the rich — but rise for the poor

“U.S. cities struggling with soaring housing costs have found some success in lowering rents this year, but that relief has not reached the renters most at risk of losing their housing.

Nationally, the pace of rent increases is beginning to slow down, with the average rent in at least six cities falling since last summer, according to Zillow data.

But the decline is being driven primarily by decreasing prices for high-end rentals. People in low-end housing, the apartments and other units that house working-class residents, are still paying more than ever.

Since last summer, rents have fallen for the highest earners while increasing for the poorest in San Francisco, Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Pittsburgh, Washington and Portland, Ore., among other cities. In several other metro areas — including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston and Miami — rents have risen for the poor and the rich alike.

The ongoing increase in prices for low-end renters poses a challenge for city officials who have vowed to lower housing costs for working-class residents already struggling with tepid wage growth in the U.S. economy.

City officials have said a boom in luxury housing construction would cause rents to fall for everyone else, arguing that creating new units for those at the top would ease competition for cheaper properties.

In part based on that theory, cities have approved thousands of new luxury units over the past several years, hoping to check high rents that have led more than 20 million American renters to be classified as “cost burdened,” defined as spending more than 30 percent of one’s income on housing.

But although some advocates say the dividends could still pay off for low-income renters, others say more direct government action is needed to prevent poor residents from being forced out of their cities or into homelessness. They have called for the federal government to help construct more affordable units, or offer greater rental assistance for poor families.

“For-profit developers have predominantly built for the luxury and higher end of the market, leaving a glut of overpriced apartments in some cities,” said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group. “Some decision-makers believed this would ‘filter down’ to the lowest income people, but it clearly will not meet their needs.”

Poorer city residents have experienced significant rent increases over the past several years. In Portland, average rents for the poor have risen from about $1,100 to $1,600 — or by more than 40 percent — since 2011.

In San Francisco, the average rent at the bottom of the market has soared from $1,700 to $2,600, a nearly 50 percent increase. Seattle’s poor have also had their rents rise by close to 40 percent. Nationwide, rents for those at the bottom have increased by 18 percent.

Rising rents for the poor threaten to add to the nation’s homeless population, and put an additional severe strain on tens of millions of families, often forcing them to forgo other basic needs to avoid losing their housing.

Construction in most U.S. cities came to a standstill during the Great Recession, amid a broader collapse in the housing market. As the economic recovery took off, its gains were disproportionately concentrated in a handful of cities, leading renters to move in droves to already densely populated urban areas.

There was not enough housing there to greet them. By the early 2010s, rents in major cities were beginning to increase by more than 10 percent annually. Several cities declared emergencies over their rising homeless populations.

In the following years, protracted battles have occurred in city halls nationwide over the size and makeup of urban communities, often pitting longtime homeowners trying to preserve the value of their properties against developers seeking to profit from the high demand.

Mayors have been caught in the middle, aiming to accommodate an influx of new residents who help boost the local economy without displacing those who have lived in their cities for decades. They have also faced intense pressure from influential developers and business groups that have pressed for the ability to develop new homes, as well as from landlords who enjoy high rents and fear seeing those values diluted.

The result has been a range of policy measures, including reforming zoning codes to encourage more development, creating new tools to finance affordable housing projects and rules mandating that developers include affordable units in their properties.

These measures have shown some signs of reducing rents, for both the rich and, to a lesser extent, the middle class.

For renters in the middle third of the income distribution, average rental prices have remained virtually unchanged since last summer, according to the Zillow data. Rents over the past year have also fallen slightly for the middle class of renters in Portland, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle.

The lack of affordable housing can be particularly pronounced in smaller cities such as Portland, which has struggled to accommodate about 40,000 new residents since 2010.

From 2010 to 2014, the city built only a few hundred affordable housing units, according to a city report. Since 2014, more than 95 percent of private construction in the city has been in “the luxury end of the market,” said Nick Fish, a city commissioner.

Private housing construction has exploded in Portland’s downtown area, along its south waterfront and in its historically black northeast community. But even as the city’s population has ballooned, its black population has decreased since 2014 by an average of 800 people every year, probably pushed out by gentrification, according to a study by Portland State University researchers.

In an email, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) pointed to 948 affordable rental units expected to open in 2018 and an additional 978 units scheduled for 2019. “We are actively creating housing options at every income level in every area of the city,” he said, adding that 10,000 more units are coming soon. “Our efforts are beginning to pay off: This will be the largest number of affordable units ever produced by the City of Portland in a single year in modern history.”

But for Rakhelya Levitskaya, a 66-year-old home-care aide who works with the elderly and disabled, little help appears to be on the way. A Ukrainian immigrant who has lived in the same Portland housing complex for 18 years, Levitskaya received notice of an approximately 10 percent rent increase this summer that she fears will push her into homelessness.

“I’m afraid of living out on the streets, without a house,” she said in an interview. “I’m very worried.””

Mortgage Interest Deduction (MID)

  • What is MID?
    • Allows homeowners to write off some of their loan payments
    • Will cost us $68.1 billion in 2017
      • Representing one of the largest expenditures in our tax code
  • Who Benefits from MID?
    • Household earning $200,000 or more receives 4x assistance as one making $20,000 or below
      • More than 72% of MID funds is captured by the richest 1/5 of the country
      • The bottom 2/5 see less than 2%
    • 2017 – 60% of the $190 billion that the govt spent on housing went to households earning more than $100,000
  • MID offers no benefit to those who can’t afford to buy a home and must rent instead
    • Rents are rising faster than inflation, so incomes can’t keep up.
    • 1/2 of rental households spend more than 30% of their income on rent
      • ¼ are spending at least half of their income on rent
    • 1 out of every 4 low-income families who qualify for rental assistance actually gets it
  • $22.5 billion a year to end homelessness by extending assistance to every needy family in US (CAP)
    • $38.1 billion – Estate tax breaks for millionaires/billionaires in 2016 (CAP)
    • $66.5 billion – Tax-free profits on home sales (home sales are excluded from capital gains tax) in 2016
    • $49 billion – Mortgage Interest Deduction (MID) that went to richest 1/5 in 2017
  • Possible MID reforms
    • Tax Foundation estimates capping MID at $500,000, instead of 1 million, would raise $319 billion over a decade
    • Converting MID to a credit, which would open up the benefit to lower-income families
      • Deductions are not that helpful when you’re already at a low tax bracket



Hill: The affordable housing crisis and its connection to the wage-rent gap

“…Each year, Congress spends $200 billion to help house American families. Three-fourths of these resources go to help subsidize the homes of the highest-income households through the mortgage interest deduction (MID) and other homeownership tax benefits. This means that we spend more to subsidize the homes of the richest 7 million households, who earn more than $200,000 a year, than to assist the 55 million lowest-income renters, those with the greatest and the clearest needs.

Today, federal housing resources serve approximately 5 million low-income households, but the needs of millions more go unmet. Due to chronic underfunding, only one out of every four eligible families receives needed rental assistance. The national Housing Wage of $21.21 per hour for a two-bedroom apartment indicates that the average full-time worker earning the minimum wage will need to work 117 hours per week to afford a modest two-bedroom rental home. The high cost of housing has resulted in more than 11.2 million severely cost-burdened renter households spending more than half of their income on housing. This is wrong.”

The Nation: Long Sacrosanct, the Mortgage-Interest Deduction Comes Under Scrutiny


The news, at first, seemed welcome: In their quest to reduce the myriad deductions that Americans can use to lower what they owe at tax time, House Republicans proposed capping the mortgage-interest deduction at $500,000 and getting rid of it entirely for second homes.

The deduction has long been sacrosanct, surviving decades of reform attempts thanks to powerful lobbying groups. But given that the deduction helps those who need assistance the least, it’s ripe for change.

Of the $190 billion that the government spent on housing in 2015, about 60 percent went to households earning more than $100,000. A household earning $200,000 or more received, on average, four times the amount of assistance as one making $20,000 or below. That’s mainly because the mortgage-interest deduction, which allows homeowners to write off some of their loan payments, overwhelmingly benefits the rich. It will cost us $68.1 billion this year, representing one of the largest expenditures in our tax code. But more than 72 percent of that benefit is captured by the richest fifth of the country, while the bottom two-fifths see less than 2 percent. And, of course, the deduction offers no benefit at all to those who can’t afford to buy a home and must rent instead.

Yet it’s the latter group that is in the most dire need of assistance. Rents are rising faster than inflation, so incomes can’t keep up. Just about half of rental households spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, above what’s considered affordable; about a quarter are spending at least half of their income on rent.

It wouldn’t cost a whole lot to change this picture. Only one out of every four low-income families who qualify for rental assistance actually gets it. Yet it would take just $22.5 billion a year to end homelessness by extending assistance to every needy and vulnerable family in the country.

The deduction wouldn’t even have to be eliminated completely to offer meaningful help to low-income families. The Tax Foundation estimates that capping it so that it applies only to the first $500,000 of existing and future mortgages would raise $319 billion over a decade, mostly by taking away benefits from the richest fifth. Converting it to a credit, which would open up the benefit to lower-income families (who don’t typically itemize their deductions), would raise another $105 billion.

So reforming the deduction would be a more-than-welcome change in tax policy. And, at first, it looked like Republicans had finally gotten on board with the idea. But they’re already botching it. When Senate Republicans unveiled their tax plan, the deduction was left as is. The same was true in President Trump’s own proposal, despite early indications that he would cap it. Perhaps it’s not so shocking that many Republicans have now balked at touching the deduction; when the House unveiled its own bill, the powerful National Association of Home Builders quickly blasted it.

But even if Republicans were to stick to their guns and reform the deduction, they aren’t proposing to use the recouped tax revenue to assist poor families. Instead, the savings would be used to keep down the overall cost of the GOP’s tax plan, which is mostly a giveaway to those who are already wealthy. By 2027, the wealthiest 0.1 percent of the country will get a quarter of the benefits, which translates into an extra $278,370 in their pockets. Meanwhile, the poorest fifth gets just 0.3 percent, or a mere $10 extra. Other analyses have found that many low- to moderate-income families would wind up with a tax increase.

There’s a glimmer of hope to be found in the fact that years of staunch opposition—in both parties—to reforming the mortgage-interest deduction may have finally cracked. But while this regressive tax benefit desperately needs to be changed, it only makes sense if the federal assistance offered to rich families is funneled toward those struggling to make rent. Instead, many Republicans want to get rid of it to hand yet more money to the rich. That would utterly squander a chance at meaningful reform.

Exclusionary Zoning Laws

  • Began early 20th century to ban minorities in white communities
    • Explicit racial zoning was made illegal in the 1917
      • but “indirect” racial exclusionary zoning is still popular today
    • During white flight/suburbanization thousands of white suburbs created exclusionary zoning to keep people of color out
  • Zoning ordinances to make it difficult to build mixed-income housing, multi-family or apartment buildings
    • All “indirect ways” to prevent affordable housing/often people of color
  • Higher-income and predominately-white jurisdictions generally adopt more restrictive land-use regulations
    • Result in minority and lower-income groups are locked into segregated neighborhoods
  • Regs limiting density decrease total local housing supply
    • Lowering housing stock increases market demand and raises prices
  • Inclusionary Zoning
    • Requires a portion of new construction to be affordable
    • DC’s Inclusionary Zoning requires 8–10% of residential area to be affordable

Where is Affordable Housing In DC


  • Only 53 homes out of the 9,285 total recent affordable homes, or about 0.6%, are located in Ward 3
  • All affordable units West of Rock Creek created by inclusionary zoning
  • Not Trust Funds or tax credits
  • Restrictive zoning and neighborhood opposition to multifamily construction have impeded new housing development west of Park


Only A Small Portion of Affordable Units Are Within Reach for DC’s Lowest-Income Residents

  • 3/4 DC renters with housing cost burden in DC are extremely low-income
    • below 30% of area median income, or $33,000 for a family of four
    • Less than 1/3 of new rental units produced by DC’s housing programs have been affordable to this group


Supply-Side Housing Economics Myths

  • Myths
    • Building more houses will decrease housing demand and lower prices for everyone
    • “Filtering”, trickle down theory for housing, as wealthy and middle-class people move to newly built homes, older and more dilapidated homes will “filter down” to working and poor people, resulting in more housing units for everyone
  • Reality
    • Building “high end” housing does very little to decrease rent for “low end” units
    • Building “high end” housing can increase gentrification causing:
      • Rents to increase on “low end” units
      • Pressure for redevelopment that excludes or decreases affordable housing
    • Numerous cities have seen over the last few years:
      • Housing supply increases (from population decline or new units) and still saw their housing prices increase
      • Focusing most new housing at “high end” may see rent decreases for “high end” but rent increases for “low end”
        • Baltimore, DC, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Austin, San Francisco, Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Pittsburgh, etc
      • Supply-side approaches often only decreases rent prices in the price range you build in/increase access to
        • Very little “trickle down”

“The supply-side argument convinces policy-makers that packing as many people and businesses into as many properties of this sort is an urgent need that will benefit everybody. In truth, only the developers, speculators, and landlords profit from it. If the need was for housing we’d see pressures to maintain existing stock so we don’t lose any ground while we build much needed supply, but instead the pressure is all towards tearing down what we have and replacing it with something more luxurious.

Gentrification actually in and of itself disproves the supply-side argument.” Andrew Dobbs – Medium

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Single-family zoning is practically gospel in America, embraced by homeowners and local governments to protect neighborhoods of tidy houses from denser development nearby.

But a number of officials across the country are starting to make seemingly heretical moves. The Oregon legislature this month will consider a law that would end zoning exclusively for single-family homes in most of the state. California lawmakers have drafted a bill that would effectively do the same. In December, the Minneapolis City Council voted to end single-family zoning citywide. The Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Julián Castro have taken up the cause, too.

A reckoning with single-family zoning is necessary, they say, amid mounting crises over housing affordability, racial inequality and climate change. But take these laws away, many homeowners fear, and their property values and quality of life will suffer. The changes, opponents in Minneapolis have warned, amount to nothing less than an effort to “bulldoze” their neighborhoods.

Today the effect of single-family zoning is far-reaching: It is illegal on 75 percent of the residential land in many American cities to build anything other than a detached single-family home.

That figure is even higher in many suburbs and newer Sun Belt cities, according to an analysis The Upshot conducted with UrbanFootprint, software that maps and measures the impact of development and policy change on cities.

If this moment feels like a radical shift, said Sonia Hirt, a professor at the University of Georgia’s college of environment and design, it was also a radical shift a century ago when Americans began to imagine single-family zoning as possible, normal and desirable. That shift led Minneapolis to look like this:


70% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes

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Minneapolis’s new policy will end single-family zoning on 70 percent of the city’s residential land, or 53 percent of all land. The Upshot used public zoning data compiled by UrbanFootprint to calculate this and draw similar maps for 10 other American cities.

Zoning codes vary significantly by city. But in each place, we sought to identify codes devoted to detached single-family homes, grouping rowhouses more common in older East Coast cities like Washington and New York into a second category covering all other housing types. (The earliest American zoning advocates clearly did not put rowhouses in the same category: A home, they believed, was a house “which one can drive a yoke of oxen around.”)

Many cities allow additional housing in nonresidential zones: for instance, in apartments built over offices or stores. These maps highlight the land exclusively set aside for housing.

Washington, D.C.
36% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes

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Such maps reflect the belief that denser housing can be a nuisance to single-family neighborhoods just as a factory would be. That conviction is at least as old as the 1926 Supreme Court decision that upheld zoning in America.

Apartments, the court warned, block the sun and air. They bring noise and traffic. They act as a parasite on single-family neighborhoods — “until, finally, the residential character of the neighborhood and its desirability as a place of detached residences are utterly destroyed.”

Today, the very density that the court scorned is viewed by environmentalists as an antidote to sprawling development patterns that feed gridlock and auto emissions. It’s viewed by planners as an essential condition to support public transit, and by economists as the best means of making high-cost cities more affordable.

Single-family zoning “means that everything else is banned,” said Scott Wiener, a California state senator, speaking this spring at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Apartment buildings — banned. Senior housing — banned. Low-income housing, which is only multi-unit — banned. Student housing — banned.”

Cities regularly “upzone” individual neighborhoods or properties to allow more housing options. Minneapolis’s remarkable approach was to upzone every single-family neighborhood at once. That was the fairest solution, officials argued.

“If we were going to pick and choose, the fight I think would have been even bloodier,” said Heather Worthington, director of long-range planning for the city.

New York City

15% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes
Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 9.16.59 PM.png

Even so, some residents vocally opposed the change, and the city collected 20,000 public comments on the broader plan that included the zoning proposal. The City Council ultimately voted for it, 12-1. If, as expected, a regional council approves it this year, duplexes and triplexes will be allowed citywide on what are now single-family lots.

The lesson of Minneapolis, said Salim Furth, an economist at the conservative Mercatus Center, is that a single, sweeping edit to these maps may be politically easier than block-by-block tweaking.

Over time, if just 5 percent of the largest single-family lots in Minneapolis — lots of at least 5,000 square feet — converted to triplexes, that would create about 6,200 new units of housing, according to UrbanFootprint. If 10 percent of similar-sized lots in San Jose, Calif., added a second unit, the city would gain 15,000 new homes.

“If you want to have the suburban American lifestyle, that will still be on offer,” Mr. Furth said. “What we’re really trying to change is that that has become so universal that there’s not much space left for anything else.”

A moment of crisis

While zoning remains invisible to many people, the problems it’s connected to increasingly are not.

“Every community has to have a moment of crisis that eventually makes you pay attention to certain things,” said Taiwo Jaiyeoba, the planning director for Charlotte. “You knew they were there, but there was no impetus or motivation to address it.”

Charlotte, N.C.
84% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes
Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 9.17.52 PM.png

Note: Duplexes are allowed on corner lots in single-family zones.

The crisis struck in Charlotte in 2014, he said, when a national study ranked the region as having among the worst prospects in the country for poor children. Public meetings and task force reports followed, focused on Charlotte’s racial and economic segregation.

Zoning laws helped cement those patterns in cities across the country by separating housing types so that renters would be less likely to live among homeowners, or working-class families among affluent ones, or minority children near high-quality schools.

Mr. Jaiyeoba believed Charlotte had to change its zoning to become more equitable. But that argument seemed abstract until Minneapolis acted on it. This spring, Mr. Jaiyeoba invited Ms. Worthington to town to explain the idea in a public forum. Charlotte doesn’t have a formal proposal yet, but he hopes elected officials will lead the city toward one.

Ms. Warren, Mr. Booker and Mr. Castro, who have similarly emphasized racial inequality, have proposed leveraging federal money to nudge cities to change zoning laws.

San Jose, Calif.
94% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes

Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 9.18.45 PM

Note: Area calculations do not include roads, sidewalks or railways.

On the West Coast, a severe housing shortage and environmental concerns loom larger. Single-family zoning leaves much land off-limits to new housing, forcing new supply into poorer, minority communities or onto undeveloped land outside of cities.

In California, a bill by Mr. Wiener affecting zoning statewide has been stalled by homeowners and local officials who object to state interference in their communities. The bill would allow more density around transit and jobs centers. It would also permit single-family homes to be subdivided into as many as four units, and multi-unit buildings to go up on vacant lots in single-family neighborhoods.

Los Angeles
75% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes

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Oregon’s bill would allow options as dense as fourplexes across cities larger than 25,000 people and within metropolitan Portland, and it would permit duplexes in towns of at least 10,000. Portland has spent several years planning its own zoning changes to single-family neighborhoods, amid opposition by homeowners.

But the prospects for such ideas have improved from even two years ago.

Portland, Ore.
77% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes
Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 9.20.32 PM.png

“Wages are up, people are working, unemployment is way down — and people can’t find a place to live,” said Tina Kotek, the speaker of the Oregon house and the author of the new bill. The dissonance between those facts, she said, is changing the politics of zoning.

The state has long regulated “urban growth boundaries” intended to protect farmland and green space beyond cities. But even so, many communities have been reluctant to grow denser inside those boundaries. In Oregon, the joke goes, people hate sprawl and density.

“At some point,” Ms. Kotek said, “something’s got to give.”

A return to history

High-level arguments about the environment, affordable housing or equity invariably meet more prosaic objections: What if some neighborhoods lack enough parking? Or if one person’s development shades another’s backyard? How are apartment buildings more environmentally friendly if they replace all the trees?

“What we’re selling here in Minneapolis — or what our planning department and our city council are selling — is that we’re new, we’re state of the art, we’re cutting-edge, we’re virtue signaling,” said Lisa McDonald, a former Minneapolis City Council member and part of a group opposing the city’s plans.

In reality, she said, Minneapolis is giving itself away to developers. They’ll build more market-rate housing, she said. But she doubts the city will get much more affordable housing — or less racism, more equity or a fairer society. Beware those promises, she warns other cities.

81% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes

Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 9.21.39 PM.png


People elsewhere say their legitimate fears about traffic or the environment have been mischaracterized, caught up in an emotional debate over race and fairness. Martin Henry Kaplan, an architect in Seattle whose neighborhood association sued to block looser regulations on “accessory dwelling units,” recalled as a child that his parents couldn’t buy a house in a neighborhood where Jews weren’t welcome.

“I’m old enough to actually have lived in some of that,” said Mr. Kaplan, who is 70. But he does not see bigotry behind the objections to upzoning today. “Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve grown up here, I have tons of friends in every neighborhood across the city, and I don’t get the sense that anybody thinks like that.”

Policies originally conceived in part to be exclusionary, he said, can still be useful toward nonexclusionary ends, like ensuring that neighborhoods don’t have more residents than their sewers can handle, or that families who sink their savings into a home know what to expect around it.

“Zoning has a role,” Mr. Kaplan said, “in addressing land-use regulations for the common good.”

This debate is partly about the scale of that common good, given that the common good desired within many single-family neighborhoods conflicts with the common good across whole cities where housing is scarce or segregated. In an uneasy compromise between those interests, Seattle in March upzoned 6 percent of its single-family land.

79% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes
Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 9.22.29 PM

Cities have typically prioritized single-family homeowners above other groups, with the old belief that dense housing hurts their property values, said Andrew Whittemore, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Evidence supporting that belief is mixed, but Mr. Whittemore suggests it’s the wrong thing to focus on.

“Why is it the job of a government to see that a housing unit accumulates as much value as possible?” he said. “I think the purpose of zoning is to prevent harm. Planners shouldn’t be wealth managers. But they effectively are in every municipality in the country.”

That is particularly true in more suburban communities where a higher share of land is devoted to housing, and a higher share of that housing is required to be single-family.

Sandy Springs, Ga.
85% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes
Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 9.23.17 PM

Citywide proposals to change these maps are not as unprecedented as they appear today. In 1960, Los Angeles had the zoned capacity for about 10 million people, according to Greg Morrow at the University of California, Berkeley. By 1990, Los Angeles had downzoned to a capacity of about 3.9 million, a number that is only slightly higher today. As a result, the city’s actual population is now uncomfortably close to what it legally has room for; residents of Los Angeles today effectively fill about 93 percent of the city’s zoned capacity, by Mr. Morrow’s calculation.

Arlington, Tex.
89% of residential land is zoned for detached single-family homes
Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 9.24.09 PM

Advocates who want to curb single-family zoning, he said, are not pushing an idea that has never been tried before. They’re lobbying for a return to the past.

Many Minneapolis blocks today date to before the 1920s, with duplexes or small apartment buildings next to single-family homes. For years, those older buildings have been considered “nonconforming,” as the law changed around them. Under Minneapolis’s new plan, that distinction will end, too.

Mixed-use zones and other nonresidential districts, gray on these maps, may allow housing in addition to other uses, like offices. The following cities allow accessory dwelling units like garage apartments or in-law suites on some or all single-family lots, typically with many restrictions: Minneapolis, Washington, Charlotte, San Jose, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles. Some cities include adjacent land uses like churches, schools, parks or cemeteries in residential zones.

Propublica: Separated by Design: How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing

In southwest Connecticut, the gap between rich and poor is wider than anywhere else in the country. Invisible walls created by local zoning boards and the state government block affordable housing and, by extension, the people who need

WESTPORT, Conn. — A dirt field overgrown with weeds is the incongruous entrance to one of America’s wealthiest towns, a short walk to a Rodeo Drive-like stretch replete with upscale stores such as Tiffany & Co.

But this sad patch of land is also the physical manifestation of a broader turf war over what type of housing — and ultimately what type of people — to allow within Westport’s borders.

It started when a developer known for building large luxury homes envisioned something different back in 2014 for the 2.2 acre property: a mix of single- and multifamily housing that would accommodate up to 12 families. A higher density project is more cost efficient, he said, and would allow him to sell the units for less than the typical Westport home.

But the site was zoned to hold no more than four single-family houses, so he needed approval from a reluctant Westport Planning and Zoning Commission, which denied his plan. Residents erupted in fury each time he made a scaled-back proposal, and it took the developer four years after purchasing the property to win approval to build two duplexes and five single-family homes.

“You are selling out Westport,” one resident yelled out as the final plan came up for a commission vote last spring. Other residents picketed commission meetings with signs reading “Zoning is a Promise.”

The commission’s discussion was couched in what some would regard as code words and never directly addressed race or income. Chip Stephens, a Republican planning and zoning commissioner, voted against the plan, declaring, “To me, it’s too much density. It’s putting too much in a little area. To me, this is ghettoizing Westport.”

Now under construction, these two-bedroom duplexes and single-family homes have a price tag of $1.2 million, the going rate for a home in this swanky village just outside Bridgeport and Norwalk.

“We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get this through. Would I do this all over again? No. Probably not,” said the developer, Johnny Schwartz, of Able Construction.

Welcome to Connecticut, a state with more separate — and unequal — housing than nearly everywhere else in the country.

This separation is by design.

Westport is only one example of a wealthy Connecticut suburb that has surrounded itself with invisible walls to block affordable housing and, by extension, the people who need it.

In a liberal state that has provided billions in taxpayer money to create more affordable housing, decisions at local zoning boards, the Connecticut Capitol and state agencies have thwarted court rulings and laws intended to remedy housing segregation. As far back as data has been kept, Connecticut’s low-income housing has been concentrated in poor cities and towns, an imbalance that has not budged over the last three decades.

Many zoning boards rely on their finely tuned regulations to keep housing segregation firmly in place. They point to frail public infrastructure, clogged streets, a lack of sidewalks and concerns of overcrowding that would damage what’s often referred to as “neighborhood character.”

Westport is one of the nation’s wealthiest cities, with mansions like this one overlooking the Long Island Sound. (Jacqueline Rabe Thomas/The Connecticut Mirror)

An investigation by the Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica has found that more than three dozen Connecticut towns have blocked construction of any privately developed duplexes and apartments within their borders for the last two decades, often through exclusionary zoning requirements. In 18 of those towns, it’s been at least 28 years.

In Westport — where gated residences overlook the Long Island Sound and voters solidly backed Democrats in the most recent state and presidential elections — private developers have been allowed to open just 65 affordable housing units over the last three decades. Public housing rentals operated by the local housing authority have also grown at a snail’s pace, with 71 new units opening in this charming small town of 10,400 homes.

The impact of this logjam on families is that the share of housing specifically dedicated for low-income residents has actually decreased by small percentages in one-quarter of Connecticut’s municipalities since 1990.

“I think the vestiges of our racial past are far from over,” said former Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who left office in early 2019 after eight years and regularly butted heads with General Assembly members who wanted local officials to have even more authority over housing decisions. For minority residents striving for safe and affordable housing, the state has “denied the opportunity that we allowed white middle-class aspirants to access,” Malloy said.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers and bureaucrats watch from the sidelines, reluctant to intervene.

This doesn’t appear likely to change any time soon.

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat from Greenwich who took office this year, declined to be interviewed for this story, but he has said his statewide goal is to “work collaboratively with the locals in terms of what they want and what they are not willing to take. At the end of the day, that community will probably take the lead on making that choice.”

Lisa Tepper Bates, Lamont’s senior coordinator for housing and transit-oriented development, said in an interview that the administration hopes to bring change by adopting a “different philosophy, which is to go to the communities and try and have this discussion and try and see how far we can get.”

The Cunningham family is feeling the brunt of decisions left to local zoning boards.

Ashana Cunningham, a 33-year-old mother of three, lives 9 miles from Westport’s posh downtown.

Cunningham fell on hard times after being injured in a car crash that left her without transportation. She had to quit her job after a two-week hospital stay and now works part time at a day care center for $12.50 per hour. Cunningham is looking for a better paying job and affordable housing for her family. (Cloe Poisson, special to ProPublica)

Each workday, she takes a bus from a homeless shelter in Bridgeport, where she lives with her family among a landscape of abandoned factories, run-down houses and trash-lined streets to her job in a suburban cornucopia a few miles away.

She tends to children from privileged families at a pricey day care in Fairfield. Two days a week she works a second job at Family Dollar.

This is not the life Cunningham imagined. She earned an associate degree to become a medical assistant but has never made more than $14 an hour. She and her wife struggled to pay $1,200-a-month rent for a small Bridgeport apartment, and then her wife became disabled and could not work.

A car crash further complicated their lives. Cunningham was injured and left without transportation — and, ultimately, out of a job.

By the time she found the day care job, which pays $12.50 an hour, the family was living in the shelter, where the smell of bleach lingers and bachata music from a neighbor’s apartment pulses through the walls. Her second job as a cashier pays $11 dollars an hour.

She knows that she is trapped, that moving to a town like Westport, Trumbull or Fairfield is impossible.

“There’s no other place for us to go. Fairfield or Trumbull? Forget about it,” Cunningham said. “You can’t afford to pay your rent if you are only making $707 every two weeks.”

“You Build Where You Can”

Racial and economic segregation is not unique to Connecticut, but it is extreme and runs counter to the state’s liberal image. Democrats have controlled the state legislature for 22 years and the governor’s mansion for eight.

In southwest Connecticut, the gap between rich and poor is wider than anywhere else in the country. Black and Hispanic residents statewide live in some of the nation’s most segregated neighborhoods, census data shows.

The repercussions of living in segregated neighborhoods often last a lifetime.

“Neighborhoods matter,” researchers at Brown, Harvard and the U.S. Census Bureau concluded.

The “Opportunity Atlas” they created makes clear just how much it matters by showing the stark differences in where the 20.5 million children they tracked ended up. For example, children who grew up in Cunningham’s Bridgeport neighborhood were five times more likely to be imprisoned on April 1, 2010, than those who grew up 2 miles down the road over the Fairfield line. The Bridgeport natives also made half the income of their Fairfield peers.

But the families of low-income children have few housing options in Connecticut’s higher-opportunity neighborhoods: 63 of the state’s 169 municipalities have no housing authorities to facilitate the creation of public housing and manage it.

In southwest Connecticut, where Cunningham lives with her family, it costs 3.5 times more to live near high-scoring elementary schools than the struggling schools her children attend, the Brookings Institution reported.

“Would-be movers would have to spend about $25,000 more per year on housing to make that jump,” Brookings found.

Malloy, now a visiting professor at Boston College, explained in an interview why such a large share of affordable housing that opened during his tenure was in the poorest neighborhoods.

“You build where you can, where a community is inviting,” he said. “I do believe that there is not an openness and willingness to have the people who work in town, live in town. Maybe that’s because some towns want everyone to be the same. I don’t know why a town wouldn’t want a fireman or a policeman or a day care worker who works in their community to be able to live in that community.”

Dannel P. Malloy, the former Democratic governor of Connecticut, in Bridgeport. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

During Malloy’s years in office, his administration directed $2.1 billion in public funding to renovate run-down public housing or build new housing so more low-income residents have an affordable place to live. The new housing was disproportionately built in the state’s poorest communities, however. Three-quarters of the new units constructed since 2011 were in the state’s 10 poorest municipalities, although only 20% of Connecticut’s housing stock is located in these communities. Just over 5% opened in the 10 wealthiest towns.

Government subsidies aside, another way to bring down housing costs is to build duplexes or apartments on a lot — but that’s not being allowed in many communities, despite state law requiring local zoning commissions to “encourage” such development in order to “promote housing choice and economic diversity in housing.”

While dozens of towns have not permitted any duplexes and apartments to be built in two decades, the multiunit construction in another three dozen towns just replaced similar units that had been demolished. (This new construction data only includes privately owned residential developments and not public housing, dorms or hotels.)

Local zoning rules are often to blame for the lack of more affordable development.

“You can’t even build a duplex. Zoning just kills it,” said Sean Ghio, policy director at the Partnership for Strong Communities, an advocacy group that lobbies for more affordable housing. “People often fear the unknown, and as a result try to keep the unknown out of their lives by maintaining the status quo. The status quo in Connecticut is living in segregated communities.”

Local officials, however, say there are often legitimate reasons to deny multiunit housing because local infrastructure is not in place or there are environmental concerns.

“Unfortunately, we are limited in what we can provide,” said Joyce Stille, who since 1995 has been the administrative officer of Bolton, a small town in central Connecticut that has limited sewer access and where just one duplex has received a permit in 30 years. “Because of our proximity to Vernon and Manchester, we don’t really need any [affordable housing]. They have such a wide range of options. People don’t come to Bolton because Bolton has a higher cost of living.”

Only 19 cities or towns allow housing with three or more units to be built without requiring special permits, according to a 2013 review by Trinity College’s Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project and the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. Twenty-five municipalities explicitly prohibit such housing and 123 require a special town permit.

In some towns that do allow it, other zoning requirements make it exceedingly difficult for projects to come to fruition since they need more land to build anything besides a single-family home.

For example, Monroe, a high-income town in southwest Connecticut, requires at least 70 acres for multifamily housing construction, and each unit may have no more than two bedrooms. A single-family home requires 1 acre.

In its specially zoned “Housing Opportunity District,” 20 acres of land are required to build multifamily housing, but because of density restrictions only 13 apartments or townhomes may be built.

Avon requires 15 acres for a two-unit home, compared with 1/3 acre for a single-family residence.

“A large lot requirement makes it financially infeasible for such housing to be built. That’s just logic,” said Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens, who did the analysis that Connecticut’s Department of Housing used in its mandatory report to the federal government on exclusionary zoning.

A Watered-Down Law

All of this comes 30 years after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled for the first time that exclusionary zoning practices that quash moderate-priced housing are illegal. That groundbreaking case involved a truck driver attempting to build an affordable single-family home in middle-class East Hampton that was smaller than the minimum square feet the town required. The justices ruled against the town, saying its requirements “are a form of economic discrimination.”

In the following months, state lawmakers passed a law that set the stage for the courts to review local zoning decisions in towns with few affordable homes. Most notably, the law — commonly referred to by its statutory reference as 8-30g — outlined the process for developers to bypass local zoning decisions by going through the courts if they set aside 30% of a project’s units for poor people.

The construction of affordable housing off of Westport’s highly commercialized Route 1. (Jacqueline Rabe Thomas/The Connecticut Mirror)

But the law had limited impact. Just 2% of all the housing developed in Connecticut since then is dedicated to low-income families. Since the law passed, the share of housing for low-income residents has actually decreased in 47 of the state’s 169 municipalities, according to state Department of Housing data.

“Any developer who’s going to use [this law] has to be ready for the potential of a long, expensive slog, first through the zoning commission and then through the court system,” said Timothy Hollister, the land-use attorney who won the East Hampton case. He has been trying since 2005 to win approval for a client to open affordable units in Westport.

Each year, legislators file a slew of bills to weaken the law.

State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, a Republican from Fairfield who served as the ranking member of the legislature’s Housing Committee from 2013 to 2018, said her top committee priority is to scale back the law.

“Predatory developers are taking advantage of communities, and we aren’t getting much affordable units out of it,” she said. “In 30 years, the needle hasn’t moved. It’s not working. Let’s brainstorm and come up with some ideas that may actually work.”

Former Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Republican from Fairfield, said amending the law was a big issue for his caucus during his 16 years in the state Senate.

“Look, I get the argument that you need it. You can’t let the Westports and the Greenwichs off. You have to have something. I just think there is a better way,” said McKinney, who left office in 2014 to run for governor, a bid he ultimately lost.

He and Kupchick believe the state should provide financial incentives for towns that allow more affordable housing to be built within their borders.

Otherwise, he said, developers game the system.

“They are not really out to build affordable housing for the community. They are out to build market-rate housing, and if they have to put some affordable units with it to get approval, that’s what happens,” McKinney said. “There are developers who literally come into these meetings with two plans and say, ‘Give us this plan, or you get this affordable housing plan.’”

After years of failed attempts, lawmakers in 2017 finally weakened 8-30g by making it easier for towns to get exemptions from the law’s requirements.

Malloy vetoed the measure, because he said it would “perpetuate the harmful effects of bad economic policy and institutional segregation.” But the General Assembly overrode the veto.

This March, the Department of Housing granted Westport — where 3.4% of the housing is considered affordable — a four-year exemption, which prevents a judge from overriding its zoning decisions.

The exemption protects the town from legal challenges, but it came after the zoning commission had already approved 44 new low-income units, mostly studios or one-bedroom units with monthly rents starting at $1,400. A commissioner made it clear during project hearings that only the threat of a lawsuit under 8-30g persuaded him to approve the plans. And now that threat is gone.

“The statute requires me as a commissioner to essentially pass this proposal, or give very narrow reasons for denying it, none of which were presented as evidence to this commission. So we don’t have that option. We must pass it,” said then-Commissioner Alan Hodge, a Democrat, before the 2016 vote.

Westport currently has 265 units for low-income individuals that were constructed with public or private funding, though one-third of those units replaced existing affordable housing. For example, the town purchased Westport’s only trailer park and replaced its 60 mobile homes with 93 affordable apartments run by the local housing authority.

What this means is that approximately 1 out of every 30 housing units in Westport is dedicated to low- or moderate-income residents, compared with 1 in 8 next door in Norwalk, or 1 in 5 in Bridgeport 9 miles away.

This site was eyed for multifamily housing for low-income residents in a heavily residential single-family section of Westport in the early 2000s. The town purchased the land from the developer, and it is now a community garden. (Jacqueline Rabe Thomas/The Connecticut Mirror)

In May, the commissioners signaled they were prepared to reject a new batch of affordable units. They say they are doing a great job developing affordable housing.

“They are unnecessary,” Danielle Dobin, a Democratic commissioner, said during the panel’s discussion of the proposed units. “This commission and the commission before us have been very successful in creating so much more affordable housing in Westport.”

Just over 4% of Westport residents are considered to be living in poverty — two-and-a half times less than the state’s poverty rate. Just under 1% of those who live in this town are black and 5% are Hispanic, a long way off from the state’s makeup.

The Lamont administration expressed satisfaction with the current law as it stands.

“8-30g is the law in Connecticut and can be one of many important tools we have to ensure that the housing our residents need is available to them,” Bates, the senior coordinator for housing and transit-oriented development, said. “The administration is seeking no changes at this time.”

Asked what happens if minds can’t be changed, Bates declined to talk about next steps.

“I constitutionally don’t believe that in general people’s minds can’t be changed. I think it’s a question of whether there is an effective way to engage them in discussion and conversation. I think sometimes you can go a lot further that way,” Bates said. “You know this is a new administration, so it is hard to come into it and say you are ready to beat somebody with a hammer when you haven’t had that conversation with them.”

Vehement Opposition

Local objections to affordable housing projects run the gamut, with developers typically facing intense zoning board scrutiny about issues like a lack of sidewalks or potential impact to the environment.

Broader concerns, such as preserving a community’s character or the quality of its schools, are also frequently cited.

During his State of the Town Address a few months ago, Westport’s Republican first selectman, Jim Marpe, said high-density developments keep him up at night.

“The challenge to our community is not just to the character of neighborhoods, but also to firefighting and police response, potentially to educational capacity, to human services support and to our tradition as a single-family home community,” Marpe told his audience.

He added, “Within the tri-state region, Westport remains an attractive and desirable location relative to many nearby communities, and we must invest in keeping our town in that position.”

This mindset was on display in March, when a disgruntled Westport board discussed a proposed 187-unit apartment complex, of which 57 units would be available to low-income residents, located a half-mile from the town’s commuter train station. This developer has been trying to break ground since 2005.

Two Westport planning and zoning commissioners. (Jacqueline Rabe Thomas/The Connecticut Mirror)

At one point, board members became incensed when the developer’s attorney expressed disappointment that town officials declined to meet with officials in neighboring Norwalk to negotiate changes that would need to be made so the gravel road in that city could be used for emergencies at the complex. The pathway is on land adjacent to the proposed apartment complex and would serve as a second exit that Westport officials say is necessary for emergency vehicles to access the property. Board members appeared to resent the suggestion that they take any action that would be interpreted as benefiting the developer.

“I would like to put it on the record, I am vehemently opposed, disappointed and don’t understand why the town of Westport would be involved in a meeting like that,” Stephens, a planning and zoning commissioner, said. Asked why he was opposed, Stephens declined to elaborate during a recent interview, saying it’s an ongoing legal matter.

When unanimously rejecting the proposed development last week, however, commissioners pointed to uncertainty about whether Norwalk would allow its gravel road to be paved and used as a second exit during emergencies.

Sometimes local officials even offer money to keep affordable housing from being built.

Richard Freedman, another developer who has been trying for years to build in Westport, said the town offered to purchase the land on which he proposed building 48 apartments, 29 of which would be for low-income families.

“The town attorney approached my attorney to buy the property. I said: ‘It’s not for sale. We are building affordable housing,’” said Freedman, president of Garden Homes Management.

Email correspondence from the developer’s attorney to town attorney Ira Bloom in October 2015 specifically rejects the town’s offer to buy the property. Bloom responds the next day with alternative locations that might be more appealing.

Asked about the town’s attempt to purchase the property, Bloom said, “I don’t recall that.” He remembers conversations about finding an alternative building site for the developer, and he said he helped connect the developer with other groups interested in purchasing the property.

In 2001, the town paid $4.2 million to purchase a 4-acre property adjacent to a local elementary school where only 5% of the students come from low-income families. The developer had planned to develop 60 units, of which 15 would have been dedicated for poor residents. The land is now a community garden and parking lot.

Several years later, the town’s first selectman reached out to several potential buyers to facilitate the $14.5 million purchase of another property where the owner wanted to build 200 apartments by replacing a local hotel, the Westport Inn. Sixty of the units would have been for poor residents.

A hotel remains there today.

Even if elected officials are supportive of affordable housing, the opposition from residents can be intense.

Petition drives are launched. Pamphlets are mailed. Lawn signs go up. Facebook groups are set up to strategize. Fundraising campaigns are created to pay for land-use attorneys and environmental experts. Connecticut has more law firms than any other state specializing in land use, a key indicator of restrictive zoning, the Brookings Institution reported.

In Westport, a political party was established to help elect zoning commissioners who the party’s leaders believe will preserve the neighborhoods and small-town New England character.

Occasionally, residents voice fear of the type of people they believe affordable housing will bring.

Willow Creek Apartments being constructed in the North End of Hartford with the help of $55 million from the state. All the units are reserved for those with limited incomes. (Jacqueline Rabe Thomas/The Connecticut Mirror)

“The drug addicts are going to be here, believe me,” William Woermer, of Branford, testified in November 2017 about a proposal to demolish a 50-unit, run-down low-income housing project for seniors and replace it with 67 units for poor families. “Retirees, disabled, old people — I have no objection to renovate the whole place and make it nice for them. But don’t get too much of that riffraff in. There will be a lot of riffraff. Then we go onto, with a project like this, you need security guards in the area.” Woermer did not respond to an interview request.

In Greenwich, a public hearing in August 2017 about plans for an apartment complex next to the town’s commuter train station quickly devolved into residents complaining that low-income residents wouldn’t be able to afford to shop locally. “Nobody goes to our restaurants [if you’re] living in affordable housing,” Adam Tooter, a resident who had recently bought a $1.5 million home, said during the August hearing. Tooter did not respond to messages.

Gayle DePoli, another local resident, said: “Those people won’t be able to afford to live in Old Greenwich. They won’t be able to afford to shop in King’s [gourmet grocery store]. They won’t be able to afford to eat in any restaurant but Dunkin’ Donuts and maybe grab a slice at Arcadia Pizza. They won’t even be able to afford getting a scoop of ice cream at Darlene’s.”

During a recent interview, DePoli said she is opposed to the development because the area is already too congested and it is unfair to have poor people living in such high-cost areas.

“It’s not about not in my neighborhood. It’s: enough in my area. It’s overbuilt with condos,” said DePoli, an independent contractor for media companies in Manhattan. “Your heart’s got to bleed a little bit for people that need low-income housing, and then you are going to put them in the middle of something they can’t afford. They can afford the rent, but what else? They aren’t going to the restaurants down there. Everything they can afford [is a car or bus ride] away. It’s pretty sad.”

In March, the commissioners approved a scaled-back version of this proposed development that will have about half as many affordable apartments. The apartment will be located 2 miles from Greenwich Point, a beach restricted to residents only until the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2001 unanimously ordered the town to open it to everyone.

During a zoning commission meeting in rural Oxford in 2014 for a proposed affordable housing project, the town’s first selectman expressed concern there would not be enough parking for visitors on holidays, specifically pointing to one that originated in Mexico.

“I’m sure they could have their little parking spaces, but somebody throws a party, or it’s Cinco de Mayo or something else and pretty soon you can’t park there. Well, you also can’t bring an ambulance there and you can’t bring a fire engine there,” said First Selectman George Temple during a public hearing on the project, adding: “I’m not for putting slumlords into Oxford. You know, that’s perhaps an overstatement, and I am sure it is, but I am concerned about these units.”

Malloy has little patience for such concerns.

“Is safety genuinely 100% the fear or is there something else at play and the reason why these projects aren’t moving forward,” he said. “Let’s drill down for a second. Every one of those towns has housing on a street that doesn’t have a sidewalk. The difference being that those are single-family homes which are not affordable.”

All of this pushback is code for not allowing in poor people, says Hollister, the land-use attorney.

“Does anybody say we need to keep blacks and Hispanics out of Westport? No, but they talk about property values, safety and preserving open space — all the things that a town can do to prevent development that would bring up a more economically and racially diverse housing population,” Hollister said. “They don’t use the overt racial terms, but it’s absolutely clear to everybody in the room that’s what they’re talking about.”

Unmet Demand

Marpe, Westport’s first selectman, disputes the idea that the town has practiced discriminatory zoning.

“I have lived in many communities in the United States and I would argue Westport is as open and welcoming as any community I have ever lived in. So to cast that as an underlying principle, I would disagree,” he said during an interview. “Anyone who asserts that we don’t want anything to do with ‘those people,’ I would strongly disagree.”

Marpe points to the town’s commitment to providing emergency housing for men, women and children, such as homeless shelters and halfway houses.

He also points out that decisions on what gets to break ground do not rest with him alone. He cites a proposal he made early in his five and a half years in office for a private developer to build 167 units for senior citizens — 111 dedicated for low-income residents — on a 23-acre town-owned site where an abandoned mansion has sat vacant for years. That proposal was rejected by the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the Representative Town Meeting, Westport’s legislative body, didn’t have enough votes to override their decision.

Construction of a multimillion-dollar beachfront property in Westport. (Jacqueline Rabe Thomas/The Connecticut Mirror)

Town officials have designated the site as open space, preventing anything from being developed on the land. Marpe and Mary Young, the town’s director of planning and zoning, said there is a path for projects to make their way more easily through zoning approval. That “streamlined process” is only available, however, for those looking to build in one section of town: the highly commercialized Route 1.

Winning approval outside of that zone is hard. That was the case for the developer who waited four years to build multiunit housing on the lot of a former landscaping business, which is a short distance from the high-end shopping district.

“Should it have gone faster? I’m sure from anyone’s perspective, it was not streamlined. But it was not one of the processes that was enacted by my Planning and Zoning Commission. That was a developer who took his own path,” Young said. “If we’ve laid out the red carpet and asked you to come, you’re more likely to get what you need more quickly.”

Stephens, the zoning commissioner, said there were legitimate reasons for the application to take so long, none of which had to do with the type of residents it would attract.

“We have one of the most welcoming communities here,” Stephens said. “We go above and beyond. I would be aghast if anyone suggested differently.”

Marpe said he must listen to voters.

“I have to respect the fact that people who have moved here, or have grown up here and continue to live here, are here because the nature of the community is what they are looking for,” Marpe said. “So to try and change that nature with large structures maybe gets to some goal, but I don’t believe [that’s why] people who have invested in this community and want to be part of this community … came here or stayed here.”

When asked if the town has, in fact, purchased or arranged for others to purchase property to keep it from being developed as affordable housing, Marpe said it is not a strategy of the town to avoid having more affordable housing.

He facilitated the purchase of the Westport Inn because it’s the town’s only hotel outside a 12-room inn on the Long Island Sound, he explained.

“When we have had serious storms, the Westport Inn was the one place we could offer somewhat permanent shelter,” he said. “I believe there is a need for that as well. That was the motivating factor in my mind.”

Several hotels are a few miles down the road in Norwalk or Fairfield.

The new developments that have been built in Westport are not meeting the demand for affordable housing.

The last time the town’s housing authority opened its wait list three years ago, 1,000 people applied in 30 days. Then the waitlist closed, and it hasn’t been opened since. The housing authority still gets calls every day, including on weekends.

“They come in at all hours,” said Carol Martin, the executive director of the Westport Housing Authority. “It is very much at a crisis.”

Further Readings

48Hill: Debunking the trickle-down housing fallacy

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Eviction Crisis


“The national numbers are scandalous. On any given night, more than half a million homeless men, women, and children sleep on the streets or in shelters. In 2016 alone, according to research by the scholar Matthew Desmond, roughly 900,000 households were subject to eviction judgments. The same year, more than 11 million households spent at least 50 percent of their income, and another 9.8 million spent more than 30 percent, on rent. Nearly half of the nation’s 43 million renting households, then, live with the crushing weight of excessive housing costs.” Jimmy Tobias: Meet the Rising New Housing Movement That Wants to Create Homes for All

Matthew Desmond From Eviction Lab & “Evicted” Exhibit at the Building Museum

Eviction Crisis

Eviction Crisis Info Below from “Evicted” Exhibit

The eviction crisis is relatively new.  It stems from three fundamental problems that have surfaced in the past 20-30 years.  Incomes for poor, renting families have fallen or stagnated, while housing costs – including both utilities and rent- have risen.  Meanwhile, the federal government has failed to fill the gap.

This nationwide problem threatens more than 11 million Americans.  These extremely low-income renters work but do not make enough money to pay rent in most markets; they qualify for government housing aid but do not receive it.

Each year more than 2.3 million Americans (a rate of four every minute), most of them low-income renters, face eviction. While it used to be rare even in the poorest neighborhoods, forcible removal has become ordinary, with families facing eviction from the most squalid, barely inhabitable apartments.  This phenomenon exposes not only income inequality in America, but also the growing separation between the built environments of the rich and the poor.

Eviction occurs when renters are forcibly removed from their home by court order. Evictions and the threat of removal are disproportionately experienced by African American single mothers in many cities, but affect people of all backgrounds. An eviction record can mean that a family is now ineligible for other subsidies such as public housing. It can make job-hunting more difficult, if not nearly impossible. Finding a new place to live becomes almost a full-time job, especially in a sprawling metropolitan area without a car.

Housing instability threatens all aspects of family life: health, jobs, school, and personal relationships. Landlords hesitate to rent to those with eviction records, or charge them extra money, causing a devastating negative feedback loop. Children switch schools too often to make friends or be noticed and helped by teachers; neighbors cannot develop bonds; personal belongings are left in storage or out on the street. Americans often take home for granted—homes forms the building blocks of community life—and this stability is under attack when eviction looms.”

  • Eviction occurs
    • when renters are forcibly removed from their home by court order
  • Each year over 2.3 million Americans (4 every minute) face eviction
    • Mainly effects low-income renters that
      • Work but do not make enough money to pay rent in most markets
      • Qualify for government housing aid but do not receive it.
      • The eviction crisis is relatively new and stems from three fundamental problems that have occurred in past 20-30 years
    • Incomes have stagnated
    • Rent keeps rising
    • Government programs do not fill gap
  • In 2016 on any given night
    • more than half a million homeless men, women, children sleep on streets or in shelters
    • roughly 900,000 households were subject to eviction judgments
    • more than 11 million households spent at least 50% of their income on rent
      • another 9.8 million spent more than 30%
    • Nearly half of the nation’s 43 million renting households are rent burdened
    • 1 out of every 4 low-income families who qualify for rental assistance actually gets it

Source: from “Evicted” Exhibit



“In Richmond, property managers say that filing an eviction is their only recourse when tenants have not paid, and that they allow many to stay even after court judgments if they pay in full before the sheriff arrives. This means the court process also functions as a cumbersome rent-collection system, one that attaches attorney fees and court costs to rent checks, and one that saddles even tenants who don’t lose their homes with lasting eviction records.” Emily Badger, Quoctrung Bui


  • 1 in 5 renter households in Richmond were threatened with eviction in 2016
  • The median amount owed by people evicted was $686
  • The median amount owed on a public housing eviction was $328.

Source: In 83 Million Eviction Records, a Sweeping
and Intimate New Look at Housing in America

Causes of Eviction Crisis

  • Government Aid
    • 1937 National Housing Act – federal government to subsidized housing
      • Special programs assist families with children, the elderly, and the disabled
      • 8 million households in poverty receive housing assistance through HUD
    • Majority of gov spending on housing goes not to poor people
      • Goes to homeowners and high-income households
        • MID, capital gains exclusions ,and other real estate write-offs
      • Mortgage interest deduction (MID) cost the fed gov $71 billion in 2015
        • more than double the $29.9 billion spent on Section 8
          • which provides housing vouchers for low-income renters
        • $22.5 billion a year to end homelessness by extending assistance to every needy family in US (CAP)
      • Current fed/state housing assistance does begin to cover the millions of low-income Americans who need help paying for a place to live
        • 1 out of 4 low-income families who qualify for rental assistance actually gets it
  • Spending too Much on Rent
    • Fed guidelines for more than 80 years that households should not spend more than 30% of their income on rent
      • This is increasingly impossible
      • Without government assistance, extremely low-income families end up paying far too much income on housing
    • Majority of poor families spend more than 50% of their income on rent – some even more
      • This presents major problems for families who then have little funds left for school field trips, medicine, food, clothing, or emergencies.
  • Affordable Housing Shortage
    • 2017, full-time worker earning minimum wage
      • Could afford one-bedroom apartment in 12 US counties
    • On a small income, there are very few options
      • The upfront costs, utilities, and security deposits, as well as rules about previous eviction records, can keep low-income renters out of most apartments and communities
    • Families often forced into dilapidated housing
      • in neighborhoods far from work and opportunity

Effects of Evictions

  • Housing instability threatens all aspects of family life:
    • health, jobs, school, and personal relationships
  • An eviction record can mean
    • That a family is now ineligible for other subsidies such as public housing
    • Landlords hesitate to rent to those with eviction records, or charge them extra money, causing a devastating negative feedback loop
    • It can make job-hunting more difficult, if not nearly impossible.
    • Finding a new place to live becomes almost a full-time job, especially in a sprawling metropolitan area without a car
    • Families lose their food stamps and Medicaid benefits when they lose the permanent addresses where renewal notices are sent.
    • Children switch schools too often to make friends or be noticed and helped by teachers
    • Personal belongings are left in storage or out on the street
    • Eviction is linked to job loss. It’s such a consuming, stressful event, it causes you to make mistakes at work, lose your footing there
    • Eviction has a horrible effect on your dignity and your mental and physical health

“An eviction isn’t one problem. It’s like 12 problems.” Amy Woolard, a lawyer and the policy coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center in town

Source: from “Evicted” Exhibit

Spending too Much on Rent

  • Fed guidelines for more than 80 years that households should not spend more than 30% of their income on rent
    • This is increasingly impossible
    • Without government assistance, extremely low-income families end up paying far too much income on housing
  • Majority of poor families spend more than 50% of their income on rent – some even more
    • This presents major problems for families who then have little funds left for school field trips, medicine, food, clothing, or emergencies.

Federal guidelines have indicated for more than 80 years that households should not spend more than 30% of their income on rent. This is increasingly impossible. Without government assistance, extremely low-income families end up paying far too much for their income on housing.

Today, because of rising housing costs, the majority of poor families spend more than 50% of their income on rent – some even more. This presents major problems for families who then have little funds left for school field trips, medicine, food, clothing, or emergencies.

Source: from “Evicted” Exhibit


Affordable Housing Shortage

  • 2017, full-time worker earning minimum wage
    • Could afford one-bedroom apartment in 12 US counties
  • On a small income, there are very few options
    • The upfront costs, utilities, and security deposits, as well as rules about previous eviction records, can keep low-income renters out of most apartments and communities
  • Families often forced into dilapidated housing
    • in neighborhoods far from work and opportunity

The eviction crisis has revealed a stunning lack of sufficient and affordable hosing across the entire country. In 2017, a full-time worker earning minimum wage could afford a one-bedroom apaartment in only twelve US counties. In other words, low-income Americans do not- cannot- earn enough money to pay rent in the vast majority of jurisdictions across the country.

On a small income, there are very few options. Even if rents are similar in different areas, the upfront costs, utilities, and security deposits, as well as rules about previous eviction recordes, can keep low-income renters out of most apartments and communities. Often, after a long frustrating search, families are forced into increasingly dilapidated housing in neighborhoods far from work and opportunity. But even this insufficient, crowded housing, often without reliable hot water and heat, comes at a high costs.

Source: from “Evicted” Exhibit

Government Aid

  • 1937 National Housing Act – federal government to subsidized housing
    • Special programs assist families with children, the elderly, and the disabled
    • 8 million households in poverty receive housing assistance through HUD
  • Majority of gov spending on housing goes not to poor people
    • Goes to homeowners and high-income households
      • MID, capital gains exclusions ,and other real estate write-offs
    • Mortgage interest deduction (MID) cost the fed gov $71 billion in 2015
      • more than double the $29.9 billion spent on Section 8
        • which provides housing vouchers for low-income renters
      • $22.5 billion a year to end homelessness by extending assistance to every needy family in US (CAP)
  • Current fed/state housing assistance does begin to cover the millions of low-income Americans who need help paying for a place to live
    • 1 out of 4 low-income families who qualify for rental assistance actually gets it

In 1937, the National Housing Act established the role of the federal government in subsidizing housing. Special programs assist families with children, the elderly, and the disabled. Approximately 4.8 million households receive poverty-related housing assistance through programs of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Today the majority of government spending on housing goes not to poor people, however, but to homeowners and high-income households,through the mortgage interest deduction, capital gains exclusions ,and other real estate write-offs. The mortgage interest deduction alone cost the federal government $71 billion in 2015, more than double the $29.9 billion spent on Section 8, which provides housing vouchers for low-income renters.

Current federal and state commitment to housing assistance does not begin to cover the millions of low-income Americans who need help paying for a place to live. And an eviction record can disqualify a family from receiving aid. For some, these programs are necessary and life-saving: for millions of Americans, they are simply out of reach.

Source: from “Evicted” Exhibit

Eviction Stats

“Eviction affects the old and the young, the sick and able-bodied.   But for poor women of color and their children, it has become ordinary”  Matthew Desmond – author – Evicted

  • Eviction most common for black single mothers
    • Poor single mothers of all races are particularly at risk
  • Stats on women evicted by race:
    • 4 of 60 white women
    • 5 of 60 Hispanic women
    • 12 of 60 black women
  • 2018 Virginia Commonwealth University study on Virginia evictions
    • Roughly 60% of majority African American neighborhoods have an annual eviction rate higher than 10% of households
      • 4x the national average (even after controlling for poverty and income rates)
    • It’s not only a matter of poverty. It’s also a matter of race.

“Poor black men are locked up; poor black women are locked out.” Matthew Desmond – author – Evicted

“Eviction is more common for African American single mothers than for all other groups.  In fact, poor single mothers of all races are particularly at risk.  Children often expose families to eviction instead of protecting them, as landlords often see youth as disruptive.” Evicted Exhibit

Source: from “Evicted” Exhibit


  • 2016: 37% homes sold to buyers who don’t occupy property
    • In many cities, like DC, the majority of landlords are not individuals, but large companies with several thousand units
  • Landlords in poor neighborhoods often make more money than in more upscale markets
    • Sometimes they will raise rents in anticipation of incurring losses
    • They may also save by foregoing upkeep and maintenance
  • “Slumlord”
    • Derogatory term for a landlord who doesn’t provide basic repairs and services to an apartment, while still demanding regular rent
    • These landlords know their tenants have few options and may not complain about housing quality for fear of risking evictions

In 2016, 37% of homes were sold to buyers who did not occupy the property.  Landlords are playing a new and significant role in the housing markets.  In many metropolitan areas, such as Washington DC, the majority of landlords are not individuals, but rather large companies with portfolios of several thousand units.

Landlords in poor neighborhoods can often make more money than they could in more upscale markets.  Sometimes they will raise rents in anticipation of incurring losses.  They may also save by foregoing upkeep and maintenance.

“Slumlord” is a derogatory term used to describe a landlord who does not provide basic repairs and services to an apartment, while still demanding regular rent payment.  These landlords know their tenants have few options and may not complain about housing quality for fear of risking evictions.

Screen Shot 2018-08-12 at 6.59.04 PM.png

Source: from “Evicted” Exhibit

The Courtroom

  • Housing court (rent court or landlord-tenant court)
    • a processing factory ordering evictions everyday with little time to consider individual circumstances
  • Disparity of counsel representation
    • 90% of landlords have representation
    • 10% of tenants have representation
    • Tenants who are represented by counsel have a much greater chance of keeping their housing
  • Even in housing markets with high tenant rights
    • Tenants are at a severe disadvantage.
    • Navigating the legal process is expensive, time consuming, and overwhelming.

Housing court, also known as rent court or landlord-tenant court, is a processing factory.  Judges gavel through cases over and over again all day with little time to consider individual circumstances.  In most jursdictions across the country, court-ordered evictions happen every working day.

The court system can be complicated.  Most landlords are represented by counsel, while most tenants are not.  Landlords, who have paid for attorneys and gone through a sometimes arduous process to gather paperwork and wait the requested amount of time, almost always have the upper hand.  In fact, tenants often do not even show up to court- whether because they cannot get the time off work or because they see no benefit to their appearance.  An eviction is often issued by default judgement.

  • 90% of landlords have representation
  • 10% of tenants have representation

Even in so-called “tenant-friendly” housing markets – where legislative safeguards such as court orders and waiting periods are required to evict – tenants are at a severe disadvantage.  Navigating the legal process is expensive, time consuming, and overwhelming.

Source: from “Evicted” Exhibit

Right to Counsel

  • Right to counsel
    • Movement to guarantee both sides have counsel in Housing court
    • With both sides represented, outcomes can be better for both
      • Tenants who may be able to stay in their homes
      • landlords who only collect rent if a tenant stays put
  • Alternatives to Eviction
    • In most cases, there are alternatives to eviction
      • payment plans, forced property improvement, debt assistance
  • National Coalition of the Civil Right to Counsel NYC Study
    • NYC would save $320 million by paying for attorneys instead of shelters and other homeless-related expenditures
    • 2017 – NYC become the first major city to pass a right to counsel law

“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.  Unless you’re losing your home.  There is no state that guarantees a right to counsel for a litigant in cases involving housing.” National Coalition for a Civil Right Counsel

Right to counsel is a movement that can make housing court work better for both parties.  With both sides represented, outcomes can be better for both tenants (who may be able to stay in their homes) and for landlords (who only collect rent if a tenant stays put)  In most cases, there are alternatives to eviction – payment plans, forced property improvement, debt assistance – that can help all involved.

In New York City, for example, an independent firm discovered that the city would save $320 million by paying for attorneys instead of shelters an other homeless-related expenditures.  In the fall of 2017, New York City become the first major city to invoke a right to counsel for tenants in housing court.

“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.  Unless you’re losing your home.  There is no state that guarantees a right to counsel for a litigant in cases involving housing.” National Coalition for a Civil Right Counsel

Source: from “Evicted” Exhibit

Rent Strike

  • Strategy for tenants to organize against slumlords and unfair rent increases
    • Formal Strike – Instead of writing monthly rent checks to the property owner, tenants now hand their rent to tenant organizers, who help them stow the cash away in escrow
    • Informal strike – tenants will be fed up with conditions and just stop paying their rent
      • In cities with few tenant protections, landlords can use strikes to evict tenants over nonpayments
    • Often viewed as a last resort by tenant-rights groups
  • History of Rent Strikes
    • Rent strikes date to the Second Industrial Revolution (late 1800s/ early 1900s)
    • Have seen spikes in popularity over the past century tend to coincide with “periods of extreme inequality”
  • Increasing in Popularity
    • Rent strikes have become increasingly common in DC and other gentrifying cities around the country, including Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Francisco
      • 2008 – 100 renters in DC went on strike in the 672-unit Marbury Plaza in SE Washington over poor building conditions that came to light after the deaths of a toddler and her mother in a 2005 laundry-room explosion
        • After nearly two years of residents locking their rent away in escrow, the owner settled, ultimately agreeing to $5 million in building repairs.
      • Currently
        • Rent strike in Brightwood community in DC has push landlord to sell
        • More than 90 tenants in a complex in the Westlake neighborhood, LA are leading what the L.A. Tenants Union has said is the biggest rent strike in that city’s history

Successful Advocacy Campaigns

  • The Great Rent Wars, New York City, 1919
    • Rent control laws help curb skyrocketing rents in many cities.  In New York, the origin of these laws dates back as far as the post-World War I housing shortage – which led to profiteering- with rents rising by 100% overnight.  Tenant fought back using tactics later seen during the Great Depression.  Neighbors worked together to break down doors and re-house a family’s possessions after an eviction, or even poured water from upstairs apartments over the movers as they worked.  Activism during the 1920s eventually led to rent control legislation, which is now common throughout the country.  Landlords are restricted in how much they can raise the rent during a given time period.
  • Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union Arkansas, 1930s
    • During the Depression, families all over the country faced eviction.  From Toledo, Ohio to the Bronx, tenants tried to fight back against landlords who demanded high rents during hard times.  In the South, tenant farmers and sharecroppers worked together, organized by the Socialist party, to fight back and campaign for additional federal assistance.  Organized farm strikes and other techniques helped the union achieve goals such as a new government agency, the Farm Security Organization, which granted subsidies to farm workers.  Though its influence waned in the 1940s, the STFU demonstrated the power of workers joining together to demand help.
  • Foreclosure Moratorium North Dakota, 1933
    • Moratoriums on foreclosure and eviction raced through state legislatures and city councils in the 1930s.  Facing unprecedented levels of forced moves, the nation’s populist elected officials worked to keep people on their farms and in their homes.  Farm activism was especially strong throughout the Midwest and South during the Depression, and forced eviction was high on the list of priorities. William Langer, governor of North Dakota, saw forced farm sales peaking in 1933.  He helped make North Dakota one of several states to issue an eviction moratorium to help residents stay home.
  • Young Lords – Chicago, 1960s
    • Is the 1960s, a group of Puerto Rican youth formed the Young Lords to fight back against forced eviction caused by rising rents in gentrifying Chicago neighborhoods, Puerto Ricans, who had arrived in Chicago decades earlier, increasingly found themselves priced out of neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and began using methods of active resistance and defiance.  The Young Lords fought social justice battles, joined with other groups such as the Black Panthers, and expanded to other cities.  but their early focus was fighting unfair eviction.  As a community activist group, the young adults demanded attention to an issue facing their families and friends, and helped spur Chicago into setting aside money for affordable housing.
  • Battle for the I-Hotel San Francisco, 1977
    • At 3am on August 4, 1977, a forced eviction ended a nine-year battle to save a residential hotel occupied by elderly Filipino immigrants.  3000 activist circled the International Hotel, but the 400 riot police led a raid with axes and destroyed the residents’ possessions and homes. The eviction-though it was a violent reminder of the power of the state over vulnerable tenants – did help coalesce a community of activist. In later years, citizens rallied to prioritized affordable housing as well as the preservation of Chinatown as development increased and housing costs rose abruptly in Sn Francisco.  the I-Hotel, finally rebuilt 40 years later as subsidized elderly housing, become a national rallying cry against forced eviction.
  • Homestart Boston, 1990s
    • Founded in response to a severe homelessness crisis in 1980s Boston, this organization offers services that help evicted and homeless families find stable housing.  In 2014, 94% of those receiving stabilization services from HomeStart Boston remain housed one year later.
  • Midtown Plaza Apartments – Houston, Texas, 2012
    • US military veterans make up about 7% of the population but 13% of the homeless population.  To help solve this problem, Houston joined other cities such as New Orleans, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City in vowing to end veteran homelessness by increasing and improving services as well as offering affordable housing.  With new construction and renovation.  Houston opened Midows Plaza and Travis Street apartments.  These complexes offer “service-enriched” housing to veterans, many them disabled, including job training and case management services.
  • #notanuisance – Surprise, Arizona, 2016
    • When Nancy M’s violent ex-boyfriend repeatedly returned to her apartment, she called 911.  When her landlord subsequently evicted her for calling the police, she fought back.  The nuisance ordinance in her town empowered police to pressure landlords to file for eviction, thereby silencing victims of domestic violence and other crimes.  With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Nancy fought the city on its 2010 law, and won.  The nuisance ordinance was repealed.  A new campaign promise to help change the law across the country.
  • Yes on Question 3 – Lawrence, Kansas, 2017
    • A wide coalition of supporters led the charge for a bill to triple the amount of public funding for affordable housing in Lawrence, Kansas.  This city with a population of about 100,000 people and home to the University of Kansas suffers from a major shortage of affordable housing for its 13,000 low-income residents.  Led by the local faith-based group Justice Matters, advocate for raising the tax spent three years researching and organizing before the successful vote.  The tax adds only 50 cents per $1,000 spent per family. and will be distributed to projects by the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board.
  • #Ourhomesourvoices, DC, 2018
    • This national campaign builds on many years of work by activists and aims to convince Congress to reserve more funds for housing subsidies for low-income renters.  The organization also wants to provide incentives for developers to build more truly affordable housing.  Rallies and protests are one way for tenants and their advocates to get the attention of law makers, as they build support for housing rights in local jurisdictions.

NY Times: In 83 Million Eviction Records, a Sweeping and Intimate New Look at Housing in America

“RICHMOND, Va. — Before the first hearings on the morning docket, the line starts to clog the lobby of the John Marshall Courthouse. No cellphones are allowed inside, but many of the people who’ve been summoned don’t learn that until they arrive. “Put it in your car,” the sheriff’s deputies suggest at the metal detector. That advice is no help to renters who have come by bus. To make it inside, some tuck their phones in the bushes nearby.

This courthouse handles every eviction in Richmond, a city with one of the highest eviction rates in the country, according to new data covering dozens of states and compiled by a team led by the Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond.

Two years ago, Mr. Desmond turned eviction into a national topic of conversation with “Evicted,” a book that chronicled how poor families who lost their homes in Milwaukee sank ever deeper into poverty. It became a favorite among civic groups and on college campuses, some here in Richmond. Bill Gates and former President Obama named it among the best books they had read in 2017, and it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

But for all the attention the problem began to draw, even Mr. Desmond could not say how widespread it was. Surveys of renters have tried to gauge displacement, but there is no government data tracking all eviction cases in America. Now that Mr. Desmond has been mining court records across the country to build a database of millions of evictions, it’s clear even in his incomplete national picture that they are more rampant in many places than what he saw in Milwaukee.

Screen Shot 2018-08-12 at 8.34.28 PM.png

Mr. Desmond’s team found records for nearly 900,000 eviction judgments in 2016, meaning landlords were given the legal right to remove at least one in 50 renter households in the communities covered by this data. That figure was one in 25 in Milwaukee and one in nine in Richmond. And one in five renter households in Richmond were threatened with eviction in 2016. Their landlords began legal proceedings, even if those cases didn’t end with a lasting mark on a tenant’s record.

For landlords, these numbers represent a financial drain of unpaid rent; for tenants, a looming risk of losing their homes.

In Richmond, most of those evicted never made it to a courtroom. They didn’t appear because the process seemed inscrutable, or because they didn’t have lawyers to navigate it, or because they believed there is not much to say when you simply don’t have the money. The median amount owed was $686.

Inside the courtroom, cases sometimes brought in bulk by property managers are settled in minutes when defendants aren’t present.

“The whole system works on default judgments and people not showing up,” said Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “Imagine if every person asked for a trial. The system would bog down in a couple of months.”

The consequences of what happens here then spread across the city. The Richmond public school system reroutes buses to follow children from apartments to homeless shelters to pay-by-the-week motels. City social workers coach residents on how to fill out job applications when they have no answer for the address line. Families lose their food stamps and Medicaid benefits when they lose the permanent addresses where renewal notices are sent.

“An eviction isn’t one problem,” said Amy Woolard, a lawyer and the policy coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center in town. “It’s like 12 problems.”

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The new data, assembled from about 83 million court records going back to 2000, suggest that the most pervasive problems aren’t necessarily in the most expensive regions. Evictions are accumulating across Michigan and Indiana. And several factors build on one another in Richmond: It’s in the Southeast, where the poverty rates are high and the minimum wage is low; it’s in Virginia, which lacks some tenant rights available in other states; and it’s a city where many poor African-Americans live in low-quality housing with limited means of escaping it.

“This isn’t by happenstance — this is quite intentional,” said Levar Stoney, Richmond’s mayor. A quarter of households here are poor, leaving many people a car repair or a hospital visit away from missing the rent check. But that poverty collides with a legal structure that responds to such moments swiftly.

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Cities in the data with the highest
rate of eviction judgments in 2016

City Eviction filing rate Eviction judgment rate
1 North Charleston, S.C. 35.6% 16.5%
2 Richmond, Va. 30.9% 11.4%
3 Hampton, Va. 37.3% 10.5%
4 Newport News, Va. 34.1% 10.2%
5 Jackson, Miss. 11.6% 8.8%
6 Norfolk, Va. 27.6% 8.7%
7 Greensboro, N.C. 19.8% 8.4%
8 Columbia, S.C. 20.4% 8.2%
9 Warren, Mich. 29.8% 8.1%
10 Chesapeake, Va. 23.7% 7.9%

This is a state, Mr. Stoney and others say, that favors property owners, as it has since plantation days. And aid to the poor has been limited.

Mr. Desmond’s eviction calculations are probably conservative: They include only households that touched the legal process, not those in which people moved with an informal warning. The data undercount places where eviction records can be sealed or are harder to collect. In his eviction rates, Mr. Desmond counts the moment when a court delivers a judgment, not when the sheriff shows up. Tenants have often left by that point.

In Richmond, property managers say that filing an eviction is their only recourse when tenants have not paid, and that they allow many to stay even after court judgments if they pay in full before the sheriff arrives. This means the court process also functions as a cumbersome rent-collection system, one that attaches attorney fees and court costs to rent checks, and one that saddles even tenants who don’t lose their homes with lasting eviction records.

Candace Williams experienced the threat, the judgment and the sheriff’s visit when she fell behind on her rent in 2016. She was making $178 a week at a convenience store, a job she could reach without a car. Some of that money went to the space heaters and foam insulation she needed for the holes in the walls on the cheapest home she could find for her family.

She brought photos of the neglected repairs on her phone to court. When she learned she couldn’t bring in the phone, she hid it under a trash can outside. When she arrived, late, to the courtroom, a default judgment had already been entered against her.

“I definitely understand my fault in it,” Ms. Williams, 43, said. “But they don’t allow you any opportunity to make a mistake.”

The process is meant to be efficient, said Chip Dicks, a lawyer in Richmond who works on property management issues and has written provisions in the state’s landlord-tenant law. Efficiency is good public policy, he argues: Neither the landlord nor the tenant benefits from a drawn-out process that would burden renters with even more unpaid rent, late fees and attorney costs. And landlords can’t provide housing if they can’t pay their mortgages, he added.

“The landlords are the victims because they’re the ones not being paid when they’re supposed to be paid,” Mr. Dicks said. “What happens when you don’t pay your car payment? They come and take your car. What happens when you don’t pay your mortgage payment? They come and foreclose on your house.”

Poor tenants here, however, are not ensured access to legal aid or shielded from steep rent increases, as in some cities. And they have no right, as tenants in some states do, to deduct their own repair costs from the rent.

Laura Lafayette, the chief executive of the regional realtors’ association, which has been supportive of more tenant protections, fears that this system can become a “churning machine” that fails to distinguish between the tenant who made one mistake and the tenant who habitually flouts the lease. Today, both walk away from court with the same consequences.

After Whitney Gulley was evicted in 2014, she and her three children passed through many of the places people go when they carry an eviction on their record. They doubled up with family. They stayed in a long-term motel. They moved into a homeless shelter. They finally found an apartment willing to risk an evicted family — with a two-month deposit up front.

Ms. Gulley was evicted over $569, her share of the rent on a home that was subsidized by a housing voucher. Her landlord said she did not receive the check, and Ms. Gulley did not go to court because she said she believed she could not bring her children with her.

Before that disputed $569, Ms. Gulley was in recovery from an addiction to pain pills. She got her G.E.D., her driver’s license and a car while in that home, one she remembers happily. After the eviction, she said, she relapsed.

“I felt stripped down,” she said. In the eviction she lost the writing journals she used as therapy. “It was like the only power and inspiration and the motivation had been taken out of me.”

The sum still nags at her: All this over $569. It has taken years for the family to stabilize, and it will take several more before the eviction recedes from her record.

This part of the process — what happens after the eviction — isn’t efficient for anyone. Landlords, too, have to turn over vacant apartments, and they face a rental pool full of potentially disqualified tenants. The public housing authority in town, which was responsible for about 9 percent of the eviction judgments citywide in 2016, spends on average 50 days turning over apartments, costing the agency more in lost rent than unpaid rent cases are often worth. The median amount owed on a public housing eviction here, according to Mr. Desmond’s data, was $328.

The agency provides housing of last resort. But it is also a property manager. “I don’t think you ever eliminate that tension,” said Orlando Artze, the interim C.E.O. of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

That tension is built into public housing, just as it is embedded in a school system that struggles to serve transient children while producing well-educated ones, or in a court system that tries to offer due process but in mass quantity.

“A lot of people get caught up in: ‘Oh, is it the tenant’s fault? Oh, is it the landlord’s fault?’ ” said Elora Raymond, an assistant professor at Clemson University who has studied eviction in Atlanta, where many of these same forces converge. “I think it really doesn’t matter,” she said. “Because this doesn’t work. As a societal way of renting housing, this doesn’t work.”

Eviction rates for Alaska, Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota are not yet available.

The researchers caution that the eviction rates are underestimated in parts of Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming. Data for incomplete states is available at The Eviction Lab.

Eviction counts are based on court records collected by The Eviction Lab in 13 states and other records purchased from LexisNexis Risk Solutions and American Information Research Services Inc. Estimates of the number of renter households are based on census and Esri Business Analyst data.”

The Eviction Epidemic: Matthew Desmond from The Eviction Lab


“White landowners in the South evicted thousands of African American sharecroppers who engaged in activism during the Civil Rights Movement. Most sharecroppers lived and farmed on white-owned land. Dependent on high-interest loans to buy seed and equipment at the season’s start, they lived in a cycle of debt that eliminated their profit and prevented them from saving to buy land of their own. 94

Sharecropping dates back to the late 1860s, when newly-emancipated black people were coerced through violence, deception, and desperation to farm under terms that resembled enslavement.

Generations later, sharecropping largely defined agricultural labor in the Deep South, where many black people remained trapped in poverty. 95 An evicted sharecropper typically had nowhere to go, and white landowners knew their black tenants were especially vulnerable to economic retaliation for supporting civil rights. 96

“I been living on this farm [in Lowndes County, Alabama] since January 2, 1931,” Mrs. Armanda Glover said in 1966. “And then two days before Christmas the landlord . . . said we [my husband and five children] had to move.” 97 That same year, in nearby Dallas County, 57-year-old Arthur Brown received notice that he and his nine children were being evicted from the Minter plantation, where he had lived since he was two years old. 98

In 1960, 1400 African Americans registered to vote in Fayette County, Tennessee, and about 700 were evicted. 99 Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, scores of families were evicted from plantations throughout Mississippi. 100 White landowners in Greene County, Alabama, evicted at least 75 black families in 1960, 101 and more than 40 black families were evicted in Lowndes County, Alabama, in December 1965 alone. 102

Evictions were part of a systematic plan to thwart civil rights activism and prevent black people from voting. Black men and women who registered to vote were required to provide the names of their employers, who could then be notified. 103 Newspapers printed the names of black people who attempted to register, 104 and White Citizens’ Councils distributed voter lists to white merchants, who denied basic necessities and employment to African Americans who registered — or tried to register — to vote. 105

On August 31, 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer and other black residents of the Mississippi Delta traveled to Indianola to register to vote. Soon after, she and her husband were evicted from the Marlowe plantation where they had been sharecroppers for 18 years. Homeless and denied work, the Hamers moved into temporary housing in nearby Ruleville, where white shooters targeted their home less than two weeks later. Undeterred, Mrs. Hamer returned to register to vote that December, and told the circuit clerk: “You can’t have me fired anymore ‘cause I’m already fired, [and] I won’t have to move now, because I’m not living in a white man’s house.” 106 In 1963, Mrs. Hamer was brutally beaten by police for her continued activism, but went on to lead a movement demanding political representation for black people in the South. 107

Many evicted families were forced to live in tent cities that sprang up throughout the South. 108 In communities that most closely resembled refugee camps, entire families sheltered in fabric tents that froze in the winter, 109 with no running water 110 and one outhouse for dozens of people. 111

Mary Williams, a black woman evicted from her home in Tennessee, remembered that “the ground was frozen real hard, and you could not get rest. We got cardboard boxes, split those boxes open, spread them on the grass. . . . But after we closed up for the night . . . the ground began to thaw and that made water come through the cardboard.” 112

White segregationist “night riders” terrorized the camps, firing guns into the tent cities in the middle of the night. “Tent City was like a shooting gallery,” recalled SNCC field secretary C.J. Jones. “They used to come by there three or four times a week and shoot into Tent City, and you have to remember there were women and children [there].” 113 Law enforcement did nothing to protect black people from this terrorism. 114

During this era, many African Americans were made to choose between exercising their rights and protecting their families from homelessness and violence. The threat of eviction and other forms of economic retaliation forced countless black men and women to stay on the sidelines in the struggle for equality. “It’s a very frightening thing to have to accept the cold reality,” observed SNCC field secretary George Green, “that in order to exercise their rights, to get what they could get in this great Democracy in America, here in 1966, people were living in tents.” “115

NPR: First-Ever Evictions Database Shows: ‘We’re In the Middle Of A Housing Crisis’

“For many poor families in America, eviction is a real and ongoing threat. Sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that 2.3 million evictions were filed in the U.S. in 2016 — a rate of four every minute.

“Eviction isn’t just a condition of poverty; it’s a cause of poverty,” Desmond says. “Eviction is a direct cause of homelessness, but it also is a cause of residential instability, school instability [and] community instability.”

Desmond won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. His latest project is The Eviction Lab, a team of researchers and students at Princeton University dedicated to amassing the nation’s first-ever database of eviction. To date, the Lab had collected 83 million records from 48 states and the District of Columbia.

“We’re in the middle of a housing crisis, and that means more and more people are giving more and more of their income to rent and utilities,” Desmond says. “Our hope is that we can take this problem that’s been in the dark and bring it into the light.”

Incomes have remained flat for many Americans over the last two decades, but housing costs have soared. So between 1995 and today, median asking rents have increased by 70 percent, adjusting for inflation. So there’s a shrinking gap between what families are bringing [in] and what they have to pay for basic shelter.

And then we might ask ourselves: Wait a minute, where’s public housing here? Where’s housing vouchers? Doesn’t the government help? And the answer is, it does help, but only for a small percentage of families. Only about 1 in 4 families who qualify for housing assistance get anything. So when we picture the typical low income American today, we shouldn’t think of them living in public housing or getting any kind [of] housing assistance for the government, we should think of folks who are paying 60, 70, 80 percent of their income and living unassisted in the private rental market. That’s our typical case today.

On the effects of eviction

Eviction comes with a mark that goes on your record, and that can bar you from moving into a good house in a safe neighborhood, but could also prevent you from moving into public housing, because we often count that as a mark against your application. So we push families who get evicted into slum housing and dangerous neighborhoods.

We have studies that show that eviction is linked to job loss. … It’s such a consuming, stressful event, it causes you to make mistakes at work, lose your footing there, and then there’s just the trauma of it — the effect that eviction has on your dignity and your mental health and your physical health. We have a study for example that shows that moms who get evicted experience high rates of depression two years later.

On how landlords go about evicting tenants

It varies a lot from city to city. In some places you can evict someone for being a penny short and a day late and the process is very efficient and quick. In other cities it’s a lot longer and laborious and it’s much more work. We’re only also talking about formal evictions, too. These are evictions that go through the court and there are 101 ways for landlords to get a family out. Sometimes landlords pay a family to leave. Sometimes they change their locks or take their door off, as I witnessed one time in Milwaukee. So those evictions aren’t even captured in these numbers that we have — which means the estimates that we have are stunning, but they’re also too low.

On the benefits of stabilizing families and decreasing evictions

The more I think about this issue, the more I think that we’ve really had a failure of our imagination — and maybe it’s linked to a failure of our compassion. … When we ask, What can be done if a tenant doesn’t pay rent? Doesn’t that tenant have to be evicted? A thousand things can be done. There’s so much better ways of dealing with this issue than we currently do. …

Stabilizing a home has all sorts of positive benefits for a family. The kid gets to finish school. The neighborhood doesn’t lose a crucial neighbor. The family gets to root down and get to understand the value of a home and avoid homelessness. And for all of us, I think [we] have to recognize that we’re paying the cost of eviction because whatever our issue is, whatever keeps us up at night, the lack of affordable housing sits at the root of that issue. …

We know that neighborhoods that have more evictions have higher violent crime rates the following year. You can understand why — it rips apart the fabric of a community. We pay for that. The top 5 percent of hospital users consume 50 percent of the health care costs. Guess who those people are? They’re the homeless and unstably housed. And so I think we can spend smart or we can spend stupid, and so I think addressing the affordable housing crisis is a win for families, for landlords and for the taxpayer.”

Washington Post: Rent strikes grow in popularity among tenants as gentrification drives up rents in cities like D.C.

“By the time nine residents of this Brightwood Park apartment had decided to stop paying their rent, several of their neighbors had fled — from water that soaked through the first and second floors, fire that burned walls from the inside out and a boiler pipe that tore through two apartments in an overnight explosion.

For those who remained, the disasters were a wake-up call: If conditions did not change, their homes might be next.

Residents of the brick apartment building at 5320 Eighth St. NW in the Washington neighborhood of Brightwood Park said they have lived in unhealthy and unsafe conditions for years.

On top of the water and fire damage, there were bedbugs, rats and roaches, crumbling structures, mold, faulty electricity, and unreliable heat and hot water. Kathy Zeisel, a lawyer at the Children’s Law Center who is representing several former tenants, said the problems were among the worst she had seen.

In April, several residents gathered outside the building to announce their intent to withhold rent until changes were made.

A rent strike was born.

Often viewed as a last resort by tenant-rights groups, rent strikes have in recent years become increasingly common in the District and other gentrifying cities around the country, including Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Experts say the trend is a sign of tenant desperation amid rising housing costs in urban areas — and an attempt to fight back.

“Tenants are becoming more willing to organize around the notion that they’re paying too much for too little and they could still lose their homes,” said ­Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor who specializes in housing issues. “That creates a kind of fearlessness because you have less to lose.”

The strike in Brightwood Park is being coordinated by the Latino Economic Development Center, a D.C. organization that advocates for renters’ rights and often helps organize tenants associations.

Though the group has historically stayed away from facilitating rent strikes, frustration with the slow pace of legal battles and rapidly rising rents in the District prompted organizers to guide residents through the process of striking.

Instead of writing monthly rent checks to the property owner, EADS LLC, the tenants now hand their rent to tenant organizers, who help them stow the cash away in escrow.

As of this week, nine tenants were participating in the strike.

Property manager Delores Johnson said the building has 26 occupied units, though advocates with LEDC said they think the number is smaller.

If the strike is successful, the group may begin to deploy rent strikes more liberally in buildings facing similar struggles, LEDC tenant organizer Rob Wohl said.

It could take years to reach a conclusion.

Rent strikes date to the Second Industrial Revolution, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and have seen spikes in popularity over the past century and a half that tend to coincide with “periods of extreme inequality,” Anderson said.

“In the early 20th century, we not only had organized strikes in industrial factories, but they started showing up in apartment buildings where people felt they were paying too much money for too little quality,” she said. “In the ’60s and ’70s, cities like D.C. were really, for quite a number of years, subject to disinvestment. So the buildings were deteriorating and there was this rising consciousness of poverty and race. . . . That period saw this kind of tenant organizing as well, as a means to draw attention to habitability and intense economic insecurity.”

The present day, she said, seems to be settling into a similar pattern.

“Eventually, [tenants] get pushed to the point where they’re willing to take some risks and do something different,” Anderson said. “That’s when we start to see these strikes.”

Areas facing gentrification are the most likely to experience such strikes, Anderson added, because their residents are keenly aware of the risk of being displaced.

Such is the case in Los Angeles, where more than 90 tenants in a complex in the Westlake neighborhood are leading what the L.A. Tenants Union has said is the biggest rent strike in that city’s history.

Residents are demanding improvements to the buildings, which, tenant organizer Trinidad Ruiz said, have been beset with roaches, rats, bedbugs, security problems, mold, plumbing problems including sewage leaks, and more. But tenants are also protesting rent increases, which, according to the L.A. Tenants Union, have inflated rents by about 30 percent since the start of 2017, forcing tenants to pay as much as 70 percent of their income for housing.

“There is a desperation in these situations like in L.A., which is a huge, sprawling city, but it’s seeing gentrification on a citywide scale. If these people get pushed out of their community, there isn’t a community in L.A. they can move to instead,” Ruiz said. “They’re stuck. They can’t move anywhere else because they can’t afford it. So, because they have nothing to lose, they start to fight back. And because they’re not left with many tools, they use what they have — their rent checks.”

One of the last high-profile rent strikes in the District involved nearly 10 times as many tenants as the number striking in Brightwood Park: 100 renters in the 672-unit Marbury Plaza in Southeast Washington launched a rent strike in 2008 over poor building conditions that came to light after the deaths of a toddler and her mother in a 2005 ­laundry-room explosion.

After nearly two years of residents locking their rent away in escrow, the owner settled, ultimately agreeing to $5 million in building repairs.

“These kinds of organized rent strikes are still extremely rare,” said Wohl, who is spearheading the Brightwood Park effort. “Usually, what we see are more- ­informal strikes where a tenant or a group of tenants will be fed up with conditions and just stop paying their rent. It’s not usually so coordinated.”

In cities with few tenant protections, landlords can use the strike to push tenants out over nonpayment of rent.

That is why, Anderson said, it is important that renters go about striking the “right way,” which includes being “scrupulous” about putting the exact amount owed monthly into an escrow account.

Since the strike began in April, EADS has sued several of its tenants, who are largely Spanish-speaking immigrants, for not paying their rent.

Johnson said the striking tenants are troublemakers who have stirred up problems in the building before, including inviting too many adults to live in their apartments, changing the locks on their doors, failing to buy tenants insurance and barring maintenance workers or exterminators from entering their units for scheduled work.

“This really isn’t a rent strike,” Johnson said. “They just don’t want to pay rent, and they don’t want to be evicted.”

She said EADS will renovate the building’s hallways and 13 apartments in coming months as part of an effort to repair damage from a boiler explosion in January and a fire in December.

On Dec. 14, 2017, a blaze ignited inside a wall between two units on the top floor of the building. The fire destroyed the homes of six families, all of which have left the building.

To put out the flames, the fire department cut into the wall and doused the building. Water damage rendered six units uninhabitable.

Lawyers suing EADS on behalf of the former tenants allege that years of neglect contributed to the fire that tenants say was sparked by “defective wiring in the wall.”

EADS has denied their allegations.

The families that occupied those units lived for weeks afterward in hotels typically used as emergency shelters. Five have found permanent housing with the help of the District’s Department for Housing Services.

One family — a husband, wife and one child — remains homeless, Zeisel said.

Reina Flores, 48, did not think the fire would affect her basement unit two floors down from where the blaze began. Then, one day in December, she said, pieces of her ceiling collapsed on top of her youngest daughter.

The child’s older sister pulled her from under the debris, Flores said.

Weeks later, in the early hours of Jan. 1, the building’s boiler burst. A water pipe erupted, tearing through Flores’s kitchen wall.

“It’s not safe here,” Flores said in Spanish during a visit to her wrecked apartment in May. “Everything that came out of the wall was so hot. We’re lucky no one was here in the kitchen.”

Johnson said EADS gave Flores and her children the option to move into a vacant unit in the same building, an accommodation Johnson said the owners extended to any families affected. But Flores declined.

“I want to be happy here in my home,” said Flores, who is staying at her older daughter’s place nearby. “They need to change everything.”

(Podcast) WNYC: “The Scarlet E: Unmasking America’s Eviction Crisis,”

Chasing the Dream is partnering with WNYC to present episodes of “The Scarlet E: Unmasking America’s Eviction Crisis,” a four-part series from On the Media. Host Brooke Gladstone seeks out the history of displacement and denial of housing, stories from today’s eviction victims, and, ultimately, potential solutions.

Episode 1: “Why?”

We hear the story of Jeffrey, a security guard whose hours were inconsistent, whose rent burden was beyond severe, and whose family now lives in a two-bed hotel room in Richmond, Virginia. And we meet our partner in this project, Matt Desmond — Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, and founder of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Brooke and Matt hash out what we know and what we only think we know about the forces that drive eviction.

Episode 2: “40 Acres”

Eviction isn’t without its own historical context. In vulnerable communities of people of color, in particular, displacement and denial of housing are phenomena centuries in the making. This episode maps the persistent line between racist housing policies, localized profiteering, and the devastating plunder of generations of wealth.

Episode 3: “Tenants and Landlords”

This is the dollars-and-cents episode, in which we set our sights on those who own and those who rent. We visit Camden, Indianapolis, and Richmond to hear from tenants, landlords, advocates, and others about the practicalities and pitfalls of housing America’s poor families in the private rental market.

Episode 4: “Solutions”

The series concludes with evidence that despite the breadth and depth of the eviction epidemic, it is treatable in ways that will strengthen the overall health of the nation. We interrogate the history of public housing, a solution that worked in some places and was allowed to fail in many others. And we catalog the tweaks and transformations that could mend our housing.

Click here to listen to each podcast

Guardian: Evicted by Matthew Desmond review – what if the problem of poverty is that it’s profitable to other people?

Nation: Eco-Apartheid Is Real: The climate crisis is converging with a housing crisis. We need to tackle both with a Green New Deal for Housing.

Kuow: One in 11 black residents were evicted from the Seattle area since 2004, researchers say

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Impact of Home Sharing Rental Platforms (Airbnb, etc)


Positives vs. Negatives

  • Rise of Airbnb and other services
    • has increased Home Sharing Rental
  • Positives
    • Supplements rent for many homeowners
    • Brings tourism business to areas to new areas
    • Can offer a more real experience to travelers
  • Negatives
    • Can take a significant amount of housing off the long term rental market that could increase rental prices due to lower supply
      • NYC Studies have estimated home sharing rentals increased median rental prices by 7%
      • 2014-17 Airbnb removed 7,000-13,500 housing units from NYC long-term rental market
    • Attracts more investors buying up properties for short term home rental
      • as opposed to someone renting out their extra room for supplemental funds
    • Studies have found that the majority of the population impacted by increased rents and gentrification are communities of color
      • And the majority of people buying up properties for rent are white people
      • Airbnb study claims white hosts in black communities earn more than black hosts

Ethical Ways to Use Home Sharing Rental Platforms

  • Research each host
    • If possible only rent from hosts that are
      • Local
      • Have only one listing for rent
      • Their listing is their residence
  • Look for platforms that have higher ethical standards
    • Homestay
    • Couch Surfing
    • Warm Showers
    • Veg Visits
    • WWOOF
  • Support Legislation protecting affordable housing
    • 2017 Short-term Rental Regulation and Affordable Housing Protection Act
      • Ban property owners from renting out homes other than their primary residences
      • Restrict vacation rentals, host absent from the property, to a maximum 90 days a year
    • The legislation follows other cities, including New York, San Francisco, Seattle

HuffPost: A New Generation Of Anti-Gentrification Radicals Are On The March In Los Angeles – And Around The Country

“The rise of Airbnb, meanwhile, has transformed everyday homeowners and even tenants into bed-and-breakfast proprietors, ratcheting up rents in quickly gentrifying areas. According to a study by McGill University researchers, Airbnb has pushed up New York rents by as much 7 percent, with the biggest disparity in returns between white hosts and minority ones coming in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem. Today, newcomers aren’t just moving in as families; they are moving in as cottage businesses.”

Curbed: Airbnb leads to median rent increase, promotes gentrification

A new study funded by a hotel workers union finds that by taking some housing offline and increasing demand for long-term rentals, Airbnb has directly lead to an increase in the city’s median rent

“A new report claims that Airbnb has restricted New York’s number of long-term rentals, lead to increased median rent throughout the city, and promoted gentrification. The report, titled “The High Cost of Short-Term Rentals in New York City,” is authored by a research group from the McGill University School of Urban Planning but funded by the “politically influential” hotel workers union, according to Politico.

The report found that in the study period of September 2014 through August 2017 Airbnb has potentially removed between 7,000 and 13,500 units of housing from New York’s long-term rental market, putting extra pressure on a city already squeezed for housing.

Of those 13,500, the report found that 12,200 entire-house units (as opposed to, say, a room) were frequently rented in the last year of the study. In the study, “frequently rented” is defined as housing units available for 120 days and occupied for half of those days. That, researcher David Wachsmuth found, means the units “may also all have been removed from the long-term rental market; at minimum, they are at high risk of being removed” from the housing market.

Airbnb refutes this claim, stating that the study’s methodology is flawed because it relies on nights that a home is listed for rent, rather than nights it is actually rented. The study claims that the typical listing in New York is rented for just 47 nights, which is well below what Airbnb found to be the break-even point of 172 nights for it to make sense for an apartment to be taken off the long-term rental market.

The McGill University report also claims that by taking some housing offline and increasing demand for long-term rentals, Airbnb has directly lead to an increase in the city’s median rent. Researchers at McGill found that over the period of the study, the median rent has increased 1.4 percent owing to a diminished housing supply, bringing median rents up $380. In some Manhattan neighborhoods, the report says, that increase is as much as $700.

On the topic of gentrification, the study found that nearly 75 percent of the population in neighborhoods at the highest risk of “Airbnb-induced gentrification” across the city are predominantly non-white. The report goes on to say that white neighborhoods make systemically more money from Airbnb than non-white neighborhoods, and that traditionally non-white neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Harlem are the city’s fastest-growing neighborhoods for Airbnb.

That finding backs up the March 2017 report by Inside Airbnb, a watchdog of the short-term stay site, that claims white hosts in predominantly black neighborhoods earn significantly more than black hosts. Inside Airbnb’s study also found that the neighborhood with the biggest disparity between the percentage of white hosts in comparison to its white population is Stuyvesant Heights, where 74.9 percent of hosts are white but just 7.4 percent of neighborhood residents are white.

That March 2017 report has been rebutted by a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, Airbnb points out.  Read the McGill University study in full here.”

” This report provides a comprehensive analysis of Airbnb activity in New York City and the surrounding region in the last three years (September 2014 – August 2017). Relying on new methodologies to analyze big data, we set out to answer four questions:

1. Where is Airbnb activity located in New York, and how is it changing?
2. Who makes money from Airbnb in New York?
3. How much housing has Airbnb removed from the market in New York?
4. Is Airbnb driving gentrification in New York?

Key Findings

  • Two Thirds of Revenue from Likely Illegal Listings: Entire-home/apartment listings account for 75% ($490 million) of total Airbnb revenue and represent 51% of total listings. 87% of entire-home reservations are illegal under New York State law, which means that 66% of revenue ($435 million) and 45% of all New York Airbnb reservations last year were illegal
  • 13,500 Units of Lost Housing: Airbnb has removed between 7,000 and 13,500 units of housing from New York City’s long-term rental market, including 12,200 frequently rented entire-home listings that were available for rent 120 days or more and 5,600 entire-home listings available for rent 240 days or more
  • $380 More in Rent: By reducing housing supply, Airbnb has increased the median long-term rent in New York City by 1.4% over the last three years, resulting in a $380 rent increase for the median New York tenant looking for an apartment this year. In some Manhattan neighborhoods the increase is more than $700.
  • 4,700 Ghost Hotels: There are 4,700 private- room listings that are in fact “ghost hotels” comprising many rooms in a single apartment. These ghost hotels have removed 1,400 units of housing from the long-term rental market, and are a new tactic for commercial Airbnb operators to avoid regulatory scrutiny.
  • 28% of Revenue: Commercial operators that control multiple entire-home/apartment listings or large portfolios of private rooms are only 12% of hosts but they earn more than 28% of revenue in New York City.
  • Top 10% of Hosts: The top 10% of hosts earned a staggering 48% of all revenue last year, while the bottom 80% of hosts earned just 32%.
  • 200% and $100K More: The median host of a frequently rented entire-home/apartment listing earned 55% more than the median long-term rent in its neighborhood last year. This disparity between short-term and long-term rents is driving Airbnb-induced housing loss and gentrification. Nearly 300 unique listings earned $100,000 or more last year.
  • Racialized Revenue: White neighborhoods make systematically more money on Airbnb than non-white neighborhoods. Neighborhoods with high existing Airbnb revenue (generally in Midtown and Lower Manhattan) are disproportionately white. But the fastest-growing neighborhoods for Airbnb (particularly Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant) are disproportionately African American.
  • 72% of the Population: Nearly three quarters of the population in neighborhoods at highest risk of Airbnb-induced gentrification across New York is non-white, as Airbnb continues to have a strongly racialized impact across the city
  • “Airbnb as a Racial Gentrification Tool”: In March 2017, released a report that categorized host photographs in all predominantly Black NYC neighborhoods. That report’s key findings have been cited in this new report:
    • Across all 72 predominantly Black New York City neighborhoods, Airbnb hosts are 5 times more likely to be white. In those neighborhoods, the Airbnb host population is 74% white, while the white resident population is only 14%.
    • White Airbnb hosts in Black neighborhoods earned an estimated $160 million, compared to only $48 million for Black hosts—a 530% disparity.
    • The loss of housing and neighborhood disruption due to Airbnb is 6 times more likely to affect Black residents, based on their majority presence in Black neighborhoods, as residents in these neighborhoods are 14% white and 80% Black.”

Politico: Airbnb promotes income disparity, curbs rental market, union-backed study finds

“One Airbnb host renting out four residences and three private homes in Manhattan’s West Village took in $700,000 last year, while the median annual income for an Airbnb host was $5,200 — a glaring example of the disparate earnings among the short-term rental operators in New York City, according to a new study.

The report, funded by the politically influential hotel workers union, portrays Airbnb as an enterprise that exacerbates income inequality, benefits white hosts who own homes in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and renders thousands of apartments unavailable in a city starved for housing.

The 49-page analysis, titled “The High Cost of Short-Term Rentals in New York City,” concludes that Airbnb hosts are responsible for removing between 7,000 and 13,500 apartments from the city’s long-term rental market, driving up rents by contributing to a housing shortage and threatening to gentrify neighborhoods that have historically been affordable to non-white residents. The report is based on data from September of 2014 through last August.

Researcher David Wachsmuth, who conducted the study with a team at McGill University’s School of Urban Planning, based his conclusion on properties in frequent use on Airbnb, which he defined as those available for 120 days and occupied for 60 days. He said that threshold rules out summer rentals and owners putting their units on the market each weekend.

Wachsmuth found 12,200 entire homes listed on Airbnb were frequently rented in the last year of the study. Those homes “may also all have been removed from the long-term rental market; at minimum, they are at high risk of being removed,” according to the study. Airbnb officials disputed his methodology, saying a unit listed as available is not necessarily rented through Airbnb.

In fact, recent data show that in New York City, Airbnb properties rent for a median of 47 nights per year, a company representative said. “What that signals and what we believe is that most folks in New York are using it as an occasional source of supplemental income,” added the representative, who was speaking on background to discuss the study. “That unit is not being lost to the long-term rental market. It’s being used.”

The analysis found many of the apartments removed from permanent rental stock are in neighborhoods undergoing development waves. In East New York, Brooklyn, which Mayor Bill de Blasio rezoned in 2016 for more residential development, Airbnb’s prevalence increased by 275 percent from 2015 through 2017, based on “frequently rented entire home listings,” Wachsmuth found.

Another popular neighborhood for Airbnb is Bedford-Stuyvesant, which experienced a 94 percent increase in such listings. Both Brooklyn neighborhoods have long been occupied predominantly by black residents, but most of the revenue is being collected by white Airbnb hosts, according to the report. The finding is based in part on a 2017 study that used facial recognition technology to determine the racial makeup of Airbnb hosts.

In response, the company pointed out that a Harvard Kennedy School professor rebutted that study. Three-quarters of Airbnb hosts in Stuyvesant Heights, a section of Bed-Stuy, are white, compared with 7.4 percent of the neighborhood population. More than 60 percent of the Airbnb revenue generated in the area is collected by white hosts, according to the Wachsmuth study.

In East New York, white residents account for just 2.5 percent of the population but control 29 percent of the listings on Airbnb, which the study says is responsible for about a $46-per-month rent increase over three years. “Airbnb’s business model has been particularly controversial because it so clearly flouts existing housing and land-use regulations in many or even most of the cities in which it operates, and does so in a fashion which appears to undermine policies aimed at protecting the supply of affordable housing,” the report states.

The analysis is the latest to take aim at the $30 billion company, whose business model is anathema to both the hotel industry and affordable housing proponents, some of whom signed on to the findings. In New York, where the Hotel Trades Council is influential and affordable housing is a chief concern for voters, most Democratic politicians are unwilling to embrace the online company, which is pushing for changes in Albany.

“This report proves what we have known all along: Airbnb’s illegal business model steals affordable housing, drives up the rent for everyone and hastens gentrification,” said Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat, in a prepared statement. “This report also proves that Airbnb has been lying all along, trying to convince us that illegal listings are rare as the dodo bird. In fact, a full three-quarters of all of Airbnb revenue is derived from illegal listings that hurt hardworking New Yorkers and drive up their rent.”

She was referring to another finding — that 75 percent of home and apartment listings accounting for $490 million are illegal under state law, which bars the short-term rental of unoccupied apartments in buildings with more than three units for fewer than 30 days. The law does not apply when a host is present or when the home has three or fewer units.

Rosenthal, meanwhile, is sponsoring a bill that would require Airbnb and similar companies to disclose addresses and other data. Airbnb said it has adopted a policy of allowing only one listing per host, to guard against those who use the system as a commercial enterprise.

“Although inconvenient for this author’s anti-home-sharing bias, Airbnb supports legislation that would restrict home sharing to one single home, which would finally allow enforcement to focus on illegal hotel operators while protecting regular New Yorkers who are trying to make some extra money to live in a city that gets more expensive by the year,” said Josh Meltzer, head of Northeast policy at Airbnb, in a prepared statement.

“The comprehensive legislation being considered in Albany would protect public safety and target bad actors operating illegal hotels, [while] allowing responsible hosts to continue to share their primary home,” he added.”

WTOP: To protect affordable housing, DC bill aims to limit short-term rentals

“WASHINGTON — A D.C. lawmaker is putting the final touches on legislation that would change how homes are rented when homeowners are on vacation. D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s Short-term Rental Regulation and Affordable Housing Protection Act of 2017 moves forward in September and aims to limit owners to only renting the home they live in as part of an effort to protect affordable housing in the city.

“The bill is not to prevent home sharing in the District. We’re trying to make sure commercial operators don’t overtake what’s left of affordable housing stock in the District,” said Valerie Ervin of Working Families, which supports the legislation. But it puts regulations in place that will limit residents, such as Dia Michaels, who is renting out a second property.

Back in the 1980s, Michaels and her husband bought a home near the Marine Barracks in Southeast and began renting it out to vacationers after they moved to a bigger house. “Five and a half years ago, my husband was being treated for cancer, and in the second week of the treatment … he had a massive stroke. And as you would imagine, everything changed,” Michaels said.

Calling it a “godsend,” their rental home became their main source of income. In reaction to McDuffie’s legislation, Michaels is a co-chair of the DC Short Term Rental Alliance, a group of concerned citizens who have a stake in the legislation’s outcome. Rental companies like HomeAway and VRBO are working to change the cap on properties per owner, but Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said that a housing constraint has been done before.

“We want to limit hosts to one home — just the home you rent. The basic premise is if a city has a housing constraint — [like] San Francisco and New York City — we want people to rent the homes they live in and not take units off the market,” Cheskey said to Fortune Magazine. Introduced in January, dozens of residents and interested parties attended the bill’s public hearing in April. Perhaps the most contentious issue is the 15-day rental limit in the legislation. McDuffie’s communications director Nolan Treadway said McDuffie is willing to negotiate on how long residents can rent their home.

“Our biggest concern is that it makes that whole home, that responsible renter, that traditional vacation community illegal here for the future of the city,” said Philip Minardi, director of policy communications for HomeAway. The average traveler is a 50-year-old female traveling with a family of four, according to Minardi, who wants the experience of renting a home to cook, bring her pet and share a space with family and friends.

“Traditional whole home vacation rentals make up .03 percent of the broader housing mix. So that means vacation rentals that have been here really don’t have a detrimental affect on housing stock or housing affordability,” Minardi said.

Ervin disagrees. “McDuffie’s bill is doing nothing more than codifying the law as it currently exists,” she said. In September, the councilmember’s office said, the bill will go to committee for a markup and is expected to get a first vote next month as well.

In a statement to WTOP, Councilmember McDuffie said: “We have received a lot of feedback since introduction and at the hearing on issues ranging from party houses, public health and safety, and the 15-day limit on home-sharing while the homeowner is away from their residence. I am open to revising the bill, including the 15-day number, as the bill makes its way through the legislative process, so that we can find the right balance for the District of Columbia.””

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Affordable Housing Solutions


Possible Affordable Housing Solutions

  • Greater investment on local and federal level in:
    • Public housing (to build more units and repair existing)
      • Important to keep tenants in place during any repairs
      • Scattered-site housing (avoid concentration of poverty)
    • Subsidized housing (section 8 housing vouchers)
      • Make it illegal for landlords to refuse tenants on the basis of housing assistance
    • More affordable housing at 30% AMI or less
  • Policies
    • Inclusionary zoning
      • requires new housing to have a percentage of affordable units
    • Right of Counsel for evictions
    • Tenant rights
      • Right of First Refusal, code enforcement, etc
      • D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA)
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    • Rent control/rent stabilization
    • Just-cause eviction protections
    • Foreclosure and eviction intervention policies
    • Home buying assistance
      • down payment assistance, low-interest home loans, Mortgage Credit Certificates
    • Anti-speculation policies
    • Rehabilitation assistance
    • Right of Return Programs
  • More oversight
    • More power over development decisions for the communities effected
    • More legitimate impact studies required on gentrification and racial disparities for developments and funding decisions
    • More oversight and enforcement power on developments not meeting expectations
    • More oversight and tenant protection for privatized models
      • Including longer guarantees units remain affordable
  • Community development agreement
    • Agreement between community, developer, and sometimes gov, for
      • Ensuring certain conditions are met before development
      • That local communities benefit from development
      • There’s a mechanism for addressing issues and community harm
    • introduction-to-community-development-agreements-cdas-18-638.jpg
    • introduction-to-community-development-agreements-cdas-8-638.jpg
  • Cooperative Housing Models
    • Community Land Trusts, Limited Equity Co-op, Tenement Syndicates, Mutual Aid Housing Cooperatives
  • Housing Trust Funds, Land Banks
    • Funds dedicated to affordable housing with a dedicated funding source
  • Property Tax Relief
    • For Businesses and homes
    • Detroit, Sankofa

Empower DC Slides from an Presentation on DC Affordable Housing & Gentrification

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Grounded Solutions: What about Housing? A Policy Toolkit for Inclusive Growth

Grounded Solutions Network created this toolkit to help communities understand their housing policy options and the approach that will work best for them. Community leaders and policymakers can start with local dynamics—their community’s housing situation and the outcomes they want to achieve—and determine which policy tools best suit their needs.

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Century Foundation: Attacking the Black–White Opportunity Gap That Comes from Residential Segregation

Public Policy Remedies

Government is the laboratory in which many of the schemes for black–white segregation were (and still are) concocted; it is also, therefore, where much of the effort must be placed in order for racial segregation to be undone. Members of government who want to reverse segregation must work to remove policies that promote and protect white supremacy, and replace them instead with ones that actively fight segregation. The rest of this report outlines a four-part strategy to address the following four key facets of black–white segregation: (1) the legacy of generations of racial discrimination in housing; (2) contemporary residential racial discrimination; (3) contemporary residential economic discrimination that disproportionately hurts African Americans; and (4) the re-segregating effects of displacement that can come with gentrification.

Addressing the Legacy of Generations of Racial Discrimination in Housing

When Congress passed the Fair Housing Act (FHA) in 1968, it intended for the executive branch to take steps to reduce housing segregation, with several courts interpreting the FHA as assigning HUD a nonnegotiable “statutory duty to promote fair housing.”54 But it was not until decades later, in 2015, that the Obama administration introduced a rule to implement the Fair Housing Act’s “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” (AFFH) requirement. The 2015 rule charged HUD with “taking meaningful actions, in addition to combating discrimination, that overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities free from barriers that restrict access to opportunity based on protected characteristics” and “replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns.”55

The failure to implement the AFFH requirements for nearly a half century after passage of the Fair Housing Act allowed segregation to remain the norm—particularly in predominantly black areas. “Segregation decreases most quickly in metro areas with small black populations,” observes NYU’s Furman Center. “Conversely, metropolitan areas with large black populations living in poverty showed the highest levels of black–white segregation, as measured by the dissimilarity index, in 2010.”56 As noted in the first section of this report, while the black–white dissimilarity index has declined over time, it remains extremely high. Furthermore, although the portion of neighborhoods that have only a tiny share of black residents has declined, the proportion of black people living in racially integrated neighborhoods in certain communities has also declined. In New York City, for example, the proportion has actually decreased from 41 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 2010.57 Rigorous enforcement of the AFFH rule is as important as ever.

Despite this need, President Donald Trump and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson suspended the AFFH rule in 2018. HUD also removed, without public comment, the Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) tool, which aided communities in determining housing needs and segregation patterns. This suspension aligns with Secretary Carson’s public disdain for the AFFH rule, which he unfairly derided as “social engineering” and “a tortured reading of fair housing laws.”58

Ben Carson at the opening ceremony of the fiftieth Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act Opening Ceremony. Source: Flickr/U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development

Housing justice and the fulfillment of the Fair Housing Act should not be held hostage to the political whims of an administration led by a man who was himself investigated for racial discrimination in his own real estate holdings.59 Reinstatement and rigorous enforcement of the AFFH are clear next steps in the quest to narrow the black–white housing opportunity gap.

In addition, government should undertake efforts to address the legacy of discrimination in the financing of homes. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), for example, has appropriately proposed providing new mortgage assistance to buy homes in formerly redlined neighborhoods.

Addressing Contemporary Racial Residential Discrimination

Attacking contemporary racial discrimination will require additional tools specifically aimed at both racial bias in the sale and rental of properties and in the financing of residential purchases.

Increase the Number of, and Resources for, Fair Housing Testers and Enforcement

Fair housing testing is an effective means to uncovering evidence of discrimination in renting or purchasing homes. Typically responding to tips from prospective homebuyers belonging to a protected group, individual testers (with no true intent to purchase or rent a home) pose as potential buyers or renters for the purpose of gathering information on possible FHA violations. In accordance with the Fair Housing Act, testers are looking to uncover discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status.

When testing is conducted, results can be eye opening. A study by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, “Fair Housing Testing Project for the Chicago Commission on Human Relations,” tested for source of income and racial discrimination in seventy properties in six Chicago neighborhoods. Of the tests conducted, thirty revealed one or both forms of discrimination.60

HUD funds many of these exercises through the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP), and should increase the resources allotted to the program to match the prevalence and gravity of the problem. Because discrimination can be difficult to prove, and because evidence indicates that it is quite widespread, increased resources for testing have been productively used to unearth cases of bias and secure remedies for victims of housing discrimination. When HUD offered grants to a small number of localities for testing programs in the mid-1990s, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission was able to conduct over 900 tests, found 136 possible violations, and filed 41 complaints. During the expansion of this program within Bill Clinton’s first term as president, HUD settled 6,517 cases out of court, took enforcement action on another 1,085, and received nearly $18 million in compensation for housing discrimination victims.61 Localities need more resources to continue the work of rooting out tough-to-prove acts of discrimination.

Reestablish and Strengthen Federal Interagency Taskforces That Combat Lending Discrimination

Established early in the Obama administration, the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (FFETF) brought together a broad coalition of law enforcement, regulatory, and investigatory agencies to combat financial fraud. As part of its mandate, the FFETF looked closely at discrimination in lending practices, such as racialized loan steering.

In 2015, based upon the work of the coalition, the U.S. Department of Justice filed its largest residential fair lending suit in history against Countrywide Financial Corporation and its subsidiaries. The complaint alleged that Countrywide engaged in a widespread practice of discrimination against more than 200,000 qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers in their mortgage lending between 2004 and 2008. Countrywide did so by charging them higher fees and interest rates, and by steering thousands of black and Hispanic borrowers into subprime mortgages when non-Hispanic white borrowers with similar credit profiles received prime loans. Disturbingly, the suit also alleged that Countrywide was aware of this racial discrimination and took no meaningful action to stop it or prevent it from continuing.

The federal government, which at one time was itself a purveyor of racist lending and housing practices, should provide the appropriate resources and coordination to seek justice for continued fallout of financial racism on the well-being of black Americans.

This was the first time that the Department of Justice alleged and obtained relief for victims of loan steering, but the process of investigating and organizing the suit made clear how challenging these cases are to prove and bring forth. The federal government, which at one time was itself a purveyor of racist lending and housing practices, should provide the appropriate resources and coordination to seek justice for continued fallout of financial racism on the well-being of black Americans.

Addressing Ongoing Economic Discrimination That Disproportionately Hurts African Americans

Action should also be taken to curb the discrimination against African Americans (which is illegal) cloaked as income discrimination (which, unfortunately, frequently is still legal).62 As noted above, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial zoning laws in 1917, jurisdictions rapidly adopted economically exclusionary zoning policies that ban apartment buildings and other multifamily units, in order to achieve much the same result. Today, exclusionary zoning is pervasive in the United States and has been found to exacerbate both economic and racial segregation. Jonathan Rothwell and Douglas Massey have found that “a change in permitted zoning from the most restrictive to the least would close 50 percent of the observed gap between the most unequal metropolitan area and the least, in terms of neighborhood inequality.”63

In another study, Rothwell concludes that local and exclusionary land-use regulations are largely responsible for differences in racial segregation between cities.64 One study by Harvard researcher Matthew Resseger finds that in Massachusetts, census blocks “zoned for multi-family housing have black population shares 3.36 percentage points higher and Hispanic population shares 5.77 percentage points higher than single-family zoned blocks directly across a border from them.”65

To address contemporary income discrimination, we need a five-pronged approach: (1) adoption of an Economic Fair Housing Act that launches a direct assault on exclusionary zoning; (2) funding of disparate impact litigation under the Fair Housing Act that challenges exclusionary zoning when it disproportionately affects people of color; (3) adoption of “inclusionary zoning” policies that set aside a portion of new housing developments for families of modest means; (4) adoption of laws outlining “source of income” discrimination targeting public housing residents; and (5) adoption of “mobility programs” modeled after the federal Moving to Opportunity Act, which provided residents of public housing the chance to live in high opportunity neighborhoods. Each of these approaches will reduce economic segregation and also reduce, indirectly, racial segregation.

Institute an Economic Fair Housing Act

We need an Economic Fair Housing Act—to parallel the 1968 Fair Housing Act—to curb explicit economic discrimination in the form of exclusionary zoning laws.66 The concept of an Economic Fair Housing Act is straightforward: just as it is illegal to discriminate in housing based on race, it should be illegal for municipalities to employ exclusionary zoning policies (such as banning apartment buildings, townhouses, or houses on modestly sized lots) that discriminate based on income and exclude the non-rich from many neighborhoods and their associated schools. At the individual housing unit level, free market forces would continue to discriminate by income, because some apartments and houses will be more expensive than others—that simply is what markets do. But government zoning policies should not, on top of that, discriminate based on income by rendering off-limits entire communities where it is impossible to rent an apartment, live in a townhouse, or purchase a home on a modest plot of land.

One alternative to a complete ban on exclusionary zoning would be a federal (or state) policy to reduce the amount of mortgage interest that a family can deduct in jurisdictions that practice exclusionary zoning, as the University of North Carolina’s John Boger has suggested.67 Another variation would bar federal funding for infrastructure to municipalities that insist on exclusionary zoning policies. For example, HUD currently allocates $50 billion for a variety of forms of public housing, including $5 billion in community planning and development grants. Although exclusive suburbs do not often rely on these housing grants, there are other federal spending programs that can provide leverage over wealthy communities.68

Federal legislators have begun to propose action along these lines. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), for example, has proposed legislation to curtail exclusionary zoning.69 Under Booker’s proposal, states, cities, and counties would receive $16 billion in a variety of infrastructure programs, and would be required to develop strategies to reduce barriers to housing development and increase the supply of housing. Plans could include authorizing more high density and multifamily zoning and relaxing lot size restrictions. The goal is for affordable housing units to comprise not less than 20 percent of new housing stock.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), likewise, has proposed a comprehensive housing plan that includes a new $10 billion infrastructure program with powerful incentives to reduce exclusionary zoning rules, such as “minimum lot sizes or mandatory parking requirements.” As she explained in March 2019, “to even apply for these grants,” localities “must reform land-use rules to allow for the construction of additional well-located affordable housing units.”70

Similar legislation to reduce exclusionary zoning, particularly near mass transit hubs, has been introduced and debated in California. Spurred by affordability concerns (even more than concerns about segregation), Massachusetts and Seattle have also considered proposals to curtail exclusionary zoning. And in Minneapolis, the city recently adopted a proposal to end single-family zoning restrictions entirely.

California activist Brian Hanlon notes that progressives are rightfully proud of their openness to immigrants, so why, he asks, are some standing by exclusionary zoning, which says, “we welcome outsiders—but you’ve got to have a $2 million entrance fee to live here.”71

Fund Disparate Impact Litigation

Government should devote greater resources to bringing litigation to challenge economic zoning laws that don’t explicitly discriminate based on race but have a “racially disparate” impact. Over time, the courts interpreted the Fair Housing Act to allow plaintiffs to bring such lawsuits targeting policies that have a discriminatory impact on minorities, even absent a discriminatory intent. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this interpretation of the act in the 2015 case of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project.72

Adopt Inclusionary Zoning Policies

More localities should support “inclusionary zoning” policies. Under such programs, a developer must set aside a portion of new housing units to be affordable for low- and moderate-income residents. In exchange, the developer receives a “density bonus,” allowing them to develop a larger number of high-profit units than the area is zoned for. This benefit for developers has proven critical to the idea’s political acceptance. Among the states most dedicated to inclusionary zoning are New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and California.73 In all, about 400 municipalities have inclusionary zoning programs.74 According to researcher David Rusk, 11 percent of Americans now live in jurisdictions with inclusionary zoning policies.75

A leading example is Montgomery County, Maryland, which adopted a groundbreaking program in 1974. Under the policy, when a developer builds more than a certain number of units, 12.5 percent to 15 percent of a developer’s new housing stock must be affordable for low-income and working-class families. Between 1976 and 2010, the program produced more than 12,000 moderately priced homes, of which the housing authority has the right to purchase one-third for public housing.76 Unfortunately, almost 90 percent of American municipalities lack any inclusionary zoning policies.

Expand Housing Choice Vouchers and Ban of Source-of-Income Discrimination

More states and localities should pass legislation to ban discrimination based on “source of income”—that is, discrimination against individuals using government subsidies to pay for part of their rent. According to the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, as of May 2017, fourteen states and sixty localities had passed legislation to bar source of income discrimination.77 Senator Warren has also called for making it illegal for landlords to discriminate against renters with federal housing vouchers.78 In addition to banning discrimination based on source of income, the Housing Choice Vouchers Program (formerly known as Section 8 housing assistance) should be fully funded. Housing Choice Vouchers (along with a few other smaller programs) served only 4.7 million households in 2016 of the 25.7 million who qualified.79 The combination of full funding and reduced discrimination could greatly reduce economic and racial segregation in America.

Expand Housing Mobility Programs

“Housing mobility” programs, which allow public housing residents to live in high-opportunity neighborhoods, should be expanded. The primary federal foray into this area was the federal Moving to Opportunity Act, a 1990s experiment in housing mobility that eventually produced substantial wage gains for people who moved to higher-opportunity areas as children.80 Harvard’s Raj Chetty and his colleagues found that the total mean income for those who moved before age 13 was 31 percent higher than for the control group. The researchers also observed in this group a 16 percent increase in the likelihood of attending college between the ages of 18 and 20.81 Such programs, which reduce both income and black–white segregation, should be expanded.

Addressing Displacement from Gentrification that Fosters Re-Segregation

New tools are also needed to dismantle the ills caused by gentrification and displacement. As formerly segregated neighborhoods become more diverse, they do not automatically become more equitable, as rising costs often displace long-term residents and threaten cultural institutions and practices. Washington, D.C. provides many recent examples of this common phenomenon. Residents of an expensive, high-rise, majority white apartment in the historically black Shaw neighborhood allegedly complained about go-go music—a cultural institution of working-class black D.C.—loudly playing from a longstanding neighborhood shop run by a black owner. After the owner was forced to turn down the music, black Shaw and D.C. residents began to protest, not only arguing that the music was the enduring soundtrack of the block, but that this was but one example of how white gentrifiers wanted the economic benefits of the neighborhood but lamented their actual neighbors.82 Not far from the site of these protests, students at Howard University, one of the nation’s oldest and most esteemed historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), decried that new white residents of the surrounding neighborhood used the private university’s historic yard as a dog park. When a news station interviewed a white male neighbor about the controversy, he suggested that if students of the 152-year-old historic institution did not want dogs on the yard, they should “just move the campus.”83 Incidents like these highlight how residents of color frequently experience gentrification as colonization rather than as revitalization.

Racially concentrated poverty is an evil that public policy must address, but pro-integration housing plans should seek solutions that respect and amplify the economic and cultural power of the longstanding institutions and people in that neighborhood.

Reconsider Tax Abatements and Implement Longtime Owner Occupancy Programs

In a desire to revitalize disinvested neighborhoods, policymakers frequently introduce laws that entice wealthy individuals and investors into the area but ultimately underserve or harm current residents. One example of such a policy is long-term tax abatements, which allows owners of newly constructed or significantly renovated properties in underserved neighborhoods to avoid paying property taxes for an extended time period.

Offering wealthy investors long-term tax relief, with no guarantees that those investments will materially improve the lives and economic stations of current residents, prioritizes property over poor people. Such policies allow the wealthy to live and operate in a neighborhood while having no obligation to contribute to the public good of it—the upkeep of its streets and parks, its public safety, its schools, and so on. Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s original residents continue to shoulder this burden because they have received no such tax abatements. This type of trickle-down real estate might spur growth, but such growth will be inequitable.

From 2014 to 2016, for example, the City of Philadelphia’s controversial ten-year tax abatement on new property applied to nearly 4,300 properties, forgoing more than $420 million in revenue. A conservative estimate based on recent market trends found that, over the next decade, the struggling Philadelphia School District could lose out on nearly $1 billion in property tax revenue due to this abatement plan.84

However, Philadelphia’s Longtime Owner Occupants Program (LOOP) seeks to productively respond to the possibility of the displacement of long-term residents. LOOP assists those below 150 percent area median income (AMI) who have lived in their homes for over ten years and have experienced at least a three-fold increase in assessed home values. Too often long-term residents experiencing this increase lack the liquidity to pay outright the higher taxes imposed on the newly appreciated property. The average LOOP participant is a senior citizen who purchased their home in the 1970s and 1980s.85 An April 2018 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that LOOP had proven effective in both reducing tax delinquencies and reducing displacement in gentrifying areas.86

Localities need to strongly consider reevaluating tax abatement programs, making them shorter or partial, or writing stipulations into them that encourage investors to focus on equity (as explained further below). Simultaneously, they should design programs that protect black, brown, and low-income people whose intellect, labor, and creativity helped shape the original neighborhood.

Invest in People, Not Power-Brokers

Why are people who craft public policy so eager to provide funding to area newcomers—who are unlikely to hail from the same racial or socioeconomic station as long-term residents—but unlikely to offer black, brown, and poor folks in the same area that same opportunity? First, this choice likely reflects society’s consistent favoritism of fiscal capital above the social and cultural capital created and accumulated by poor and nonwhite communities. This preference makes sense only if the benefits of those financial advantages are redistributed, and thereby consistently felt by the residents with the greatest need. Unfortunately, this is no guarantee. Second, the choice of policymakers to invest in newcomers over long-term and legacy residents seems to reveal a historical tendency to distrust people of color with self-governance. The tendency of many Americans to assign moral judgment to poverty and wealth—alongside the nation’s enduring current of racism—has led some policymakers to conclude that segregated, marginalized communities struggle due to the moral and intellectual failings of their residents, rather than due to the moral and political failings of those who ensured that their poverty was intractable. Lawmakers pursuing any and all neighborhood revitalization plans that might lead to gentrification should also consider the following actions to prevent displacement and re-segregation:

  • If tax abatements are deemed necessary for growth, offer them with enforceable stipulations that new businesses must employ, at a living wage, members of the community that host it. Offer tax abatements first to already existing small businesses to allow them to expand and employ more people.
  • Invest in educational programs, community gardens, health care facilities, and job programs in equal or greater amounts as the investments made in real estate.
  • Require that new housing developments set aside a percentage of homes at affordable rates. AMI for the entire city is an insufficient threshold for inclusion. “Affordable” should be scaled to median and below-median incomes for the neighborhood in which the new development is located.
  • Regard long-term residents as decision makers in their neighborhood. Developers and policymakers should not only consult with, but also take direction from the democratic representatives of community members when determining what gets built and where.


Black–white racial segregation, deliberately created by whites over decades to subjugate black people, continues to thwart opportunities for millions of African Americans. Of the many ways in which American society unfairly treats black people, the continued segregation of residential areas remains a central source of racial inequality. Taking bold action of the type outlined in this report would constitute an important step in cleansing this enduring stain from the fabric of American society, and making it solely the resident of history.

Right of Return Programs

The Guardian: Un-gentrifying Portland: scheme helps displaced residents come home

“Two years ago, Dianne Causey’s landlord died and her rental house in Portland, Oregon, went up for sale. She was forced to move from the city’s historically black neighborhood where she’d lived since 1978, into an apartment further east, nearly an hour away by public transit. “The apartment was way out in the boondocks. I was miserable,” she said.

But in December, Causey, 66, was able to return to north Portland, when she bought her first home through the Portland housing bureau’s preference policy, or “Right to Return” as it’s been called, the first of its kind in the US.

The program gives down payment assistance to first-time homeowners who were displaced, or at risk of displacement, from the city’s north and north-east neighborhoods because of urban renewal; it falls under a city plan that delegates how $20m will be spent on affordable housing, in an effort to atone for the sins of gentrification.

Last fall, the housing bureau received some 1,100 applications for the policy. With enough funds to subsidize 65 households, the bureau has so far succeeded in moving five families, including Causey, into their new homes. Forty-eight applications are in the pipeline to becoming mortgage-ready. And in February, under the preference policy, hundreds applied for rent-subsidized apartments in two buildings in north-east Portland, slated to open this year.

“I love it, because it’s mine,” said Causey, who purchased her house with her son with support from the African American Alliance of Homeownership. “I feel like I’ve come back home.”

In order to qualify for “preference”, applicants score points through their previous or current address. The greater the urban renewal activity in your area, the higher the points. Top priority is given to those whose property was snatched by the city through eminent domain. Applicants can add additional points if they can prove that their parent, guardian or grandparent lived in these affected neighborhoods.

Sue Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, says policies like these are an attempt to retain, or bring back, communities of color that the city once marginalized. “There’s a lot of concern about what’s happening to [Portland] in a way that is similar to San Francisco,” said Popkin. “And a grave concern is losing the historic minority populations altogether.”

In Portland, redlining and other discriminatory housing policies restricted African Americans to the Albina district, in north-east Portland, such that by 1960, 80% of the city’s black community called the area home. Yet the years to follow would herald a storm of urban renewal projects, including a new highway and a hospital expansion, which razed the homes of nearly 200 families, predominantly black.

By the 2000s, both public and private-driven investment made the north and north-east regions of Portland desirable to people with means. White folks moved in, gentrification spread, and long-term residents – namely low-income and communities of color – moved out, according to Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives (PCRI), a low-income housing program. Between 2000 and 2010, about 10,000 African Americans were displaced in north-east Portland, sinking its black population to 15% of the neighborhood. Citywide, only 6% of Portland’s population is black, based on census numbers.

“There’s no doubt that there was a significant number of communities of color who have historically lived in that area and who have been impacted by city actions over time,” said Martha Calhoon, the communications director of the Portland housing bureau. Over time, she added, those neighborhoods were some of the most diverse – meaning white, black, Latino and Asian households would all score high points of preference.

But not everyone is singing the policy’s praises. The application doesn’t include a box to identify race, a decision critics are calling cowardly. “The discrimination did not happen in a race-neutral way,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, the president of the NAACP’s Portland branch. “So if you’re going to correct it, I don’t understand how you’d develop a policy that isn’t race-specific.”

“I’d like to see them pay reparations to the families who had suffered generations because of corrupt policy,” she said. “If you really are committed to undoing the damage, that’s the direct approach,” adding that affordable housing means little in an unaffordable neighborhood. Ultimately, she said, the policy is ineffective.

“We recognize it doesn’t make up for what was lost,” said Calhoon, adding that no one funding policy is going to rectify the past. Nevertheless, she said, “it’s a starting point for those who want to come back, and an opportunity for those to remain in their neighborhood.””

Community Land Trusts (CLT)

ILSR: Protecting Communities from Gentrification

“About 15 years ago, the half-century flight from America’s cities came to an end. A growing number of cities began see a growing in-migration, often of people with higher incomes. Rising real estate prices spurred land speculation and new developments, threatening existing neighborhoods with displacement and reducing affordable housing.

Some cities have tried to do right by their long-term residents. But the strategies they’ve embraced look to bribe developers with tax breaks or higher densities than the zoning code allows in return for the developer including in their high rise condos a portion with a sales price set to households with less than the area’s median income. On the whole, these bribes have only marginally increased affordable housing, done little if anything to preserve existing neighborhoods and in the long run, are unsustainable.

In the 1960s activists proposed a new strategy: Community Land Trusts (CLT) The first incorporated land trust was established in 1969. New Communities was a 5,700-acre land trust and farm collective in southwestern Georgia owned and operated by approximately a dozen black farm farmers from 1969 to 1985.

In 1972 Robert Swann, one of the creators of New Communities, wrote Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model of Land Tenure in America, which among others things, explained in detail how a land trust differs from conventional ownership.  A trust separates the ownership of the land from the ownership of the building.  A nonprofit organization, with a board usually composted of representatives from tenants and the surrounding neighborhood, owns the land and leases it to the homeowner for a designated period, often 99 years.  The homeowner has the right to sell the land at any time, but the return to the homeowner is limited.

Keeping the land out of the real estate market holds down housing prices, as does limiting the equity gains that accrue to the homeowner. The objective of the land trust is not to maximize profit, but to maximize community and diversity…

…Evaluations have demonstrated the viability and effectiveness of land trusts.  They stabilize neighborhoods, revitalize communities, and keep housing costs affordable.

And they build equity for low-income households. The Urban Institute, found that 90 percent of low-income households remained homeowners five years after buying a shared equity, CLT home, far exceeding the 50 percent average home ownership retention rate among conventional market, low-income homeowners, as reported by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.   Reviewing the resale of 205 housing units in land trusts between l988 and 2008, analysts found that, on average, a CHT homeowner who resold her home after five and one half years, recovered her $2,300 down payment and earned an additional $12,000 net gain in equity…

…Despite the overwhelming evidence of their success, community land trusts are still on the margins of urban policy, a result of at least four factors.

First, banks continue to be wary of financing units where ownership is divided. Blumgart reports that the North Camden (New Jersey) Community Land Trust collapsed in 2007 because local banks would not allow it to refinance its loans after the Great Recession.

Second, many cities tax CLT property the same as conventional property, despite the fact that its unusual ownership structure results in a lower market value for the property.  A few states have adopted legislation requiring that CLT property be assessed at a lower value than unrestricted property. (e.g. Florida, North Carolina, Vermont).  Otherwise it is a city-by-city proposition

Third, new land trusts are confronting rapidly escalating real estate prices that outpace their ability to finance expansion.  When the Dudley Street Initiative was born, land in that part of Boston could be had for a song.  Now its price is rising rapidly. In 2015, the nascent Chinatown Community Land Trust was thwarted in its first attempt at acquisition when it came short in a bidding war with a developer. (Undaunted, this past March, an a dozen local neighborhood groups formed the Metro Boston Community Land Trust.)

Fourth, cities remain lukewarm, at best, to the concept despite the evidence that the city as well as its low-income residents may benefit.  Foreclosed properties significantly diminish nearby housing values, leaving the remaining homeowners vulnerable to foreclosure and the neighborhood to increased crime. Foreclosures also impose costs on municipalities.  The cumulative costs of administrative fees attendant to foreclosure, demolition of vacant properties, and declining property taxes can run into the tens of thousands of dollars per house.

One reason cities are reticent about supporting land trusts is the very reason land trusts have been created.  A significant percentage of municipal revenues come from property taxes, giving the city financial interest in maximizing the market/assessed value of real estate.   The land trust slows the increased price of real estate.”

“Land banks vacuum up land, many times after other damage has been done. Access to this land is determined however the bank sees fit, working under any number of agendas, and frequently makes them a preferred tool of gentrifying forces. Land banks CAN be used to develop an ailing market or area, but are COMMONLY used to cherry-pick tenants and fuel speculation profit.

On paper, land trusts sound like an answer to gentrification problems, in that they hold costs down on properties in a given area and over a period of time. But much like land banks, trusts are tools, and only as beneficial as the intent of the entity wielding it. Forgive me if I’m not sold on a solution delivered by city leadership that can’t even bring itself to admit it has a problem that, for the record, it caused and continues to run lead on. This all feels like the recent play by the mayor and city council to install campaign finance reform that was a) already being lobbied by other parties and b) with far worse terms. It’s like a child smashing a cookie jar on the floor, then picking up a couple of the cookies and claiming they’ve invented vacuum cleaners. Having development consultant Jim Sweeney sign off on this after he aided gentrification in Franklinton while being the director of the Franklinton Development Association is laughable. Maybe worse. A year ago the Dispatch was touting that land banks were boosting the local economy. Now they’re being painted as the problem.

One of the things missing from this entire story are numbers, and that’s important and telling. Everybody keeps throwing around the word “affordable” housing but I don’t think we agree on what that means, or for whom it may apply. Gentrification happens in waves. There is the traditional neglect phase, the displacement of original owners/renters, then the new owners, then the more profitable new owners, and on and on until an area caps or a bubble bursts. Here, the city is trying to tell us that land trusts are better for neighborhoods and account for affordable housing. What’s not being pointed out is that the people that many citizens talk about being displaced aren’t the people that the city is trying to meet halfway with land trusts. This proposal is for that third phase owner, not the first phase owner. Like a lot of things, these speeches aren’t for everyone who can hear them. Look at the areas where the city plans to pilot the plan – Franklinton, the South Side, the Near East Side and Weinland Park – areas where gentrification has already done major damage. This isn’t about preserving low income home ownership or transitioning renters into homeowners who make, say, less than $40,000 a year. This is about attracting and placating second and third wave gentrifiers, people who suddenly find they can’t afford to live in German Village or the Short North or Olde Town East anymore. There is a reason why the phrase “mixed-income” is used in this article (ad all the speeches) while “low-income” appears zero times. There are no ideas or real support for that population. That’s not where the money is.

They’re not trying to make it easier for poor or low-income or even middle class people to live here, or in areas where they traditionally try to build their lives. They’re setting up a straw rebuttal for critics pointing out all of the gentrification that they do.

This sounds like a good idea. As an idea it could be good. But Columbus isn’t using it that way, not for the people who already struggle to live here.” Scott Woods

Fast Company:  4 Radical Real Estate Ideas To Fix Our Broken Housing System

“At the core of the American housing system of today is the fundamental belief that housing should be a vehicle for private wealth creation. Privately owned housing on the market makes up 96.3% of the total housing stock in the U.S. Homeownership, once one of the surest ways for a family to accumulate wealth, has declined across the country; rates dropped to 63.4% in 2016, their lowest since 1967. Big banks and mortgage companies attach stringent criteria and high interest rates to loans that often lock lower-income people out of buying a home.

So instead, they’re forced into the rental market. As wages have stagnated and property costs have continued to rise, an astonishing number of Americans struggle to afford monthly payments. Almost half of all renters spend more than 30% of their income on rent, which is the ratio the federal government deems affordable. One in four renters shell out half their income to hold onto a place to live. Homeowners aren’t any better off: Around 41% are struggling to make mortgage payments, and risking foreclosure as a result. Across market-based housing, people of color, gender nonconforming people, and those with a criminal record routinely face barriers to securing housing.

Scattered throughout this mess is the remaining 3.7% of the American housing stock. These homes fall under the category of “social housing” which includes government-owned housing, and nonprofit-financed, community-based models. Investment in the former has fallen precipitously; Chicago’s demolition of the Cabrini-Green Homes, completed in 2011, perhaps best encapsulates the nation’s move away from public housing and increasing dependence on the market to provide housing for low-income people. Permanently affordable, inclusive housing models like community land trusts (CLTs)–represent a tiny portion of the housing stock, but if it could go mainstream, they could give people the affordable options they need and the market can’t provide.That’s the crux of a new report from the Right to the City Alliance, a nonprofit focused on creating equitable urban areas, and its Homes for All Campaign, which advocates for affordable, dignified housing for all. “Communities Over Commodities: People-Driven Alternatives To An Unjust Housing System” details four models of “decommodified housing” (in other words, housing that is a place to live, not an investment vehicle) that have proven, in other countries, to provide stability to families struggling to afford a place to live.

“It’s extremely timely because of the sheer scale of the crisis and suffering, and the failure in general of elected officials and policymakers in general to acknowledge the crisis, or to come up with anything other than quick fixes that don’t address the root causes of the problem,” says Tony Romano, director of organizing and strategic partnerships for the Right to the City Alliance, in a recent webinar.

The four models follow the organizations’ Just Housing principles, which both Right to the City and Homes for All believe are necessary for creating truly affordable and dignified housing: community control, affordability, permanence, inclusivity, and health and sustainability. “We see community control as the linchpin upon which all the other principles are made possible,” the report notes. Essentially a model that puts the community first is the reverse of market-oriented housing–and that’s why organizers are optimistic about its potential to effect real change.

Political will behind these models is scant. The idea of houses as an appreciating asset has become a key part of American economic policy and an important part of many people’s financial planning. But the system does not work to house all people: We need something different.  “These examples dispel myths that alternative models can never reach scale, that there are no feasible financing mechanisms and that they stagnate the economy,” the report reads. Right to the City hopes that its work can translate into policy recommendations for cities and communities struggling with housing affordability.

Limited Equity Cooperatives

In this model, member-residents jointly and democratically own and reside in their building, which they secure through a combination of collective purchasing and a low-interest mortgage, often with the assistance of a nonprofit. Households–which generally have to fall below a certain income level to be eligible–purchase shares in a corporation or nonprofit that owns the limited equity cooperative (LEC), and in addition to paying for that share, they pay monthly fees to cover property taxes and operating costs, which the LEC manages. By purchasing a share, households are given a unit to live in under a lease that protects tenants from unjust eviction and typically lasts 99 years–essentially, for a lifetime. But if a member-resident chooses to leave, they are not permitted to sell the unit for profit; the LEC members collectively determine a cap on resale values to keep units affordable. The resale price cannot exceed the sum of the original cost of the unit plus the cost of any upgrades to the property throughout the time of the first tenancy.

LECs have a long history in the U.S., dating back to when the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union set up this housing structure and financing mechanism for their workers. Unlike market-based housing, LECs are “not a vehicle for real-estate investment or profit,” according to the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. They aim instead to give low-income people–those who are particularly struggling in the current market–an affordable place to live and perhaps most importantly, put down roots for long enough to build a life.

Community Land Trusts

If LECs manage buildings, who controls the land upon which they build? In places like Oakland, where exorbitant land costs have hampered affordable housing (developers feel pressured to charge enough to tenants to recuperate the costs of land), land management is a crucial part of the affordable housing picture that’s often left out.

Community land trusts can work in tandem with long-term affordable housing structures like LECs to keep both land and units affordable. CLTs, using a combination of public and private funds, buy up parcels of land–either vacant lots or existing properties–and place them into community ownership through a nonprofit. Anyone who develops property on the land owned by the CLT has to adhere to cost guidelines set by the community, pegged to the median incomes of people within the CLT–not to market rates. If, say, a developer wants to build an apartment building on the CLT, they have to set the cost of units by taking one-third of the local median wage, multiplying it by the standard 25-year mortgage rate, and adding a deposit rate of 10%. If the owner of a unit wishes to sell, they must follow the same formula. A similar formula, set by the CLT, applies to individual homes and businesses.

CLTs are able to regulate costs in this way because they own the land and, as such, determine its value. And because CLTs are motivated by providing community benefit, not creating profits, they keep the value of land steady, rather than subjecting it to market speculation and raising its price. CLT members also follow a democratic process in determining what gets built on the land.

New York City, one of the flashpoints of the American housing affordability crisis, last year moved to establish its first CLT on parcels of land across the city, with the support of a coalition of nonprofits and stakeholders, who helped finance the initial land purchase. While this is a win for the city, it’s frustrating in light of the fact that Mayor Bill de Blasio has, in his four-year tenure, sold 202 parcels of land to developers for $1 to spur housing creation, but just one of those developments is permanently affordable. Those parcels could instead have been fed into a land trust, and it’s a mark of the lack of political will for the model–despite its benefits–that they were not.

Tenement Syndicates

While the U.S. has a handful of LECs and CLTs, the Tenement Syndicate model originated in Germany, and is confined to Europe. This model defines itself as a “solidarity network” and its key feature is a dual ownership model, in which member buildings are managed by two entities: the tenants organized by individual housing projects, and an overall syndicate, which provides organizational support and supervision,  and is comprised of members of each house project as well as legal support and counsel, often provided by associated nonprofits. Tenants decide issues like setting the cost of rent and what building renovations are necessary, and the syndicate manages loans for projects, and advises the individual buildings within the network on operational matters.

Unlike LECs or CLTs, which may be eligible for public funding to get started, each new building that comes into a syndicate structure is paid for via a conventional mortgage loan that requires a down payment of around 20%. The building residents collectively finance the down payment and often tap resources like alternative lenders to do so. And a particularly compelling feature of this model is that tenants of existing buildings in the syndicate pay a small amount each month into a “solidarity fund,” which then goes toward bringing new projects into the syndicate. The idea behind tenement syndicates is that no one is in this alone–and that the larger syndicate structure exists to support buildings in which people reside according to this ethos.

Mutual Aid Housing Cooperatives

Like tenement syndicates, mutual aid housing cooperatives (MHACs) are a foreign concept in the U.S., but quite popular in several countries in Latin America, where they were first established in the 1960s. What sets it apart from the previous three models is that the residents of a MAHC work together to both maintain and build their own housing.

A group of families band together and decide to form a MAHC. They then seek out land on which to build, which they secure either via a grant or a purchase. If the latter, the families go in on a collective loan with which to purchase the land, which minimizes risk. The whole family participates in the building and management process–MAHCs make a special point give women and people with disabilities responsibility–and the work contribution saves an estimated 15% to 20% of labor costs. Federación Uruguaya de Cooperativas de Vivienda por Ayuda Mutua (FUCVAM), based in Uruguay, is the largest and oldest federation of MAHCs in the world, and to date, it comprises more than 500 housing developments for 25,000 families; its success has spurred the expansion of the model to 17 countries. Not only does the collective organizing and building structure create a community support system for individual families, it also equips young people in the MAHC with construction and organizing skills.

A New Way Forward

As housing becomes less and less affordable, rates of homelessness have spiked in the country, and numerous previous studies have shown that it’s much less expensive to house people decently than it is to manage their needs–from shelter to health–without a stable home.

If we’re going to try to truly tackle the affordability crisis in the U.S., the report contends, we can’t just continue to work within the current system. While the report’s authors acknowledge that establishing community-based systems is radical, what choice, exactly, do we have?

“The current U.S. housing system, rooted in the commodification of land and housing and speculation, is not our only option,” Romano says. “There are alternatives, and these alternatives do work and are guided by a vision of housing as a human right and undergirded by principles including community control.”

The Nation: Can Neighborhoods Be Revitalized Without Gentrifying Them?

Last year, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody placed his neighborhood in a tragic spotlight, highlighting an all-too common urban misery: epidemic poverty, blighted lots, and shattered homes. Gray’s Baltimore has become notorious as the site of failed “urban renewal” projects, rife with liberal talking points but showing precious little progress in alleviating poverty and joblessness. There’s now a plan to generate change from the inside out, creating community housing as a source of collective healing.

Facing a change in administration in pending elections, activists are pushing a plan before the City Council to devote about $40 million to housing development, not just to fix up vacancies or construct commercial towers but to overhaul neighborhoods through developing Community Land Trusts. As we’ve reported before, the idea would be to establish communally owned property under a democratic governance structure, which allows residents and the surrounding neighborhood to cooperatively manage land and property use.

Baltimore struggles with both massive abandoned vacancies and pockets of gentrification. Residents face tracts of sky-high rents alongside chronically neglected housing stock, dividing wealthy and impoverished areas. Now the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, a coalition of grassroots groups, envisions a plan to curb displacement and rationalize the twisted housing market. It sees joint ownership as a path to revitalizing community oriented housing…

…Through years of gentrification and deindustrialization, the housing market has polarized. Millions of low-income units have vanished, often swallowed by predatory developers. Meanwhile, more than 66,500 households are constantly at risk of eviction due to non-payment. According to the Roundtable’s research published in January, “approximately one-third of Baltimore households were homeless or at risk of homelessness.” Amid eroding tax bases and impoverished schools, political malaise exacerbates urban depression, the Roundtable reports: “Baltimore City officials have offered no housing plan or community development plan that is responsive to those most in need, the poor working class or fixed income families” in the lowest income bracket, particularly in recession-battered black communities.

Under the CLT’s cooperative ownership structure, the resident owns the property, while the community retains the land. The resident pays an annual leasing fee, plus other mortgage and maintenance expenses. When the property is sold, price is controlled through a prearranged agreement with a community authority, with representation from neighbors and “public stakeholders” such as local officials or community-development organizations. The homeowner can share in any appreciation of the sales value.

When these community controls are leveraged against market forces, neighborhoods can ensure a communally managed recycling of ownership, and avoid the frenzied churn of renters and developers commonly associated with boom-bust speculation and gentrification…

…Chris Lafferty of the community development organization North East Housing Initiative, discusses the CLT framework in the Roundtable’s report from a racial justice angle, as a strategy of “arresting decline and enabling the creation and maintenance of communities that are sustainable, as well as ethnically, racially, and economically diverse…The CLT may be an unprecedented citywide effort to turn residents, often seen as victims of structural inequality, into community planners.”

Anti-Speculation Policies

CNHED: The Ones That Failed: Housing Policy Flops

In 1978, City Council passed a temporary anti-speculation tax after debating various versions in legislative hearings. The Residential Real Property Transfer Excise Tax was written in response to concern about widespread flipping and speculation in the residential property market.

Speculation is, roughly, an investment in a property that carries very little risk but offers the possibility of large gains. It can drive up the cost of housing and property taxes to the point where the residents of the area can no longer afford to live there. Speculation can also be predatory. In D.C. in the 1970s speculators took advantage of the wave of first time black homeowners who didn’t have “the expertise to go through land records to find out what the slum speculator paid, and when.” The new homeowners often paid exorbitant rates for houses that just weeks earlier were listed at a fraction of the price. A Council study found the following: “Between October 1972 and September 1974…one out of every five sales of homes in the District involved two or more sales of the same property, 80% within 10 months of each other.”

Inspired by the politics of SNCC and the just-passed D.C. Human Rights Act, which protected against discrimination in housing, the law levied a steep tax (near 100%) on short-term buying and selling of residential properties without improvements. It also required an inventory of all transfers of residential property and the disclosure of the seller’s purchase price and costs to buyers of residential property. All three of these measures were the first of their kind in the country. (Caveat: Vermont at the time had a tax to stop speculation of rural land.)

The law expired in 1981 with the City Council’s blessing. By December 1979, the Washington Post had already deemed the law an utter failure. By that time, the law had only been implemented three times, thanks in large part to easy-to-find loopholes.

Some blamed the failure on the City Council and Mayor, specifically the way its progress on civil rights was not met with progressive stances on economic justice. Mayor Walter Washington once asked, “But what’s wrong with speculation?”

Others cited the influence of the real estate industry.  They first became politically organized through the debates on the tax and actively opposed it. In addition, there was the racial politics of speculation. With the new win of home rule, many black leaders thought it was finally their turn to turn a profit—and the development industry was the place to do it. Speculation sounded to many like a form of economic power that was owed to black city residents. As a result, one observer wrote that it was difficult for “activists to invoke the same degree of outrage at black profit seekers as they do when the perpetrators are white.”

“…the reality of the 1970s and 1980s housing crisis in Washington, DC, which forced
city residents to contend with a deteriorating housing stock from years of disinvestment; an increase in evictions connected to speculation; demands for housing by a
new population of white professionals; and the possibility that much of the city
would no longer be a place where working-class residents like the Harveys could
live. In 1975, when Harvey testified at the City Council, housing options were dire
for poor and working-class residents, the majority of whom were black. Abandoned, run-down, and foreclosed shells stood next to unaffordable, renovated
homes on the same street. This landscape of uneven development was one of
extremes. An estimated 22,000 vacant structures littered overcrowded neighbor-
hoods while roughly 260,000 families could not afford or access decent places to
live (Diner and Young 1983). Incomes remained steady but housing prices
skyrocketed; gentrification seemed imminent, and the city’s small supply of hous-
ing for low- and moderate-income residents began to disappear (Goldfield 1980)…
…one of the Council’s most radical responses to the housing crisis of the
1970s: a speculation tax. The Council passed the tax in 1978 as a means to deter
residential property flipping, which involved quick sales of a purchased property at
dramatically increased prices. This tax cut to the core of the principles that undergirded
the housing market, and it was for this reason that the policy spurred the creation of
the city’s first realty lobby. The policy also raised serious questions for tax supporters

about the purposes and effects of capitalist housing markets. I argue that these questions, which were left unanswered,ultimately undermined the efficacy of the country’s first and only urban speculation tax. At the end of 1981, the Council let the tax expire…

…For political economists, the answer to Friedrich Engels’ housing question—the question of why decent, clean places to live continue to be out of reach for many—is the profit-oriented nature of the housing industry and market (Bratt et al. 1986, 2006). Though exacerbated by racism and sexism, the root of housing problems is the commodification of residential space. Geographic research has explored at length regulatory mechanisms, sophisticated credit systems, labor-market restructurings, “free” market ideologies, and practices like speculation that produce housing as a commodity. This work has helped scholars like David Harvey (1976), Manuel Castells (1979) and Chester Hartman (1983) to see speculation as a predatory practice and one that differs from traditional development. Neil Smith (1979:25), too, has argued that there is “a vital distinction between the speculator proper who buys a house to sell it unaltered, at a profit, and the developer who buys a house to rehabilitate it before selling”. The only thing a real estate speculator hopes to produce is a rising land value…

…In 1970 the city’s (DC) population was 72% black and 28% white. As the decade went on, the number of black residents living in the city shrank for the first time in history and a demographic dichotomy emerged. The city’s population became increasingly either white and wealthy or poor and black. There was a rush of condominium conversions, a surge of gentrification, and a larger number of white residents moving into the city than out (Gale 1987). A cardboard sign taped to the window of a house, and captured in a newspaper photograph, described some of the racial politics of these changes:

Black families who have
paid to live on this st. for 30 years
have been given 30 days
to leave by whites who seek status
of an in-town address: their status
our homes.
I hate you white vultures and
spend all my waking hours
thinking how best to drive you
away. You will get exactly
what you deserve.
At the moment that the city’s long-term population of black renters became
eligible for federally backed mortgages and won protections against discrimination
in leasing, housing construction shrank, credit for the housing industry dried up,
funding for public housing was diverted, and affordability in the housing markets
disappeared (Diner and Young 1983).
“The Wild West”
Across the city, tenants, the majority of whom were black, were kicked and priced
out of their homes. In Adams Morgan, a row of houses that were in use as rentals
sold one week for $26,000 and a few weeks later with no remodeling for $65,000.
On Capitol Hill an entire block of six-bedroom townhouses that were in use as
rooming houses was converted to single-family dwellings and sold to 19 new
homeowners in a single summer (Zeitz 1979).
A white realtor who was active at this time, Brian Logan, described the fervor in an interview with me:
“It was sort of like the Wild West back then. Oh…they would do flipping where you
would get a contract on a shell, you know, for $4,000 and that person would flip it
to another one for $5,000 and it might change, the contract might change hands
two, or three, four times before you actually got to settle it for $10,000. I mean,
prices were going up high then, I mean, quickly. People were just flipping. There
was a bunch of guys who made enough money that they moved to Costa Rica and
bought a big farm and are now doing something in Costa Rica, I don’t know. Any-
way, there was a whole lot of people, little developers, and contractors that would
buy these things and actually fix them up a little bit and then sell them and other
people would just buy them and sell them without fixing up. It was great. It was a
lot of fun.”
Another white realtor of the early 1970s said in an interview with me:
[t]here were so many people making so much money…There were people from California coming here because they heard about money. A little man from Iran came with a suitcase full of cash because D.C. was the most under-priced capital city in the world.
Between 1970 and 1974, the median sales price of a home increased in Washington, DC roughly the same amount as it did in the preceding 10 years: 80%.  Property tax assessments sometimes increased as much as 10% from the previous year.
“Little old ladies” were “badgered to death” to sell their homes, according to
a City Council member. More than 30 real estate agents told a newspaper
reporter that they had pressured “elderly, black homeowners in gentrifying
areas” to sell their homes (quoted in Gale 1987:163). If residents were unwilling
to sell, realtors sent housing inspectors. Then, if homeowners lacked the means
to repair the identified infractions, they would be forced to sell, which often
meant selling to the speculator whom they had refused in the first place.
Citywide Tenant Revolt
In the 1970s a citywide tenant revolt erupted. Residents demanded new kinds of
neighborhood planning, demonstrated at City Council, and organized the city’s first rent strikes against landlords for inadequate maintenance (Reed 1981). If the metropolitan region had indeed become the wealthiest in the USA, for whom had benefits accrued?
The moment for answers arrived in 1974 when the city finally achieved limited
self-governance after a hundred years of Congressional control. That year, Congress’ Home Rule Act went into effect. City residents elected their own mayor and
a 13-member City Council, all but two of whom were black and more than half
of whom had some kind of alliance with the radical Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In its first year, the City Council considered 35 bills to address the
housing problem. They passed eviction moratoriums, condominium conversion
restrictions, and limited-equity cooperative provisions. The speculation tax, which
had gained popularity at a “reverse blockbusting” forum, was one of the most radical and, of those passed, one of the shortest-lived.
After much lobbying by the Anti-Speculation Task Force, the bill was introduced to the City Council by the council members representing the gentrifying Adams Morgan and Capitol Hill neighborhoods. A member of the Task Force, a new group of community leaders from the areas of Adams Morgan, Capital Hill, and Shaw, and a local lawyer from Ralph Nader’s tax reform group drafted the original speculation tax bill. They proposed levying a tax of up to 70% on the profits made by quick sales of row houses.
A speculation tax, in theory, discourages flipping by penalizing the offender. If it is successful, such a tax can discourage speculation by taxing away short-term gains. If the tax does not deter speculation, it can still serve a useful purpose by capturing a portion of the windfall profits when properties change hands and funneling those revenues into housing resources for low- and moderate-income residents. But, in the latter case, price escalation could nevertheless result (Bratt et al. 2006)…
…renovation,restoration, and redevelopment of housing were not described as problematic. The city badly needed physical repair. And who if not the real estate industry would repair it? The problem was the flipping without the repairing and the inflation without the The US Urban Speculation Tax improvements. Such a standpoint that vilified speculation while endorsing the private property market proved a complicated and ultimately damaging position.
Realtors and other opponents of the tax latched onto this claim about a difference
between speculation and restoration. Opponents presented a naturalized view of
speculation as no different from any other kind of conventional capitalist practice
and suggested that few distinctions existed between speculators and other real es-

tate actors…Opponents to the tax went further with this point. They repeatedly alleged that any regulation on speculation would “virtually end” all private investments in housing…

…A false choice emerged in the debates: housing development through an unregulated housing market or no housing development at all. A representative of the Office and Apartment Building Association was explicit: “It’s not a choice between houses for poor people and houses for rich people. It’s a choice between houses for rich people or no houses at all.”…

…The final tax included a loophole to exempt renovated properties if a seller offered a one-year warranty on infrastructure like heating, plumbing, and electrical systems. A council member explained, “homesellers and speculators who have done nothing more than put up a new coat of paint will ‘warranty’ that all parts of the house are in good condition”. During its three years on the books, only seven people paid the tax, and, of that group, one was refunded.

After intense lobbying by real estate executives and housing developers to make sure the flawed law was not repaired or extended, the City Council ended the short-lived affair with the speculation tax and let the tax expire in 1981. The tax, designed to counteract the racialized pressures of the property market, became a signal of the market’s hegemony. The defeat of the speculation tax became a signal of an urban landscape where material property existed as a lucrative space for investment, property rights were based on ideologies of exclusion, and traditional private ownership was treated as an empowerment vehicle in the civil right struggles of working-class black residents.
By exploring some of the racialized political discourses through which hegemonic
property rights were made to endure in Washington, DC in the late 1970s, this pa-
per shows how property rights can function as narrative barriers to housing justice
in unexpected ways. Speculation tax supporters held tight to a vision of a city in
which residential space was largely distributed by the market, primarily developed
by the real estate industry, and heavily controlled through home ownership. Home
ownership was seen as a way to provide low- and moderate-income black residents
forms of social and spatial security and the possibility of economic mobility that no
other social relation could. For the project of racial justice in Washington, DC, the
housing market was portrayed, despite all the talk of detrimental speculation, as
essential. Neighborhood change may be “something that’s happened since the dawn of time ”, as one developer I interviewed said. But the key question, according to Mandi Jackson (2008:223), “is not whether cities should be revitalized or redesigned…The question is who [or what] controls the strategy, process, and model for such a transformation.” In the case of the speculation tax, supporters and opponents contributed to a narrow ontology of neighborhood change where control of neighborhood transformation largely sat with the market. Their discursive treatment of the real estate industry, housing profits, economic wealth, and tenure security contributed to a conservative view of urban development. The quick death of the speculation tax was the quiet death of alternate narratives about housing justice and urban futures.”

Rent Control Policies

Wikipedia: Rent Control

Rent control is considered necessary by the state of New York to protect the public and to prevent landlords from imposing rent increases that cause key workers or vulnerable people to leave an area. Maintaining a supply of affordable housing is believed to be essential to sustaining the local society. Homeowners who support rent control point to the neighborhood instability caused by high or frequent rent increases and the effect on schools, youth groups, and community organizations when tenants move more frequently.

In certain instances the term “rent stabilization” is used instead of rent “control,” for example, in some cities in California, such as San Francisco. With rent stabilization and vacancy de-control landlords are free to set prices of vacant units at market prices, but once rented to a tenant, subsequent increases are capped based on the rate of inflation or a regulated percentage. This is considered a basic form of consumer protection: once tenants move into a vacant unit at market rents they can afford and establish lives in these homes, they won’t have to renegotiate. Without rent regulation, landlords can demand any amount and tenants must either pay or move. Thus, tenants can become vulnerable to arbitrary and extortionate increases above market value. For example, elderly or disabled tenants may be unable to move, and families risk disrupting children’s educations by moving in the middle of a school year. Advocates insist that finding a new home is not a trivial matter, and tenants should have some assurance that they can maintain some stability in their housing situation.

Some property tax measures also promote the societal goals of community stability and allowing people to remain in their homes even in times of inflation. In California, Proposition 13 generally caps real estate tax increases at 2% per year. Leading the campaign to enact Proposition 13, California politician Howard Jarvis claimed that landlords would pass tax savings along to tenants; when most failed to do so, it became an argument for rent control, to allow tenants to share in the benefit of the property tax control.”

Property Tax Relief


“the manipulation of tax-delinquency laws by white officials in the South as a practice and custom of “depriving Negroes of their property through subterfuge.” Thurgood Marshall, NAACP (1940)

  • Detroit
    • Detroit is Black population: 79.12%
  • 2011-2015 Detroit Foreclosure Crisis
    • 1 in 4 properties were foreclosed upon
  • Michigan Constitution states
    • No property shall be assessed at more than 50% of its market value.
  • Between 2009-2015
    • 55-85% of properties assessed in violation of the Michigan Constitution.
      • The lowest valued homes (bottom fifth) were assessed at levels, on average, 18 times the constitutional limit.
      • The highest valued homes (top fifth) were assessed, on average, below the constitutional limit.
    • Large result of not readjusting property taxes about recession
      • Which hit Detroit very hard
    • Also Detroit did not tell anyone about its property tax exemption

#IllegalForeclosures: What’s happening?

DCist: Sankofa’s Tax Break Wins Approval From The D.C. Council

A decades-old District institution on Georgia Avenue NW looks like it’s slated for a 10-year tax abatement, after the black-owned bookstore lobbied for relief from the city.

The D.C. Council was unanimous on Tuesday in its approval of a tax break for Sankofa Video Books & Cafe (aside from At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds and Ward 4’s Brandon Todd, both of whom are on a trip to Israel with the D.C. Chamber of Commerce). Like all permanent legislation, the bill requires another vote at the council before heading to the mayor’s desk. There’s no date set for the second vote, though it could come as soon as July 9, according to the office of Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who introduced the legislation.

While the city has long used tax breaks and other incentives to entice corporations and developers, it has less frequently directed those tools towards retaining small businesses.

“I hope that the Sankofa example is a spark for protections to be put in place for small black businesses,” says Sankofa co-owner Shirikiana Gerima. “Legacy businesses who’ve been here through crack, through, in some cases, the riots, through gentrification—the latest devastation, they need to be supported in really, really concrete ways.”

As written, the bill exempts Sankofa from taxation for the coming decade, as growing property values in Pleasant Plains have left the business with a rising tax bill. This year, Sankofa owes $30,000 in property taxes, a 25 percent increase over the past decade, according to Gerima’s testimony to the D.C. Council. That number is projected to rise to $36,000 by 2022, according to D.C.’s chief financial officer. The CFO valued the abatement at $415,346 over a 10-year period, and determined that the business could survive without it.

But Gerima says that Sankofa is more than bookstore—it’s a community meeting place for “people who are thirsty to know about their culture and history.” She says all of the people who signed a petition and lined up to testify at the D.C. Council on Sankofa’s behalf earlier this June are a testament to that mission. “We’ve been out here working hard for a long time and the sustenance has been the growth of people around us and ourselves, too,” she says.

The shop sits just down the street from Howard University and a few blocks from the Metro PCS store in Shaw, which have been at the center of recent conflicts over who has a right to space in the city.

Gerima thinks the city needs to be involved in these discussions. “The government is a gatekeeper and they have a responsibility to look out for D.C. residents old and new,” she says.

In exchange for the tax break, the legislation requires that more than half of Sankofa’s employees live in D.C., with more than 30 percent of them living in Ward 1. Gerima says this measure won’t be a problem.

But for another Ward 1 business fighting for its significantly larger tax break, the question of whether it has prioritized District residents in the hiring process has become a major issue.

The Line D.C., a posh hotel in Adams Morgan, received a $46 million tax break over 20 years from the D.C. Council if it met certain conditions, including construction jobs for people who live in D.C.

A recent audit from the Department of Employment Services was the latest analysis to determine that The Line failed to meet at least two of the seven requirements for securing the tax abatement (the hotel’s owners dispute the audit’s findings). DOES recommended that The Line go through a “substitute compliance plan,” in which the hotel pay a $600,000 penalty over four years in exchange for the $46 million tax break.

But Nadeau and At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman questioned whether DOES could waive the requirements, and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine determined that the hotel needed to meet all seven requirements laid out in the legislation to score the tax break.

Ultimately, the D.C. Council voted on June 17 to delay the tax abatement by a year and to require DOES to release materials related to the audit.

To prove that The Line D.C. did indeed satisfy the terms of the deal, its owners made a website that included a list of the construction employees with District residences, the Washington Post reports. That list included architects, developers, and chef Eric Bruner-Yang, who has a restaurant inside the hotel.

Activists aren’t buying it. Today, they parked a large truck outside the hotel accusing The Line D.C. of breaking its promises to the city.

Back to Top

Strategies for Community Organizing to Fight Gentrification

  • Organize
    • Tenant associations, community action groups, civic associations, ANCs, etc.
      • Gov/developers often need community approval
    • Join and fund affordable housing orgs
      • DC Grassroots Planning Coalition, Empower DC, One DC
    • Promote, support, amply local leaders/orgs
    • Housing Counsel and Home Ownership education
      • Legal assistance, eviction court representation, etc
  • Advocate
    • Local gov budgets
      • Learn budget cycle/when to advocate to protect/increase funds
      • Local legislation and policies
        • DC Comp plan, Rent controls, tenant rights, community land trusts, public housing funding, affordable housing regulations
      • Community Benefit/Development Agreements/PUDs
        • Right of return, develop while residents stay
        • Benefits and amenities package
      • More community oversight/spread word about
        • Public hearings, zoning appeals, comment periods, debates, etc
      • For more affordable housing solutions check out:
        • Grounded Solutions Housing Policy Toolkit
  • Direct action
    • Disrupt, expose, challenge bad development/policies
    • Demonstrations, petitions, boycotts, rent strikes
      • ACLU: Know Your Rights: Demonstrations and Protests


Greater Greater Washington: Planned Unit Developments, explained

When it comes to development, there’s often tension between what’s practical or ideal and what the zoning rules at a given site allow. One tool available to builders in DC is called a Planned Unit Development. PUDs allow flexibility in the rules, and since they’re happening all over the city, it’s worth understanding what they are and how they work.

What is a Planned Unit Development?

Many residential or mixed use construction projects, whether carried out by a homeowner or a developer, meet the letter of DC’s current zoning laws. In these cases, the city deems the plans “by right” and goes on to issue a construction permit. But other times, zoning rules allow for flexibility in their interpretation, and “zoning relief” can be granted.

For projects where a homeowner or developer wants to do something a bit different, like building closer to the edge of the lot than what’s prescribed, additional review and approval are required, typically by DC’s Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). However, the BZA process is for relatively minor zoning relief, such as exceeding lot coverage or reduced parking requirements.

A third type of project, a PUD, gives developers more significant zoning relief. This can come by way of allowing a building to be taller or denser than what the zoning code says is allowed, or building a residential or commercial building in space that’s zoned for industrial.

PUDs are managed by DC’s Zoning Commission, which is in charge of changes to the zoning regulations or zoning map. The commission can grant zoning relief if it believes the proposed project— and, in particular, the way it deviates from what’s allowed by right— will allow for something better for the surrounding neighborhood or city.

Because a PUD can provide substantial zoning relief, developers are expected to provide benefits to the community in return. The PUD process also provides the community an opportunity to engage with and influence the project in a substantial way. So while a PUD often means a developer can build higher or denser buildings, it also means the community can get things like streetscape improvements, community resources, or additional affordable housing.

Below is a map of all of the developments in DC that currently have approval to move forward, or whose approval is pending, and that used a PUD. There are 221 of the former and 28 of the latter.

What do PUD cases mean for the community?

Any case that requires zoning relief provides an opportunity for neighbors to weigh in on the planned project, through the ANC or the BZA. Because a PUD is typically a larger project with larger impacts on the community, PUDs typically involve a longer and more detailed community engagement process.

Another important feature of PUDs is that they require developers to provide a benefits and amenities package to the community in exchange for the request zoning relief. This means community participation in the PUD process is critical.

What is a benefits and amenities package?

When a developer asks for exceptions to zoning rules through a PUD, those exceptions clearly have some value; that means the developer has to “pay” for them. That payment usually comes in the form of a suite of benefits and amenities to the community, which should be roughly equal to the value of the zoning relief.

Benefits and amenities packages vary by project, and there are relatively few restrictions or even guidelines on what a package can include. The “benefits” component accrues to the community, while the “amenities” are typically more relevant for the residents of the development. An example of a benefit might be improvements to a local dog park or streetscape upgrades. Another might be a transportation “hub” in the development that provides information to residents on local transportation options.

Here are some typical categories of benefits and amenities:

  • Architecture and landscaping
  • Efficient and economical land utilization
  • Safe vehicular and pedestrian access; transportation management measures
  • Historic preservation projects
  • Employment and training opportunities
  • Affordable housing
  • Social services or facilities
  • Environmental benefits

In general, District agencies involved in PUD cases prefer public benefits that are physical investments, like playground equipment or bicycle racks, rather than “soft” investments, such as monetary contributions to a nonprofit organization. The rationale is that physical investments are relatively guaranteed to provide benefits to the community for the long term while soft investments may not always provide the intended stream of benefits (for example, the nonprofit could close).

PUD benefits don’t have to be right on the development site, but they must be within a quarter mile or within the boundaries of the ANC in which the PUD sits.

DC Planned Unit Development (PUD) Process

Full Presentation

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Greater Greater Washington: Who decides DC’s zoning?

DC’s Zoning Administrator recently ruled that the ARTS overlay around 14th and U has reached its bar and restaurant maximum of 25%, prompting many blog posts about the decision.

Some commenters specifically charge that DCRA, the agency of which the Zoning Administrator is a part, is stifling restaurants. But they’re not actually the ones who make the zoning policy. To fully comprehend this issue, it’s helpful to understand the complex set of boards and agencies responsible for making zoning policy.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) is the agency actually responsible for giving out building permits and certificates of occupancy for buildings and businesses. The Office of the Zoning Administrator, inside DCRA, makes the determination about what the zoning regulations allow.

If someone wants to build a building or open a business that isn’t allowed by the strict interpretation from DCRA, they go to the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). The BZA grants variances and special exceptions. Variances are permission to do something not permitted in the zoning regulations, while special exceptions are permissions to do something that the zoning regulations allow but require a special review beforehand.

Under the ARTS Ovelay, restaurants exceeding the 25% would only need a special exception, but that still can take months to get through the BZA’s lengthy quasi-judicial process and crowded calendar; establishments seeking one also are likely to need to pay a zoning attorney for considerable amounts of time.

If this is not acceptable, the solution is to change the zoning rules. That is done by the Zoning Commission, made up of three Mayoral appointees and two federal representatives, one from the National Park Service and the other from the Architect of the Capitol. The Zoning Commission reviews Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), larger-scale projects that get some relief from zoning in exchange for community benefits, and also amendments to the zoning map and regulations.

Most of the time, changes to the zoning regulations come from the DC Office of Planning (OP). They often suggest individual text and map amendments, though residents can also petition for amendments.

OP is also running the citywide zoning update process to rewrite the District’s zoning code. OP has recommended setting restaurant limitations on a zone-by-zone basis and the Zoning Commission wants a simpler tool, but there is not yet a specific alternate plan. An ANC 2F committee recommended increasing the limit to 40-50%, but the zoning update itself will take another year or more to complete.

When OP formulates recommendations and when the Zoning Commission rules on them, they are supposed to be guided by the District’s and federal government’s overall plans, especially the Comprehensive Plan. There are also smaller neighborhood plans.

OP writes these plans and the DC Council (for the District) and National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC, for the federal government) review them. The Council isn’t allowed to change Small Area Plans, but can disapprove them.

Therefore, unlike in most jurisdictions, the elected representatives don’t directly make specific decisions about zoning at the level of individual properties. Instead, they can set very broad policies, which OP tries to turn into text and maps and the Zoning Commission rules upon, DCRA enforces and the BZA grants exceptions to.

If the 25% restaurant limitation is inappropriate, there are a few ways to fix the problem. Expecting DCRA not to enforce an existing regulation, however, is not one of them. OP could propose an immediate text amendment to change the rules sooner than the full zoning update, or ANC2F or other groups could. The Zoning Commission would hold a hearing, and could approve the change. MidCity Business Association has said they want to try to get such a text amendment moving as soon as possible.

Dcist: ‘We’re In A Crisis’: Advocates Launch New Citywide Tenant Union

When Ronnie Jackson’s landlord put his building up for sale more than a decade ago, he said that he and other residents felt like they were kept in the dark about what would happen next.

The residents decided to sue, kicking off a nine-year legal battle. “We found out a lot of things in increments,” said Jackson, who is now the president of the Waterside Towers Resident Association near D.C.’s Southwest waterfront. Looking back, he wishes he had gotten more support along the way.

Now, he’s working towards creating an organization that would provide help to other residents in a similar situation. On Saturday afternoon, Jackson was one of around 150 people who gathered for the launch of a new citywide tenant union at All Souls Church in Columbia Heights.

“More and more minorities are being pushed away,” Jackson said. “We need to be unionized because chunk by chunk, place by place, ward by ward, gentrification is taking over.”

The event, hosted by the Latino Economic Development Center, drew activists, tenant leaders, and residents from across the District’s eight wards. They gathered in a stiflingly hot church hall with fans whirring to discuss the future of tenant organizing in the District, form neighborhood chapters, and elect new leaders for the union.

“Slumlord housing, it’s a crime. Time for slumlords to serve their time,” the crowd repeated, fists in the air, as organizers translated the chants into Spanish and Amharic.

This new union comes at a time when affordable housing is harder to find in the city. In the last two decades, rapid gentrification has displaced low-income District residents at some of the highest rates in the country. A recent survey showed that one fifth of residents in Wards 7 and 8 are worried that rising housing costs will force them out of their homes within the next three years. Washington is currently among the nation’s top five most expensive renting markets, according to a July report by Zumper. And those rents are rising at increasing rates, especially in areas near Metro stations.

“We’re in a crisis,” said Rob Wohl, tenant organizing manager for LEDC. “We have to act quick, and we have to act dramatically.”

The new group is not a union in the technical sense of the word—like the Teamsters or the United Automobile Workers—but Wohl hopes that bringing the District’s tenant leaders together will help secure stronger housing rights for the city’s many low-income residents who may be at risk of displacement. He said that while LEDC is well organized across Northwest D.C., the organization still has a lot of work to do in other parts of the city.

The group’s top priority will be to get established leaders of tenant associations to mobilize residents of other buildings, Wohl said. People will have more leverage as part of a larger group than as disparate entities, and can better share information. And in terms of policy, Wohl hopes the group can help close loopholes in D.C.’s rent-control legislation and change housing laws along the lines of the landmark rent-reform bill passed last month in New York City.

D.C.’s citywide tenant union will be broken up into three branches: the Uptown chapter (Wards 1, 3, 4) the Midtown chapter (2, 5, and 6), and the East of the River Chapter (7 and 8).

Several participants in the East of the River breakout session said they worried that Wards 7 and 8, which include some of the poorest parts of the District, would be marginalized within the union. Karen Settles, a veteran tenant organizer in the District who chairs the citywide advisory board for the D.C. Housing Authority, objected to dividing the union into chapters out of concern that it could sow division within the organization.

But organizers contended that splitting the group into chapters would help ensure it could meet the needs of its members. “We want people to be able to walk to a meeting ideally,” said Wohl. “We need to have things that people can be a part of in their day-to-day lives.”

After congregating in All Souls Church’s main hall, people broke off into separate rooms to elect five new leaders for their respective chapters. Participants could nominate themselves, or anyone else in the room. It was a blitz election—nominees were given a short minute to say something about themselves before each chapter proceeded to a vote.

Beatrice Evans was among those nominated as a leader of the East of the River chapter, though she didn’t win. Six months ago, Evans got help from LEDC to create the residents association at the Triangle View apartments in Fort Dupont and she said that getting information out to residents is one of the biggest challenges for tenant organizers.

“If people knew what was happening in the city and what rights they have about getting things accomplished in their building, then people would participate more,” Evans said.

Settles was elected as one of the leaders for the East of the River chapter on Saturday. For the organizing efforts to be successful, she said, leaders will have to learn from past mistakes and overcome infighting.

“What we should focus on is what we all have in common,” Settles said. “And that is our human right to have a place to live—whoever you may be.”

Market Watch: Four years, $13 million and dozens of hands: How ‘affordable housing’ gets made in America

Why is it so hard to build and maintain inexpensive housing?

Jennifer Sumler has lived in her apartment building on Cedar Street in the Takoma section of Washington, D.C., for her entire life, but the sound she heard one late November evening a few years ago was like nothing she’d ever experienced.

“All of a sudden the sky got dark and there was a ‘Wizard of Oz’ moment,” recalled Sumler, who’s 50. “Leaves started to whip up. There was this ferocious wind. Then there was this noise. It was loud and really otherworldly.”

As sirens blared, she and several neighbors gathered outside in the leafy courtyard. Through the rain, they could see the source of that horrible noise: a huge portion of the roof had been ripped off.

The freak storm that night in 2016 displaced more than just the roof. Several neighbors were never to return. But for Sumler and a few others, it marked a turning point. Over the next few years, they’d make the journey from discontented renters to affordable-housing advocates, resolved to keep 410 Cedar St. accessible to people of moderate means for generations to come.

Nearly three years later, they’re not done. The financing to repair and renovate the 30-unit building has only now been agreed to and will take another year to finalize. By the time that happens, dozens of parties will have had a hand in the project: developers, community organizers, government workers, bankers, regulators, lawyers, property managers, a historical consultant, lobbyists, investors and more.

The story of 410 Cedar St. isn’t just the story of one Washington, D.C., building; it’s the story of how America creates “affordable housing” — and why it’s so incredibly hard. Anytime a project comes together, it’s thanks to a patchwork quilt of the public purse, private funding, regulatory incentives, tax quirks and even exceptional individuals like Sumler. Those involved aren’t necessarily working against gentrification as much as working toward safe, stable, affordable housing, sometimes one neighborhood, one block or one unit at a time.

“It’s great that we have all these millennials and people moving into D.C. and we’re seeing restaurants and night life pop,” said Gerry Joseph, the real-estate developer whom the Cedar Street tenants eventually hired. “But you can’t do it all at the expense of the people who’ve been here their whole lives. It’s important to try to save as many of [these older buildings] as we can. We’re not going to save them all.”

Washington, D.C., a planned city from inception, is unique in many ways. In particular, it has made a strong public commitment to helping its residents access housing that’s affordable, and providing tools that support tenants.

Its mayor, Muriel Bowser, is “doing more for affordable housing than any other mayor in the country,” said Kathryn Howell, an assistant professor of urban planning at Virginia Commonwealth University. Bowser committed $100 million a year to affordable housing in her first term, which began in 2015, and has increased the budgeted amount every year since.

Some initiatives, such as city-budget dollars directed toward initiatives like the Cedar Street restoration, are Bowser’s to claim. But the Cedar Street project owes its existence to Washington’s TOPA, or Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, laws, which precede the mayor’s tenure. It’s this program that perhaps best illustrates the opportunity and complexity facing tenants, developers and other investors in the affordable-housing ecosystem.

Under TOPA, tenants of any building whose owner has decided to sell have the right to buy the building themselves. They can become owners in a condominium or cooperative conversion, or they can transfer their rights to someone they hire, usually a developer like Gerry Joseph, to keep the building operating in its rental format.

D.C. provides the tenants of multifamily buildings resources to organize themselves, including matching them with legal counsel, for example. As long as the tenants (or their own developer) can match the bid that the building’s owner receives on the open market, tenants are given priority.

TOPA is “one of the really unique things about D.C.’s housing landscape. It’s centered on the residents, whom they see as the city’s assets. Most affordable-housing policy looks at rentals as temporary, like [renters are] not really citizens of the city,” Howell said. In contrast, she said, TOPA “gives a lot of agency and control and power to residents.”

In D.C., these programs are increasingly tapped as the population has surged, adding 100,000 residents between 2000 and 2015, a 16% increase. During roughly that same time frame, rents have jumped anywhere from 14% for the lowest earners to 32% for the highest, while incomes have not grown for the two lowest quintiles, according to an analysis from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

In fact, the gentrification experienced in the nation’s capital in recent years has been among the most intense in the U.S., in its case resulting in the displacement of mostly African-American residents from low-income neighborhoods, according to a recent study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

“While gentrification increases the value of properties in areas that suffered from prolonged disinvestment, it also results in rising rents, home and property values,” the NCRC noted. “As these rising costs reduce the supply of affordable housing, existing residents, who are often black or Hispanic, are displaced. This prevents them from benefiting from the economic growth and greater availability of services that come with increased investment.”

Even with TOPA in place, when a D.C. landlord gets ready to sell, tenants aren’t always interested in making a bid for the property. Many would rather take a buyout and vacate.

Yet Ramon Jacobson, who leads the city’s office of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., a national community-development organization that helps fund projects like Cedar Street, often hears D.C. residents saying they “want a piece” of the community. It was Jacobson and LISC that provided the developer Joseph and the Cedar Street tenants, led by Sumler, financing to match an open-market bid received by their landlord.

“It used to be a big concern of ours that there would be tenants who were just interested in flipping the property,” Jacobson told MarketWatch. “I think people see [D.C.] as a much more desirable place to live, and want to stay as long-term residents. This is a property in a lovely neighborhood. You could easily see that someone could buy [Cedar Street], fix it up, and it could be luxury housing, and there would be no place for the residents that had been there for 30 years. We see this as a tool of equity.”

LISC is the linchpin of a system so complicated that it sometimes resembles a Rube Goldberg contraption. Without all the players and all the levers, affordable housing would not be produced.

“Cities where they’ve been most successful in really moving the needle forward have some group, whether LISC, or the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, or other local nonprofits, that are really essential to bringing a lot of people to the table and taking something difficult and figuring out how it works,” said VCU’s Howell.

Likewise, the struggle to preserve and create affordable housing has many local characteristics but a broad outline that looks pretty similar across the country. Developers cobble together funding packages from all levels of government and attract money from private sources whenever and however possible.

LISC borrows most of its money from banks that want to fulfill their obligations under the Community Reinvestment Act, a decades-old federal mandate that requires financial institutions to meet the credit needs of diverse communities.

“Make no mistake about it: Absent CRA, the partnerships that we have with banks would not be anything close to what they are now,” said Maurice Jones, president of LISC’s national organization. “It is an invaluable tool for us to get loan capital that we can deploy for projects” like Cedar Street.

LISC currently borrows from banks at interest rates averaging about 3.7% to 4%, Jones said, and, to a lesser extent, from “impact investors” and philanthropic groups at about 2%. They lend to developers like Joseph at a rate of 3% to 6%. The spread pays for LISC’s cost of doing business. (LISC also goes directly to the capital markets to raise money; it has an AA rating with a negative outlook from Standard and Poor’s.)

With the Cedar Street tenants’ blessing, Joseph and his partners used a loan from LISC to acquire the property. Joseph then applied to the city for permanent financing to pay back the acquisition loan and prep for reconstruction.

In early March 2019, one agonizing month behind schedule, Joseph and the tenants learned that the city had approved their proposal for funding. The project had been allotted $5 million earmarked to low-income-housing tax credits, which are sold to investors to raise equity capital for the project.

As of this writing, Joseph is getting ready to hire a syndicator, an agent responsible for matching interested investors to developers. Those investors — usually, but not always, banks — will bid for the right to buy those tax credits, which have a 10-year life span, meaning that every year for the next decade, those investors will see their taxes reduced by $500,000.

The city also gave Cedar Street a little over $4 million of municipal funds. And several banks have already expressed interest in granting Joseph a $2.7 million mortgage.

Between finalizing construction plans, ensuring renovations conform to historic-preservation standards for the 1920s building, putting the rest of the financing into place and pulling construction permits, work won’t begin until early 2020, and is forecast to wrap up roughly a year later.

In all, it will have taken over three years and $13 million to restore 30 units of affordable housing.

Many in the industry liken the process to the messiness of democracy in general: perhaps the worst way to get anything done, except that all the other approaches are even worse.

In an interview in January, Joseph mused on the complexity of the industry: “Every time I close one of these projects I take a deep breath and say there’s got to be an easier way to do this, even though if it was easier, I probably wouldn’t make my living doing it. It’s sort of a deal with the devil — the idea that we can’t produce housing with government money only; we have to get private funds into the transaction. It’s created a whole business sector of people who work in and feed off this … accountants, lawyers, bankers, consultants … and the transactions themselves have umpteen documents. You say, if someone just wrote a check you could just build the housing a lot more quickly.”

LISC’s Jones laughed when told about Joseph’s ruminations.

“We are putting deals together where there may be 15-plus sources of capital, so I agree wholeheartedly there’s got to be a simpler way of doing it,” he said. “But the notion that the public sector is going to produce enough revenues to build all the housing that we need for everybody, the facts belie that. We’ve got to find a way to get the private and the public sector in the game.”

Jennifer Sumler was born in Washington, D.C., in 1968. Her father spent many years as the chauffeur and bodyguard for the president of Howard University, and her mother sandwiched her years at home taking care of the children between stints at the Federal Reserve.

Sumler remembers riding bikes around the neighborhood and swimming in the local pool. She also remembers the Cedar Street building full of families, and how the neighbors would congregate on the wall surrounding the building’s courtyard.

“We used to all meet up after work or school and sit and talk and gossip and play a little music and catch up,” she said. “It’s one of my fondest memories. I remember the gas lines of the ’70s,” as the building sits across the street from a filling station.

Sumler has been in Takoma longer than the Metro, the sprawling transit system that spans D.C. and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. “I remember the talk about the Metro coming and the construction. When it did open, I remember when we got off at the stop we would be the only ones. We would always laugh to ourselves getting off, ‘It’s a secret, nobody knows.’ Boy, has that changed.”

Sumler attended Howard University, majoring in broadcast journalism. She’s worked in television and radio news, and briefly toyed with trying to become on-air talent. But when she learned that would mean leaving Washington to work her way up in smaller news markets, she reconsidered.

After a few decades in media, Sumler wanted a new challenge. She had been volunteering as an adult-literacy tutor and “found it rewarding in ways that I had never imagined.” She went back to school and got a master’s degree in education. But life happened: Her mother became sick, and Sumler put the new career on hold to care for her.

“It’s been a lot of stress and a lot of work, and about 2½ years ago, where I thought [my mother] was stable enough [to] let me try to get my life on track, our owner decided to sell the building,” Sumler said. “That created a whole ’nother set of circumstances. Now we’ve got to organize, a third of our population is homeless, and we’re wondering about the roof.”

Jacobson of the local LISC is of the view that it takes a unique type of individual to execute the implausible task of organizing lower-income tenants into a quasi–real estate development partnership. “In a lot of places in our society there’s not a lot of venues for people to express themselves,” he said. “You have people who, if society were structured differently, they would be leaders in other ways.”

Sumler’s professional background likely gave her an advantage compared with the typical TOPA organizer. But in other ways, the Cedar Street tenant association faced a mightier challenge than most groups vying for TOPA funds: The building’s post-storm disrepair had discouraged many of the tenants from the get-go. Sumler found herself in a position that’s familiar to the LISC staffers but jarring to a lifelong renter with no professional experience in real estate.

“The weird thing is that you are in a position to make a decision about who gets your building,” she reflected in January. “You interview a bunch of developers who all have to come in and kiss the ring. It’s very interesting to see who’s resentful of that. TOPA is a very powerful piece of legislation, and not everyone thinks it’s a good idea that the tenants get to decide who buys the building.”

The tenants’ attorney had prepared them well, she said. “You’re making a decision based on who you think you can get along with and who respects you as tenants and who you can respect as an owner.”

The neighbors found that they had converged on a simple yet profound principle: It wasn’t enough for them to retain affordable rentals for themselves; they wanted to pay it forward, to make sure generations to come had the same options.

“This was a very conscientious building,” Sumler said. “We didn’t want to become another property that sold out to condos and got the best offer in terms of buyouts.”

In fact, 12 current tenants did decide to accept the buyout offer of $15,000, including of all those whom the storm had displaced.

Ultimately, Joseph’s development company was “the most aligned” with the tenants’ desires, Sumler said. So far, it’s been a respectful, collaborative process, if risky. “There were other developers that could come over in 90 days and get construction started, but their commitment to affordable housing was not in line with ours. We chose the harder path. We took the chance, and, quite frankly, we’re not even sure the chance is going to pay off.”

Joseph, 65, is far from the brash wheeler-dealer that one may associate with big-city real-estate development, but he’s proven to be a genuine partner for this group of tenants striving for housing equity.

He began his career in Springfield, Mass., organizing low-income residents and then ran a community development corporation before moving to the nation’s capital to join a nonprofit that included TOPA projects among the developments it undertook. He struck out on his own in 2010, establishing an affordable-housing consulting practice.

The Cedar Street project is only his second solo turn as a developer, and the first time he’d ever applied for tax credits for a project, a reality that the Cedar Street tenants had to take into account when weighing whether to hire him. And Joseph is also, despite his background in social justice, a for-profit developer, a consideration that gave LISC pause in deciding whether to fund him.

Even more pressing: LISC’s financing was merely keeping the lights on in a building where maintenance had been deferred for years, where one-third of the tenants, and their rental revenues, had left. Interest on LISC’s loan to Joseph cost the developer approximately $20,000 per month. With the building not fully occupied, the rent rolls covered the cost of operating the building and a sliver of that interest.

Every resident of Cedar Street who spoke to MarketWatch, as well as Joseph, described chronic problems in the building that a more responsive landlord would have taken care of. Sumler experienced ceiling leaks in both the bathroom and the kitchen, bubbling paint on a bedroom wall, shoddy workmanship in fixing a gas furnace and patching floor tiles, and a gas stove that received a city citation for leaks.

‘It’s sad that the city is being given away to the highest bidder. We can at least say we stood up. We want to keep this place low-to-moderate affordable for years to come.’

Lillian Hanger, lifelong 410 Cedar St. resident

MarketWatch reached the former landlord, Brad Gillian, and offered him the chance to comment. Without hearing specifics, Gillian responded: “I don’t have any response to any of that. That’s a bunch of nonsense.”

The building will see a significant transformation: Its plumbing, heating and electrical systems will be modernized; the portions destroyed during the storm repaired; and it will be made accessible to people with disabilities. Each individual unit, even those not damaged by the storm, will be upgraded. And perhaps most significantly, its mix of apartment configurations will change to make the building more family-friendly, as noted below.

Lillian Hanger is, like Sumler, a lifelong Cedar Street resident. Hanger, 56, works on Capitol Hill and has a master’s degree in public administration from Georgetown University. She’s helping Sumler with the TOPA organizing after seeing firsthand the impact of gentrification on her city, as well as what she sees as the value of rent control.

“My parents retired and moved away, my sister got married and moved away,” Hanger said. “I kind of never left. I’ve had thoughts about moving, but I said, let me stick around here. My father always told me, whatever you do, don’t give the apartment up. I never understood that, but now I do. He foresaw the changes coming.”

Hanger has withstood several attempts at being moved out, she said, and even a buyout offer by the former landlord. “I was like, uh-uh, no way. They realized that they couldn’t force me out. I was a good tenant, paid my rent, did what I was supposed to.”

Even though the TOPA pursuit has been a lot more work than she bargained for, Hanger is proud of the line the tenants drew. “It’s sad that the city is being given away to the highest bidder,” she said. “We can at least say we stood up. We want to keep this place low-to-moderate affordable for years to come so people can come and live in this neighborhood. It was nice to grow up here.”

Tenant Don Mosteller, who grew up near Philadelphia and has lived in D.C. since graduating from college, took the buyout offer. He had mixed feelings about leaving Cedar Street but was living there with a girlfriend who was “insistent” that they take the cash.

“The long-term economic decision would be smarter to stay here for a rent that is locked in, but I don’t think we saw ourselves staying here for a long time,” Mosteller said. Shortly after coming to that decision, the couple broke up. Each will receive still one-half of the $15,000 buyout.

Mosteller mused on the torrid D.C. housing market: “I’m 34, I have a good job, I’m a Yale graduate, I work in energy policy,” he said. “But almost all of my classmates from Yale in D.C. do not own homes. There are a few people who are married, who’ve managed to get a 600-square-foot condo and are paying condo fees. When the news was announced that Amazon was coming [to nearby Crystal City], most of us in the city were like, ‘Crap, this is really bad — how could it possibly get worse?’ ”

Now, Mosteller is back out apartment hunting. He believes that living in a three-bedroom apartment with two roommates is “the monetary hack” for the D.C. housing market.

“Everyone I know knows it: Owning a home is the way to go,” he said. “But there’s almost nowhere left in D.C. where owning a home is reasonable. I don’t want to live in a neighborhood that’s incredibly far away, or be dependent on a car, or get a home that’s in disrepair that I’m going to have to put a lot of money into.”

Mosteller has found the TOPA process emotionally resonant. “There are so many people who’ve been displaced because people like me have moved in,” he said.

Mosteller has been paying $1,265 a month for the one-bedroom apartment at Cedar Street. It’s very hard to get accurate price data for rentals at the ZIP Code level, but a recent search on Zillow for a one-bedroom apartment in the same ZIP as 410 Cedar St. showed that the least expensive availability cost $1,466. Other options went as high as $2,500 per month.

Hanger and Sumler declined to reveal the monthly rents for their apartments.

For all the grim statistics about D.C.’s housing challenges, it’s especially daunting in one important respect.

As of 2017, the most recent data available from the Census Department, black median household income in the city is about $42,000 — less than a third of the white median household income of $134,000, according to an analysis from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Meanwhile, a 2016 report from the Urban Institute found that a typical white D.C. resident possessed a staggering 81 times the wealth of a black resident.

“White incomes have always been significantly higher, but it’s definitely been the case that white income has bumped up as the city has changed, whereas black income has remained stagnant,” the VCU professor Howell said. “In part that’s because blacks who have the means to buy a home are going out to the counties. They move for the same reason we all do — schools, services, access to home ownership. They’re voting with their feet.”

LISC staffers often encounter city residents who have few, or no, such choices. Adam Kent, who works with Jacobson at the agency’s Washington office, taught for a time in the Washington public schools.

He was thoughtful for a moment when asked what drew him to the issue of housing.

“I saw the talent that our society was throwing away. I got into community development work because we are just forgoing so much potential in so many neighborhoods. Everybody needs a place to go home to at the end of the day. I feel like if so many of my kids had more stability, they would have been able to focus on school, focus on realizing their dreams. Having a safe, affordable and stable home is a key part of working toward the rest of your life,” he said.

‘Highways were driven through black communities, isolating them from investment, so what you’re seeing is not something that just organically developed. It developed with the help of public policy.’

Maurice Jones, Local Initiatives Support Corporation

As president of the national LISC organization, Jones takes a broader view.

“This is overwhelmingly a challenge for black and brown communities throughout the country,” he said. “Highways were driven through black communities, isolating them from investment, so what you’re seeing is not something that just organically developed. It developed with the help of public policy. We need to own that, and we need to do something about it as a country. You can’t have a policy without race to correct a problem that was created by policies explicitly about race.”

One of the curiosities about 410 Cedar St., though, is how diverse the building and the neighborhood around it are.

“It’s a very mixed neighborhood in terms of race, ethnicities, economic demographics — everything,” longtime resident Hanger said. “It’s a place where people can raise their kids, even if you’re living in an apartment building. There’s a great elementary school within walking distance of the apartment complex.”

She remembers with a laugh how “hippies” used to live together in large Takoma houses, until those hippies grew up and bought the houses themselves.

In communities all around the country, LISC’s Jones has seen how neighborhoods were purposely cut off from areas of development, or split in two, stripping residents of resources and leaving segregation and economic hardship in its wake.

The complex at 410 Cedar St., he said, “doesn’t have any of that. This one is a gem.”

It’s a gem that was constructed in 1927, and that’s about all that’s certain about the property’s origins. According to local lore, it was built as hospice housing in association with the Walter Reed Medical Center, which was located a few blocks away until it relocated a few years ago. But in response to a MarketWatch inquiry, a researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Department Museum said that pedigree is doubtful.

Because of its age and its location within the Takoma Historic District, an official designation from the National Parks Service, the property is eligible to apply for Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credits.

Within the affordable-housing category, however, the term “preservation” doesn’t necessarily imply historic, as the designation may apply to anything other than new construction. “Wouldn’t it be better to just knock it down and build something new?” is a question developers, government officials, consultants and investors hear often.

Yet as LISC’s Jacobson puts it, “People are rooted in preservation deals. Social fabric takes a long time to develop. You have to go through some snowstorms and people going out to shovel at the same time, someone bringing an infant home. With new housing projects, we just count up the units and the numbers and forget that there’s a community that has to be built.”

While the notion of social fabric sounds poetic, as VCU’s Howell likes to point out, it also makes preservation deals “a lot messier” than new construction.

And the clock is ticking. The types of financing incentives that the developer Joseph is using to fund his project, and which developers use to build new affordable homes, have expiration dates. A 2015 mayoral task force determined that nearly 14,000 units of affordable housing with such subsidies are “at risk of loss” by 2020 in Washington.

Read: Meet the little bank that’s helping immigrants achieve big American Dreams

Counterintuitively, the complexity of the affordable-housing funding process may be what keeps it going.

A cynical view is that the thousands of people who have a hand in projects like 410 Cedar St. now represent an entrenched constituency for this way of doing business. A more generous take is that the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit has actually become the Holy Grail of public policy: a bipartisan solution that can be leveraged for far bigger impact than the amount of money it requires.

“LIHTC has rehabilitated the reputation of public policy for affordable housing,” Buzz Roberts, the CEO of the industry group the National Association of Affordable Housing Lenders, told MarketWatch.

In 1986, when a housing tax credit was being considered as part of the massive tax-reform effort then underway, “there were a lot of skeptics that anyone could manage affordable rental housing effectively,” Roberts said. “There had been all these previous government projects that were poorly managed, poorly located, beset with crime and other social problems.”

By involving private investors, the LIHTC program established a sense of market stability that helped convince banks to enter the space, too.

That private-sector involvement — along with the fact that LIHTC is a tax expenditure, not a direct spending program — has also kept Republicans, who might not ordinarily support public funding for affordable housing, on board, and has helped LIHTC survive party-rule changes over three decades.

In April, after the city approved the funding that enabled the Cedar Street project to move forward, everyone involved breathed a sigh of relief.

LISC’s Jacobson and Kent had faced an extra layer of scrutiny from their national colleagues over the risk associated with the Cedar Street project: the building’s disrepair, the uncertainty of city financing, Joseph’s comparative lack of relevant experience and, no small matter, rising interest rates. In February, LISC was handed a downgraded outlook by the credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s, which cited a growing debt burden.

That made the city’s financial boost extremely timely. LISC will get back the money it lent to Joseph relatively quickly, which means that the repaid money can be recycled into another project.

Joseph faces his own version of that dilemma. “The thing about this kind of work is that it’s all money out for a long period of time, until we get a return,” he said. He got an unpleasant reminder of that — and of the complex’s recent history of deferred maintenance — in March. One apartment had a leak severe enough that he temporarily relocated the tenants until the problem was patched, costing time, energy, and about $1,000.

The Cedar Street project has what Joseph calls “a double bottom line”: one that pays the bills but also feeds the soul of someone who originally got into housing as a way of affecting social change.

“I believe that the economic forces that are creating displacement in these hot markets will continue. But I also believe that what you’re seeing now is more people in the public and private sectors who are willing to actually get into the game,” LISC’s Jones said in March. “I think that there is the possibility here for us to get more laborers in the vineyard and thus do this work on a bigger scale.”

Jennifer Sumler had never expected to be called to any kind of cause. She just wanted to save her home, even as the ground under her feet has continued shifting.

“I love the neighborhood and the location and the history here,” she said. “But it is going through a transformation right now. It’s just a little scary right now in terms of seeing how this all shakes out. What we will be able to maintain and what we will lose is the scariest part of all.”

Further Readings about DC PUDs Process

Washington Post: Court delivers blow to D.C.’s plan to redevelop Barry Farm public housing complex

Biznow: When Public Approval Means Naught: How Federal Judges Are Delaying 4,000 Units Of D.C. Housing

“The lesson of the city: No community should fight for improvements without simultaneously fighting for community control and permanency (against displacement). It plays into the hands of developers and the government officials doing their bidding. New stores will come, new sidewalks and trails, etc – they will celebrate the “improvement” and not mind one bit if the people who championed improving their communities are no longer around to enjoy it.”  Parisa Bonita Norouzi (Empower DC)

DC Housing Advocacy Orgs

  • Empower DC
    • Working to enhance, improve and promote the self-advocacy of low and moderate income DC residents, in order to bring about sustained improvements in their quality of life through organizing around Affordable Housing, Public Education, and community empowerment.
  • ONE DC
    • Community Justice organization around 3 areas: One Right to Housing, One Right to Income, and One Right to Wellness
  • DC Grassroots Planning Coalition
    • A network of DC residents & organizations from all 8 Wards committed to pursuing racial, economic, and environmental justice through equitable development.
  • DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI)
    • DCFPI conducts research and public education on budget and tax issues in the District of Columbia, with a particular emphasis on issues that affect low- and moderate-income residents
  • Fair Budget Coalition
    • Advocates for a more socially just budget and public policy initiative
  • The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development (CNHED)
    • Fosters just and equitable community development solutions that address the needs and aspirations of low- and moderate-income District residents by convening, advocating, and educating diverse stakeholders
  • Roots to Roofs
    • Resource website for housing programs and assistance in DC
  • The Way Home Campaign
    • The Way Home is a campaign to end chronic homelessness in the District of Columbia by 2017

Empower DC Community Organizing Techniques

The mission of Empower DC is to enhance, improve and promote the self-advocacy of low and moderate income DC residents in order to bring about sustained improvements in their quality of life. We accomplish our mission through grassroots organizing and trainings, leadership development, and community education.

Empower DC believes that community organizing is the most effective way to uplift low-income communities in the District of Columbia. Community organizing builds the power of people directly impacted by an issue – such as the demolition of public housing or the closure of a school – to create positive, long-lasting change for their communities, their families, and themselves.

Disappearing Faces: Chocolate City

Empower DC Organizing Principles

  1. Work with groups of people who share a common problem
  2. Develop leadership through training and providing leadership opportunities
  3. Develop the self-confidence of leaders and potential leaders
  4. Support groups to develop action plans and implement them
  5. Use the media to inform the larger community about issues and to gain support
  6. Use confrontation when necessary to force a recalcitrant target to negotiate or resolve an issue
  7. Leaders, rather than staff, set the agenda for the organization and carry it out

Empower DC Community Organizing 101

Ella Baker’s Principles for Organizing

Authored by Je’Kendria Trahan and Monae White, on behalf of BYP100 DC

  1. Emphasizing the ability and knowledge of local people to solve their own issues
  2. Self Determination – People need a sense of their own value and their own strengths.
  3. An inclusive environment – identifying who is in the room, who is not in the room and why
  4. Organic intellectuals – non-traditionally educated, working class, or otherwise intellectually marginalized folks having the power and ability to form complex understandings of oppression and act on injustices.
  5. Group-centered leadership – leaders form in groups and are committed to building shared power and struggling for collective goals.  This is different than leader-centered groups, in which the group id dedicated to the goals and power of that leader.
  6. Minimization of hierarchy and the associated emphasis on expertise and professionalism as basis for leadership
  7. Direct action as an answer to fear, alienation, and intellectual detachment
  8. Individuals confront oppression in their own heads to begin process of self-transformation & self-actualization
  9. Willingness to learn from mistakes and successes and become stronger people in the process: people who believe in themselves and feel as sense of their own power to affect the world around them.
  10. Being a leader – as facilitator, creating processes and methods for others to express themselves and make decisions; as coordinator, creating events, situations and dynamics that build and strengthen collective efforts; and as teacher/education, working with others to develop their own sense of power, capacity to organize and analyze, vision of liberation and ability to act in the world for justice
  11. Center people’s humanity while doing the work together

Community Organizing Resources

Seeds of Change Guides

Campaign Skills

Seeds of Change: Organising Successful Meetings

Seeds of Change: Facilitating Meetings

Seeds of Change: Consensus Decision Making

Greening the Ghetto

Hyper Allergic: An Artists’ Guide to Not Being Complicit with Gentrification

1.     Becoming involved in housing struggles — especially if we are part of a more “desirable” gentrifying class — is crucial. While deciding to commit to that work is not necessarily easy, a first step can be to understand the history and context you are moving into. If we move to a new block it’s essential to go beyond learning about who already lives there. We have to choose to stand with neighbors who have different needs. While we realize that as artists we contribute to the first wave of gentrification, we can choose to support our neighbors by joining them in demanding housing justice, by protesting unfair rent hikes, lacking repairs, or businesses that don’t serve the needs of long-term residents.

2.     As artists, we have to educate ourselves, especially considering that we might have racial, educational, or class privilege compared to our neighbors. We become part of the problem, another domino in the gentrification process, if we as renters don’t know our renters’ rights, or don’t take time to learn our rights and the reality of local conflicts. Abusive landlords operate on the notion that tenants do not know their rights. Learning our rights is the first step to building collective power.

3.     It is imperative to understand the need to find other ways of dealing with conflict or safety issues besides calling the police, given who the police serve and who the police jail and kill with impunity. We all have a stake in how our neighborhoods are made safe for everyone, and can choose to do this work without criminalizing the poor and people of color. Most galleries represent a white supremacist capitalist system that is protected by the police. For instance, in the community of Boyle Heights, each time those fighting to hold the galleries accountable for their impact on displacement and gentrification in their neighborhood stage a demonstration, the galleries have called the police, and have even accused the protesters of hate crimes. These accusations paint the galleries as victims while disguising the fact that they are protected by the state.

4.     As artists who participate in and support exhibitions, we must interrogate the spaces we choose to enter and work with. We must challenge what we do with our resources and privilege, on both a personal and a socio-political level. Consider for instance, if the spaces we support fail to ask questions about their structural impacts in a particular neighborhood — particularly if they are media-driven, contemporary art spaces. Regardless of their intentions (community engagement, bringing cultural programming to “underserved” populations, etc.) many art spaces ultimately serve as investment projects and property value boosterism for landlords, developers, and realtors. Is it worth supporting an art space when we know that it is currently contributing to or will contribute to someone losing their home?

5.     We must choose between prioritizing our own individualistic artistic careers or prioritizing the dismantling of oppressive structures. There are no places without contradiction, nor places where we can be absolved of reinforcing oppressive structures. Instead, we must reorient our priorities so that we can be honest about what we are actually working towards. It takes time to learn how to point at a problem, yet too often we feel the work ends there. When it comes to art, there’s a certain cultural capital gained by criticizing capitalism, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are putting anything on the line to dismantle it. In far too many instances, the violence of the status quo is actually protected, guarded, and upheld in smug, self-assured condescension by artists with careers to protect when those who seek to rattle the cage more vigorously violate liberal taboos like “tone” and “unity.”  If we get involved in anti-oppression struggles, listen, and are aware of privilege and the differing crises that surround us, it’s difficult to see an individual art career as something worthwhile. We’ve seen many artists with visibility (i.e. artists with gallery representation or those who have received major recognition of their work through awards or grants) who dismiss and criticize the artists and local organizers who choose to stand with the local neighbors of Boyle Heights in the form of social media rants and public media outlets (calling them misguided and naive). How might we tune our listening away from those with powerful art world platforms to those most impacted by gentrification?

6.     We must ask about the power of art spaces to decide who is included in the first place. This is a moment of extreme tokenism, one in which exhibition spaces co-opt political movements or artistic identities and pat themselves on the back for their diversification, for their “radical” inclusion. We see this in museums, where curators invite grassroots organizers to do educational outreach work. Doling out temporary visibility does not decentralize the white ruling class that presides over the art world, in the form of, let’s say, Wall Street bankers sitting on the board of a contemporary art museum. What is an art institution’s intent when they only temporarily feature a social movement in their space?

Art Causes Gentrification | Ethan Pettit

Gentrification and Affordability Resources


  • Grounded Solutions: Housing Policy Toolkit
  • Seeds of Change Organizing Guides
  • National Building Museum: Evicted Exhibit
  • United for Homes
  • National Low Income Housing Coalition
  • Priced Out: Gentrification in Black Portland


  • The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
  • How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
  • There Goes the ‘Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up

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