Sunday, August 16, 2015

"Show Me a Hero": A Public Housing Desegregation Primer

The miniseries "Show Me a Hero" premieres at 8:00 pm on HBO tonight, with the first two of six episodes airing. Written by David Simon ("The Wire" "The Corner" "Treme") and directed by Paul Haggis ("Crash"), this miniseries combines some creative talent I deeply respect with an issue about which I feel very passionately: public housing desegregation. I lived in Baltimore City for three years when I was in law school, and during that time I developed a love for both the city and David Simon's depiction of it in "The Wire." I also spent a summer working on oversight of the consent decree that partially settled Baltimore's housing desegregation case, Thompson v. HUD. I had the pleasure of interviewing families who had received special housing vouchers to move to higher opportunity neighborhoods about how their lives had changed since the move and challenges they were facing. "Show Me a Hero" is a dramatization of a similar desegregation effort in Yonkers, New York that completely tore that city apart at its core. Since this is an issue I have spent a good deal of time with in my "day job" professional life (although I have since moved on to other things), I figured I could provide you with a primer of the issues you will see dramatized if you tune into HBO tonight.

Like I mentioned, "Show Me a Hero" tells the story of public housing desegregation in Yonkers, and the title, an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, ("Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy") comes from the nonfiction book by Lisa Belkin on which the miniseries is based. Another great resource to learn about what happened in Yonkers is "Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story." For much of the second half of the 20th century, public housing in many cities was provided in the form of high rise apartment buildings. As you might predict, such concentrated poverty served to concentrate the problems that come with poverty, amplifying them. Yonkers was no different. The NAACP filed a lawsuit alleging discriminatory housing practices in 1980, a case which was not fully settled until 27 years later in 2007 (this is not uncommon with this sort of case - the Thompson case spanned multiple decades as well). In an earlier stage of the case, however, the City of Yonkers was ordered to build 200 housing units on the white side of town. This set off the events you will see depicted in the miniseries.

There is a school of thought among a segment of civil rights and housing advocates that the only way to make strides to repair the damage done by discriminatory public housing policies is to enable public housing residents to move to "higher opportunity neighborhoods," generally defined by poverty level of a particular census tract. This is the approach we see implemented in Yonkers (in the form of scattered site public housing) and in Baltimore (in the form of special Section 8 vouchers). In Baltimore in particular (since I know more about it), African American residents of public housing projects have been given the opportunity to apply for special housing vouchers that can only be used in particular "high opporutnity" census tracts. The theory is that to break the cycle of poverty, you need to have mixed income housing and give underserved individuals access to more peaceful neighborhoods and better schools. The existing residents of high opportunity neighborhoods often become apprehensive when former public housing residents move in, and those apprehensions turned especially nasty in Yonkers.

These efforts have not just taken place in Yonkers and Baltimore. The first, most well known housing desegregation effort happened in Chicago, and was known as Gautreaux. Per the Gautreaux consent decree, the Chicago Housing Authority issued special Section 8 vouchers to 7,500 residents. Participants were randomly assigned to private market units in either the city or the suburbs. The suburban participants generally fared better, being more likely to find work, no longer be dependent on cash assistance, and have more academically successful children. The Gautreaux project later become the model for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Moving to Opportunity project, where desegregation efforts took place in five Public Housing Authorities. Voucher recipients in all of these programs receive housing counseling in addition to vouchers, which is essential to helping the recipient be successful in their new neighborhood.

After my summer working on Thompson, I remained conflicted on the central premise of this particular way of addressing public housing desegregation. On the one hand, I think we have a moral obligation to do better by those who are in need of public housing assistance. On the other hand, I am uneasy with the idea of writing off cities as places that people need to leave in order to have a good life. As my boss from that summer put it, however, we need to do something now while we work on other policies to strengthen our cities, and Moving to Opportunity-type programs happen to be the "something now" that has been used thus far. Regardless, I think that addressing affordable housing on a metropolitan area basis just makes good sense. City/suburb boundaries aren't impermeable, and it benefits everyone to work together on affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing isn't just an urban problem.

I have linked some resources below if you would like to read, watch, and learn more:

Show Me a Hero by Lisa Belkin
Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story
The Baltimore Regional Housing Campaign (Thompson v. HUD)
Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing and the Black Ghetto by Alexander Polikoff
Moving to Opportunity

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