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Affordable Housing and Desegregation: A Synergistic Solution to Two Persistent Problems

July 16, 2019

In yesterday’s post I wrote about the liberal train wreck called “busing”, basing the post on articles about that topic itself and Joe Biden’s willingness to support laws ending busing as a means of desegregation. Given the clear antipathy voters hold toward busing, it is clear to me that promoting that concept as a means of desegregation is a losing proposition. Moreover, as noted on several occasions in this blog, housing and zoning policies are the root cause of both economic and racial segregation.

Earlier this month the NYTimes published an op ed article by Lizabeth Cohen titled “Only Washington Can Solve the Nation’s Housing Crisis”. In the article, Dr. Cohen describes a brief history of federal housing policy, noting that in 1949 Congress passed a Housing Act that “vowed to provide “a decent home and a suitable living condition for every American family.””. The article goes on to describe the mis-steps that occurred in the name of urban renewal and the emerging consensus that housing subsidies and housing projects were a failure. But Dr. Cohen counters that pervasive mindset with these insights:

What has particularly been forgotten are the progressive steps that federal subsidies made possible. For example, in 1968 New York State created the Urban Development Corporation, with a mandate to build thousands of units of subsidized housing and reinvigorate declining industrial cities. Under the direction of the veteran urban redeveloper Edward J. Logue, this authority relied on funding from state appropriations and private bond sales, but the real engine was robust federal backing, both in funds and political support.

During its seven-year run, it built 33,000 units of housing, developed three new towns — including the intentionally mixed-income, mixed-race and mixed-age Roosevelt Island in New York City — and fostered a spirit of architectural and technological innovation to find ways of delivering housing more efficiently, more aesthetically, and more affordably. Marcus Garvey Park Village in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood was a successful prototype of low-rise, high-density subsidized housing.

The Urban Development Corporation ran into trouble when it took a progressive step too far, using its statewide authority to tackle inequities between city and suburbs. In 1972, it began a project to build 100 affordable housing units in nine towns in wealthy Westchester County, provoking a fierce suburban backlash. That, combined with a 1973 moratorium by President Richard Nixon on all congressionally approved spending on housing and cities, spelled doom for the corporation — and a steady decline in federal responsibility for housing and cities.

Dr. Cohen makes a good argument that times have changed. Today the climate change crisis requires that we limit commuting. The tight job market requires that we provide housing for low-wage employees closer to their place of work, which is, increasingly, in the suburbs and exurbs. And, although she does not mention it, I believe Dr. Cohen would agree that we need to at long last address the racial and economic inequality that results in separate and unequal opportunities for black, brown, and poor children.  She concludes her essay with this:

The housing crisis and climate change raise different challenges, but solving both of them requires greater commitment to re-empowering the federal government to act in the public interest. Only Washington has the resources and the scope to tackle these dire threats to the nation’s and the planet’s future.

In 1975, Ed Logue, the visionary head of the Urban Development Corporation, said, “We cannot allow basic public policy” to be made “in corporate board rooms.” And yet, for half a century, that’s exactly what we have done, to our great misfortune.

MAYBE the stars will align in the months ahead and we will find ourselves with a President who believes there IS a federal responsibility for housing and the overall well-being of its citizens. Maybe we will elect a President and Congress who will take basic public policy away from corporate boards and back into the hands of the voters.

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