A good case can be made that housing segregation, and its symptoms of lack of access to resources and opportunity, is the most serious problem facing African Americans in the United States and the principal engine behind most other forms of racial inequity. In many of the country’s largest urban areas—including New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit—over 80 percent of African Americans would have to move to a different block to achieve an even distribution of Blacks and whites throughout those metropolitan regions. Where segregation is high, most Black/white disparities in income, unemployment, test scores, health levels, crime, mortality rates, etc., have remained stagnant for generations. Where segregation has fallen even moderately, Black/white disparities have narrowed, often dramatically.
Yet for many years, housing segregation was almost invisible in public discourse and largely ignored by public policy. That has changed, quickly and remarkably. In 2015 alone, housing segregation lay at the heart of a major Supreme Court decision that broadly interpreted a key provision of the Fair Housing Act; was the target of major new policy initiatives by the Obama administration; and was the subject of a breakthrough result in a controlled experiment, showing dramatic long-term benefits to low-income children from economic integration. In 2016 and 2017, two books dealing with housing segregation (Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law) became hits with the reading public, and in 2018 the Trump-Carson administration has made it a major priority, with only limited success, to undo the Obama initiatives.
The Fight for Fair Housing, a new collection of 17 essays edited by respected scholar Gregory Squires, both captures and explains the dynamism of the fair housing movement. Squires has gathered a remarkably eminent group of contributors: Walter Mondale, perhaps the single most important figure in the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act; Douglas Massey, the Princeton sociologist whose efforts in the 1980s brought a new level of sophistication to housing segregation research; Raphael Bostic, who as an assistant secretary in Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) played a key role in the new regulations that for the first time required local government grantees to engage in strategic thinking about segregation; John Relman, a renowned and innovative fair housing litigator; Thomas Sugrue, one of our foremost historians of race in urban America; and many others. There is no extant volume that gathers together the thinking of so many key fair housing figures.
Someone seeking to understand recent legal and policy trends in fair housing will find several helpful essays in this collection. There is a well-crafted chapter explaining how and when housing policies can be challenged under the increasingly important doctrine of disparate impact (which does not require a showing of intentional discrimination). Another chapter shows how legal doctrine in other spheres of housing discrimination (e.g., related to disability, gender, sexual orientation, or family status) has created expanded protections in recent years. Current thinking on fair lending; strategies to prevent neighborhood resegregation; how fair housing has affected Latinos and Asian Americans; all these issues and more are examined in turn.
An advantage of The Fight for Fair Housing ’s approach is that the book covers a wide range of subjects. A disadvantage is that the essays do not generally speak to one another; the chapters cover discrete topics rather than being part of a conversation or debate. Moreover, many of the essays promote a particular interpretation of their topic; a reader new to these subjects may not realize that the authors are covering only one side of contested ground.
For example, Massey and Rugh make an interesting case that exclusionary zoning strongly influences metropolitan levels of segregation. But they do not acknowledge two problems with their argument: No. 1—Affluent African-American households that can afford to live anywhere also tend to live in segregated neighborhoods; and No. 2—careful studies of the role income, wealth, and other demographic characteristics play in segregation conclude that these factors explain only a modest fraction of current levels of racial segregation.
Similarly, Myron Orfield and Will Stancil provide a refreshingly comprehensive analysis of how metropolitan-wide integration can be pursued, recognizing that very different strategies are required to foster diversity across different types of neighborhoods. They place considerable emphasis on the problem of neighborhood resegregation—an important issue often overlooked in the past – but they do not incorporate or discuss a range of recent literature suggesting that the problem of resegregation has moderated substantially in recent years, and that multi-racial communities now show remarkable resilience in maintaining their diversity.
One key fair housing debate, though, is well-vetted in the book: the tension between advocates who seek to advance housing and social conditions for the urban poor through paths of mobility into middle-income suburbs, and those who believe government resources should focus on revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods. Bostic and Arthur Acolin provide a nuanced account of how these competing views influenced the 2015 HUD regulations mentioned earlier, and John Powell and Steven Menendian suggest valuable ways to reconcile both the “mobility” and “revitalization” approaches.
The fair housing movement has tended to think of its mission in oppositional terms: fighting the discriminatory tendencies of the public and the institutional racism of government and capitalism. Some of that spirit may serve it well in combatting the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back recent regulatory gains. But I think the “fighting” mindset can become a hindrance, too, and blind the movement to crucial opportunities. The declines in many forms of housing discrimination over the past half-century have been truly remarkable—so great, in fact, that traditional paired fair housing “testing” is of declining help in measuring what discrimination remains. New tools that do not necessarily focus on litigation are needed. Another recent book, Cycle of Segregation by Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder, argues that a crucial fair housing strategy is providing better information to home seekers about housing opportunities beyond their normal circle of contacts.
Similarly, the “fight” paradigm may be counterproductive in dealing with one of the hottest issues in the movement: how to respond to the migration of middle-class and affluent households from suburbs to urban cores. A common response of civil rights advocates has been uncompromising opposition, often suggesting in near-apocalyptic terms the impending mass removal of the poor from urban cores. Opposition is often pursued by placing as many legal and political obstacles in the path of development as possible. Careful research showing that “gentrifying” neighborhoods have, to date, shown remarkable levels of racial and economic diversity, tends to be ignored or discounted. So are the hugely positive implications of this migration for the future fiscal health of central cities. Here, as elsewhere, the fair housing community needs to think empirically and strategically, rather than being in a default mode of combative litigation. No one can know how long current migration trends will last, but if they can be channeled constructively, rather than simply halted, they represent one of the best opportunities in the fair housing era to advance racial integration and address the concentrated poverty that besets many African-American communities. On these and similar “strategic” topics, I would have liked to have seen more attention from The Fight for Fair Housing.
The Fight for Fair Housing shows us the energy and dynamism of fair housing advocacy and scholarship. This fighting spirit will be needed in combatting the Trump administration’s attempted rollbacks of recent progress. But there is an urgent need, too, for more honest conversation within the fair housing movement to examine its internal contradictions and develop more coherent strategies and clarity about ultimate goals.
This article appears in the Fall 2018 edition of Shelterforce magazine.