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Institute for Policy Studies

Fair Housing in an Unfair Society

In deeply unequal communities, phenomena like gentrification are forcing us to rethink principles of social change that we used to consider axiomatic.

By Peter Marcuse

Amid our stark disparities of wealth and power, we need to do more than prohibit and penalize discrimination. Flickr/Abbey Hambright

Amid our stark disparities of wealth and power, we need to do more than prohibit and penalize discrimination. Flickr/Abbey Hambright

Ultimately, you cannot have fair housing in an unfair society. The following ten conclusions obviously go far beyond housing. They call into question major principles that have become second nature in many, or even most, discussions of urban issues today. They require serious discussion.

1. Color blindness seriously threatens decades of civil rights activity. It threatens the affirmative action we need to address discrimination in not only housing, but in everything from education and economic development to health care and land use planning. Justice Kennedy’s comment requiring “race neutrality” in response to actions having adverse disparate impacts on protected classes  — like Chief Justice Roberts’ comment that “if you want to end discrimination, stop discriminating” — confuses discriminating with differentiating and recognizing difference. These comments make for ill omens.

2. Gentrification is a game changer, and its spread requires a major rethinking of fair housing and planning policies that address integration and segregation. The policy thrust over the past half century has viewed racial ghettos as an unmitigated evil, aiming at their elimination by increasing mobility and having their residents move elsewhere, to “opportunity.” That thrust has been in tension with a parallel and simultaneous effort at community economic development within ghettos, attacked by integrationists as “gilding the ghetto.” We have had Paul Davidoff’s argument for opening the suburbs and Frances Piven’s contrasting argument for seeing the spatial concentration of minority voters as increasing their political and social power and economic independence.

The idea that ghettoes would become attractive to whites who find their locations appealing has not been part of this picture. Nor has the concern that integration per se might mean having whites displace blacks from their historically established communities. Sensitivity to the important role of gentrification and displacement needs to command a stronger place in fair housing and planning activities.

3. Integration needs more careful consideration. Advocates of integration initially focused on opening the suburbs, prohibiting exclusionary housing, enabling moving to opportunity. But “integration” also may encompass gentrification, whites moving into minority neighborhoods, displacing their minority residents. The focus of integration must be re-examined, given changing metropolitan patterns. Discriminatory restrictions on mobility need to be ended. But helping those excluded move from segregated neighborhoods to “better” ones, presumably the suburbs, training them how to search for such housing, comes close to blaming the victim and avoids the question of why we see some neighborhoods as “better” than others in the first place.

Integration may also leave those left behind worse off than they were before and interfere with efforts at community economic development in the sending neighborhoods. And the extent, scale, and pros and cons of clustering of minority groups within the suburbs need further consideration. A blanket focus on integration as the sole objective will not do.

Expanding the opportunities of the poor implies changing the behavior of the rich.

4. Solutions to the problem of discrimination inevitably involve conflict. These solutions need to deal with those actors and those structures that cause the discrimination. Ending discrimination does not rate as a win-win battle, except in the very long run. Ending poverty implies increasing equality, which implies reducing the advantages, the power, and the wealth of the 1 percent. If some are victimized by injustice, there are those who perpetrate injustice. Poverty cannot be ended simply be changing the behavior of the poor. Expanding the opportunities of the poor implies changing the behavior of the rich. That should be accepted as a fact of life, in, for instance, debates over the pros and cons of raising taxes. Conflict is inevitable. Consensus is not a realistic goal.

5. If conflict is inevitably coming, we must confront the distribution of power. Economic power, political power, social power, and institutional power all mutually reinforce each other. Simply calling for formal democracy and democratic procedures isn’t going to cut it. Giving all local communities equal rights of self-government may promote integration for some but exclusion for others and may indeed exacerbate inequalities of power. Organizational and militant public action remain an essential component of efforts at ending discrimination. Education, persuasion, and dialogue need to be part of the effort, but by themselves will not suffice.

6. We need more transformative policies, to avoid situations where long-term goals and short-term possibilities get in each other’s way. Some examples: Calling for integration and housing diversity everywhere may be a desirable end-state image, but can today, if implemented rigidly, bring gentrification and displacement in the short run. Making public places available for informal person-to-person interchanges, equally available to all age groups and all activities in a planned and systematic manner, may mean the prohibition of spontaneous protests and demonstrations.

More examples: Preservation of historic community fabric and structures can have sharp negative impacts on non-residents in need of housing. Calling for rent fair to tenants and landlords can divert attention for the need to have housing available for those in need regardless of ability to pay. Pushing for community control for one community can undermine efforts for a comprehensive plan for democratic decision-making across an entire city.

With transformative policies, by contrast, short-term objectives lead the way to reaching long-term goals.

7. The notion of an ideal city has understandable attractions, particularly for architects and designers, and physical designs for new “ideal” cities can be useful, both as jogs to the imagination and as yardsticks for measuring the potentials and limitations of immediate goals. Focusing on the ideal, and working out its details, can advance discussions of both practical immediate objectives and more abstract ultimate goals. We need to acknowledge the necessity of going beyond the achievement of immediate objectives. We should discuss the ideal even if we’re not seeking its immediate realization.

Affirmative action, to be meaningful today, must also address redistribution.

8. Much has been written about what, in principle, the ideal city should be. Susan Fainstein’s The Just City, one recent, well-argued discussion, includes equity, diversity, and democracy as critical components of justice. One could imagine others: communicativeness, environmentally sustainability, efficiency, accessibility, peacefulness, support for individual development, creativity, beauty, tolerance, and many more. One formulation I hope to explore shortly: the caring city.

Some of these terms highlight policies instrumental in the pursuit of other goals. Tolerance may be a means to diversity, which may be a means to creativity. Probing alternatives may usefully clarify the objectives of actual policies, but may also serve to divert attention from actual hard decisions needing to be made, as some visioning exercises do.

9. Government must inevitably play a major role combating discrimination. This remains the underlying premise of “affirmative action” and means government both big and small, national, state, regional, and local. And this role cannot just be negative, prohibiting and penalizing discrimination, but must be positive, providing a limit on the role of markets and a more just distribution of wealth and power in favor of those with the least. Our societies today have enough resources and abilities to manage this redistribution. And we should see this redistribution not as an unfortunate necessity, to be kept within bounds as strictly as possible, but a desirable function of government, indeed ultimately its very purpose: the good of the whole.

10. It takes government to establish the conditions for real democracy, but only a democratic government will be likely to establish those conditions. This circularity helps explain why the process of achieving justice — and an end to discrimination against those with less power — will be an ongoing struggle between those with more and those with less power. Ideological contestation will be an important part of such struggles, but victory or defeat will not hinge on success in ideological confrontations, but in changes in the balance of power in the status quo, changes that ideological clarity can facilitate but will not itself produce. Democracy may be seen as an end in itself, with participatory citizenship seen as a necessary component of a full life. Or democracy may simply be seen as the best of the available means for making sure pubic decisions serve other desirable goals of an ideal city.

Our overall conclusion, to this point: To effectively combat discriminatory behavior and its undesired consequences of disparity and inequality, changes in individual and popular values must take place, and an introspective re-examination of values and ideologies can be helpful here. But changes in concrete existing public policies affecting discriminatory behavior are essential. Whether they will come about depends decisively on the distribution of power in society and the resolution of conflicts among the key actors within it.
1. Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1,, 2007, slip opinion, p. 16
2.Fainstein, Susan. 2010. The Just City. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.

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