Integrating the Suburbs

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Ideas and Issues

Chicago.CBL.protest-aKiln, Mississippi    Peter Drier, comrade, housing expert, and professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, made an interesting point in a piece he wrote recently about segregation. Reflecting on Ferguson, Missouri, although it could have been hundreds of places he wrote:

Sociologists have invented a way to measure segregation called the “index of dissimilarity,” which shows the percentage of black (or Latino, or Asian) households that would have to move to achieve racial balance across the region. In the St. Louis area, at least 70 percent of all black families would have to move if every part of the metro area was to have a mix of black and white families that reflects their proportion in the entire region.

We’re talking Katrina-level displacement in one urban area after another. Little surprise that most community-based organizations concentrate on improving the communities where low-and-moderate income families, who are often also minorities, live, rather than making their major campaign integrating the suburbs.

Drier is clear that if that were our mission, we would be taking on a mission of Herculean proportions. Our people can’t handle the sticker shock of the suburbs, when means finding affordable apartments, but

…there simply aren’t enough apartment units in most suburbs, especially the more affluent ones. This is due to the widespread practice of suburban “exclusionary zoning”—not only in St. Louis, but in most metro areas. Rentals comprise half of all housing units in cities, but only one-quarter of those in suburbs, and many suburbs have almost no rental housing at all. The Section 8 program won’t help break down residential segregation if there aren’t enough suburban apartments to rent. It would be like giving people food stamps when the supermarket shelves are empty.

The last nationwide study of the Section 8 program’s success rate, conducted in 2000, found that 31 percent of families with Section 8 vouchers couldn’t find an apartment to rent, but the figure varied from city to city; in Los Angeles, 53 percent of families with vouchers had to return them unused; in New York City, 43 percent of the families with vouchers came back empty-handed. The scarcity of apartments was certainly the major cause of families’ inability to take advantage of their housing subsidy, but racism played a role, too; the 2000 study found that whites had a higher success rate than blacks of using their Section 8 subsidy to rent an apartment.

There are things that can be done, and Peter lists several of them.

We can “ban discrimination by landlords,” and recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court should technically make that easier to do so because we would only have to prove “disparate impact,” rather than deliberate intent. But, private landlords do not have to accept Section 8 vouchers, the program is voluntary for them, so it would only be possible to punish landlords who were willing to allow Section 8 in the first place. Secondly, we could mandate that suburbs have to build a certain number of apartments not simply that a small number of any that are built have to be reserved as affordable. Thirdly, we could greatly expand the number of Section 8 vouchers. Though Section 8 is one of the largest housing programs for low-income families, it is based on a lottery and is not an entitlement only benefiting about 25% of those eligible, and that’s if they can find a place to use their vouchers, which many cannot. This is a vicious cycle that returns us back to square one in many cases.

We can hold our breath, but few of these recommendations are likely to find enough love in Congress and its Republican majority that survives largely because of its firm commitment to racial gerrymandering constructed on a legacy of racial segregation in suburban and exurban metropolitan areas that is vital to their future as well. Absent a new civil rights movement focused on integrating the suburbs and based on a consensus about its need and desirability that does not exist today, count on the “dissimilarity index” and the putative Republican majority both coexisting happily for years to come, even if a sad situation for the rest of us.