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The Fair Housing Act at 50

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The Fair Housing Act at 50

May 16, 2018
Economy, finance, and budgets

Howard Husock joins Seth Barron to discuss the Fair Housing Act, racial discrimination in residential neighborhoods, and efforts to reinvigorate the law today.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the landmark legislation signed by President Lyndon Johnson aimed to end housing discrimination and residential segregation in America.

The Kerner Commission in 1968 stated that America was split into “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” In response to the report and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act. Half a century later, the nation is still debating whether the act’s promises were fulfilled.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks. This is Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal.  This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Fair Housing Act of 1968 which aimed to eliminate segregation of Americans by place.  I am joined now by Howard Husock, vice president of research and publications at the Manhattan Institute.  Howard is a contributing editor to City Journal and he wrote The Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy.  He is published widely, and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and virtually every journal or periodical of note.  Howard, welcome to 10 Blocks.

Howard Husock: Thank you very much, Seth.  Good to be with you.

Seth Barron: So, Howard, take us back to 1968.  What was the state of housing in America, of race relations, and of racial segregation in terms of housing?

Howard Husock: The Fair Housing Act was passed in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King.  So, we were at a high point of the civil rights revolution, there was a sense that we were of two nations, black and white, to quote the Kerner Commission report, and that we needed to do something immediately to break down racial segregation by neighborhood.  And that thing was going to be the Fair Housing Act, which was going to, and did, outlaw discrimination on the basis of race.  So, anybody who goes to a bank any day of the week today will see fair housing, equal opportunity lender.  That language is the result of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Seth Barron: So, what exactly did the Fair Housing Act – well, what did it set out to do and what did it do in terms of the actual mechanics of integrating American neighborhoods?

Howard Husock: The Fair Housing Act, what it did not do was to assign some sort of quota by race that every neighborhood had to accept and judge neighborhoods on that basis in some kind of methodical way.  What it did was to outlaw segregation, racial discrimination, on the basis of ability to pay.  So, anybody who could afford to rent somewhere, afford to buy a home, who had the credit and the means to do it was to be permitted to do that.  And if they were turned away, not because somebody else was a better credit risk or somebody else was judged to be a superior buyer in some nondiscriminatory way, if they were turned away because of the color of their skin, or their religious background, or any of the things that are mentioned in the Fair Housing Act, that was now illegal.  And as to your question whether – did it work, I think there is something in the air today, 2018, that tells us that tells us, well of course it didn’t work.  Of course race is as big a problem today as it has ever been in the United States.  And we are suffused with the concerns raised by Black Lives Matter and other groups.  There is an assumption that things have not gotten better.  When it comes to residential patterns and race, that is simply not the case and it really has to be understood.  So, here at The Manhattan Institute we had two economists, Ed Glaeser from Harvard and Jacob Vigdor who is now at the University of Washington, publish a paper for us and in 2010 – I just talked to them the other week, they tell me they stand by the findings – that racial discrimination has been steadily declining for fifty years, that twenty years ago – fifty years ago, rather – twenty percent of urban neighborhoods had zero black residents.  Today all-white neighborhoods, they write, are effectively extinct anywhere in the United States.  Today African-American residents can be found in 1,999 out of every 2,000 neighborhoods, that is census tracts, nationwide, and even in cities like Chicago, where housing patterns are still relatively racially distinct, they have nonetheless declined.  So, things have really gotten a lot better as defined by people having the right to live where they want to live based on what they can afford to do.  And that should be our definition of a non-discriminatory environment.

Seth Barron: Okay, now, yeah, I mean certainly I guess in the ‘60s you could say well I won’t rent to blacks and then that was, you know, you had no choice, you had to go away if you were a black person.  But, under the Obama administration wasn’t there a pretty extensive effort to desegregate a lot of communities, like in Westchester for instance?  I believe you have written about this.  So clearly segregation must still be a problem if the federal government is still having to go into these communities and you know, change their housing polices.

Howard Husock: Well, two things about that.  One, I think one would have to be quite naïve to think that it is not more complicated and probably difficult for African-Americans to rent or buy in the United States.  They think about their choices in different ways.  And I think one has to understand that and be sympathetic to it.  At the same time, what the Obama administration called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, was based on the idea that wealthy neighborhoods, even if they had relatively significant percentages of African-American residents based on what income would predict, so your Scarsdale might have about 3% black residents, well about 3% of the residents in that area who are black can afford the prices in Scarsdale.  So, it is not segregated by that measure.  What Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing wanted to do was to say, and it did say, no child’s fate should be decided by his or her zip code.  Well that’s a very different idea then breaking down barriers to racial integration.  The whole zip code idea means that we have to do something to advance the chances of disadvantaged children of color.  And the way to do that is to build subsidized housing in wealthy neighborhoods and move the children of poorer families and their households into those neighborhoods.  Now that’s being called fair housing, but it is really an effort to improve the life prospects of a certain group of disadvantaged children who would be able to move to places they otherwise couldn’t move to.

Seth Barron: So, I guess that is kind of a geography is destiny, you know, philosophy, or zip code is destiny.  Does that bear out sociologically?  Like, I know in Chicago after they tore down the Robert Taylor homes and Cabrini housing projects, many of those people wound up living in the outskirts of Chicago, or even further afield, sometimes in white neighborhoods or white communities.  Do you know anything about how this has fared?  Have outcomes, educational outcomes, you know, social outcomes improved for people?

Howard Husock: Well, there is a very significant and prominent study that was done by the Stanford economics Raj Chetty that was released last year that tracked a program in Chicago called Moving to Opportunity.  And Moving to Opportunity was a federally supported program in the early 2000s that gave housing project residents, like those in the Robert Taylor homes and other rather infamous Chicago public housing projects, a housing voucher that gave them a choice.  They could stay in neighborhoods that they were familiar with, or they could move to higher-income neighborhoods.  And there had been several studies of this Moving to Opportunity program prior to Raj Chetty’s study, and they had found no big changes.  Chetty found that children of a certain age, under 12 I believe it was, did turn out to be doing better than would have been expected had they stayed in place.  That finding really fueled this Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing study and is continuing to stir up enthusiasm for it.  Now, I have several concerns about Chetty’s study and the takeaways from it.  I’m about to publish an essay in a book being published by MIT Press about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing just on this subject.  And I have basically two big things to say.  One is: Where was it written that low-income neighborhoods always have to be bad neighborhoods?  Where was it written that we couldn’t have good schools for poor children, safe streets for poor households, clean streets and good parks and recreation?  That’s what all children need to succeed.  The idea that we are going to – and this is my second point – the practicality of acting on Chetty’s findings maybe a few thousand children and their parents could be moved, but is that going to advantage the tens, hundreds, millions of those who are still going to be living in poor neighborhoods who won’t have that opportunity because building massive amounts of subsidized housing in wealthy neighborhoods, first of all it is very expensive – the land is expensive – my point is that the practical solution here is not to move the disadvantaged to more affluent zip codes, but to improve what the economists call the quality of public goods in poor neighborhoods.  Schools, policing, parks and recreation, all those public services.  That was why the Department of Housing and Urban Development, by the way, was originally chartered.  So, to me it is ironic that HUD under the Obama regime sought to remove people from their neighborhoods because in effect it was giving up.  We can’t do anything about this.

Seth Barron: But if you just allow old patterns of racial segregation to persist aren’t you just reinforcing America’s sad history of racial discrimination and, you know, I guess black underachievement that has been perpetuated by Jim Crow laws?

Howard Husock: Well, let’s distinguish between educational underachievement and the situation of African-Americans and the idea that somehow by adjusting geographic patterns with subsidized housing we can change all that.  We need to be cautious about involving the government in affecting residential patterns.  Let’s keep in mind that one of the reasons we had so much racial segregation in the ‘50s and up to the time of the King assassination and the Fair Housing Act was because the federal government itself, not the Jim Crow South – the Jim Crow south had its own problems – but the federal government, in addition the Federal Housing Administration, would only guarantee loans to whites in areas where there were no blacks, and the opposite.  It acted to separate the races.  I really am concerned about inviting the government in to fix the problem that the government helped to create in the first place.  I think we have to look at what creates a sustainably racially balanced, racially integrated, neighborhood.  And the way to do that – I love to quote, and I have quoted for City Journal many times – the dean of American sociologists, Herbert Gans of Columbia, who by the way is not a political Conservative at all, who has written in his wonderful book The Levittowners, experience with racial integration in many communities indicates that it can be achieved without problems when the two races are similar in socioeconomic level and the visible cultural aspects of class.  Let people buy or rent where they can afford, and in areas where others are like them in education and socioeconomic status.  This thing will work out.  Trying to mix through government fiat the very poorest with the very richest is a guarantee of relative social isolation for the poor and maximum resistance on the part of the rich.  I think that a regulated market which bans discrimination is the best friend of racial integration.

Seth Barron: So, let’s look at New York City, which many people say is one of the most racially segregated cities in the country in certain respects.  Recently Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and preservation, was asked if the city had any plans for how to address racial segregation and she said no, not really.  I mean maybe that kind of laissez-faire attitude comports with your philosophy.  But, if it is a problem, how could the city address the problem?  What should New York City do?  I mean there is not that much available new housing anyway, so how can we move people, encourage people to integrate, what’s the solution?

Howard Husock: Well, one thing that is important to keep in mind that some of the most segregated parts of New York are public housing projects which are owned and operated by the government.  And they are, for the most part, identifiably white, black or Hispanic.  So, apparently it was contemplated when the largest concentration of public housing in the United States was built in East Harlem and Central Harlem that these developments would be African-American forever.  They were named after all these famous African-Americans, the James Weldon Johnson Houses.  Did that mean that black people should live there forever?  I find that a little bit inconsistent with our values today.  And so, to the extent that in its public housing projects, the city would take people from waiting lists and assign them to available housing, no matter where it was, not on the basis of race, that might be an interesting step.

Seth Barron: Well, as it is, public housing – I mean the NYCHA system currently is very disproportionately black and Latino, no?

Howard Husock: It’s black and Puerto Rican is what it is.  Most of the new Latino immigrants are not in public housing.  We have a lot, identifiably black and Puerto Rican, and some mixtures of black and Puerto Ricans.

Seth Barron: So do you think that residential segregation in New York City currently is a problem?

Howard Husock: Well it’s interesting.  One of the things that Professors Glaeser and Vigdor found is breaking down segregated housing patterns is gentrification.  And so, one of the forces acting, certainly in Brooklyn, you know, twenty years ago in Brooklyn, Fort Green was an identifiably African-American neighborhood.  Bedford Stuyvesant was an identifiably African-American neighborhood.  Crown Heights was an identifiably African-American neighborhood.  This is not true anymore.  Not because there was a policy to move black people out, but because white people willingly moved in.  So that’s interesting isn’t it?

Seth Barron: I suppose so.  Although, you know, gentrification has its discontents as well.  You have written about Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing.  Could you explain what that is and how it might impact this conversation?

Howard Husock: Yeah.  I have a great acronym for that.  I call it NOAH, Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing.  And in a paper I did for us here at The Manhattan Institute, I was just curious as to whether there are apartments for rent that are as inexpensive, priced similarly to the subsidized apartments that housers, as they are called, like Mayor de Blasio here in New  York, want to build, at considerable expense, $200, $300 thousand dollars per unit.  And so we asked StreetEasy, which is a real estate website, to help us out and we said we want to know every apartment in every neighborhood of two bedrooms that is $1,500 or less, or $1,200 or less.  Well, it turns out there are a lot of such apartments, but a lot of people wouldn’t think of moving to the Bronx, or to Staten Island, or to places they are not familiar with because they are not familiar with them.  The City could do something to help the market here at very little cost, which would be to post a bulletin board, the Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing bulletin board and it could offer potential renters or buyers a window into what is available that is within their means, and that might start to mix things up even more.  And the other thing you’ve got to do is: Many, many years ago as a young television reporter, I covered the naturally occurring racial integration in working class Boston neighborhoods, and it wasn’t pretty.  There were black people moving into what I called then racial frontiers, and young white youth gangs throwing rocks at their houses.  I saw those youth gangs.  I interviewed the youth gangs.  They boasted about rocking the N-word’s houses.  The Boston police, to their great credit, established something called the community disorders unit, and they posted officers in front of those people’s houses and they protected them.  And so, anytime somebody is moving into a neighborhood where they have reason to think they could be in danger, that becomes a law enforcement matter too, and The Fair Housing Act should certainly be our guide.

Seth Barron: So, it sort of sounds like necessity may be the mother of integration.  Don’t forget to check out Howard Husock’s work on our website, www.city-journal.org.  We would love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks.  Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening and thanks, Howard, for joining us.

Howard Husock: Thank you Seth.

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