Blog #72 – Fair Housing and Beyond: Some Elusive Principles for Social Change

Blog #72 – Fair Housing and Beyond: Some Elusive Principles for Social Change.

[These principles are raised in connection with the preceding four blogs on Fair Housing in the United States, blogs #68, #69, #70, and #71, but are generally relevant to efforts a social change.]

Ultimately, you cannot have fair housing in an unfair society. The following conclusions can be drawn from an analysis of housing issues, but obviously go far beyond housing. They are elusive in the sense that they call for questioning major principles that have become second nature in many/most discussions of urban issues today, but are badly in need of reexamination. They are elusive because, although the problems related to them are clear, the exact formulation and content of the principles that should replace them is unavoidably complex, and requires serious discussion. All that is clear today is that many old principles have become problematic and should no longer be treated as axiomatic.

1. Color blindness is a serious threat to decades of civil rights activity. It threatens what is seriously needed in many spheres of government activity, affirmative action to deal with discrimination in housing , but not only in housing, as well in education, economic development , health care, land use planning, social policy. Justice Kennedy’s comment requiring “race neutrality” in responses to actions having adverse disparate impacts on protected classes, like Chief Justice Roberts’ comment that “if you want to end discrimination, stop discriminating,” which confuses discriminating with differentiating and recognizing difference, are ill omens.

2. Gentrification is a game changer. The spread of gentrification requires a major rethinking of fair housing and planning policies dealing with integration and segregation. The thrust of efforts over the past half century have seen racial ghettos as an unmitigated evil, aiming policies 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.” Paul Davidoff’s argument for opening the suburbs has been in tension with Frances Piven’s argument for seeing the spatial concentration of minority votes as increasing their political and social power and economic independence. The idea that ghettoes would become attractive to whites finding their locations appealing has not been part of the picture, nor a 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. The focus was initially on opening the suburbs, prohibiting exclusionary housing, enabling moving to opportunity, but its sense also may include 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 are wrong, and should 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 some neighborhoods are “better” than others in the first place. It 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 with the suburbs, needs further consideration. A blanket focus on integration as the sole objective will not do.

4. Solutions to the problem of discrimination inevitably involve conflict and need to recognize that they do not lie simply in affecting the behavior of those discriminated against, but need to deal with those actors and those structures that cause the discrimination. Ending discrimination is not 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%. If some are victimized by injustice, there are those that perpetrate injustice. Poverty cannot be ended simply be changing he 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, e.g. in debating the pros and cons of raising taxes. Conflict is inevitable; consensus is not a realistic goal.

5. Power. If conflict is inevitable, the distribution of power must be confronted. The issues are complex, and economic power, political power, social power, institutional power, are involved, and mutually reinforce each other. Simply calling for formal democracy and democratic procedures is not enough. Giving all local communities equal rights of self-government; it may promote integration for some but exclusion for others, and may indeed exacerbate inequalities of power. Organization and militant public action are an essential component of efforts at ending discrimination; education and persuasion and dialogue need to be part of the effort, but by themselves are not enough.

6. Transformative policies are necessary if long-term goals and short term possibilities are not to get in the way of each other. Calling for integration and housing diversity everywhere may be a desirable for the image of an end state, but it can if implemented today mean gentrification and displacement in the short run, as when rigid statistical measures of integration are imposed everywhere. 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. 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 haves 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. Transformative policies are policies whose short-term objectives lead the way to reaching long-term goals.

7. Design of the ideal city, in the sense of the image and/or principled working out of what the ultimate goal of progressive action is, has disadvantages as well as attractions. Its attraction, perhaps particularly for architects and designers, whose work is sometimes developing designs for future use, is understandable, and can be very useful on the way to (or from?) the design of immediate policy goals. Physical designs for new “ideal” cities can be useful, both as jogs to the imagination as standards against the potentials and limitations of immediate goals can be measured. Focusing on what the ideal is, and working out its details, is certainly important in discussions of practical politics, as well as in abstract discussions of possibilities ad ultimate goals. The necessity of transformation beyond the achievement of immediate objectives should be acknowledged and articulated in all policy debates and presentations, and may involve the inclusion of discussions of the ideal even as its immediate realization is not being sought.

8. Principles for the Ideal City. Much has been written about what, in principle, the ideal city should be. Susan Fainstein’s “The Just City” is a recent, well-argued discussion, that includes the key principles should be Equity, Diversity, and Democracy, as critical components of Justice. One could imagine others: Communicativeness, Environmentally Sustainable, Efficiency, Accessibility, Peacefulness, Supportive of Individual Development, Creative, Beautiful, Historically Embedded, Welcoming, Family Friendly, Tolerant, and many more. One formulation I hope to explore shortly is for the Caring City. Some of these terms highlight policies which are instrumental in the pursuit of other goals — Efficient may be applied to deeper purposes, Tolerant may be a means to Diversity, which may be a means to Creative. Probing the alternatives may be a useful way to clarify the objectives of actual policies, but it may also serve to divert attention from actual hard decisions needing to be made, as some visioning exercises do. A history of utopias would demand an encyclopedia, but would be provocative.

9. Positive Government must inevitably play a major role combatting discrimination; this is the underlying premise of ”affirmative action.”. That means both big government and small, national, state, regional and local. And that role cannot only be negative, prohibiting and penalizing discrimination, but must be positive, providing a more just distribution of wealth, limiting the role of markets based on inequalities of wealth and power, affirmatively redistributing such wealth and power in favor of those with the least. Our societies today, unlike in previous historical epochs, are rich enough, have the resources and abilities to do this. It is not 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. Democratic government, government that is thoroughly democratic, but that is a circular requirement: it takes government to establish the conditions for real democracy, but only a democratic government is likely to establish those conditions. That is 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 is 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 it may simply be seen as the best of the available means for making sure pubic decisions serve other desirable goals of an ideal city.

The conclusion, at this point, is that if discriminatory behavior and its undesired consequences of disparity and inequality are to be effectively combated, while changes in individual and popular values must take place, and introspective re-examination of values and ideologies can be helpful, 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 oinion, p. 16
2.Fainstein, Susan. 2010. The Just City. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.


4 thoughts on “Blog #72 – Fair Housing and Beyond: Some Elusive Principles for Social Change

  1. Thank you, Peter.

    I appreciate your explanation of the problem. Is it possible for this violation to be addressed more broadly? Can we move the discussion beyond racist identification? Can class disparities be absorbed into the legislative intent of the FHA.

  2. Peter, Can you share with me your ideas on AMI, and how using AMI violates prohibitions in the Fair Housing Act. The Housing and Land Use Committees in Manhattan Community Board 10 are giving serious discuss to the effects of AMI on that district, but we are focusing more narrowly on the catchment area, which includes Westchester, and not looking more broadly at the Fair Housing Act. I am more than willing to do the heavy lifting to prepare for a discussion with national and state figures at an upcoming meeting Nov.19. We thank you for your consideration. GB

    1. Gregory,

      The argument is straightforward. The AMI includes high-income neighborhoods and suburbs, and results in higher definitions of averages and medians than if more narrowly defined geographic units are used. Thus, in making the Fair Housing argument, the comparison ismade between who would be eligible, by race, if the AMi is used to determine eligibility, as compared to those eligible by race if a Community Board or census tract definition is used. Thus using the AMI reduces the number of blacks eligible, and that can be objectively shown and should be known to the agency making the decision, thus violating the Fair Housing Act’s disparate impact rule. And it holds true whatever percentage you take.

      Granted you could simply fix theeligibility level arbitrarily lower, but you do want to have some reflection of the differences among different communities, some rational basis for the level used. There’s no magic in what geographic area is used;it should simply be one that more accurately reflects the existing disribution of minorities in the target program area. One would not make the fair housing arumeent in an area in which the AMI is in fact lower than what a different choice would provide.

      Norman Segal is the attorney formulating the law suit,, and Phil D. has done a good bit of the statistical work and thinking onit,; I’m copying them on this in case they see it diferently or hae more to add.


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