Fair Is Not Easy
Making fair housing fairer for the poor
August 6, 1981
Discrimination in housing in Springfield, as nearly everywhere in this once-great nation, is usually assumed to mean discrimination against African American tenants. In fact, the really hard-to-house population comprises the lower class of all races.
I failed to mention it in this piece, but the City of Springfield and kindred municipalities does provide for housing for the poor, by making it cheap to build and buy new houses on the urban periphery for the middle class, who leave behind hand-me-down houses that get rented to the poor.
It is the opinion of the federal government that Springfield's fair housing programs are only fair at being fair. In May of last year the local League of Women Voters and an activist group, Access to Housing, complained to HUD that the city's federally-funded community development programs were being used to build housing for the elderly and the handicapped but not the poor. HUD ultimately agreed, and urged that the city develop an acceptable "fair housing strategy."
Thus stung by HUD's bad opinion, Mayor Mike Houston recently set up Springfield's very own New Horizons Fair Housing Task Force. People who know the problem credit the mayor with good intentions, and the rest of us have no reason to do otherwise. The problem is whether good intentions will be of any use against housing discrimination in Springfield. Housing for those denied access to the private housing market because of poverty (especially when poverty is aggravated by large numbers of children), race, or infirmity is hard to get and often not worth getting anyway. This is no surprise. But in Springfield, the public housing market has also failed. We have seen to it that no handicapped person lacks for a new apartment with a low-set sink, and we have stacked our old people in spanking new high rises like dishes in a cupboard. The poor, in contrast, join waiting lists for units which even with a subsidy are no bargain.
Why? Housing discrimination, like juvenile delinquency or shopping malls, is a symptom of underlying social maladies. These range from the maldistribution of wealth to racism and ignorance. Take, for example, the problem of poverty. It is one of the cherished conceits of the liberal middle class that poor people are pretty much like they are except that they don't have as much money. Sadly, this is true only sometimes. If it is a fault of bankers that they tend to assume that income and class always define each other, so it is a fault of liberal reformers that they assume that they never do. As Hemingway might have said if he hadn't grown up in Oak Park, "The very poor are different from you and me."
While being poor does not necessarily make one lower class, it is an unpleasant fact that most poor people tend to be lower class. In my own case, I have nothing against poor people—I have been poor myself most of my life—but I do not believe that a front yard is made more gracious by the addition of old washing machines. Nor do I believe that courtesy countenances the playing of stereos at 1 a.m. nor leaving children unbathed for long periods of time. I leave it to sociologists to decide whether people are lower class because they are poor, or whether they are poor because they are lower class. Either way, they make lousy neighbors and worse tenants.
If the popular confusion of income with class complicates thinking about fair housing, race muddles it even more. While most poor people are not black, many black people are poor; more to the point, many black people are lower-class poor, and thus are thrice damned in the eyes of the broader world. That blacks have been discriminated against in the Springfield housing market hardly needs to be said. As long ago as 1914 the Sage Foundation reported that the Springfield black person is "usually segregated . . . in one or more of the poorest parts of town. Being so confined he is more easily exploited by his landlord, who inclines to give less and charge more than he would in the case of white tenants."
But one of the questions the task force may want to consider is whether race is still the decisive factor in housing discrimination. Critics have tended to assume so, treating housing problems of the poor and of minorities as two separate, if related, issues. But while it was segregation clearly that limited housing opportunities for blacks in 1914, in 1981 it is not clear at all. The peaceful, almost unnoticed integration of the city's previously all-white neighborhoods in the 1970s would seem to be proof that class and not color is the key to the acceptance of minority newcomers. Speaking for myself, it doesn't matter whether a pick-up truck with a tattoo parlor bumper sticker on it pulls up with a U-haul next door, or whether it is a 1972 Cadillac with gangster whitewalls—I will reach for the real estate ads just as fast in either case.
Income discrimination remains the biggest bar to decent housing. It is significant that HUD has characterized its unhappiness with Springfield's fair housing efforts in terms of housing opportunities for low-income people rather than for minorities. (Oh, Euphemism!) The private housing market, like the political system which sustains it, was not designed to serve people who don't have money. (At least not directly; the building boom of the '70s which littered cornfields with condos made available to the poor the houses abandoned by the middle class.)
The mayor has said that the solution to fair housing for the poor in Springfield is to spend more federal money to build public housing—a remarkable stance for a free-market Reaganite Republican. But this absolves the city much too easily. Instead of seeking ways to build more public housing for the poor, the task force might inquire into why there is so little decent, affordable private housing in the city. How much of the rot that infects housing for the poor, for example, is spread by the city's failure to enforce its own building and health codes? Does the city do business with lenders who red-line? Who are the slumlords, and why is the city so helpless against them? Why hasn't the city started a tax abatement program in inner city neighborhoods which would help preserve them while transferring more of the local tax burden on the recreant middle class? How many of its development policies suck investment money away from low-cost housing and to speculative commercial development?
HUD's policy seems to be to not perpetuate ghettos, whether of race or income. As has been proved by mandatory school integration, such social theories lead to injustices in practice, usually in inverse proportion to the nobility of their intentions. In order to satisfy federal requirements that public housing tenants reflect an income mix typical of the city as a whole, the Springfield Housing Authority has actually had to turn down applicants for existing public housing because they don't make enough money. In the case of new housing, it is not sufficient that the poor be well-housed; it is also necessary that they be well-housed in un-poor neighborhoods.
Alas, public housing houses not only the poor but the lower class poor, and because of that, scattered-site public housing is likely to remain deservedly unpopular. Liberals (most of whom never have to sit beside their vegetable gardens in a lawn chair all summer to keep vandals from stealing tomatoes, as one public housing tenant I know had to do) tend to dismiss local opposition to public housing for the poor as racism or ignorance. But that does such opponents an insult, and does the rest of us the disservice of making the complicated politics of public housing seem much more simple than it is.
Perhaps it is asking too much of the task force to sort out these complications. For the moment, it would be good if the task force merely clarifies the terms of the debate, to make clear that income is not class, that class is not race—and that fair is not easy. ●