Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The zoning arguments and policies that will win over liberal white homeowners won’t mention race or class directly. But they will restrict the density that makes sense for affordable housing.

Thomas B. Edsall posed an indecent question in a Wednesday column in The New York Times.

“Can Republicans turn the Supreme Court and [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] decisions and the renewed drive to integrate residential housing into a wedge issue to weaken Democratic allegiance?”

No, that’s not the question. That question is practically rhetorical. By the time that HUD released its final rule on the Fair Housing Act—a 377-page tome on homes titled Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing—the spittle was already flying fast and furious. National Review’s Stanley Kurtz wrote that the new ruling “gives the federal government a lever to re-engineer nearly every American neighborhood.”

There’s no doubt that Republicans want to work the Supreme Court’s decision on disparate impact. Rather, the indecent question Edsall asks is whether fair housing will make Stanley Kurtzes out of liberals. Now that white communities are required to make room for poor and minority households, will white liberals in those communities continue to vote with the Democratic Party?

Even ruder: Will the prospect of black neighbors turn liberals into conservatives?

Of course, it isn’t a rude question at all. It’s a real-keeping question. The history of the U.S. details how white homeowners have used every tool at their disposal to enforce racial segregation—explicitly and implicitly, legally and illegally—in nearly every American neighborhood. Edsall’s perceptive question is simply in tune with the history of housing.  

Edsall points to Westchester County in New York for evidence that Republicans can pick up seats in white liberal jurisdictions by exploiting fear and hate. (The same fear and hate that Kurtz demonstrates in his piece—which is perceptive, too, in its own way.) There in predominantly Democratic-voting Westchester County, a Republican, Robert Astorino, won the seat for county executive, in 2009 and then again 2013. He won by the largest margins in the dozens of white communities where his Democratic predecessor had approved the construction of some 750 units of affordable housing.

For now, all Edsall can say for certain is that the new rulings from HUD and SCOTUS may mean even larger margins for Astorino the next time around. But Edsall is onto something so much larger. Affirmative rulings on fair housing may prompt a new era of There Goes the Neighborhood–ism. And thanks to broad shifts in demographics, fair housing could affect the pH balance of major metro areas over the long term.

What follows are some sketches to show how justice in housing could erode the Democratic advantage in cities, a prospect that should give pause to partisans on both sides.

Cities are growing richer—and that wealth isn’t trickling down

“Across the 50 largest cities, households in the 95th percentile of income earned 11.6 times as much as households at the 20th percentile,” reads a Brookings Institution report on cities and inequality from March. Their report finds a larger inequality gap in cities than in the nation overall.

In 12 of the 50 largest cities, the rich (households in the 95th percentile for income) grew a great deal richer between 2012 and 2013. In 11 of those 50 cities, poorer households (20th percentile) made big gains over the same stretch. But there was very little overlap: Only in Jacksonville, Florida, and Houston, Texas, did both rich and poor households make gains. And in most cities (31 of 50), lower-income households were worse off in 2013 than they were in 2007.

(Brookings Institution)

Rents are rising, but you knew that already. Soaring rents plus soaring incomes at the top in growing cities means a larger and larger disparity gap for affordable housing to bridge. In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, we’re talking about building low-income housing in affluent neighborhoods that are growing richer and richer.

The culture wars are over(ish)

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion for Obergefell v. Hodges didn’t declare a formal end to hostilities between liberals and conservatives on social issues. But with the argument over same-sex marriage off the table for good—an issue that galvanized liberals and one that more than a few conservatives have hoped to shelve for years—there’s that much less daylight between Democrats and Republicans on culture.

Of course there are other issues that will continue to divide left and right. Transgender rights, for example. But as LGBTQ advocates fear, success in the effort to secure same-sex marriage rights may lead many allies and activists to declare victory and go home. Elsewhere, the sweeping surrender on Confederate symbols suggests that the next culture wars will look different than today’s.

This is all to say that, while immigration or religious freedom or #TeamTaylor vs #TeamKaty will continue to divide people, the configurations of these skirmishes and their salience in down-ticket elections could change.

Liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets

If Republicans can counter the narrative that they hate gay people, black people, poor people, women people, migrant people, etc., then they may find a way in with liberal white homeowners who vocally support tolerance—but very much do not want to live near black people or poor people.

This is a tough sell, today: Donald Trump is winning the GOP field right now on an anti-Mexican platform. Presumably, however, that won’t always be the case. Liberals may never trust Republicans when it comes to elections for the person who appoints seats on the Supreme Court. When it comes to zoning and housing decisions, though, liberal white homeowners may find themselves less allergic to the Republican Party going forward.

The struggle has shifted to zoning, where owners have the edge

Take a look at Astorino’s state of the county address from Westchester County back in 2013. “Let me say this loud and clear: There is absolutely no place for discrimination in our county,” he says. “The biggest and really the only issue going forward is zoning.”

He adds: “Washington bureaucrats, who you will never see or meet, want the power to determine who will live where and how each neighborhood will look. What’s at stake is the fundamental right of our cities, towns, and villages to plan and zone for themselves.”

Two years later, Astorino 2015 state of the county address echoes many of the same themes. It details the county’s ongoing struggle with HUD about enforcing the original 2009 fair-housing settlement—the one that required the affordable housing to be built in the first place:

From the day I took office, I made it very clear that my administration would fulfill the county’s obligations under the settlement. Like it or not, the law is the law. The rule of law is what binds us together as Americans.

But I also made it clear I would not allow unelected bureaucrats at HUD to create new obligations for the county that were never agreed upon in the settlement.  

Throughout, Astorino speaks of his commitment to affordable housing. He notes with pride the county’s diversity. He delivers part of his address in Spanish. And year after year, he pledges to protect the county’s exclusionary zoning against federal efforts to expand affordable housing.

NIMBYism is never about race, except when it is

It’s hard enough to build new market-rate housing in the cities that need housing most. In Washington, D.C., the zoning commission just decreased the maximum height on “pop-up” additions and construction in the parts of the city growing most rapidly. Homeowners in D.C. say that they want to protect the character of their neighborhood and the quality of construction during this boom time.

Even at the most granular level, NIMBYism can take the form of an entitled localism that sounds positive. A hyperlocal petition started by a condo-owner to keep a 7-Eleven out of a nearby storefront is a crypto-case of There Goes the Neighborhood–ism.

The arguments and policies that will win over liberal white homeowners will not mention race or class directly (the way they surfaced in McKinney, Texas). But the policies will have the effect of restricting the density that makes sense for affordable housing or the amenities favored by low-income populations.

In The Wall Street Journal, Jason L. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, writes that HUD is compelling communities such as Westchester County to “construct cheap housing units in wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods and then actively recruit poor minorities to move in.”

Expect white homeowners to zero in on the “cheap housing” aspect of this question. In the new There Goes the Neighborhood–ism, the focus will be on homeowners’ zoning rights—meaning policies that keep housing elite and expensive.

#Not all liberal white homeowners

First of all, there won’t be as many white homeowners in the future, in a manner of speaking. The Urban Institute developed a nifty interactive mapping tool that shows population projections between now and 2030 across 740 U.S. commuting zones. Even assuming only modest population growth, the white share of the population will fall everywhere as the nation grows more and more diverse.

From left: Population change for white, black, and Hispanic communities, 2010–2030. Dark blue indicates growth of up to 40 percent, while dark red indicates decline of up to 40 percent. See the interactive tool for greater detail. (Urban Institute)

Second, at least a few municipalities are bound to recognize that homeowners do not have their city’s best interests at heart by radically restricting zoning.

Seattle, for example, is rolling out a dramatic and progressive new housing policy in a bid to promote justice in housing. The panel tasked with coming up with the policy acknowledged up front that single-family zoning is the product of race- and class-oriented discrimination. That panel—and now, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray—recommends changing all of the Seattle residential area zoned for single-family housing to low-density zoning that will accommodate more and more affordable housing.

Seattle’s next mayoral election in 2017 ought to be a test of what liberal white homeowners there think of justice in housing—not just statutorily legal integration, but really breaking down barriers to diverse, affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods.

“At the local level, the Obama administration drove Westchester into the arms of the Republicans,” writes Kurtz. “The same thing could happen nationally, at every political level.”

Of course Kurtz neglects to mention that white supremacy is inflecting these gains, but no matter. He’s right. Fair housing is coming, slowly but certainly. Racism isn’t going away so soon.

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