Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
As the housing agency celebrates its golden anniversary, Secretary Julian Castro acknowledges it has failed on housing integration.
The Watts riots broke out on August 11, 1965, one month before President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the formation of his new Cabinet agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In his keynote speech to the Reimagining Cities Conference Wednesday in Austin, current HUD Secretary Julian Castro said that both events made it “clear that the American City needed to be at the top of the national agenda.”
While the conference commemorated HUD’s 50th anniversary, Castro refrained from illustrating HUD as a successful enterprise. In fact, his speech was more a litany of confessions of failure. If LBJ were alive today, the president would have acknowledged progress, said Castro. But he would’ve also said, “We’re nowhere close to being done.”
Below are seven points from Castro’s speech in which he explains HUD’s failures—as well as some complicated truths about housing and racism in America:
A Newsweek cover [at the time of the Watts riots] captured the mood of a shocked nation with the headline “Los Angeles: Why?” But the folks living in Watts didn’t need a headline to alert them to the challenges—they’d spent their lives living with them. They’d always wondered, “Why?” Why did investments go to the suburbs instead of the inner city? Why did government policies intentionally isolate the poor? Why weren’t the doors of opportunity open to all Americans?
As Laura Bliss recently reported, the Watts riots were ignited mostly by rumors. However, the “entrenched legacies of racism,” writes Bliss—“Poverty enforced by policy, generations of incarceration, unequal education”—were what fueled the decimating clash with police, which ended with 34 people dead. Castro’s suggestion that the federal government was caught in flagrante delicto for causing the conditions that let Watts burn is perhaps one of the boldest indictments of the department to come from a sitting secretary. But the federal government can’t run from its history of discriminatory lending, redlining, zoning, and segregation, as outlined recently by Kriston Capps.
[LBJ] would see what we all see, but don’t like to talk about. He would look outside these doors across I-35 to East Austin. On the one hand, I bet he’d be amazed to see the changing landscape. New apartments next to new restaurants and growing businesses. But President Johnson would also ask the tough questions. What are we doing for the East Austinites who have lived there for generations? Can they afford rising rents? Will they be there to experience the rebirth of their neighborhood?
Much has been written about the heavily gentrifying East Austin, specifically the displacement of its historically black and Latino residents. This racial segregation was by city government design. And as more people of color get pushed out, Austin has become one of the most economically and racially segregated cities in the nation. The city, which is no stranger to Fair Housing Act violations, began enforcing a new ordinance this year that would prevent landlords from refusing Section 8 tenants, which landlords are fighting in court. The state of Texas then passed a law banning such ordinances. (Castro appears unaware of the state’s action on this.) Given this, it’s difficult to think that LBJ would’ve received positive answers to those questions Castro imagined him asking about East Austin.
On the one hand, we're living in a Century of Cities—a time when people are falling in love with cities again. ... We view cities as places of possibility—where creativity and culture flow, where ideas and imagination are brought to life. But today we also face a growing gap between the rich and the poor, between those who have opportunity and those who don’t.
This is the toughest truth to swallow. If you want to see how far along we’ve not come over the last five decades, read no further than Patrick Sharkey’s 2013 book Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality, the source of many blog posts from Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“If we consider African Americans’ absolute income, rather than their relative position within the income distribution, new research shows virtually no improvement over time,” writes Sharkey. “African-American men have experienced no growth in income whatsoever, and the gains in income made by African-American women, due to steadily increasing labor-force participation, have been smaller than those of white women.”
Not only that, but Sharkey also found in his research that more than 70 percent of African Americans who live in the poorest and most racially segregated neighborhoods in the U.S. today are from families who lived in the same conditions in the 1970s. The graph below tells the tale:
But it’s not enough to wait until after wrongdoing occurs—local communities that get HUD funding are required to use HUD dollars in a way that promotes equal opportunity. In the past, that hadn’t happened often enough or in enough cities. Some local officials chose to invest in certain neighborhoods and not others—often for the wrong reasons. Many who had good intentions didn’t know where to put their money. And, truth be told, HUD hadn’t overseen this effort with enough consistency or forcefulness.
HUD has basically been subsidizing discrimination with the way that local jurisdictions have used federal housing dollars. And no region of the nation has gone guiltless in this: Los Angeles County was just busted for years of colluding with cities to harass Section 8 tenants. The housing authority of the city of Ruston, Louisiana, was also bagged this summer for intentionally segregating black and white public housing tenants. A Brooklyn landlord explained in detail how he discriminated against and displaced black tenants to a reporter for New York magazine. And less than two weeks ago, landlords in Marion, Illinois, settled with the U.S. Justice Department after being flagged for refusing to rent mobile homes to black families. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer will hopefully discontinue the decades-long practice of concentrating low-income housing into a few already poor neighborhoods. As Castro alluded, HUD is supposed to be the watchdog to prevent this kind of thing, but as reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones revealed in 2012, “a succession of presidents—Democrat and Republican alike—… declin[ed] to use the leverage of HUD's billions to fight segregation.”
Announcements are easy. Implementation is harder. It won’t be easy. Despite the unrest we’ve seen in Baltimore and Ferguson, there will be those who call our efforts social engineering. There will be those who say it’s a bureaucratic burden. To them, I simply say: “We can’t afford to wait.”
The recent HBO mini-series Show Me a Hero, produced by The Wire’s David Simon, tells the story of the fight in Yonkers, New York to integrate the city’s low-income housing stock into its previously off-limits, predominantly white, homeowner-ruled neighborhoods. This is a fight that took place over the better parts of two decades, from the 1980s into the 2000s. Yonkers’ all-white city council resisted court-mandated desegregation, egged on by frothing constituents, even as the court levied contempt penalties and fines that almost bankrupted the city. The council members called it social engineering—as have many others who’ve fought integration. Maybe it is. But without it, we’ve seen the resulting eruptions in Watts, Baltimore, and Ferguson, as segregated communities become resource-starved communities. While we’ve reported and read plenty about the unrest in those cities, we’ve heard less about the violent unrest waged by white people protesting integration. Those are racialized riots that, as William Jelani Cobb reported this week in The New Yorker on the history of integration in New York City, have been going on for much longer.
We must strike a strong balance between, on the one hand, providing low-income families with greater mobility—the option, through housing choice vouchers, giving folks the means to move to higher opportunity neighborhoods within a metro area—and reinvesting in older, distressed neighborhoods on the other. And today, over 40 percent of HUD’s budget is dedicated to vouchers. But whenever we speak about mobility, a question rises from the back of the room: What about those families that don’t want to leave their neighborhood? Maybe they’ve lived there for generations. It’s home to them, part of who they are. Shouldn’t we be doing something for them?
HUD’s housing safety-net policies have shifted significantly since its beginnings, from supplying and subsidized housing for the poor to issuing vouchers so that low-income families can rent on the private market. As evidenced by Sharkey’s research, that has not worked out to the benefit of low-income households, and it hasn’t helped move them out of poverty over the decades. The HUD formula for determining voucher values has been flawed to the point where most of its users can only use them in high-poverty neighborhoods. But Castro also points to an issue that’s not resolved by vouchers, and is, in fact, exacerbated by HUD’s mixed-income and scattered housing policies: Moving people who don’t want to be moved. Harvard’s “Equality of Opportunity Project” insists on placing low-income families in wealthier neighborhoods—“mobility”—to improve their economic and educational prospects. Meanwhile, others believe the government could do just as well by simply improving and expanding investments in the neighborhoods low-income families already live in. There’s an active debate about how effective such place-based initiatives are in the economic landscape, but they can help families remain in the communities they recognize as home. The Atlantic reporter Alana Samuels recently visited East Austin to report on this and wrote:
Some in East Austin are suspicious because the new focus on mobility comes as East Austin, long a high-poverty, high-crime area, is becoming wealthier and whiter, meaning that the mobility programs are taking minorities out of a neighborhood that they’ve worked for years to improve, just at a time when white residents are starting to move there.
Referencing East Austin in his speech, Castro said, “We ought to improve the neighborhoods for the sake and for the benefit of East Austinites who have long called that neighborhood home—so they can keep living in East Austin. We can do that in East Austin and similar communities and make them inviting to newcomers as well.”
This is the “all of the above” approach, which has been a signature characteristic of the Obama administration. The question in HUD’s case is whether this approach is enough to help prevent another Watts.