By the time the civil-rights revolution of the early 1960s
petered out in white backlash, black power, urban rioting, and Vietnam,
truly important gains had been achieved. De jure segregation and
Jim Crow were dead. In schools and other public facilities, in voting
rights and jury service, revolutionary change had been wrought.
Not so in housing. Even in 1964, the high point of the federal
commitment to civil rights, when the nations first southern president
in a century was intoning, "We shall overcome," the National Committee
Against Discrimination in Housing said: "Today, in the very eye of the
storm of the Negro revolution, the ghetto stands--largely unassailed--as
the rock upon which rests segregated living patterns which pervade and
vitiate almost every phase of Negro and Negro-white relationships."
Four years later, after black rioting in over two dozen
cities had rocked and frightened the nation, the Kerner Commission Report
warned that the underlying forces leading to civil disorder were continuing
to gain momentum. The "most basic" force, it said, was "the accelerating
segregation of low-income, disadvantaged Negroes within the ghettos of
the largest American cities."
Then, for a brief, unbelievable moment--under, of all people,
newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon--the nation seemed poised to
do something. In January 1970, George Romney, Nixons first Secretary
of Housing and Urban Development, pronounced that it was vital for subsidized
housing to be dispersed more broadly than it had been in the past. That
April, Nixon supported Romneys emerging policy. "There must be an
end," said the Presidents Report on National Housing Goals, "to
the concentration of the poor in land-short central cities, and the inaccessibility
to the growth of employment opportunities in suburban areas." The objective
was to achieve "open communities" that provided jobs and housing for families
of all income levels and races. To that end, legislation would be introduced
to prohibit local governments from discriminating against federally subsidized
housing. Whereupon, as "a necessary first step in ending the ominous trend
toward stratification of our society by race and by income," Romney sent
to Congress a proposal to empower the federal government to override local
ordinances that excluded federally subsidized housing.
But the unbelievable moment was just that. The inevitable
local opposition appeared, Nixon ducked, Romney was defrocked, and the
proffered legislation was deep-sixed. In a televised press conference,
followed by a formal Presidential Statement on Equal Opportunity in Housing,
Nixon told the country, "I believe that forced integration of the suburbs
is not in the national interest." By choosing the "forced integration"
phrase, said the Wall Street Journal, the President knocked the
props out from under George Romney and "draped the dreaded race-mixing
shroud over the entire Romney effort to move subsidized housing beyond
Thus ended the first and last serious effort of the executive
branch of the federal government to deal with what Romney (and the Kerner
Report and Gunnar Myrdal before him) had called the nations most
serious domestic issue. The legislative branch, increasingly dominated
by white suburbia, was never--absent presidential leadership--a candidate
for dispersing the ghetto. And, in 1974, the door to the judicial branch
was shut when the Supreme Court ruled (in a five-to-four decision) that
suburban school districts could not be required to help desegregate Detroits
nearly all-black schools.
There we were. And there we remain. In the intervening decades,
instead of enabling "them" to escape their entrapment by moving to "our"
better neighborhoods, we have tried to fix up the ghetto, "gild" it as
it used to be called, by attracting development and services to it--thus,
model cities, enterprise zones, community development corporations, empowerment
zones, the inner city as "untapped market." But experience tells us we
are kidding ourselves. This is trying to break up the ghetto on the cheap--by
leaving ghetto residents in place--and it doesnt work.
Now Owen Fiss adds his voice to the chorus of those who
say that "housing mobility" is the way to deal effectively with the concentrated
poverty and racial segregation of the black ghetto. The only way, says
Fiss, is to give ghetto dwellers an opportunity to leave. "[M]ove poor
people into rich neighborhoods," says another urban analyst. "For the
ghetto kid, making it, 99 percent of the time, goes with getting out of
the ghetto," says a third. "Get them out of the ghettos. This is the most
powerful way," says a fourth. (Some others do carp unpersuasively against
what is called "ghetto dispersal" or "housing mobility." See the work
of Jon Powell, a leading scholar of concentrated poverty, for a comprehensive
look at the debate and a rebuttal to those critics.)
Fiss rightly emphasizes the issue of justice. White society,
including white governments, created the black ghetto. ("White institutions
created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones
it," said the Kerner Report.) Therefore, says Fiss, white society, including
its governments, must in justice undertake all action needed to end the
near-caste structure of American society.
Yes, but how? Fiss tells us we should use federal rent subsidies,
enough of them to enable all ghetto residents wishing to move to do so.
And we should require realtors and landlords in designated receiving communities
to accept the subsidies (and the families who accompany them), rendering
it impossible for local communities to thwart the relocation. But how
do we move beyond where Richard Nixon positioned us thirty years ago,
when he told us that forced integration of the suburbs was not in the
national interest? If anything the nation is now dug in more deeply than
ever. Residential segregation of blacks has intensified since the
Nixon era. Despite an economic boom, black ghettos in our largest cities
are worse than ever and bigger than ever. Against the rising economic
tide the ghetto still stands, unassailed. A few years ago, when political
opposition surfaced, a democratic administration killed a modest proposed
expansion of a small HUD experiment to try out the very rent subsidies
Fiss recommends. Republican or Democrat, Nixon or Clinton, when it comes
to white suburbia accepting black ghetto dwellers as neighbors, it doesnt
seem to matter.
So, what to do? Actually there is a tiny gleam of hope,
not for doing the ghetto dispersal job Fiss demands, but for taking a
first small step in that general direction. A part of the black ghetto
in big cities consists of neighborhoods dominated by public housing, frequently
the infamous high-rises. The buildings are now thirty to 45 years old.
Never having been adequately maintained, they are now badly deteriorated
and would cost a fortune to repair. A few years ago, Congress decided
not to throw good money after bad and required public housing authorities
to close the worst of them. Miraculously, Congress also said dont
replace todays ghettos with tomorrows. Instead, it told the
housing authorities to create mixed-income communities that include public
housing. And it changed some laws to help make it possible to achieve
the mixed-income objective.
This is not the same as ghetto gilding. The goal is not
the chimera of revitalizing a poverty community but the very different
goal of transforming a poverty community into a mixed-income community.
It cant be done everywhere. The site must be near an existing amenity,
such as an attractive waterfront or university or medical center. Bargain
rents may be required, at least initially. And so on. Things must be done
which can attract working, non-poor families to reside in the community
that is to include public housing families. But in some places it is doable.
For example, in part of Chicagos Cabrini-Green redevelopment, 20
percent of a group of $250,000 townhomes are actually public housing.
Housing mobility is an integral part of the technique, for reducing dense
concentrations of impoverished families is a precondition to attracting
This is a prescription for breaking up some parts of some
ghettos. Putting aside discussion--it would require a separate article--of
exactly how and where it can be accomplished, and how the efforts, begun
in the mid-1990s, are faring, the question remains, where do the displaced
families go? The answer is in four parts: some go to other ghettos (that
is, other public housing developments); some "disappear"--that is, faced
with involuntary departure they choose to leave public housing and move
in with family or friends, rent in the private market, or become homeless;
some go to the low-rise replacement public housing built on-site as part
of the new mixed-income community; and some relocate into private housing
using the rent subsidy program Fiss espouses. This last group affords
us an opportunity to try to learn how to do on a small scale what Fiss
Though the scale is small, the task is formidable, for two
reasons. First, without some mechanism for providing units in tight rental
markets, many families will find there is simply no housing available
in better neighborhoods at rents the government is willing to subsidize.
Second, even where vacant units in such neighborhoods exist, many landlords
are unwilling, for reasons of racial discrimination or disinclination
to become involved in the red tape of a government program, to rent their
units to ghetto dwellers bearing government vouchers.
But we can and should try to overcome the obstacles. Good
counseling can produce families who can be "certified" by reputable agencies
as acceptable tenants. Red tape can be cut. HUD can permit higher "exception"
rents to be paid in certain sub-markets where market rents are high. Here
and there around the country small scale mobility programs are being tinkered
with and fine-tuned. Because of the imperative of families who by congressional
directive must perforce go somewhere, there is a new impetus for this
tinkering and fine-tuning. Undoubtedly we will learn more about how to
"do" mobility, and some ghetto families will as a result be enabled to
take the traditional American route to social and economic advancement--moving
to a better neighborhood. And so will the ghetto families who are lucky
enough to get the public housing units in the new mixed-income community,
though theirs is not a spatial move but a "move" to a transformed neighborhood.
Perhaps, if we are really lucky (though history testifies
against the possibility), these small steps will lead the country and
Congress to understand that mixed-income and mobility can both be made
to work. In that event these small beginnings in public housing ghettos
will become stepping stones on the path to justice that Fiss rightly says
we must take. But let us not close on a feel-good note of false uplift.
We should remember Tom Wickers original judgment on the 1968 Kerner
Report, that the urban rioters of the 1960s were "the personification
of [the] nations shame, of its deepest failure, of its greatest
challenge." Twenty years later, in his introduction to the 1988 edition
of the report, Wicker added, "In the teeming ghettos that persist in our
cities, the lot of their children is little changed." If, after a dozen
more years, a tiny gleam of hope can now be perceived, let us acknowledge
that it emanates not from a willingness to do justice but from a reluctance
to throw good money after bad.
is a lawyer with Business and Professional People for the Public Interest,
which served as the lead council in the Gautreaux case.
for other New Democracy Forum articles.