Are We Repeating Our Public-Housing Mistakes?

In the past, politicians have ignored the realities that exist in big cities. They seem to be doing it again.
by | April 2017
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (AP)

Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

Over more than three decades in Texas politics, Sylvester Turner has absorbed a lot of blows and been called a lot of names. He has survived them all. In 2015, on his third try, he was elected mayor of Houston. But there’s one insult Turner never thought he would encounter. He never expected anyone to call him a promoter of racism.

For 27 years, as an African-American member of the Texas House, Turner was an outspoken liberal voice. In his last term there, the progressive activist group Equality Texas gave him an A+ rating for his work on LGBT issues. But that was before he chose to intervene in the Battle of Fountain View.

Fountain View is an affluent neighborhood of Houston, close to the fashionable Galleria shopping district. It is 87 percent white and 3 percent black. Its poverty

rate is a minuscule 7 percent. Last year, the Houston Housing Authority proposed to spend $53 million on a new public housing project in the community: 233 units, of which 70 percent would be reserved for families with incomes below 60 percent of the local median. The project drew some vehement opposition from white residents, who argued that it would place an undue burden on the neighborhood’s public elementary school.

Last August, somewhat surprisingly, Turner announced that he would not let the city council move forward with the project. He made no mention of the white protests. Turner argued that his own core constituency -- low-income African-Americans -- didn’t want to be dispersed to affluent neighborhoods around the city. They wanted new housing built in their own neighborhoods, where it could strengthen the bonds of community and culture that they prized and that they had seen eroding for the past generation.

The negative reaction to Turner’s decision from the city’s liberal housing advocates was no surprise. The surprise was the response from the federal government. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under President Obama all but accused Turner of being a segregationist. In a letter to him, it asserted that his decision “was motivated in whole or in part by the race, color or national origin of the likely tenants.” HUD alleged that over the previous four years 85 percent of the low-income housing tax credit proposals approved by the city were in majority-minority tracts. It charged that Houston was in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and demanded that it begin implementing a series of corrective actions.

Turner did not back down. “Our underprivileged families should have the right to choose where they want to live,” he said, “and that choice should also include the right to stay in the neighborhood where they have grown up. … I categorically reject the notion that in order for poor children to participate in the American dream that I have to move them from where they are and place them somewhere else. The answer is to invest in the communities where they are.”

Some of this may have been politics, but some of it evoked the mayor’s personal history. The son of a housepainter and a maid, Turner grew up in a family of 11 in a two-bedroom apartment in Acres Homes, a poor and virtually all-black Houston neighborhood. As a teenager, he resented the mandatory busing that forced him to attend high school in a distant part of the city. When he graduated from Harvard Law School, he returned to Acres Homes, and at the age of 62 he still lives there.

The idea that Sylvester Turner is a segregationist would seem to defy common sense. But HUD’s position was reflective of an elite opinion about housing and segregation that has developed over the past several years. It has become an article of faith in progressive policy circles that the way to improve the lives of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods is to move them to more affluent places with much smaller minority populations. There’s some evidence for this point of view, but it’s not nearly as definitive as its advocates like to assert.

The data on dispersing the poor from their historic homes to distant parts of a metro area come almost entirely from two experiments: the Gautreaux residential mobility program, which was launched in Chicago in 1976 and ended in 1998, and the Moving to Opportunity project, which was implemented in five cities in the 1990s. The literature on both is enormous; there’s no way I can do it justice here. But a few points are worth making.

Gautreaux moved some of its participants to wealthy suburbs and some to more modest city neighborhoods. Those in the suburban group were generally safer and happier than the others, and their children did better in school. The data on improvement in job opportunities was mixed. It’s assumed that both groups would have been worse off had they stayed in their original communities, but nobody knows because there was no control group in the experiment. A second Gautreaux project undertaken in 2002 proved to be discouraging; after several years, a substantial share of the participants had chosen to return to their original neighborhoods.

Moving to Opportunity, seeking to build on the good news from Gautreaux, tracked residents of poor neighborhoods who were given vouchers and counseling to help them move to more affluent parts of the same metro areas. The results after more than a decade were disappointing. Participants in the program appeared to be healthier and more optimistic than those who remained behind, but there was little improvement in earnings or educational attainment. Some recent studies have suggested that it did yield more positive results for children whose families moved when they were young.

What’s beyond dispute is that both of these were modest social experiments. Gautreaux in its first phase moved a total of 7,100 families; Moving to Opportunity moved 4,600. Neither one sheds any light on what it would mean to make dispersal of the poor a formal policy in a city the size of Houston, where about half a million people live below the federal poverty line.

The placement and selection of public housing tenants have been volatile issues for most of the past century, ever since public housing has existed. Perhaps the most notorious example of disastrous housing policy was the one implemented in the 1950s in Chicago, where huge concentrations of prewar tenement slums were bulldozed and its inhabitants were relocated to high-rise buildings whose very names became symbols of racial insensitivity: Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini Green, Stateway Gardens. All of them grew to be dangerous and dilapidated warehouses for dysfunctional families.

The tragedy of Chicago’s public housing is recognized as the most significant blot on the legacy of Richard J. Daley, who was mayor when most of the high-rise towers were opened. There were impassioned pleas from liberal housing activists to do something entirely different: move the city’s poor African-American population into smaller, less-segregated sites scattered through the Chicago area. Daley’s failure to do this came to be seen almost universally as a root cause of the social disaster that public housing in Chicago became.

I was just a child on Chicago’s South Side at the time, but even then I perceived some ground-level realities that the conventional wisdom ignored. One was that massive scattered-site public housing was politically impossible; any mayor who attempted to implement it would never have won another election, and the decision would have been reversed. Daley himself, no flaming liberal by any means, came to be seen by many white voters as too close to the black community, and he actually lost the white vote when he ran for re-election in 1963. The second reality is that scattered-site projects would have led to sustained violence perpetrated by residents of white neighborhoods. That’s not an excuse for bigoted behavior; it’s just a true statement about a particular place and time.

The racial climate in the Houston of 2017 is, thank goodness, not comparable to the one that prevailed in the Chicago of 1957. It’s very unlikely that public housing in Fountain View would lead to criminal conduct on the part of its current residents. I bring up Chicago only to make the point that progressives who design public housing schemes often ignore the realities that exist in big American cities. In Chicago 60 years ago, the reality was white racial prejudice. In Houston today, it may be the attachment of many African-Americans to the communities they live in.

The whole Fountain View dispute may be moot at this point; it seems unlikely that HUD under President Trump and its new secretary, Ben Carson, will see things the way the Obama administration did. Still, things are in a state of flux.

In recent weeks, Turner has appeared to be softening a bit; he has expressed a willingness to consider several new housing projects in neighborhoods with demographics closer to those of Fountain View than to those of Acres Homes. But when it comes to the fundamental issues, Turner is not about to change. “You can’t force elitist views on communities,” he said to me in a recent interview. “I will fight you if you tell me that children in poor neighborhoods can only rise up if they move. I will fight you tooth and nail.”

*Correction: A previous version of this incorrectly referenced the Fair Housing Act instead of the Civil Rights Act.

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