Housing Equity Is Not a "War on Suburbia"

Once again, the Obama Administration is being accused of declaring a "war" on suburbia. Nothing could be more absurd and self-serving, or just plain sad.

The latest cause for panic is a new rule from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that says every community that gets HUD money must have a plan to make equal access to housing a reality -- as opposed to a rarely enforced legal principle. That means making housing available to people of all ethnicities, races, and income levels.

The people who want to defend the suburbs from this supposed "attack" appeal primarily to xenophobia, not to logic and certainly not to fairness.

Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of The Detroit News, tops the list of people making ignorant statements about the new rule. He wrote in a recent editorial that, "The reality is that efforts to coerce economic diversity in housing almost always end up destroying neighborhoods."

On what factual information he based his blanket statement I cannot imagine. Discrimination in housing first became officially illegal after a 1917 Supreme Court decision voiding state laws that allowed such discrimination. The details of federal law against discrimination were set forth in 1968, and dozens of court cases have refined the legal principles involved since then.

Finley and people like him blithely ignore the fact that thousands of communities and neighborhoods in America have embraced the law, welcomed diversity, and done just fine with a mix of people of various races and incomes. His cheap shot at the HUD policy is not only ignorant, it's destructive because it plays right into the hands of people who use income as a proxy for race in opposing the HUD rule and fair housing in general.

The hysterical reaction to the HUD rule is way out of line. First of all, HUD is simply saying that if a town wants federal grant money, it needs to abide by federal law, in this case the Fair Housing Act of 1968. If a community doesn't like that, they can simply turn down the federal money.

Naturally, self-appointed defenders of suburbia want to have their cake and to eat it, too. They want federal urban development money with no obligation to advance fair housing goals. How incredibly selfish.

But the worst thing about the cries of protest is that they so closely reflect the more blatantly racist arguments made 50 years ago, when bitter racial divisions in America erupted in a three-year orgy of violence that started Aug. 11, 1965, in the Watts area of Los Angeles.

The riots were a direct result of rigid and violently enforced segregation of housing that concentrated black Americans into ghettos with decaying, overpriced housing. Instead of addressing the problem, and working to encourage integration, we created a new and separate society in the suburbs, one that was 99 percent white, while black Americans had to struggle to have any chance to escape the terrible conditions of inner cities.

The defenders of suburbia use milder language than the bigots of the 1950s and 1960s, saying that requiring them to advance fair housing goals is "social engineering." But the net effect of their opposition to creation of affordable housing in affluent white areas is very much the same as the segregation of the earlier era.

After the riots, experts warned that we had created two societies, one black and one white, separate and unequal. They said that if we did not address that division, the consequences would be deep, long-lasting and very costly in money and in lost idealism about American values.

Today's defenders of suburbia are basically saying they are FOR the perpetuation of two separate societies.

As Finley stated, they believe that no law can force people to live together if they don't want to, and that affluent people, whites especially, will continue to flee any city, town, or neighborhood that, despite their best efforts to prevent it, becomes mixed by income or race.

Against the current backdrop of increasing racial tension and anger about police treatment of black Americans, this long-simmering issue must be addressed.

HUD is making a very belated and reasonable attempt to help persuade local governments to begin the slow process of reconnecting our two divided societies. It has issued a positive regulation, and is promising to assist localities to find solutions that work for them. Far from being a declaration of war on the suburbs, it's a statement of hope about the good intentions of local leaders to be fair in their land use and housing policies.

It says that people who are not alike can live together, and that HUD wants to help local government make that happen. The federal government has heretofore shown remarkable restraint in enforcing that law, largely due to the political power of suburban voters.

But now it's time for suburban localities to step up and show that they too believe in the ideal of America as melting pot, where everyone of every race can aspire to living in a community with good schools and safe streets.

Housing equity is not simply about all Americans having a roof over their heads. It is about people of all races and income groups having access to a way of life that provides opportunity for a good education, reasonable safety, and the chance to advance oneself.

Let's reject the negativity of people like Finley, who would dismiss that goal with ignorant generalizations that appeal to the worst in people.

Shashaty is the author of Masters of Inequality: 50 years after our cities burned, why
American society is still so divided, and what we must do now to avoid chronic conflict. This book looks at America's unfinished race relations agenda 50 years after rigid housing segregation tore apart America's northern cities and set the stage for violent racial unrest that shook the nation to its core. For info, go to www.p4sc.org/MOI