Equitable Housing

Creating More Equitable Cities – NYT zoomer

Happy first day of September, 2020!

So let’s say there’s a wildfire approaching your house, and you are at home (being the time of Covid-19 you are working from home, if you are lucky). It might be 2 in the afternoon or 2 in the morning, no matter, you will grab your ‘go bag’ if you have one, or throw some extra clothes, some family photos, your ‘important papers’, or just a bag of pet food, and your pet, and whoever lives with you and run for a vehicle. You will drive through some ash, maybe blowing embers or fireballs, and get away from there.

But if you live on Cancer Road in Louisiana, in Detroit, MI, Imperial CA or Camden, NJ you just live there, you don’t run away, even though there’s a fire burning around you. It is a slow, sort of invisible fire. It is not a fire that will burn everything in its path, but it may burn your household. It’s the fire of, let’s call it a ‘lack of opportunity’. ‘Opportunity’ is shorthand for a longer life expectancy, less diabetes and asthma, polluted water, less violent crime and delinquency. It is a word that encompasses schooling, work, security, housing and health.

Today the NYT hosted a short discussion on creating more equitable cities, with one of their columnists, Farhad Manjoo, an economist, Ray Chetty, Julian Castro who was a mayor of San Antonio and a 2020 Democratic candidate for President, and Sonja Trauss of yimbyaction.org, a housing fairness organization.

The gist of the discussion was that housing played the greatest part in economic mobility – whether one moved up or down the economic ladder – more than schooling, or just plain access to wealth. This was backed by statistics presented by Mr. Chetty, but the interesting points of the discussion were presented by Mr. Castro, who as mayor was involved in policy making in San Antonio. The propaganda being peddled by the current president, Trump, is that the ‘Democrats’ want to destroy the suburbs, under the belief that 1) the suburbs are white, and full of ‘housewives’ and 2) the people of the US aspire to live in segregated, or even gated communities where they will not encounter people of ‘another color’ and are afraid of socialists with brown skin coming to take their lily-white lawns.

That kind of nimbyism is real, and it is not the case that people in the US appreciate or want ‘diversity’. People need to live around others in order to feel comfortable with others. If people had to live in whatever neighborhood they were given by lottery, then there would be more equitable housing here. As it is, segregation has flourished since WWII but interestingly the suburbs are not so white anymore. When low-cost housing initiatives are introduced in affluent neighborhoods city council meetings overflow with objectors. Yet, the funny thing is that according to a poll taken during the meeting, 83% said they thought that people should be able to live ‘wherever they want to’. The argument is always that property values will go down, if multi-family housing is introduced into a typical McMansion style housing tract.

The reality is that climate change will probably start forcing this issue. If ‘we’ don’t want thousands more homeless people in the US, we will have to build higher-density housing. During the discussion a poll was taken: “Should the American dream be about owning a single-family home?” The reply – 85% said ‘no’. So it might be hard to accept, but in order to put out more of the conflagrations that are growing in our cities, we are going to need to change the way housing is built and distributed. Whether we give out vouchers, or hand out low-cost housing outright (section 8) we will need to house people. Housing provides the nodes for the interconnection we call ‘community’ or ‘society’, the stability that lets people bring up and maintain families. Housing lets people live lives that are not constant firefights with squalor and despair.