Remarks from Penn US Housing Policy: The Future of What Works Symposium

On Friday, September 15, I was invited to chair a panel on housing preservation at the Penn US Housing Policy Symposium. It was an intense and informative day, with economists, planners, sociologists, and policymakers presenting new research on existing housing policy.  The papers will eventually appear in a special issue of Housing Policy Debate.  Below are my remarks to the group, about housing preservation as social justice.

"Housing Preservation as Social Justice"


Thank you and good afternoon. I am excited to chair this panel on housing preservation, as it receives less attention in both housing research and policy agendas that prioritize production.  As a public housing researcher, I perhaps valorize the quest to preserve multiple amounts and types of affordable housing.  Public housing, in particular acts, as Amy L. Howard says, as “more than shelter,” and I believe the social and political use of housing is just as valuable a metric for preservation as is its utilitarian value of accommodation. My work in Atlanta shows that public housing tenant associations created a vast number of political opportunities for low income black women to mobilize and control resources in the city. However, in the struggle for affordable housing preservation, these tenant associations were not preserved, and a vital component of both neighborhood stability and community development was excised, even as the number of replacement units satisfied the market demand.   


Thus, I frame this session on two types of preservation from a justice and equity perspective: That is, how are the burdens and benefits of affordable housing and historic preservation distributed among the population?  Further, how can these two forms of preservation advance more equitable outcomes for marginalized populations? And, what to do when these two aspects – affordable housing preservation and the preservation of historical spaces in the city – are in tension with one another?


Racial and Economic Justice


According to the National Housing Preservation Database, in 2016 there were 5.5M units of subsidized affordable housing in the United States. Yet by 2021- just over three years from now – 1/5, or 1.1 M units are at risk of loss due to expiring housing subsidies. The loss of this affordable housing, particularly if replaced by market-rate housing, is a loss for the economic, racial, and social diversity of our neighborhoods.  As Lens and Reina state in their 2016 article, Section 8 subsidies (the second most used form of affordable housing subsidies) are expiring in neighborhoods with increasing opportunity for social mobility for its residents.  As Reina and Begley note, these opt-outs are more likely in high opportunity/higher priced areas than in neighborhoods with lower price appreciation. The disproportionate burden of housing subsidy expiration on the low-income, nonwhite, single-parent household, vis-à-vis its exclusion from high opportunity areas, is thus a racially, economically, and socially unjust outcome that must be accounted for by more targeted preservation tactics and policies.  Drs. Kate Howell, Elizabeth Mueller, and Barbara Brown Wilson’s paper on local context and planning in Washington, Chicago, and Austin provide a useful framework for this sort of targeted preservation. 


Stephanie Ryberg-Webster and panelist’s Kelly Kinahan’s work on the Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit program in legacy cities shows using this instrument preserves historical spaces, increases local property values, and preserves the quantity of affordable housing units in the neighborhood.  Continuing in this line of inquiry, Dr. Kinahan’s paper will explore the neighborhood effects of this economic development tool – that is, the effects of the tax credit program on a neighborhood’s racial, socioeconomic, and housing market characteristics.  This paper is useful for understanding the tensions (or lack thereof) between historical and affordable housing preservation on neighborhood composition and outcomes.    


Environmental Justice

Yet affordable housing preservation is not just threatened by strong, profit-maximizing, real estate interests, declining real wages and job stability, and national apathy toward the plight of the poor and working-class, but by a much more intense and urgent threat: climate change.  Harris County and Miami-Dade County – two areas currently under water from two category five hurricanes that occurred within the last two weeks – are both among the top 10 counties in the country with the most affordable housing subsidies, totaling over 100,000 units.  Based on the actions of the New Orleans and Galveston Housing Authorities following Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, the loss of affordable housing due to natural disasters will not necessarily ensure a 1-1 replacement during recovery and rebuilding efforts.  The disproportionate impact of natural disasters on and disparate responses to affordable housing dwellers suggests that class inequality is maintained and reinforced through the changing climate. Thus, affordable housing policy must also shift to preserve adaptable and resilient housing units. 


With these just aims and outcomes in mind, I turn it over to our next panel, “Two Kinds of Preservation”

A Note on the Gentrification Syllabus

Recently I posted a syllabus co-created with a student for their independent study.  One of the documentaries we viewed was FLAG WARS, which I found to be an interesting examination of a predominantly white, LGBTQ group of homeowners and realtors that gentrified a predominantly Black neighborhood in Columbus, OH.  The documentary deftly illustrates some of the earlier waves of gentrification led by the LGBTQ community, particularly how this community created physical spaces/neighborhoods through gentrification.   Yet I found the documentary problematic in a number of ways.  The first was the homophobic language used by long term residents.  It wasn't necessary to the narrative, even if it did capture the realism and tensions of the time.  I am not a film studies scholar, so I won't delve into the merits of preserving hateful language (the comments in question are made on a resident's porch, as they talk with neighbors, and are not used to drive any antagonisms between the residents and gentrifiers), but I certainly didn't think I would show it in my seminar course, as there are other means to study LGBTQ gentrification.  The second was this false parallel the gentrifiers (and by extension, the documentarian) made with these long-term Black residents.  The white LGBTQ residents felt rightfully excluded from other (white) neighborhoods in Columbus, and saw the old homes in this depopulating Black neighborhood as a place to create their own space.  The social and political production of space is my reason for being, and so I truly empathized/identified with this community.  Nonetheless, these residents started to feel themselves and soon went from "we feel excluded and need a space" to "we, like these Black residents, have been discriminated against and because we have disposable income/access to capital to 'improve' the neighborhood, we deserve this space." There are no mentions of Black neighborhood formation via exclusion, the role of white supremacy in the housing market, and only one explicit mention of Black dispossession and disinvestment (via access to capital).  And of course, the documentary hinges on "queer people are white and affluent" "black people are straight and poor" binaries.  David Epstein's piece (which nudged me to write this note) does a wonderful job breaking down my last point.

So if you must teach FLAG WARS, please do so with critical caution. 

Metropolitics Article on Black Urban Dislocation and the Movement for Black Lives

I wrote this before and after the election.  It was helpful for me to muddle through some of this contemporary strife while still working on this historical narrative of black political action in the marginalized spaces of Atlanta's public housing.  The benefits of public scholarship.  

My acknowledgements were cut because the editors let me generously exceed my word limit by 1200, but huge shout-out to Laura Wolf-Powers, Gretchen Susi, and John Mollenkopf for their excellent comments and editing.  Thanks also to Laura for asking me to write something to begin with, it was very generative for me.


Challenging the Legacy of Spatial Domination

This week I am reading about space, community, and power in post-Reconstruction Atlanta.  One of the cases I explore in my book, Deviants in Divergent Spaces: The Radical Politics of Atlanta's Public Housing, is the case of University Homes, the first federally-financed public housing development for African-Americans in the United States.  Prior to this federal intervention into the local housing market, black families lived in substandard housing in low-lying, underdeveloped areas throughout five of the city's wards.  The war did not end well for Atlanta, and the city's motto Resurgens (Latin for Rising Again), speaks to this embattled history of a Phoenix-like city emerging from the smoldering ashes left in General Sherman's wake.  There were housing shortages for black and white residents, yet whites did not (and still, do not) face the spatial limitations blacks encountered in the city.  Codified restrictions in housing deeds legally prohibited blacks from leasing, purchasing, or dwelling in homes all-white neighborhoods, even to those who saved or earned enough money to purchase housing at fair market value.

Blacks were corralled into the most flood-prone and disease-ridden areas of Atlanta, in housing that whites constructed solely to exploit the restricted housing market for black residents. These homes were sold at higher than average rents without the minimum necessities of glass-paned windows, and doors and ceilings that do not require one to stoop (1).  Thus, whites were able to spatially inscribe the (social, economic, political) racial power dynamics of post-Reconstruction Atlanta into the city's built environment.  The public sector was also an active shaper of this spatial domination and difference in the city.  As the city developed, black areas were ignored and/or considered as only spaces for the city's externalities such as landfills and other waste depositories. These development decisions translate into lower property values for housing in these majority-black neighborhoods.  Here again, large black communities with codified political disparities (2), were also situated in spatially marginalized areas compared to white communities. This spatial domination manifests into economic exploitation. Blacks were excluded from entering the fair housing market as a result of restrictive covenants, and their property values are lowered through the city's spatially marginalizing development practices. The property values of white homeowners are thereby artificially inflated, as the premium of white property values is achieved by the spatial domination of white political powers over black communities.  

Spatial domination of poor black communities and other vulnerable groups by now black and white political powers continues into the 21st century.  The demolition of the public housing - a space that once symbolized the federal government's intervention into local actors spatial domination of black communities - is not just the demolition of affordable shelter, but also the demolition of political opportunity through the developments' spatial positioning.  The interests of poor black residents who dominated the public housing population were visible both in the built environment of the city and also the city's political environment.  These densely populated, spatially concentrated developments of poor black residents were a large and loyal voting bloc (polling stations were often located in public housing developments) whose influence and visibility was weakened following their dispersal under the demolition and voucherizing of Atlanta's public housing policy.  The dismantling of public housing in Atlanta was executed under the direction of a black public housing director, a black mayor, and a majority-black city council.  The maintenance and privileging of public facilities, such as public housing, public schools, and public libraries, over privately-owned and managed facilities, is a necessary intervention to challenge the spatial-political domination of the city's most marginalized groups.  


(1) Dorsey, Allison.  2004.  To Build Our Lives Together: Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875-1906.  Athens: The University of Georgia Press

(2) The State of Georgia - a Democratic state at the time - had restricted participation in Democratic Primaries to white voters only, in an attempt to limit the political strength of the emancipated, Black Republicans in the state, thereby limiting black political power.  This restriction continued until the Georgia Supreme Court ruled on the King v Chambers case in 1946 that challenged the constitutionality of an all-white primary.