Politics & Policy

Biden’s Executive Order on Housing: Replacing Old Sins with New Ones

Houses in the Denver, Colo., suburb of Superior in 2006. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
More subsidized housing, in the tragic public-housing tradition, will do little to help minority groups in their quest for upward mobility.

President Biden’s flurry of executive orders has now extended to housing policy — and to a pledge to reverse the Trump administration’s approach to “fair housing.” Specifically, that would mean reversing the Trump reversal of an Obama-era rule known as “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” — designed to introduce “affordable” (read “subsidized”) housing into higher-income, suburban zip codes. To justify a return to this controversial policy, President Biden rehearsed a long litany of federal housing-policy sins. He’s right about many of those — but wrong about his approach to redress. More subsidized housing, in the tragic public-housing tradition, will only spur division and do little to help minority groups in their quest for upward mobility.

It is incontrovertible, as President Biden stated in his executive order, that “during the 20th century, Federal, State, and local governments systematically implemented racially discriminatory housing policies that contributed to segregated neighborhoods and inhibited equal opportunity and the chance to build wealth for Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Native American families, and other underserved communities.” Most significantly, the Federal Housing Authority would not insure mortgages for blacks in white neighborhoods, and racial covenants — deed restrictions against blacks (and Jews, by the way) — were the norm into the 1950s. Urban freeways ploughed through low-income, often (though not exclusively) minority, neighborhoods, displacing thousands. Today, we are left with the Cross Bronx Expressway and the Chrysler Freeway.

Even this apology is, however, selective. African Americans, particularly, suffered the tragedy of a (still) favorite progressive program: public housing. A key history here is underappreciated. Historically black neighborhoods — Central Harlem, Detroit’s Black Bottom, Chicago’s Bronzeville, Desoto-Carr in St. Louis — were denigrated as slums, even though they were home to large numbers of residential property owners and hundreds of black-owned businesses. When they were cleared to make way for public housing, they were replaced by high-rise hells in which ownership — asset accumulation — was by definition impossible. The social fabric of self-help, civil society, and upward mobility was ripped apart. Blacks have always been, and remain, disproportionately represented in public and otherwise subsidized housing, often trapped into long-term dependency by counterproductive policies: When their income rises, so does rent.

Compensating for this dual history of outright racism and harmful progressivism must not mean a new generation of housing sins. But Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, should it be restored, is just that. Federal pressure — through the leverage of local aid programs — to force the introduction of subsidized rental housing for low-income tenants has long been a guarantee of resistance by lower-middle class residents, white and black, justifiably concerned that households who have not strived and saved to make it to their neighborhoods will pose problems. Concentrations of housing-voucher tenants, dispersed by the demolition of some public-housing projects, have already spread dysfunction and poor maintenance — including into apartment buildings in Warrensville Heights, the Ohio hometown of Marcia Fudge, the incoming secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Racial integration and fair housing remain goals for which America must strive. But that means understanding how neighborhoods work. Americans, black and white, self-select to live in areas in which they share the socioeconomic characteristics of their neighbors. Some liberals might not like that — but those are their personal choices, as well. When minority-group members share the economic and educational backgrounds of new neighbors, the odds of intolerance are vastly decreased. That’s why “fair housing” should mean nondiscrimination — not subsidized new developments.

Instead, Biden is doubling down on the example set by the Obama administration in Westchester County, which was forced to spend $60 million to subsidize 874 housing units — in a county in which racial and ethnic minorities are already well represented. That means that current black and Hispanic homeowners, who have bought their homes through striving and saving, will have to see their county taxes used to subsidize others to the tune of $68,000 per home.

The “exclusionary” suburbs won’t be pried open by confrontation. There will be endless lawsuits. Instead, HUD, if it’s to have any useful role, must try to use such tools as model zoning (suggestions, not mandates) to convince local planning boards to permit the market to build naturally occurring affordable housing — small homes, including small multifamilies, on small lots. Historically, that’s how the American working class was able to afford homes.

An administration truly interested in correcting the housing-policy sins of the past would not overlook the existing problems of public and subsidized housing. Here’s a bold idea: sell off public-housing projects on high-value real estate (see the Brooklyn waterfront) and provide cash compensation to its residents. They should be able to move where they like — or just put the money aside. There’s a lot about our housing past to correct. Doubling down on previous sins is not the way to start.

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