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I’ll Take It!

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Last week, there was a major civil rights victory involving the Roberts Court — a settlement prevented the Roberts Court from gutting the Fair Housing Act.

As an addendum, Serwer’s excellent background piece has another clip for my online “no, Richard Nixon was not any kind of liberal and please stop saying that” file:

Ending discrimination in housing has always ignited closely-held fears and drew comparable resistance to integrating schools. Neighborhoods across the country–not just those in the deep South–were divided by color lines enforced by realtors, lenders, and government officials. As with schools, neighborhoods across America proved stubbornly resistant to integration: whites would leave as blacks acquired the means to move next door. The Fair Housing Act was supposed to help change that, but in 1968 it was a tough sell.

Congress would only pass the Fair Housing Act over Martin Luther King Jr.’s dead body. King’s death, a week before the law passed, gave it political momentum that Capitol Hill couldn’t ignore. President Lyndon Johnson had pushed for passage but it fell to his successor, Richard Nixon, to administer a law he didn’t support.

George Romney, his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was a true believer. Romney sought to use the law as a mandate to smash residential segregation and reverse years of government-subsidized white flight. Nixon knew he’d face a backlash from the suburban whites whose votes had put him in office so he pushed Mitt Romney’s dad out.

There is probably a good book to be written on the atavistic development of “moderate” Republicans from George Romney to his son.

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  • TribalistMeathead

    Serious question: How was white flight “government-subsidized”?

    • joe from Lowell

      The highway system, and the construction of other necessary infrastructure, both before and (mainly) after the residential construction is the most obvious way.

      The mortgage interest deduction is another.

      The government subsidized suburban sprawl, and for the first few decades, did so in an atmosphere in which the private sector was making sure that sprawl would be segregated.

      • TribalistMeathead

        Ah. That, plus the lower property/payroll/sales taxes in the suburbs, is what I figured.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Yes, but government spending that helps middle-class white people isn’t a “subsidy,” it’s a “God-given entitlement.”

      • Sly

        The highway system, and the construction of other necessary infrastructure, both before and (mainly) after the residential construction is the most obvious way.

        The Federal and state highway systems allowed for suburban flight regardless of race. Discrimination in mortgage lending, both public (VA/FHA, state programs) and private, is what made that flight overwhelmingly white.

        • TribalistMeathead

          Housing covenants helped, too.

        • joe from Lowell

          …which is why my comment’s conclusion was, “The government subsidized suburban sprawl, and for the first few decades, did so in an atmosphere in which the private sector was making sure that sprawl would be segregated.”

          • Sly

            It wasn’t just the private sector, however. Suburbia was built on the backs of the FHA and VA loans, to the extent that its hard to find a house on Long Island, the model post-war suburb, that was purchased in the 1950s and 60s that didn’t involve those programs. And it wasn’t until the Fair Housing Act that the government technically had enforcement provisions to fight discrimination in lending, even in programs that were run by the Feds. And even then, the rate of enforcement has generally been subpar.

            • LeeEsq

              If Long Island was the model for post-war suburbia, we would have better public transportation and our cities would have declined less. The real model for post-war suburbia was the Los Angeles area.

              • Western Dave

                The real model for post-War suburbanization was Detroit. LA is explicitly modeled on Detroit.

        • Barry

          “The Federal and state highway systems allowed for suburban flight regardless of race. ”

          No, because you have to have money to flee.

          • Sly

            Agreed. White families had the money because they got discount loans through various government programs, while families of color were excluded.

            It’s one of the primary reasons why the median household wealth of white families is still significantly higher than the median household wealth of black and Hispanic families; the government essentially made housing really cheap for one group and let them build equity on it for two generations.

            • joe from Lowell

              White families had the money because they got discount loans through various government programs, while families of color were excluded.

              To unpack this a bit, minority families could get loans from those programs, just not in the new suburban neighborhoods, or in existing mixed neighborhoods, because both the government and the banks were using standards that defined mixed-race neighborhoods as “unstable” or “declining.”

              So a black family could get that loan only for an established black neighborhood.

        • Baby Needs-A-Nym

          While I agree with you that overt discrimination in mortgage lending was the most important factor, rates of car ownership have historically been much lower for African-Americans than for whites. The decision to focus, in some areas almost exclusively, on private automobile transport after WWII may or may not have been racist in intent, but it definitely privileged those groups most equipped to take advantage of the new infrastructure.

    • Rigby Reardon

      The true marginal costs of more and more sprawl are not fully borne by the people moving out to the exurbs. If those people had to pay the actual cost of providing infrastructure and services all the way out to these greenfield developments, it’d make moving out there a much less attractive option.

    • Jo

      Other responders have covered most of the issues, but there’s also the combination of artificially low gasoline taxes and the destruction of public transportation, which together help keep suburbs white since they make it easy to drive to work from the suburbs and next to impossible if you have to ride the bus. Atlanta is a famous case of this, but it’s similar all over the country.

    • Nutella

      Two other subsidies:

      Cities have most of the non- or low-tax-paying services like museums, parks, universities that suburbanites come to the city to enjoy without having made a tax contribution to their upkeep.

      Suburbs, especially the richer ones, also offload all their less-productive (lower tax-paying) *people* to the cities. The suburban residents who fall away from the American dream due to addiction, illness, or just poverty in general are pushed out of the suburbs and left to the cities. The suburbanites then sniff at the higher percentage of poor and/or homeless people in the cities.

      • TribalistMeathead

        Suburbs, especially the richer ones, also offload all their less-productive (lower tax-paying) *people* to the cities. The suburban residents who fall away from the American dream due to addiction, illness, or just poverty in general are pushed out of the suburbs and left to the cities. The suburbanites then sniff at the higher percentage of poor and/or homeless people in the cities.

        Well, not anymore, now that gentrification is pushing the poor out of the cities and into the bordering suburbs. Which, of course, leads to a second white flight to the exurbs, which is what Atlanta experienced in the 1990s.

        • joe from Lowell

          Most gentrification takes place in specific sections of cities, and displaces people to other parts of the city.

          • Jo

            But not all. See e.g. here on Seattle:

            By 2010…Seattle and Portland had become “smart cities”, magnets for hordes of young, highly educated and highly paid newcomers, most of them white and childless. Hungry for “diversity” and rushing into relatively rundown black neighbourhoods, they snapped up the only housing bargains left. White-owned banks were eager to make loans to yuppies. Tens of thousands of houses were gutted and rebuilt. As gentrification gathered pace, property prices exploded. Black homeowners cashed in, taking their windfalls to the suburbs. Black renters were squeezed out by higher rents.

            • TribalistMeathead

              Yep. The exact same thing happened in DC.

            • The author’s headline “Black Flight” was especially precious. You see, the black people were fleeing the white people moving in, just like white people flee when black people move in.

              Both sides do it!

              • Jo

                Right? The Economist is pretty retrograde politically, but they have some important information.

            • Anna in PDX

              I was coming here to say something like this vis a vis portland. Also our actually majority black neighborhood Albina was victim to a lot of eminent domain seizures when they built the highway and Emmanuel Hospital. Entire neighborhood pretty much erased.

              Also redlining existed in Portland until the 1970s or so and you can still see the effects and pretty much pinpoint where the lines were if you drive through the residential eastside parts of town.

          • Yes. This has been going on in D.C. since at least the 80’s. (Well, really it is a constant cycle. Georgetown was once a slum full of poor people. Now it is a slum full of rich people and people up to their scalps in debt.)

            But to keep African-Americans in suburban and rural areas from feeling left out, there have been things like taxing residents of the last predominantly African-American neighborhood in Bethesda out of their homes and massive amounts of development in rural areas, some of which were still occupied by the descendants of tobacco workers. (White people are impacted by this as well, of course.)

            The problem I’m seeing now (in addition to the problem of booting people from their homes) is the area is pretty much screwed in terms housing for anyone who can’t get past the credit check phase of buying a home or renting an apartment. Apartment owners are jettisoning their Section 8 units. The suburbs are out of the question. People keep shifting around the different quadrants, but it seems that most D.C. ZIP codes are seen as desirable to someone who has more money than the people who are already there.

            • TribalistMeathead

              Renting in Georgetown is actually cheaper than you might think. The – wait for it – lack of a Metro station really keeps rents down compared to where they could be.

              • If you’re saying rents in Gtown haven’t risen as much they have in areas such as Dupont Circle since the advent of Metro, I’ll take your word for it. I won’t even look into the number of rental units in Gtown v. Dupont.

                If you’re suggesting the rent in Gtown is feasible for someone who is being forced out of his home in Shaw, put down the glue.

                • TribalistMeathead

                  No, I’m saying that rents in Gtown were feasible for someone like me, making around $50K/year in 2005 dollars.

                  I would say that rents have definitely risen in Dupont Circle since Metro opened, and probably more than they rose in Gtown, but I think there’s also been a lot more construction of new rental stock in Dupont.

      • Jo

        This offloading sometimes takes the particularly egregious form of actually driving homeless people from the suburb to the city in a van and dumping them out. This happens all the time in Los Angeles, to the point where the state legislature worked up legislation outlawing it. I’m not exactly sure what happened to the bill, but the fact that they even needed to write one shows the commonplace nature of the practice.

        • sparks

          Interesting, this. I saw it in action in my city only a few months back, albeit the dumping happened in reverse Every homeless person they could gather up from our central city area was dumped in an inner-ring suburb, which cause some commotion among the businesses around the area. I think that’s why it wasn’t done again.

  • burnspbesq

    The book you refer to already exists, and it’s quite good: Rule and Ruin By Geoffrey Kabaservice.

  • Hogan

    “We had to do something to save the people from that neighborhood,” said a former township official

    Lean over here so I can slap you.

    • Anthony

      I, too, take my urban renewal advice from Ra’s al-Ghul!

  • Daragh McDowell

    Mitt and Evan, both the sons of politicians who did a significant amount of good in their lives, but never achieved the brass ring of the presidency devoted their entire political careers to avoiding their fathers’ fate. As a result, they both studiously avoided rocking the boat or doing anything really of note throughout their entire careers. And both had their presidential dreams dashed as a result. It’s actually kind of karmically beautiful.

  • Manju-bot

    Nixon knew he’d face a backlash from the suburban whites whose votes had put him in office so he pushed Mitt Romney’s dad out.

    Robert Byrd!

  • panda

    I always thought that a novel tracing the careers of George and Mitt Romney as a mirror of the decline of American elites, would be a Dreizer-level classic.

    • joe from Lowell

      George Romney would have given Barack Obama a serious run for him money in 2012.

      Imagine if that “successful businessman bringing his skills to government” shtick had been based on growing an auto manufacturing company instead of running a vulture capitalist firm.

      • Malaclypse

        The man who said “The rights of some must not be enjoyed by denying the rights of others. Neither can we permit states’ rights at the expense of human rights.” could never win a single Republican primary, much less get the nomination.

    • catclub

      Give them two more generations and you might have The Godfather, in reverse.

  • Manta

    “As detailed by MSNBC’s Adam Serwer, under the plan Mount Holly would “buy the aging homes, raze them and replace them with higher-end housing the residents couldn’t afford.”

    Were the owners obliged to sell?

    • Hogan

      New Jersey is a small state where local governments are highly dependent on property taxes. Driven by a desire to revitalize ailing urban areas, towns have sought to seize neighborhoods deemed blighted and turn them into the kind of polished theme parks that resemble contemporary versions of 1950s America through the commercialized lens of television. The incentives are great: developers pay lower taxes on the property and towns end up with a higher tax base once it’s redeveloped.

      But before revitalization can take place, the existing neighborhood needs to be declared blighted. Towns can then use eminent domain to force homeowners to sell their properties for what the law says is a fair price, and the developers can pay lower taxes on the property. Mount Holly didn’t use eminent domain but the blight designation, and the threat of eminent domain, ensured that the township would be the only place they could sell to.

      • joe from Lowell

        For my money, the abuse of the blight designation is the real issue.

        The term blight is supposed to refer to vacancy and abandonment on a scale that causes further decline of surrounding properties, like an abscess. A vacant apartment house sits for years, falls apart, the windows get broken, it becomes a shooting gallery, and the properties nearby lose value, leading to deferred maintenance (because it’s not economical to invest in the property), and then they end up abandoned, and then the properties near them…The core can be some empty houses, abandoned industrial buildings, vacant lots, even parking lots – the key is emptiness.

        Municipalities are abusing this designation when thy apply it to areas that are occupied, but by lower-income people than they’d prefer.

  • jkay

    I’d point that a big reason for sprawl’s popularity’s that low-density turns out to be far the cheapest option, ft^2-wise, if you check building cost estimators. That’s l, I think, because alot of time is spent building underground. My cost experiences have followed that pattern, too. I was lucky enough to be a poor student around lots of big CHEAP townhouses broken up into smaller apartments.

    Yeah, it’s against conventional wisdom, but then, conventional wisdom USED to be that slavery was OK

    That makes me LIKE McMansions because I see them as part of the next genereration of cheap housing great for the poor once broken up, later. They mean more cheap space available later.

    • TribalistMeathead

      I’ve known a few people who work in construction and say they’d never live in a house built in the last 20 years, particularly one in a new subdivision.

      • I could swear I read an article a while back about how a lot of local sub-divisions were starting to fall apart as they approached year 15. (And those were the more expensive houses!)

        It’s insane. It would be insane for the buildings if they cost a 3rd of what they did.

      • sparks

        Yeah, it happens here even though the weather isn’t severe at all. Houses which were brand new in the ’90s look very shabby now (I pass through some neighborhoods from the time). It’s as if they’d been up three times as long.

    • joe from Lowell

      The problem is, those McMansions just weren’t built like the big houses of the 1890s.

      They just won’t stand up the way the old mansions that were cut up into apartments have stood up.

      • Malaclypse

        Also, the old mansions were built in old cities, with their density, and transporation, and even (gasp) walkability. McMansions are build in horrid exurbs that require an automobile trip if you need a quart of milk.

        That’s gonna work great with an aging population, and $8/gallon gasoline.

        • Old mansions, even those away from the city were also made to hold a lot more people. The man who headed up the tiny houses movement points out that space is cheap and McMansions contain a lot of it, often concentrated in the master bedroom and a family room.

    • jkay

      How would even know, kids? The real instazombie houses ALL WERE born in the 70s and are mowing my lawn, just as I mowed one of theirs back in tbe day.

      Meamwhile my 1/4-century century house, a real house, is doing fine; absolutely none of the ‘hood has even collapsed, i’m afraid… Unless you’ll tell me it’s the superior Texan construction and corruption

      True, McMansions have a way of being uglier than sin
      …. but remember, we’re talking about housing for the poor. Doesn’t a discount for polka dot relief over plaid paint make it better for THEM?

  • Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoenhenheim den Sidste

    Voting on the Fair Housing Act the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. got the blahs all riled up?

    You liberals will stop at nothing to politicize a tragic accident.

  • The term “moderate Republican” has been redefined so as to be meaningless. From Gawker:

    The elder Cheney is currently running for a Wyoming Senate seat against moderate incumbent Mike Enzi.

    Mike Enzi!

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