Bill de Blasio Knows: Affordable Housing is a Civil Right

Richard Eskow

Sixty years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of school integration, a review by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that “Schools remain segregated today because neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated.” EPI’s Richard Rothstein found that “raising (the educational) achievement of low-income black children requires residential integration, from which school integration can follow.”

“Education policy is housing policy,” Rothstein concludes.

That’s one of many reasons why New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently-announced housing plan is so important. Our nation has largely abandoned the affordable-housing initiatives that marked the New Frontier and Great Society years. And yet, in an era when The New York Times un-ironically runs articles about the difficulty of finding Manhattan apartments on a million-dollar budget, initiatives like de Blasio’s are met with skeptical questioning where they should be finding support.

Instead of questioning the ambition of a program like de Blasio’s, we should be asking ourselves how we can justify calling ourselves an egalitarian society without many such programs.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said, “I have a lot of admiration for (de Blasio) for making this an area of focus. I think it’s great that he’s focused on this issue.” But if that sounds like Donovan is backing the New York Mayor’s efforts, think again. In the two-step that has become all too familiar in Washington, Donovan embraced the plan’s goals while resisting the initiative itself. The housing secretary called de Blasio’s plan “close to impossible” to achieve and “a very tall order.” That kind of “endorsement” is the political equivalent of the mobster’s “kiss of death.”

At first glance, it’s hard to understand why de Blasio’s plan got the back of Donovan’s hand. As the housing secretary noted, this issue was a “priority” for de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, whose administration created or preserved 175,000 affordable housing units. If a Republican mayor can achieve that goal, why is a Democratic cabinet member saying that a plan that involves only 25,000 more units is “close to impossible”?

As John Cassidy noted in The New Yorker, de Blasio’s housing plan is a moderate one that doesn’t represent a sharp break from past practices. (Nor is the mayor leading a radical insurgency: Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who is responsible for housing and economic development, is a former executive at Goldman Sachs.)

The idea that de Blasio’s plan is a “tall order” may stem from the overall rightward shift in American politics – and, perhaps, from a loyalty to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Wall Street-friendly Democrat who openly undercut de Blasio’s plan for a modest educational tax on very high earners.

Some special interests may also reject de Blasio’s plan for “inclusionary zoning.” This feature would require any developer receiving city funds to set aside a number of housing units at below-market prices. In return, de Blasio is offering $8 billion in city tax breaks as well as other funding, and is proposing to speed up the zoning approval process. The mandatory inclusion of mandatory low-income housing is something many developers won’t like. That, and the $1.9 billion the plan expects from federal and state sources, may leave some less than enthusiastic about the plan.

That’s unfortunate. Mayor de Blasio’s plan could help decelerate the seemingly irreversible social segregation that is plaguing New York. In a city that increasingly appears divided by age and wealth levels – rich young hipsters here, poor minority seniors there – it would provide housing for older citizens, lower-income families, “middle income” households – which in New York City can include up to $138,000 in income – and other diverse groups.

Is it ambitious? Deputy Mayor Glen acknowledges that it is. The best parts of the plan, including its systematic approach to the problem, conflict with a number of other vested interests. But the housing problem runs deep and requires a systematic solution.

What happens if this plan isn’t carried out? Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn will increasingly become white, wealthy enclaves. Gentrification will drive lower-income families out of even the outermost boroughs. Service workers and other lower-earning workers could soon face commute times that rival those of apartheid-era South Africa. The rich cultural diversity that has been New York City’s hallmark will disappear, and the school desegregation called for in Brown v. Board of Education will become impossible to achieve.

The record on segregation, whether in education or in housing, is clear: “separate but equal” is a myth. It is impossible to achieve a fair, equal-opportunity society when communities are separated by economically or racially defined geographical barriers.

Instead of condemning the de Blasio plan because it is ambitious, federal officials should be working to replicate it in cities and towns all across the country. Without fair and affordable housing in the heart of our urban centers, we can never become the egalitarian and democratic society that should be our destiny and our legacy.

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