On Sunday, a year after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, The New York Times published a front-page article about racism in the St. Louis area. The article, "A Year After Ferguson, Housing Segregation Defies Tools to Erase It" by reporter John Eligon, examines how racial discrimination by landlords, real estate agents, and others reinforces and exacerbates segregation in the region, particularly its mostly-white suburbs. Such segregation, Eligon suggests, is the root cause of the well-documented racial profiling by police that has stirred so much controversy, and protest, in recent years.
In his story, Eligon (citing a Brown University study) notes that in greater St. Louis and many other metropolitan areas, blacks tend to live in neighborhoods where most other residents are also black, while whites live in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods. Sociologists have invented a way to measure segregation called the "index of dissimilarity," which shows the percentage of black (or Latino, or Asian) households that would have to move to achieve racial balance across the region. In the St. Louis area, at least 70 percent of all black families would have to move if every part of the metro area was to have a mix of black and white families that reflects their proportion in the entire region.
That degree of racial segregation is not voluntary. Surveys of black families have found that most would prefer to live in racially integrated neighborhoods. But black families face a variety of obstacles in finding houses to buy or apartments to rent in such areas. Moreover, racial segregation isn't simply a byproduct of the fact that blacks have, on average, lower incomes than whites. Even middle-class African-American families tend to live in racially segregated areas; they, too, face discrimination when looking for apartments to rent or houses to buy.
Eligon focuses on one significant obstacle, the federal Section 8 program, which provides vouchers (sort of like food stamps for housing) to low-income families to help them pay for apartments in the private rental market. Families are required to pay 30 percent of their income for rent; the federal subsidy pays the rest, although it imposes a ceiling (called the Fair Market Rent, or FMR) so that families don't wind up living in luxury quarters.
Eligon's article is the best kind of daily journalism, which uses real stories to illustrate (and put a human face on) what sociologists and others recognize as systemic problems. Eligon recounts the stories of several black families struggling to make ends meet while living in high crime low-income neighborhoods that both private business and local government have abandoned.
Eligon makes it clear that the odds are stacked against black families gaining access to better housing and jobs in the middle-class suburbs. He follows families who, despite having Section 8 vouchers, can't find apartments to rent in middle class neighborhoods with less crime, better schools, and more employment opportunities. Landlords in St. Louis' mostly white suburbs typically won't rent to families with Section 8 vouchers.
Although Eligon doesn't dig into why this happens, it is obvious that it is partly due to landlords' stereotypes about blacks and about the poor. It also has to do with landlords' reluctance to expose themselves to the Section 8 program's rules which require local housing agencies to inspect the apartments to make sure they meet health and safety codes before allowing families to rent those units with vouchers. Another factor is that in many parts of the country, especially those with strong rental housing markets, vacancy rates are so low that suburban landlords can find plenty of middle-class renters who can make the rent without relying on government subsidies.
Unlike most news stories about various social and economic problems, Eligon's article actually shows that there is a solution, by describing the life of one black family that, with a bit of luck, managed to escape the St. Louis ghetto and move to a mostly white middle-income suburb, where their life was much improved.
Some advocates of what is often called "community development" might object that giving vouchers to a handful of black families so they can flee high-poverty neighborhoods is not a real solution. They prefer the alternative approach of rebuilding low-income communities by creating more affordable rental and for-sale housing, attracting employers to expand jobs and recruiting residents into job training programs, improving local business districts by bringing supermarkets, banks, and other retail operations to the area, and insisting that local government provide adequate public services (good schools, public transit, police and fire protection).
Of course, these two approaches -- "mobility" (helping the poor move to middle class areas) and "community development" (improving low-income areas without displacing poor residents through gentrification) -- aren't mutually exclusive. Both face obstacles. One serious obstacle to the "mobility" approach is, as Eligon describes in the Times, that African-Americans with Section 8 vouchers have a hard time renting suburban apartments because landlords discriminate against black families and against any families with vouchers.
But another reason -- not mentioned in the Times story -- is that there simply aren't enough apartments units in most suburbs, especially the more affluent ones. This is due to the widespread practice of suburban "exclusionary zoning" -- not only in St. Louis, but in most metro areas. Rentals comprise half of all housing units in cities, but only one-quarter of those in suburbs, and many suburbs have almost no rental housing at all. The Section 8 program won't help break down residential segregation if there aren't enough suburban apartments to rent. It would be like giving people food stamps when the supermarket shelves are empty.
The last nationwide study of the Section 8 program's success rate, conducted in 2000, found that 31 percent of families with Section 8 vouchers couldn't find an apartment to rent, but the figure varied from city to city; in Los Angeles, 53 percent of families with vouchers had to return them unused; in New York City, 43 percent of the families with vouchers came back empty-handed. The scarcity of apartments was certainly the major cause of families' inability to take advantage of their housing subsidy, but racism played a role, too; the 2000 study found that whites had a higher success rate than blacks of using their Section 8 subsidy to rent an apartment.
The search for apartments is even harder in suburbs because there are so few of them. Most suburbs make it difficult or impossible for developers to construct rental housing -- townhouses, garden apartments, and high-rises alike -- by adopting zoning rules that favor single-family homes. They justify these zoning practices by saying that they simply want to preserve the single-family "character" of their communities. Whether this is simply a cover-up for racial and class prejudice is hard to determine, but the impact of these practices is to create a society in which whites and blacks tend to live in separate geographic areas.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court (in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.) surprisingly ruled that racial discrimination in housing doesn't have to be intentional to be illegal. Activists just have to show that certain practices have a "disparate impact" on minorities to be in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act. And in July, the Obama administration announced that it will more pro-actively enforce fair housing laws in local communities, in part by making it easier to conduct studies to document whether local governments and the real estate industry are engaging in various kinds of racial discrimination. In making that announcement, Obama said:
"In some cities, kids living just blocks apart lead incredibly different lives. They go to different schools, play in different parks, shop in different stores, and walk down different streets. And often, the quality of those schools and the safety of those parks and streets are far from equal -- which means those kids aren't getting an equal shot in life."
Obama is right. Housing segregation has severe consequences on public education, public health, poverty, employment, and other issues.
One way to address housing discrimination is by giving low-income families, who are disproportionately low-income, more opportunities to live in communities with greater resources. The Section 8 program is an important tool in that effort, but we need to do more than hand out vouchers to the fortunate few families. Making the Section 8 program work better as an antidote to racial segregation will require politicians to have the courage and/or political support to adopt policies to investigate and seriously penalize the perpetrators of housing discrimination. It will require at least a three-part solution:
First, ban discrimination by landlords against families with Section 8 vouchers and impose serious penalties (fines and prison) for doing so. As the Times story documents, many St. Louis area landlords in middle-class suburbs refuse to rent to families with government housing vouchers. The result is that many families are confined to "Section 8 ghettos" -- the few neighborhoods where landlords accept families with these housing subsidies.
This is a widespread problem throughout the country. During the past decade, landlords and Sheriff's Department officers in two Los Angeles suburbs, Lancaster and Palmdale, routinely harassed black families with Section 8 vouchers who sought apartments in those communities. It took a lawsuit by legal services lawyers and an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department to force a monetary settlement in June for families victimized by discrimination and an agreement to put an end to the racial harassment. One part of any solution is to get states and counties to pass and enforce laws making it illegal to discriminate against families with Section 8 vouchers, just like it is illegal for supermarkets to refuse to accept food stamps.
Second, make exclusionary ("snob") zoning illegal. Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy suburban area outside Washington, D.C., has a longstanding "inclusionary" zoning policy that requires developers of market-rate housing to build low-income housing, too. But it would even be an improvement if the federal and state governments mandated suburbs to permit a minimal threshold of apartment units, even if they are not specifically targeted for low-income families If enough market-rate rental units existed in middle-class and upper middle-class suburbs, low-income families could use their Section 8 vouchers to rent them -- so long as the anti-discrimination laws were enforced and so long as HUD increased the so-called FMR levels so that families could get access to apartments with rents in the $1,000-$2,000 range, depending on the housing costs in different parts of the country.
To make this work, federal and state governments would have to use carrots and sticks -- impose fines and jail for violators, deny government funds to municipalities that persist in using zoning and other means to resist rental housing and black families, and reward communities (with additional funds for schools, libraries, police, infrastructure and other public services) that meet the goals.
Third, dramatically expand the number of Section 8 vouchers. Unlike food stamps, the Section 8 program is a lottery, not an entitlement. Currently only about one-quarter of the families eligible for federal housing subsidies get them. The Section 8 voucher program is by far the largest federal low-income housing subsidy program, but it only serves 1.6 million households. The Section 8 subsidy definitely improves the lives of families lucky enough to get them. It allows families to spend more money on food, clothing, health care, and other basic necessities. In general, families with housing vouchers tend to live in better housing than comparable families without the subsidy. Congress needs to expand the program so more eligible families can utilize them, but it won't work well unless there are more suburban apartments and less discrimination by real estate agents and landlords.
Housing discrimination today is not as blatant as it was before the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, when many homes had restrictive covenants on deeds prohibiting sales to blacks (and, in many cities, Jews); banks, real estate agents, and landlords could exclude blacks without violating any laws; and local governments used zoning laws to create black districts and to make sure that public housing was racially segregated.
Studies show that banks continue to discrimination against minority consumers and neighborhoods of color by either denying them mortgage loans or pushing them into riskier "subprime" mortgages. Realtors continue to "steer" black (and to a slightly lesser extent, Latino) families who are looking to buy or rent homes. They show them houses and apartments in some (predominantly minority) neighborhoods but not other (predominantly white neighborhoods). There's no doubt that rental racism by landlords and realtors significantly contributes to the harsh reality that in 21st century America, whites and blacks tend to live in different worlds.
Besides housing, there are many other varieties of discrimination that contribute to racial disparities. Racial profiling by police and well-documented bias by employers against qualified black applicants for jobs are among the most egregious.
Stories like Eligon's front-page Times article help raise public awareness among white Americans that racism is alive and well in America. But that's just the first step in mobilizing the political will to change and enforce the laws that allow landlords, realtors, and banks -- as well as cops and employers -- to discriminate against some Americans because of the color of their skin.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. He is also coauthor of Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century.
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