Earlier this summer, Donald Trump tweeted “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low-income housing built in your neighborhood.” Since then he’s repeatedly returned to the idea that “Suburban Housewives” and the suburbs, in general, are being threatened by affordable housing and those who occupy it.
Trump’s language keeps the destructive dynamic between race and housing alive while we are facing a severe affordable housing shortage.
It’s ugly and it’s wrong.
Consider the facts. No state in the union has enough affordable housing. That’s not a racial problem. It’s a roof problem. It applies to Maine as well as Michigan, North Dakota as well as New York. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are only 36 affordable rental units available for every 100 extremely low-income households—and that was prior to COVID-19 causing thousands of Americans to struggle to pay rent.
We tend to conflate public housing with race, giving it its own racial code. Take the recent discussion of George Floyd as one example, who grew up in Cuney Homes, Houston’s longest-standing public housing community. From USA Today to the Los Angeles Times, Cuney has been described as a “housing project,” a term that evokes racial stigmas. It’s even been called a “warren,” a word to describe a crowded living space used to breed and hunt animals. Trump use of “low-income” is a synonym for burden and is often a code for poor Black and Brown folks.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) suburbanites often and wrongly associate those who need affordable housing with increased crime and decreased property values. Trump is trying to capitalize on this stigma to position himself as the hero of the suburbs.
None of this is new, of course. When affordable housing programs were developed as part of the New Deal in the 1930s, the majority of developments were whites-only. As white families increasingly relocated to the suburbs, Black families were able to access vacant units. This trend along with discriminatory housing practices like redlining further segregated cities and put affordable housing in the category of “undesirable,” according to historian Richard Rothstein.
Nearly 100 years later, we still face housing segregation nationwide and attempts to expand affordable housing are often met with NIMBY protests. It’s a problem not only faced in Houston where I serve as the Board Chairman to the Houston Housing Authority, but across the country.
Contrary to what Trump says, adding affordable housing can actually decrease crime rates and boost property values, according to a number of studies and analyses that show affordable housing typically has either a positive or neutral impact on surrounding property values.
A 2015 study from Stanford University’s business school, for instance, analyzed 129 counties where Low-Income Housing Tax Credit properties were built. It found a 6.5 percent increase in property values within neighborhoods that had a median income below $26,000. The study also revealed that affordable housing caused low-income neighborhoods to experience decreased crime and decreased segregation, while high-income neighborhoods experienced no impact on crime rates. A 2011 Cornell study also found “no detectable effects on property crime” as a result of building affordable housing.
Many Americans get their impression of public housing from some of the dreaded giant projects of Post-World War II America like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis or Stella Wright in Newark, N.J. both of which have been torn down. Today, affordable housing means smaller units that fit into a neighborhood’s aesthetic or rent subsidies where low-income earners can have access to private housing. Trump talks about affordable housing like it’s the 1970s instead of 50 years later.
This is something we need to do not only for others but also for ourselves. Those who qualify for federal housing programs are earning 80% or less of their local area median income. They include those we have depended during this pandemic, including nurses, grocery store workers, teachers, delivery people, bus drivers, and even police officers and firefighters. That can’t be ignored because of the serious racial inequities at play: Black, Indigenous, and Latinx households are more likely than white households to be low-income renters.
Mobilizing the fear of NIMBY suburbanites to keep the “low-income people” is the opposite of what is needed to combat the national housing crisis and the economic impact of COVID-19.
In reality, research tells us that socioeconomically mixed neighborhoods are more prosperous and benefit all populations. One 2017 Urban Institute study found that segregation in Chicago cost residents $4 billion every year because it is linked to lower incomes and lower educational attainment. At the same time, the benefits of economically diverse neighborhoods include higher access to economic opportunity, job opportunities, educational attainment, civic resources, and higher levels of civic cohesion, according to City Reports. These are things that could benefit America’s suburbs, too.
To combat our nation’s housing shortage and segregation, the way we discuss affordable housing needs to change. That starts with President Trump, but it should include all of us as well.