The Lesson of Forest Hills
THE conflict triggered by the attempt to build a low-income public-housing project in the Forest Hills section of New York has raised a great many difficult and unpleasant issues. Underlying all of them, however, is the general question of “scatter-site housing”- the policy, that is, of deliberately placing low-income housing in middle-income neighborhoods. Considering how much resistance this policy can stimulate, and how much bitterness follows each demonstration of resistance, there has been astonishingly little effort to examine the ideas behind it. On the contrary, the value of scatter-site housing has simply been taken as self-evident by many liberals, by many officials of the federal government, and by many members of Congress. So much has this been the case that one is hard-put to find a clearly stated rationale for the policy that can be examined and considered on its merits. Nevertheless, the absence of such a rationale has not prevented the Department of Housing and Urban Development from placing the power of the federal government behind scatter-site housing by effectively forbidding the disbursement of any further federal subsidies for housing in areas in which black or poor people already live.
In general, the advocates of scatter-site housing seem to believe that sprinkling low-income families in relatively expensive neighborhoods will make a significant contribution to the advancement of the poor (and particularly the non-white poor) in American cities. If, by definition, scatter-site housing cannot be numerically significant, its significance must be symbolic: it must demonstrate that higher-income families stand ready spontaneously to embrace these newcomers, or that city officials will force their acceptance. The wrath of Forest Hills soured the symbol, and in the turbulent aftermath it should have become clear that the city’s elected officials cannot paste smiles of welcome on the faces of their belligerent constituents. Nor are they likely to try, easily preferring to abort any similar proposal that might provoke a similarly surly response.
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