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 goverment 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.
But by no means do all proponents of scatter-site housing regard the difficulties over Forest Hills as conclusive. Some seek to explain these difficulties by attributing them to the size of this particular project. Forest Hills, involving three high-rise buildings and 840 families, may indeed be too big, but there is little evidence that a smaller project would have engendered less vigorous opposition. Thus a project approved for the Lindenwood area of Queens has now been killed by local opposition even though it was to hold little more than half the people of the Forest Hills project, in buildings only about one-third as high.
Others have attributed the trouble in Forest Hills to bigotry which, they argue, deserves little or no consideration. It would be hard to maintain convincingly that there are no bigots in Forest Hills, but racial bigotry cannot be the reason why a black middle-class group living in the Baisley Park neighborhood of Queens objected strongly to a 200-unit scatter-site project planned for that area in the same year as the Forest Hills project. In fact, the Baisley Park opposition, with the support of the same New York State NAACP chapter which has been very outspoken in castigating the present opponents of Forest Hills, succeeded in having the project withdrawn from consideration even before it came to a public hearing. At a private meeting in the office of the then Borough President of Queens, I heard people who claimed to be representatives of the Baisley Park neighborhood saying almost exactly the same things which the alleged representatives of the Forest Hills residents now say. They told the Borough President that the project was to be put in their neighborhood because the Mayor didn’t care about their views, felt they were powerless, and was quite prepared to sacrifice them and their homes and their property values to his political ambitions.
Still another argument is that scatter-site housing would have been entirely successful in Forest Hills if there had been more “involvement” of the “community” from the beginning. Yet one of the specific irritants arose from too much, not too little, local consultation. As a portent of architectural wonders to come, the original design of the project was widely shown in the area after the plan had been approved. When this design turned out to be too expensive for federal subsidization, the consultation itself was taken as proof of an intent to deceive the local people.
If it has always been hard to find a clearly stated rationale in writing for scatter-site housing, one could get at some of the reasons behind the policy in conversation with the New York City officials who were responsible for the original development of the program in 1966. These officials held the view that a neighborhood which contains people with a wide variation of incomes is better than an economically homogeneous neighborhood; and they further believed—as apparently federal housing officials have also come to do—that government has the right and the duty to foster the development of such heterogenous neighborhoods.
The enthusiasm of New York’s officials for scatter-site housing did not rest simply on the effects they expected it to have on the mostly non-white poor people who would be moved into more prosperous neighborhoods inhabited mostly by whites. They believed that scattering low-rent units in middle-class areas would also have a healthy effect on the middle-class residents of those areas who would perforce become more tolerant and more worldly—more, in short, like residents of the West Side of Manhattan, from which the key figures in the Lindsay administration’s early housing program themselves largely came.
The West Side of Manhattan, lying roughly between 59th and 125th Streets, and between Central Park and the Hudson River, becomes crucial to any discussion of housing integration not only because the impulse to scatter-site housing started there, but because it actually reflects, perhaps uniquely among American neighborhoods, a consistent pattern of juxtaposition of high-rent and low-rent housing. Only one city block separates the luxurious apartment houses of Central Park West from the tenements of Columbus Avenue; only a few steps separate those same tenements from the stone row houses that were built on the side streets for exclusive occupancy by the single families who could afford them. The elevated railway that once ran up Columbus Avenue blighted the avenue for any but low-income families. But for the more prosperous, there was Central Park West and Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, as well as the side streets—all made practical by excellent up- and down-town public transportation. This basic pattern of land use persisted, even after the side-street houses were converted into rooming houses or tiny apartments and filled with Puerto Ricans and blacks in the years following the end of the Second World War.
As a result of these demographic changes, the central shopping thoroughfare of the West Side, upper Broadway, offers the observer a uniquely human mixture that might be characterized as a realization of the dream of American pluralism. The shoppers include blacks, Puerto Ricans, and whites of differing ethnic origin; the stores, restaurants, and cafes run the gamut of all the many groups whose members now inhabit the West Side. Economically, too, the West Side is heterogeneous. Its major urban-renewal project, which sought to replace the Columbus Avenue tenements with modern apartment houses and to enable the side-street row houses to revert to single-family occupancy, included more than 2,500 low-rent public-housing units in its final plans. At least that many poor families had been living in the area before the renewal started.
To enjoy the apparently happy juxtaposition of so many different ethnic and socioeconomic groups, however, it is well to remain on the cluttered sidewalks of Broadway. For the exciting but on the whole harmonious vista of Broadway is not sustained in the rest of the area. The West Side, historically, produced a bumper crop of private schools so that the row-house and elevator-apartment families could mitigate with social distance their physical propinquity to their poorer neighbors. The split between private-school families and public-school families still continues; the public schools, with rare exceptions, attract few of the higher-income children. The febrile political life of the West Side confirms the suspicion that the human mix of varied income groups disturbs as many as it pleases; there is undiminished tension between the leaders of the low-income groups, or at least those who claim leadership, and the higher-income groups, generally over the question of how much low-income housing will, in the final analysis, be permitted in the urban-renewal area.
No matter how entertaining, then, one may find the spectacle of Broadway, it remains difficult to point to one concrete social result of the intermingling of diverse income groups, one sign of effective social action, which would not otherwise have taken place. Whether the upper-income residents are more tolerant than their counterparts in economically homogeneous neighborhoods is doubtful. And at the other end, it is almost impossible to find one measurable difference between the pride, energy, political awareness, or social mobility of the low-income residents of the West Side and the low-income residents of the Lower East Side, or Harlem, or Brownsville in Brooklyn.
Despite all this, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has promulgated guidelines based on the assumption that the case for locating low-income housing in middle-income neighborhoods has been made and proved.
Since the establishment of the public-housing program in 1937, the federal government has opted to put public housing on inexpensive land, thus generally reinforcing the way in which members of different social classes “naturally” distribute themselves in the cities. The government did this without ever considering the existence of social class. It simply limited the amount of money that could be spent on each apartment in a public-housing development. Although no words explicitly mandating this policy appeared in the public-housing law after 1948, the intent of the law was obvious. Dwellings had to be economical in “construction and administration” if they were to be subsidized; and the administrators extended this statutory language by establishing a dollar limit (which could, however, occasionally be waived) on the total cost of development, including land.
If not for the intensifying national concern with racial equality, the federal housing agencies would probably have continued to avert their gaze from the realities of social class in the United States. But race could not be ignored. In the immediate postwar years, the FHA discouraged mortgage bankers from making loans in interracial neighborhoods because, as an insurer, FHA worried that mortgages in interracial communities were intrinsically unsafe. After great pressure had been applied by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, FHA appraisers and officials decided they could safely ignore race. Nondiscrimination in housing became for the first time official federal policy. When nondiscrimination failed to bring many racially-integrated neighborhoods into existence, some commentators blamed the income difference between the median white and the median black family. The 1970 census indicates drastic reduction in this difference, but recent federal housing policy has increasingly been based on an implied contrary theory to the effect that racial differences in income will be everlasting.
On the assumption that the goal of housing policy should be racial integration, and given the theory of permanent income difference between the races, the conclusion drawn by the federal government was irresistible—government policy must seek to obliterate the significance of income to housing location. On this syllogistic base, mandating an attack on the class structure of American cities, the federal government founded the scatter-site housing policy embodied in the new HUD guidelines.
The HUD list contains eight separate categories on which a housing proposal may be rated as superior, adequate, or poor; a rating of superior gets priority over a rating of adequate in the award of federal subsidies, while a rating of poor in any category disqualifies the proposal from any subsidy at all.
Only two of these categories—the second and third—concern us here. Category Two, entitled
“Minority Housing Opportunities,” permits officials to rate as superior only those proposals which would open up areas for “minority-group” residence in which there are few or no members of such groups now living. The wording of the criterion specifically excludes from a superior rating any project which would stand in an existing racially-mixed area except if the area were part of an officially planned redevelopment, and it could be proved that “sufficient, comparable opportunities exist for housing for minority families, in the income range to be served by the proposed project, outside the area of minority concentration.” Obviously, if there were such housing opportunities already available elsewhere, it would be unnecessary to rebuild the slum in the first place.
Otherwise the best a project in a racially-mixed area can hope for is a rating of adequate, and then only if it can be shown that “the project will not cause a significant increase in the proportion of minority to non-minority residents in the area.” As a footnote, the guidelines require that these stipulations must be “accompanied by documented findings based upon relevant racial, socioeconomic, and other data and information.” This means that if any sponsor—a government agency, a nonprofit group, a profit-motivated builder, whatever—wishes to erect a government-subsidized apartment house in a racially-mixed area, the sponsor can get approval only after demonstrating that the racial distribution of the new tenants will be in the same proportion as the racial distribution already obtaining in the area. If the government believes anyone can promise this without installing a quota system for tenant selection, it has failed to explain how.
As for a project in an area of minority-group concentration, it can be considered adequate only if it is necessary “to meet overriding housing needs.” An explanatory note points out that a need resulting from exclusionary practices elsewhere does satisfy the criterion. This last seems fair enough, given the premises. It does not seem fair, however, that a proposal for subsidized new housing to be built in an area, say, of black concentration must be disapproved even if, demonstrably, the people living in that area want to remain there and also want an opportunity to improve the quality of their housing. Is improving housing quality to be considered an “overriding housing need”? The federal government tells every minority group in the nation that its members are free to live wherever they want, yet under this rule, if they want to live in the neighborhoods in which they are already living, they had better be able to show that they are camping on the sidewalk.
Thus, by an irony which is becoming familiar in other fields of government activity as well, measures aimed at expanding the freedom of non-whites are actually having the effect of limiting that freedom. In this case, government policy allows non-whites the choice of living in predominantly non-white areas—a choice which many might wish to make and should certainly have the right to make—only at the sacrifice of any chance to get better housing. A judgment has been rendered to the effect that a neighborhood composed predominantly of non-whites is not good enough to deserve federal support, whatever may be the wishes of its members.
Furthermore—and here we have another irony emerging from Washington’s integrationist activism—the implied promise, that the federal government will supply adequate housing for non-whites in predominantly white sections, is itself illusory. Although the federal government has the power to prevent housing from being built, it has no power to force the construction of housing in a local area over the expressed will of the government of that area. Thus, the suspicion arises that one reason for the development of the new guidelines of site selection may be the desire of the present Housing administration—following, no doubt, policy established in the White House or the Budget Bureau—to avoid paying out subsidies for new housing. The federal pocketbook will be protected on both flanks. Local governments will not wish to build in areas that are not already occupied by non-whites, and the federal guidelines will forbid them to build anywhere else, on sites which are mixed or occupied predominantly by minorities. There being nowhere else to build, nothing will be built.
As Category two of the HUD guidelines seeks to promote racial integration, Category Three seeks to promote socioecomonic integration. This category, “Improved Location for low(er) Income Families,” starts bravely with a few general assertions amounting to a pledge by the government to provide “low(er) income” households with a wide choice of locations. Incidentally, that e.e. cummings-like word “low (er)” serves to remind the reader that government guidelines apply not merely to public housing for low-income families, but also to other forms of subsidized housing which is offered to families with somewhat higher incomes. In the peculiar language that takes shape on the electric typewriters of government, “lower” means “less low than low.” Low-income housing is for people whose income is as low as possible, and who therefore are eligible for public housing. Lower-income housing, however, is for families whose income is generally below the median level, which includes many whose income is still too high for low-income public housing.
Once we have scrambled over this curious linguistic barrier, we come to the two final objectives: that subsidized housing should be served with all the facilities and utilities that unsubsidized housing is served with; and that subsidized housing should be “reasonably accessible” to job opportunities. These, in a simpler day, would have been the two primary requirements for selecting housing location. Now, however, they have become subsidiary to the objective of separating some subsidized housing from other subsidized housing, of dividing some low-income people from other low-income people. Here again, as with racial integration, a realistic appraisal of the government’s actual powers in this field leaves one wondering what choice it is really in a position to offer. Since it cannot require housing to be built in a particular location, its refusal to permit federally-subsidized housing to be located “in a section characterized as one of subsidized housing,” may well mean that federally-subsidized housing will not be built anywhere at all. Surely this provision will prevent the systematic upgrading of low-income neighborhoods, even if they are favorably located with respect to jobs and transportation.
Obviously, no one would want to locate a single subsidized project by itself in the midst of a decayed low-income neighborhood. Once the neighborhood is decayed and no longer economically self-sustaining, only federal subsidies can possibly resuscitate its housing. But the federal guidelines, placing their primary emphasis on integrating low-income families into unsubsidized middle-class neighborhoods, would rule out placing subsidized buildings—not only public housing, but any kind of subsidized buildings—in sufficient proximity to protect each other from the decayed surroundings.
It should be easy to bring forth a more constructive set of housing policies than these, leaving aside that gloomiest of all dismal subjects, the who and how of economic subsidization of housing. As to the end and purpose of housing subsidization, surely this government investment should be measured by the level of housing choice truly made available rather than by the degree of racial and economic integration achieved in the policy directive.
The cornerstone of housing choice must be a program which will make impossible the exclusion of families from access to housing because of their race or nationality. This must be as true in Forest Hills (where exclusionary practices must in part be responsible for the scarcity of black families) as everywhere else. But there is a great difference between effectively banning discrimination and exclusion on the one hand, and numerically mandating racial or economic integration on the other. The former lies within the practical scope of governmental activity. The latter—if it accomplishes anything at all—merely impedes the exercise of personal choice by black or white.
Second, government subsidy programs should be made available for those who need better housing, and cannot obtain it without subsidy, wherever these people may want to live, provided that the housing offers suitable access to transportation, education, and job opportunities. These utilitarian criteria come first, because given a flourishing economy, they provide the means by which social classes are, in fact, rearranged and their memberships pooled. The effort to accomplish the same objective by spatial rearrangement mistakes the nature of the problem; and, worse, it fools no one.
Third, government subsidy programs must come to terms with the fact that there are households in the city which, for whatever reasons, are unable to live in a housing development without presenting a serious danger to their neighbors and to the building itself. At present cost levels, and with the present inadequate level of supply, it seems absurd to give these families good housing, which they then grievously damage, while other families who could use the housing fruitfully wait on endless lines. The assurance by Chairman Simeon Golar of the New York City Housing Authority that all prospective tenants of the Forest Hills project would be carefully screened to keep out the destructive was a step in the right direction—and a most unusual one in the present climate. So too is the complex subsidy formula developed in the housing bill recently passed by the United States Senate which, properly administered and adequately funded, should be of great help in providing new houses for families of limited income. (If a similar program could be developed for existing buildings, the help might even be greater, but that is another story.)
Simply because Forest Hills produced so much bad feeling, the priorities suggested here might be taken as a formula for social peace. It would be nice if, indeed, they worked out that way, but they should not be taken to be non-controversial. If subsidized housing is to be located where job opportunities exist, that housing may well be placed in areas in the city, or outside it, where low-income families will be living for the first time. Possibly—perhaps probably—perhaps inevitably, the opposition to their prospective arrival will be just as hard as that of Forest Hills, and just as clamorous. But the objective is different. While the scatter-site program expresses primarily a symbolic objective, the siting of housing to make economic opportunity available follows traditional American attitudes toward work and human dignity and social mobility. It may, in the end, be harder to mobilize opposition to it simply because, using the value system of the potential opponents themselves, it makes such very good sense.