Sunday, July 12, 2015

Place in the Sun

Concept art for Blade Runner (1982) by Syd Mead, the darkest movie I've ever seen, and I don't mean in spirit, I mean in inadequate lighting. I literally couldn't follow the plot, and I still don't really know what happened.
In a way, most of the miraculous Supreme Court decisions of this session weren't that miraculous: marriage equality was happening in any case, whether the Court managed to participate in it or not, and the Kennedy ruling was more a recognition of reality than a breaking of new ground; and the conservative attacks on the Arizona Redistricting Commission and the Affordable Care Act (the Moops-invading-Spain case) were so deeply stupid that it would have been really frightening if they had succeeded.

That's not so true of Texas Department of Housing v. Inclusive Communities Project, which we talked about last January, in which the Texas DOH appealed the decision of a federal district court against policies found to be furthering racial segregation, on the grounds that they weren't doing it on purpose ("Now that racism no longer exists, segregation can only happen by chance; nothing we can do about it"). The correct answer is that the Texas DOH policy (not issuing federal tax credits to landlords in the Dallas suburbs who wanted to rent to low-income and mostly African-American tenants, but only to landlords in the city itself) had a disparate impact on the African-American community and is thus illegal under the Fair Housing Act of 1968; but this kind of argument has fallen on hard times in recent years. In education it's virtually dead, as school systems South and North continue to resegregate and state authorities continue to seek ways to favor charter schools for black kids and private (often religious) schools for white ones. There was a real fear that the Court would be killing it in housing law as well, as it almost did in a couple of cases of 2012 (the parties settled under pressure from the Obama administration).

Anyway, it didn't happen; Kennedy's opinion in the Texas case ruled the right way, and as the Times notes in an editorial today, we're already starting to see some positive action:

The Supreme Court issued an important ruling last month when it reminded state and local governments that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 bars them from spending federal housing money in a manner that perpetuates racial segregation.

Last week, the Obama administration took an even more important step — one that has already changed the decades-long discussion about how to combat residential segregation. It rewrote the rules under the provision of the act that requires state and local governments to “affirmatively further” housing goals by making real efforts to cope with the cumulative results of the discrimination that confined black Americans to ghettos in the first place.
This is such good news. It seems like the first step forward in civil rights law in a really long and dispiriting time, and it's especially encouraging in the respect it shows for the evidence of social science data. (People in power keep insisting there's no racism, and the numbers show there is, and the courts have tended to prefer the opinions to the facts.)

I don't know how widely understood this is, but the reason massive public housing projects failed in the 1960s and 70s isn't that public housing is a bad idea, it's that they were racially segregated; governments essentially building high-rise ghettos in which most of the problems of urban blight were simply reconstituted in the air. It looks more and more as if the next generation of public housing will be committed to avoiding these mistakes, through broad integration; indeed, they already are, if the efforts of the de Blasio administration in my city are any indication. That's definitely the program of the plans to force developers to provide some fixed amount of affordable housing alongside any new market-rate housing project—funny how "market-rate" and "unaffordable" are synonyms in our world, isn't it?—specifically to counter the growth of gentrified white enclaves and segregated schools.

Governor Cuomo, of course, has been fighting it with the aid of his Republican and crypto-Republican minions in the state senate, and unfortunately won a round last month, but the battle's not over. In this strange-bedfellows era, de Blasio has the Real Estate Board on his side (they love the tax breaks), and now it looks like he'll have the federal HUD (which Cuomo used to run back when he was relatively honest) as well.

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