How Government Housing Perpetuates Racial Segregation: Lessons from Post-Katrina New Orleans
59 Pages Posted: 22 Oct 2011
Date Written: October 20, 2011
This Article contends that post-Katrina New Orleans exemplifies the exclusionary dynamic in which government-assisted housing operates throughout America and the fundamental failure of American housing policy at the federal, state, and local levels to prevent the racial segregation that inevitably results. Federal law has prohibited racial segregation in government-housing programs for decades, yet it has proven difficult to reverse entrenched patterns of segregation in these programs. Patterns of racial segregation have been particularly intractable in New Orleans, which, prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, boasted the second-highest level of poverty concentration in the nation and relatively high levels of poverty concentration in all of the major government-housing programs. Furthermore, low-income white residents in pre-Katrina New Orleans had greater access to middle-income neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area of New Orleans than low-income black residents, who were overwhelmingly concentrated into high-poverty neighborhoods.
Hurricane Katrina, with its massive levee failures and neighborhood flooding, offered an opportunity for New Orleans to emerge as a more inclusive region; new government-assisted housing could have helped facilitate inclusion, while also responding to the regional-housing needs of the area. However, rental housing bans proliferated throughout the region, primarily in communities that had previously served as affordable suburban alternatives for lower- and middle-income whites in prior decades. These communities sought not only to prevent the development of new rental housing, but also to limit the repair of rental housing that preexisted the storm. At the same time, other communities in metropolitan New Orleans that were the least affordable, most homogeneous, and nationally recognized as desirable places to live were not targeted for government-assisted housing, and thus did not pass similar sweeping rental bans. Therefore, rather than using recovery efforts to reverse racially segregated housing patterns, the region took steps to exacerbate them.
This Article describes a perennial dynamic of two impulses pulling in opposite directions - the anywhere-ist and nowhere-ist impulses, which conspire to perpetuate segregation. The anywhere-ists are primarily focused on securing as much federally assisted housing as possible; the nowhere-ists are primarily focused on keeping it out of their communities. This dynamic has created a “path of least resistance,” whereby government-assisted housing continues to be provided in places where it already exists or in places that are already open and affordable.
Ultimately, federal intervention in the housing market must encompass more than providing a subsidy. It must open neighborhoods not already open, make affordable what is not already affordable, enable housing subsidies to act as gateways to educational and employment opportunity, and inform families historically excluded from housing markets about their choices. Any federal housing interventions that are not so designed will almost certainly exacerbate existing racial segregation and poverty concentration, as they have done for decades, and - as post-Katrina New Orleans illustrates - as they will continue to do, again and again and again.
Keywords: housing, segregation, discrimination, Hurricane Katrina
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