Who Will Pay the Political Price for Affordable Housing?

Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times, July 15, 2015

For generations, working- and middle-class opponents of anti-discrimination laws have argued that more affluent whites support such laws without having to bear any of the costs.

Now, the Democratic loyalty of better-off white liberals will be tested by two recent developments: the June 25 Supreme Court decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s issuance of a new rule on July 8, “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.”

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If these two rulings survive further legal and legislative challenges, they will set in motion much tougher enforcement of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and will require predominantly white communities to build significantly more low-income housing.

Such a development has potential political ramifications. It may drive some middle-income and other whites into the arms of the Republican Party.

Westchester County in New York has a median household income of $81,946; 44.4 percent of adults there are college graduates. The county which is emblematic of suburban communities that have switched from Republican to Democratic over the past 25 years presents a worrisome precedent for Democrats.

As long ago as 1992, county residents stopped voting for Republican presidential nominees; since then they have supported Democratic presidential candidates, without exception. Registered Democratic voters, once the minority, currently outnumber Republicans two to one, 255,804 to 127,074.

Partisan realignment notwithstanding, voters in this solidly Democratic jurisdiction have now twice elected–in 2009 and 2013–a local Republican, Robert Astorino, to the position of county executive. First, Astorino decisively defeated the incumbent Democrat, Andrew Spano, just a year after Obama carried the county with 63 percent of the vote. Four years later, in 2013, Astorino beat the Democratic nominee, Noam Bramson.

What sustained Astorino in this Democratic bastion were the lingering effects of a 2009 consent decree, signed by Spano, to provide low-income blacks and Hispanics with 750 units of affordable housing in Westchester. The agreement calls for this housing to be located in the county’s 31 most affluent white communities before the end of 2016.

The 2009 consent agreement is similar to decrees that jurisdictions across the country will be facing as the Supreme Court and HUD rulings are put into action.

Astorino’s strongest margins of victory against Spano were in the overwhelmingly white towns where the consent decree called for the construction of affordable housing.

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For example, Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard who strongly supports affordable-housing initiatives, noted the possibility of a political backlash:

We could well see resistance. Westchester is a case in point, especially since it is a county of almost a million people, and 750 units is a very small penetration for a population that big. If there is resistance on that small scale, imagine if the flow were much larger and extended to counties that are less liberal or Democratic.

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While conservatives have long railed against federal enforcement of fair housing legislation, some liberal analysts cite problems they attribute to the difficulty of racial and ethnic integration.

Perhaps most famously, Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, reported in his 2007 essay “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” that in the short run:

immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the U.S. suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down.’ Trust, even of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.

Diverse communities, Putnam wrote, “tend to be larger, more mobile, less egalitarian, more crime-ridden.”

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The complexities of affordable housing raise a further political question: Can Republicans turn the Supreme Court and HUD decisions and the renewed drive to integrate residential housing into a wedge issue to weaken Democratic allegiance?

Republicans have already begun to pull out the stops.

On June 9, in anticipation of the HUD regulation, Representative Paul Gosar, Republican of Arizona, won House approval of an amendment barring the use of tax dollars to enforce the HUD rule. It passed 229 to 193. Republicans voted in favor 229 to 11; Democrats were unanimously opposed, 182-0.

Simultaneously, the conservative media have been drumming up opposition to the HUD regulation.

A June 11 FoxBusiness story carried the headline “Affordable Housing Coming to a Neighborhood Near You?”

Stanley Kurtz, at National Review, exploded on July 8, the day the HUD regulation was announced:

Once HUD gets its hooks into a municipality, no policy area is safe. Zoning, transportation, education, all of it risks slipping into the control of the federal government and the new, unelected regional bodies the feds will empower.

“Over time,” Kurtz continued, Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing

could spell the end of the local democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville rightly saw as the foundation of America’s liberty and distinctiveness.

It happens that Bill and Hillary Clinton live and vote in Westchester County, and their own precinct in Chappaqua 362 registered Democrats to 213 Republicans reflects the shift in local elections to the Republican Party. In 2012, Obama won the precinct 342 to 250. In 2009, Astorino carried the Clintons’ precinct 131 to 89, and in 2013, 197 to 160.

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