The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 31, 2015

Housing and heroism: Final thoughts on HBO’s Show Me a Hero

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To restate the obvious: you just don’t see a series like Show Me a Hero pop up on television all that often. This was not the kind of show that demanded live-tweeting, though #breakoutthenicecookware would have been a nice hashtag.

And while you might bounce to an old-school Digable Planets beat, more often you would simply find yourself shaking your head at the real-world frustrations, complexities, and challenges the show presented.

With the end of the series, we wanted to provide a final look into a few elements that were especially thought-provoking from a policy perspective. (Check out our recaps from the first and second weeks for even more goodness.)

Yonkers represents just one fight in the broader battle over desegregation and discrimination

The United States has a long history of fostering racial discrimination and segregation. For decades, racially restrictive covenants—contractual agreements that prohibited use of real estate by a particular group of people—explicitly barred people of color from buying homes in white neighborhoods. Redlining, which continues in some communities today, prevented people of color from getting a mortgage except for certain neighborhoods. These weren’t just the efforts of select racist private citizens or close-minded local communities—many of these tactics were supported, or often driven, by the federal government.

While discriminatory practices are prohibited today by law, racial discrimination in housing persists. Instead of maps with red ink, the discrimination hides in seemingly benign (and boring) municipal code. Heated debates over housing, like the one at the center of Show Me a Hero, continue to happen in cities and towns across the country. 

Today, restrictive zoning is one of the most powerful forces behind segregation. Municipalities across the country engage in exclusionary zoning practices that make it difficult for low-cost housing to be built, thus preventing lower-income, and even middle-income, households from accessing certain communities.

These exclusionary practices are particularly problematic because we’re increasingly dependent on the private sector to help bridge the affordability gap.

We don’t build much public housing anymore. Housing assistance is largely provided through the Housing Choice Voucher program, or Section 8. Prohibiting the construction of multifamily or lower-cost units, municipalities make it impossible for families to use their vouchers in those communities.

This fight isn’t really about property values 

The NIMBY activists in Show Me a Hero often claimed that this fight around affordable housing had nothing to do with race, that it was purely an economic issue, and that they were concerned about property values and crime. However, the us-versus-them rhetoric and the constant stream of degradations—from the hurling of racial epithets to strategic canine defecation to pipe bombs and graffiti—demonstrated an underlying prejudice that has everything to do with race.

Further, the economic argument often used as a screen for racially charged objections has questionable footing. Research has indicated there is no consistent relationship between property values and proximity to subsidized housing. In one of the most recent evaluations, a study on the impact of an affordable housing development on the high-opportunity city of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, found no evidence of increased crime or decreased property values. Finally, in Yonkers there has been no increase in crime or drop in property values either.

Final thoughts: Heroism with a lower-case ‘h’

The title of the miniseries comes from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote—“show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy”—but the line is also a sly acknowledgement of the demands of the entertainment consumer. What made the show subtly subversive was that viewers were never shown a hero throughout the course of the series, at least not in the traditional sense.

Despite all the qualities of the stereotypical heroic protagonist, the young, charismatic, white male Mayor Nick Wasicsko’s main act of heroism was to go along with an existing court order to avoid bankrupting his city. Perhaps it was a “profile in courage,” but hardly heroic.

Rather, the show asks us to redefine, to scale down how to think about “heroism.” In the show, there were no Walter Whites, Don Drapers, or Omar Littles. Unlike those characters of past television classics, the characters in Show Me a Hero are not larger than life. In other words, they are like real people—which, of course, they were.

In real life, heroism is often small. A hero can be a woman battling blindness with dignity or a mother raising three kids on her own or a woman who learns what it means to be a good neighbor or an advocate, lawyer, and judge who presses a desegregation case against all odds across decades.

In Show Me a Hero, it is the collective acts of small heroism that can make a difference. Maybe not even a big difference, but when you see what the chance at a new life means for the people at the housing lottery, even a small difference matters.

Join us for another policy debate on race, place, and Show Me a Hero, and share your thoughts with us on Twitter: @jhmilner and@EmilyB2_3

 

This blog is part of the Housing Assistance Matters Initiative which educates Americans about the vital role of housing assistance. The initiative is a project of the Urban Institute, made possible with support from Housing Authority Insurance, Inc. (HAI, Inc.). The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization and retains independent and exclusive control over substance and quality of any Housing Assistance Matters Initiative products. The views expressed in this product are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute or HAI, Inc. 

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