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August 17, 2015

Housing policy hits the small screen: A policy recap of HBO’s ‘Show Me a Hero’

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Let’s be real: Last night’s premiere of David Simon’s Show Me a Hero was undoubtedly the most-anticipated housing policy docu-drama in pay-cable history.

The miniseries—which runs through August 30—tells the true story of the battle over the construction of affordable housing units in Yonkers, NY. Though the story plays out in the 1980s, the themes that arise hold clear resonance to housing and community development issues of today.

Each week, the Urban Institute will post a brief policy recap of the latest episodes. Rather than comment on aspects of the show like the excellent casting decisions, the directorial flourishes, or the historically accurate level of women's shoulder pads in late-1980s business casual attire, we will focus instead on a few important policy ramifications raised in the context of the show.

There is so much to address in this thought-provoking new show, but here are a few key takeaways.

There is a lot of history—local and national—behind the housing battles taking place in Yonkers in 1987.

Last night’s episodes drop viewers into a period of great racial and political tension for Yonkers, with scores of white residents decrying the potential development of low-income housing units in different parts of the city. While these moments of conflict accurately portray the vehement resistance to affordable housing at that time, the scenes represents the apex of a far longer struggle.

The immediate conflict in Show Me a Hero stems from a 1980 civil suit filed against the city of Yonkers, alleging the city engaged in systematic segregation for decades which violated the Fair Housing Act of 1968. At the time of the lawsuit, Yonkers built roughly 98 percent of its public housing in one corner of the city. In 1985, the federal district court found that the city and its school board had deliberately segregated its housing and schools.

The Yonkers housing case, however, is rooted in decades of civil rights and housing policy battles. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 explicitly outlawed housing discrimination for the first time in federal law. The act is one of the landmark achievements of the civil rights movement and the product of decades-long efforts to combat discriminatory practices in housing, including racially restrictive covenants and redlining.

Rather than standalone events, these were a tumultuous few years in a series of tumultuous decades that continue to today.

The show demonstrates the complex interplay of federal, state, and local authorities in housing policy that plays out today.

In addition to being rooted in a deep historical context, the story presented in Show Me a Hero illustrates the matrix of federal, state, and local actors that shape our housing landscape. The show accurately illustrates the tension between a federal court and local politicians as city officials grapple with how to develop local solutions in order to comply with federal policy. 

Federal and local leaders have often found themselves at odds on how to interpret and execute the federal law. In the show, there is a striking disconnect between the local political and cultural climate and the federal requirements. This disconnect was by no means unique to Yonkers or to housing policy.

Recent federal policy efforts under the Obama administration have acknowledged the importance of better partnership between federal and local decisionmakers. Last month, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which aims to equip local actors with tools to better promote integrated residential patterns and increase neighborhood choice. The rule helps make the provisions of the Fair Housing Act more actionable and holds local authorities more accountable by requiring that HUD grantees use data and community-driven approaches to address segregation and expand opportunity. 

Housing and communities have broad implications for the health and well-being of residents.

In addition to highlighting the historic arch of fair housing issues, the show also touches upon the impact of housing on individual well-being. Recent research has started to increase our understanding of the social determinants of health. Show Me a Hero introduces us to two characters facing serious health issues which illustrate place-based health challenges. 

Like the young man in the show who suffered from severe asthma, there are numerous low-income families who live in poor-quality housing, which has been shown to negatively impact health outcomes. The effects can be especially hard on children.

The home-health care worker who is losing her vision to diabetes is one example of the staggering diabetes rates in low income communities. Counties with poverty rates of more than 35 percent have obesity rates 145 percent greater than wealthy counties. Recent research has demonstrated significant improvements in obesity and diabetes rates for families that have moved out of low-income neighborhoods.

Please join us as we continue the conversation in a Policy Debate on Show Me a Hero, and come back next week for another policy recap.

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.

A general view of the city of Yonkers, N.Y., looking Southeast, is shown on Aug. 5, 1988. (AP Photo/Adam Stoltman)

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