The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 24, 2015

In Yonkers (and everywhere), how we build housing matters: a recap of Show Me a Hero, week two

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In last week’s recap of HBO’s Show Me a Hero miniseries, we explored the history and policy context behind the housing fight that unfolded in Yonkers, an inner suburb of New York City, in the late 1980s. Set to the soundtrack of Springsteen (and a bit of Public Enemy and Kid ‘n Play for good measure), this week’s episodes raise a host of significant urban policy and planning challenges that our country is still grappling with today.

Building on the important conversations that this show is driving in housing circles, here is what we felt deserved a second look from last night’s episodes.

There is a large, persistent gap between the supply and demand of affordable housing

In Show Me a Hero, we see residents of Yonkers engaging in heated debates following a federal district court ruling that the city must build new affordable housing units outside of the small corner where it had previously confined low-income housing. 

Central to the story this week is the housing search of multiple Yonkers residents desperate to find decent housing for themselves and their families, often including young children. The experience is not uncommon. Long waitlists are a hallmark of affordable housing.

Today, only one in four households who are eligible for housing assistance receive it. This includes millions of households with children, veterans, and the disabled. Nationwide, there are only 28 available and affordable units for every 100 extremely low-income renters.

Show Me a Hero shows that in the 1980s, Yonkers had an affordable housing supply gap—but the bigger point is that the gap continues to exist throughout the country.

Where and how we build housing matters

In the show, the drama does not end when the city decides to build the 200 affordable housing units; rather, that is the impetus for a critical discussion between city officials, a federal judge, and a highly influential (and very real) housing researcher named Oscar Newman. As the court-appointed housing adviser to Yonkers, Newman fights against building high-rise low-income housing projects, making the case for developing a series of smaller-scale townhomes instead.

Newman’s stance is far more than just aesthetics—where and how you build affordable housing matters. The smaller-scale, more integrated style of housing Newman touts stems from his defensible space theory, which emphasizes that the physical layout of developments should enable residents to control the areas around their homes. This theory asserts that the no man’s land spaces in high-rise developments are vulnerable to vandalism, falling into disrepair, and inviting criminal activity.

Beyond that theory, research shows that concentrated poverty has serious negative long-term effects on families, especially children. This includes impacts on education and mental and physical health.

With this growing body of evidence as a backdrop, we have seen a change in practice in how we develop and locate affordable housing. The HOPE VI program emphasized resident empowerment, economic integration, and poverty deconcentration, placing greater emphasis on mixed-income housing and supporting greater residential mobility and choice.

Overall, housing policy today focuses more on smaller-scale and scattered-site developments in order to better integrate developments and the families that live in them into the fabric of neighborhoods.  

Ultimately, housing is not just about a roof over your head

“People just want a home, right? It’s the same for everybody,” Yonkers Mayor Nick Wasicsko reflects at one point in episode three. It’s a seemingly simple, incontrovertible statement of basic human need, but housing is about a lot more than just a roof over your head.

Mayor Wasicsko makes the statement while contemplating a move to a beautiful single family home in a quiet neighborhood overlooking his city, within walking distance of his offices. The implicit point is that people actually don’t just want a home—they want a home in a supportive neighborhood where they can safely raise their children and gain access to opportunities.

As Urban researchers have recently noted, helping low-income families connect to opportunities should take place through investing in low-income neighborhoods as well as supporting access to higher opportunity neighborhoods.

Please visit last week’s Policy Debate on Show Me a Hero, come back next week for another policy recap, 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. 

The city of Yonkers, N.Y., is shown in this aerial view looking west to the Hudson River, Aug. 5, 1988. City Hall can be seen in the upper right and the School Street housing project is in the center. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

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