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Housing Policy, Then and Now: Reflections on HBO’s "Show Me a Hero"

Sunday’s premiere of Show Me a Hero, David Simon’s (The Wire) new HBO miniseries on the 1980s fight over public housing in Yonkers, New York, provides an excellent opportunity to explore the legacy of housing policies and their impact on communities. What themes, lessons, and challenges raised in the show still resonate today?

The Urban Institute is talking with...
Xavier Briggs Xavier Briggs
Ali Solis Ali Solis
Joseph Shuldiner Joseph Shuldiner
Erika C. Poethig Erika C. Poethig
Margery Turner Margery Turner
Claudia Aranda Claudia Aranda
James Perry James Perry
Justin Milner
Moderated by:
Justin Milner
Senior Research Associate

Welcome to a new Policy Debate focused on the new HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero. The series 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.

I am thrilled to be joined in this conversation with an outstanding group of housing experts, researchers, and public leaders who have unique perspectives on Yonkers and its implications for current housing policy.

The show (see our blog recap here) drops 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. The story focuses on the desegregation and the location of new public housing in white communities, as well as the provision of other affordable housing. At the time of the lawsuit, Yonkers built roughly 98 percent of its public housing in one corner of the city.

How has the debate around low-income housing changed (or not) since the era of late-1980s Yonkers?

Thanks, Justin, for getting this conversation started. When I think back to the late 1980s, I’m struck by how much we’ve learned about the siting of publicly subsidized housing. At that time, Yonkers wasn’t unusual. In cities across the country, public housing projects were typically clustered in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods or in isolated sections of town. New research was just emerging about how these projects exacerbated racial segregation and poverty concentration and about the damaging consequences for families and children.  

Since then, innovations in policy and practice – accompanied by research – have taught us how subsidized housing can be integrated into more diverse and opportunity-rich neighborhoods. The HOPE VI program replaced many severely distressed public housing projects with mixed-income developments. Housing authorities have built (or acquired) housing for poor families in non-poor neighborhoods. And Housing Choice Vouchers can enable poor families to live in privately-owned rental housing in neighborhoods of their choice.

Research shows that when these policies are implemented well, low-income families benefit and the “receiving” neighborhoods are unharmed. Crime doesn’t rise and property values don’t drop.

Sadly, fears about subsidized housing persist today, despite the evidence. And too often, low-income families can’t find affordable housing in safe neighborhoods with good schools and a healthy environment. I hope the Show Me a Hero series will spark constructive conversations in communities across the country about how to expand affordable housing options in vibrant, opportunity-rich neighborhoods.

Margery it is interesting that you mentioned HOPE VI because that and CHOICE Neighborhoods sort of represent the progress of thinking since the late 80's. Judge Sand's remedy for segregation was to create affordable housing opportunities in the good neighborhood. This is important, but it is an incomplete remedy. Only some people will be able to take advantage of these opportunities. It is just as important to address the impacted community, make it more viable and possibly lead to its integration, at first economically and then racially. As an aside, the readers of this debate should know that as the result of the desegregation law suit, Yonkers has open school enrollment. Therefore, where you live does not determine where you go to school. In fact, when we were preparing our CHOICE neighborhood plan, we learned that the students in our Cottage Place Gardens housing development traveled on average 40-45 minutes to school each day.

Joseph, you make the important point that Yonkers has open enrollment in its schools as a result of the desegregation lawsuit.  As I watched Show Me a Hero, I kept thinking about the gripping two-part series This American Life just aired on the ongoing challenges of integrating schools. The parents objecting to the bussing of students from a school on the other side of town in Missouri sounded just like the Yonkers residents at the city council meetings. Although the debates have decades between them, the rhetoric used to fight against efforts to desegregate continues to be the same.  Opponents refer to the dangers of “social engineering” and a litany of other hypothetical horrors to increase fear among residents. These same tactics also have been used recently by critics of HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule.  As communities assess their local and regional housing patterns, as required by the new rule, more debates over how (and whether) jurisdictions should create racially integrated neighborhoods will be held in cities and towns across the country.  

How can these desegregation debates, wherever they occur, be informed by the lessons that Marge reminds us of? How can the plans for creating more integrated neighborhoods, as well as their critical implementation, be improved by the lessons of Yonkers and other communities with similar pasts? 

Building on Joe and Marge's comments, it's worth noting that the sort of NIMBYism portrayed in the HBO series has not been limited, historically, to fighting the development of new public housing units. In some localities across America, the simple effort to create a more diverse housing stock -- to propose a small development of entry-level apartments, say, in a suburb of single-family homes -- can lead to vigorous local opposition. It would be wonderful, as Marge notes, to see this series and the renewed interest about geographically concentrated ghetto poverty -- thanks to events in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere -- fuel a broader conversation. Oldie-but-goodie concepts, such as the idea that every jurisdiction in a local labor market ought to provide its fair share of affordable housing, have much to offer. As racial and ethnic diversity grows and the nation continues to deal with unprecedented levels of economic inequality, it's a problem that so many communities are 'gated,' in legal effect if not in physical form. Yonkers had a pitched battle over creating a relatively modest number of "scattered-site" public housing units, 200, in already developed neighborhoods where such housing had never been sited. In some ways, the bigger prize for the nation is inclusionary growth: Using land use policy and other tools to build in affordability as newly developing areas expand. 

But Joe is absolutely right. The other side of the coin is vital too: Expanding opportunity where low-income and otherwise disadvantaged people already live. The lives of the low-income families in 'Hero' remind us that quality education and health care, access to skill development and decent employment, and safe streets and places to play -- these things need to be available regardless of your zip code.

I have always thought one way to address the difficulty of access to better neighborhoods is to take away one of the main arguments, which is that affordable housing will depress housing values. I can tell you that a private builder recently completed 9 modular homes on Valentine, the site of one of the more vociferous opposition to the scatter site. They are selling for $650,000 each and the neighborhood seems thrilled. I would propose some reserve or guarantee that would reimburse homeowners if housing prices fell as a result of the affordable housing.

My own experience is that payouts from this fund would be few and far between.

It's an interesting idea, Joe, though it could set a questionable precedent. In some parts of the country, a powerful movement around "takings" would argue for compensation to any property owner who is affected in any way by public decisions. It can become a slippery slope. Years ago, our research team at Columbia found that even under the extreme conditions of the Yonkers conflict, the scattered-site public housing had no detectable effect on property values in surrounding neighborhoods, with the analysis carried out years after the developments were completed (in order to give us an ample "observation window"). We couldn't rule out small numbers of "panic sales," of course, if homeowners chose to flee, nor could we say that the new developments were a non-issue to every buyer in the marketplace. But you're exactly right: The overwhelming evidence is that affordable housing investments do not have negative price effects AS A RULE and can, conversely, actually upgrade some neighborhoods. Good design, leasing or sales, and management matter. And context matters. But in most kinds of neighborhoods, well-built affordable housing on a reasonably scale does not signal decline. Markets with robust demand, as you say, are particularly resilient.



One of the things that struck me about “Show Me a Hero” is that the series does a great job portraying the real life struggles of hard working families trying to make a living and move up the economic ladder of opportunity. As policy leaders we focus a lot on the numbers and data and the need… yet we’ve made little progress in changing the debate that we see portrayed in the series.  With more than 19 million working families with children, seniors, and veterans struggling to afford their homes, we can’t lose sight of their important stories. We hope that viewers will reflect on how many of their neighbors, friends, or relatives are battling this hidden, silent crisis behind closed doors.

Joe, I love that idea.  It reminds me of the Southwest Equity Assurance Program in Chicago, which was launched decades ago as a solution to white flight.   A friend of mine, Jonathan Eig, wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal about the program and its results.   Homeowners paid into the insurance pool to protect themselves from a drop in housing values.  The program's goal was to slow or stop white flight.  Decades later, the southwest side of Chicago is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods in the city.  Programs such as these are worth looking at even today. 

As Xav points out, there is still a good deal of local opposition to the siting of affordable housing.  Case in point, HUD's more recent case against Westchester County (the county in which Yonkers is located) shows that communities still resist their obligations under the Fair Housing Act and are willing to lose federal money rather than add a modest number of units of affordable housing in opportunity rich neighborhoods. 

I'd like to return to a point Joe made: that opening up affordable housing options in healthy, opportunity-rich neighborhoods is necessary but not sufficient.  We also need to invest in the revitalization of distressed neighborhoods so they too become safe, healthy, and opportunity-rich places to live.  I wholeheartedly agree.

Too often, interventions aimed at expanding residential mobility and choice are pitted against interventions aimed at neighborhood revitalization.  This is such a counterproductive argument.  The problems of residential segregation, poverty concentration, and neighborhood distress were caused by two powerful forces: the exclusion of poor people (especially poor people of color) from prosperous neighborhoods and disinvestment from the neighborhoods where poor people (especially people of color) remained.  To respond effectively, policies must address both forces -- making prosperous neighborhoods more inclusive and rebuilding ladders of opportunity in distressed neighborhoods.

Solomon Greene and I made this argument in a recent blog.  And I'm convinced that pursuing only one strategy -- either inclusion or reinvestment -- would be ineffective. 

The idea that uprooting low-income families and moving them to affluent neighborhoods will automatically solve all of the issues facing our communities is a dangerous one.
Should families not have the right to choose where they want to live? Should we simply abandon inner-city neighborhoods altogether? What about the elderly or families with no children who’s needs and desires are different? That’s why we strongly support allowing low income people to make choices that are best for themselves and their families. Public policy should support preservation, revitalization and mobility.
America’s struggling communities didn’t fall into distress overnight, they suffered from generations of isolation and disinvestment. Therefore, they need sustained investments from the private and public sectors to create housing that residents can afford in communities that provide access to good schools, jobs, health care and transit to create opportunities that allow for lasting neighborhood change and permanent stability.
There is no quick fix for the long-term effects of entrenched racism and generational poverty. Just as these communities didn't fall into distress overnight, they won't be turned around in a day.  They need sustained and targeted investments with comprehensive solutions. We must invest in all types of communities to make an impact—not just those already at the top of the socioeconomic ladder and Solomon and Marge point out in their blog.

Thank you for a great conversation so far, policy debaters. We have covered some very thought-provoking ground.

Thinking more about our 'Housing Policy, Then and Now' theme through the lens of the experience of Yonkers, I wanted to expand on a thought that Claudia raised earlier. It seems likely that HUD's commitment to more actively enforcing the Fair Housing Act through the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule may spur a lot more debate about how cities can create more integrated neighborhoods across the country.

What can be done – by public agencies, advocates, researchers, HUD – to ensure that future policy and programs are informed by past experience in places like Yonkers? And given what we are learning from broader research, what other approaches could be promising?

Boy I wish I knew the answer to this question. There are at least two obstacles, one is that the forms of racism and discrimination change, so the lessons learned may not be exactly on point, and second, we always seem doomed to repeat our mistakes. I would offer a couple of approaches. First is communication. The study Xavier mentioned about property values staying steady or improving, needs to be publicized to a wider audience. As Erica knows, the Housing Authority Insurance Co (HAI) has funded the Urban Institute to look at this issue, the positive impact that affordable housing has on neighborhoods. I believe it to be so, We need to find a way for the public to know it is so.


Second, we need to incorporate considerations of discrimination in everyday decision making. I believe that HUD's approach with the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulations is a good step if they are used to channel jurisdictions into at least thinking about the problem, to have an awareness and be required to at least ask why there is this result. I am hopeful that HUD will have a flexible approach and recognize that there may be legitimate reasons why something is the way it is. I thought Justice Kennedy took this approach in ICP v. Texas. I interpret his opinion as first, disparate impact counts, second if the plaintiffs prove disparate impact, the burden shifts to the defendants. Third, if the defendants show a rational reason for their actions, then the burden shifts back to the plaintiffs to show fourth, that there is a less discriminatory way to have achieved their legitimate goal. This back and forth, whether in court or in decision making creates a dialog which may be almost as important as the result.

I will get to the policy questions shortly. But, I thought it important to address this matter first: David Simon is stalking me. I do not have concrete evidence. But there is more than enough tangential proof to convince anyone who is two or more mint juleps deep into their afternoon. I offer the following perfectly imperfect supporting evidence.

  1. Simon produced a tv show called Treme about an eponymous New Orleans neighborhood.  It was the first TV show to ever properly capture New Orleans dialect, politics, music and culture in a way that New Orleanians respected.  The show told the story of post-Katrina life with an unromantic truth that made locals tear up frequently. I am a New Orleanian. I lived one block outside of  Treme from 2002 to 2013. I found my Katrina struggles, joys and daily happenstance woven into the experiences and narratives of the many familiar personalities  on the show.
  2. In 2010, I lost the New Orleans Mayors race to Mitch Landrieu. Mayor Landrieu is an excellent and visionary leader, and brilliant politician. Simon did not run for New Orleans Mayor (that I know of). However, like me, Simon has frequently gotten on the wrong side of Mayor Landrieu's infamous temper. Simon went down in New Orleans history when he famously excoriated  Mayor Landrieu at a local conference (http://www.bestofneworleans.com/blogofneworleans/archives/2011/08/29/dav...). It was one of the best New Orleans things ever. Rest assured, that though I shall not post them, comparable rants of my own exist in the internet world.
  3. Finally, I am a housing policy nerd that believes that housing policy impacts all aspects of peoples lives: education, jobs, transportation, criminal justice system interaction....you name it. Further, I believe that narratives of peoples' lived experience are the best way to communicate the data points that can convince policy makers to adopt new progressive housing policies. The stories in the Wire and Treme make clear Simons commitment to telling stories that rely on data and exposes policy failures. If I were involved in  Show me a Hero it would be quite similar to Simon's other shows but with a housing policy narrative. If the show turns out to be that, then all mint julep drinkers will know instantly that David Simon is stalking me.



I couldn't agree more with James, I think that movies, tv and other media can have a profound influence on the public debate about policies that affect disadvantaged groups.  This is why I am so excited about this series and how it might shape the broader public's understanding of implicit and explicit racism.   The timing of the series offers us the opportunity to talk about why the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule is so important.  A lot of ground work has been laid by HUD and others to educate public leadership about why the rule is important, but nothing substitutes for provocative and evocative storytelling of this kind.  It will be hugely helpful for the launch of this new rule. 


Joe makes a really important point about the rule itself and the disparate impact decision that I want to also address.  I spent eight years at the MacArthur Foundation developing and supporting an initiative aimed at preserving and improving privately-owned but federally assisted rental housing.  Across the country, HUD supports 2.4 million units of public and privately owned housing affordable to America's poorest households, which we document in an Urban Institute report on the affordability gap.  Most of these units were built decades ago.   Some of this housing is located in communities rich with opportunity, but most of it is not.  As Marge points out, that doesn't mean we shouldn't look for solutions to revitalizing the communities in which much of this housing is located as an important and complimentary strategy.  Yet, we also know that if federal support for these publicly and privately owned units declines it is unlikely to return and those communities will lose the only source of affordable housing for those households.  This is why we need to invest in the communities surrounding much of this housing to ensure that they are enabling people to access better quality schools, healthy food, transportation and other amenities. 


A single television show laid my entire housing policy foundation. That show was Good Times. Good Times was, of course, a late 70's sitcom developed by Norman Lear. It told the story a family living in the Cabrini Green public housing development. Despite having a hard working, God fearing, fully intact family that prioritized education for their children, they could not get out of the ghetto. Weekly, Lear used the 30 min sitcom format to make clear that America's public housing policy was failing.

Then and now, I had friends and families who resided in public housing. And while I knew the plight of my friends and families, somehow, Lear's narratives laid bare the injustice of American housing policy and shone how it intertwined with poor policing, food insecurity, failing schools and lacking job security.

I suspect that Good Times had more to do with convincing policy makers to reform public housing than any policy paper ever did. It gave the public a common language and belief about what public housing life was like. No matter your opinion about HOPE VI and similar programs, the Good Times narrative made the programs an easier sell. Hard working ethical, God fearing families needed housing opportunities that America's traditional public housing system did not (and still do not) provide.

Show Me a Hero has the potential to be the Good Times of our generation.  Knowing Simon's work, it would do so without a single exclamation of "Dyn-o-myte!" Rather it is more likely that biting truths will lay bare housing policy failures.

So to Justin's question, it is quite possible that the most important step in convincing policy makers to consider Yonkers, has already been taken by HBO and David Simon, by producing Show Me a Hero.

The question for the wonks among us, is can we convince Simon to use his medium to do more than narrate problems. Will he also introduce progressive solutions?

Thank you all for being a part of this important debate and offering a range of thought-provoking perspectives surrounding housing policy, past and present. Special thanks to Joseph Shuldiner, Xavier Briggs, Ali Solis, and James Perry for your contributions. The story of Yonkers portrayed in Show Me a Hero may have taken place 30 years ago, but the issues raised are as timely as ever. I hope we are all able to take a moment tonight to sip a mint julep and reflect on some of the questions raised.