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Race and Place: Reflections on HBO’s "Show Me a Hero"

The HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, which centers on the 1980s fight over public housing in Yonkers, New York, concluded this past Sunday night. The show raised a host of issues related to racial discrimination, housing and school segregation, and the complexities of social integration of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

What have we learned about these issues in the last 25 years that shapes urban policy today?

The Urban Institute is talking with...
Erika C. Poethig Erika C. Poethig
Susan J. Popkin Susan J. Popkin
Solomon Greene Solomon Greene
Margery Turner Margery Turner
Claudia Aranda Claudia Aranda
Joseph Shuldiner Joseph Shuldiner
James Perry James Perry
Reed Jordan Reed Jordan
Justin Milner
Moderated by:
Justin Milner
Senior Research Associate

Welcome to our capstone Policy Debate discussing the 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. I am excited to be joined again by a remarkable collection of housing experts, researchers, and public leaders who have unique perspectives on Yonkers. (Check out our first debate here and latest blog for more analysis).

While the City of Yonkers ultimately complies with the federal court’s decree to build 200 units of low-income housing, ensuring that entering families succeed is about a lot more than simply constructing the homes. Show Me a Hero gives us a glimpse into how support services can help families integrate into new surroundings or neighborhoods. 

How have these kinds of support service models evolved since the efforts from Yonkers? What do we know about the effectiveness of these types of non-brick and mortar investments?

Justin, thanks for bringing the debate team back together and welcome to our new debaters!  During last night's show, I was reminded of work that the Protestants for the Common Good led during the Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation in the 2000s.   Nearly 6,000 households left public housing permanently or temporarily during this period as the high rises came down and new mixed-income communities were built in their place.  Voucher holders were encouraged to move to communities with lower poverty rates, but many residents were concerned about whether they would be welcomed.  Protestants for the Common Good designed a Welcome Your Neighbor Program that worked with local churches in communities where voucher holders moved to provide supports, but due to privacy concerns it was hard for the churches to connect directly with residents.    


Although the Welcome Your Neighbor program had limitations, it also made some inroads in breaking down myths and educating a broader range of people about  public and affordable housing.   I saw this for myself when I led several sessions of the program in suburban churches near where voucher holders had moved.  I thought the outreach program portrayed in "Show Me a Hero" demonstrated the value such programs offer in creating bridges between different racial and ethnic groups, but it also pointed to the very one-sided nature of some "Good Neighbor" programs.  These programs --as the show points out -- tend to instruct public housing residents about what it means to be a "good neighbor" without an equivalent emphasis on helping the members of "welcoming" communities to be good neighbors.    It is always a two-way street. 

Two points. First, Authorities often have orientation programs for new tenants that focus on the rules and how to use appliances. While that is important, it is often expressed too rigidly, that is, here are the rules you must obey, these are things you must or must not do. I think an old fashion welcome wagon approach, welcome to the neighborhood, here is where we shop, the best schools, churches, etc. The idea is to integrate people into community life, not just the housing.

Second, the support programs really are necessary. In the show you saw the reluctance of one of the characters to even eat at a restaurant where the other customers were all white. People generally do not want to go where they believe they are not wanted. This is the job Met Council performed in Chicago and what ESOP does now for us in Yonkers. We need to work with program participants to overcome their fears of a new neighborhood where they believe (true or false) they are not wanted. This hand holding has to continue probably for six months or longer after the family is settled. Which relates back to the first point, how much easier this all is if there is an entity in the new community that will welcome the new families and help integrate them into community life.

Erika, as you know, Chicago’s experiences taught us a lot about how to provide effective resident services. The CHA’s original plans called for relocation counseling to be coupled with a Good Neighbor program to train the public housing residents to be good tenants—not a two-way program like the one on the show or the Welcome Neighbor effort. There was also a “Service Connector,” but caseloads were high and services were necessarily light touch.


Five years into CHA's transformation,  it was clear that these services were not enough to help the large number of highly vulnerable families and CHA agreed to partner with The Urban Institute and Heartland Human Care Services to experiment with a more intensive service model. That collaboration became highly-successful Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration.


One thing "Show Me a Hero" does very well is illustrate the diversity of people who depend on public housing, from women like Doreen, who struggled, but recovered because of her strong family supports and Carmen, working steadily to support her children to Billie, a teen mother and high school dropout dealing with an abusive and destructive partner. The Chicago program was aimed at tenants like Billie and, with intensive case management, on-site mental health and substance abuse services, and a transitional jobs program, succeeded in helping these families relocate to better housing in safer neighborhoods. Many parents’ health improved and employment rates rose—and these gains were still evident four years after families moved. 

We are now working with CHA and other housing authorities across the country on the HOST Demonstration, which builds on what we learned and is providing a two-generation, whole family model that we hope will really move the needle for even the most vulnerable children in public housing.

I really appreciate Erika’s and Joe’s emphasis on efforts to welcome low-income families who move to new and unfamiliar neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods often offer terrific amenities, services, and opportunities, but – without a helping hand – newcomers may have trouble finding them or may not feel comfortable using them. 

Some of the most promising assisted housing mobility programs – which help low-income families use Housing Choice Vouchers to move to opportunity-rich neighborhoods – provide this kind of support.   For example, the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program provides two years of post-move counseling to help families adjust to their new communities, enroll in programs and services, resolve problems, and find jobs or build skills.  Similarly, the Dallas Inclusive Communities Project sticks with families after they move, helping them access good schools and jobs. 

These and other initiatives aimed at helping low-income families move to high-opportunity neighborhoods are building on a growing body of research evidence about the value of these moves and the ingredients for successful programs.

A significant underlying tension not addressed in the show is school segregation. In Show Me A Hero, the children integrating into the new neighborhood will also be entering into a new school system.  

When neighborhoods are segregated, so too will the schools. Black students today are more segregated than they were in the 1980s during the period of the show. For many families, moving to a high-opportunity neighborhood is as much about access to high-quality schools as it is about access to jobs, reduced exposure to crime and environmental pollutants, and other improved amenities.

We should also consider the supports the children in Show Me A Hero's new affordable housing will need to succeed in a new school. They will no longer have the social networks of their previous school and will be in classrooms where many students have never had black friends and likely taught by white teachers who haven’t had black children. If there are multiple schools available, the children’s parents may not know which school will provide the best education.  These challenges can put enormous strain on black students and their parents, often leading to marginalization or isolation within the school system. 

School systems can prepare for increased diversity by not stratifying the incoming students by income or race, inviting the participation of new parents in school governance bodies, and other measures to promote the inclusivity of both the children and the parents.

Notwithstanding the significant legal barriers, school integration often faces as much, if not more, community opposition as affordable housing. The same racist fears and logic - that blackness is somehow harmful to communities - which fuels opposition to affordable housing in Show Me A Hero is often found in opposition to school integration.

But evidence demonstrates that students of color and poor students benefit greatly when they attend desegregated schools and the test scores and performance on children in receiving schools does not diminish.  Research has also shown that racially integrated schools reduce prejudice among students of all races, foster cross-racial understanding, and increase the likelihood of students seeking out homeownership in racially diverse neighborhoods when they’re older. What's more, one of the country’s most successful and ongoing school desegregation initiatives in Louisville, Kentucky, shows that thoughtfully designed and implemented school desegregation can be sustainable and stabilize local housing markets and regional tax base.


Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments. I wanted to shift perspective from the Yonkers families who moved to the families who remained.

The show concludes by telling us what happens to the key characters in the story – the political leaders on both sides of the housing desegregation debate, the residents who moved into the new scattered site units, and the neighbors who either supported or opposed the new units in East Yonkers. What it doesn’t focus on what happens to the residents of the Schlobohm public housing development who didn’t ‘win’ the lottery or chose to stay. 

What do we know about outcomes for families who remain in areas of highly concentrated poverty? What have we learned about to how to effectively revitalize these communities?

Justin, Show Me A Hero really tells us  about the consequences of growing up in distressed, high-poverty communities: developmental and cognitive delays; poor physical and mental health; and the likelihood of dropping out of school, engaging in risky sexual behavior, and becoming involved in criminal activity. Residents live in constant fear because of the chronic violence. And we now know that trauma and chronic stress have long-term implications for residents’ health, as we see with characters struggling with depression, diabetes and asthma.  The biggest accomplishment of redevelopment programs like the one in Yonkers was that they get families to better housing in safer neighborhoods.

Hey folks! 

Yesterday, Show Me a Hero passed a very important test. It impressed one of the advocates that I admire most. Diana Gray, my Mother in Law, lives in a cottage 50  feet from my front door.  Last night night she came gunning for me, "James, James, have you see it? If you haven't you've got to see it!" She immediately began to tell me each detail of each episode of Show Me a Hero before I could get a word in. In fact, I am still not sure that she heard me say that I am blogging about the show (I guess I will have to post this on her Facebook page so that she knows, ha!)

So the reason Diana's interest is important to me it is that it says a lot about the shows realism. Diana has been in the trenches. She is a progressive advocate who has spent her life fighting racism and sexism. In the 70's she worked at non-profit organizations helping to provide health care, child care, access to reproductive care and alternatives to incarceration in poor rural communities. In 1975, she wrote, How to Have Intercourse Without Getting Screwed: A Guide to Birth Control, Abortion, and Venereal Disease. In her spare time, Diana, a white women, gave birth to and raised one of America's most radical black feminists: Melissa Harris-Perry.

Seriously, I just don't know if you can be more advocate or more liberal than Diana Gray.

So if Diana says that Show Me a Hero tells the story of fight for affordable housing in a real way, then I think David Simon has passed a very important test!

Hopefully not appearing to be defensive, the Schlobohm of today is very different from the one depicted on television. (HBO did import graffiti and garbage and took out landscaping.) The manager at the site has been showing the series to the residents in the community room. I joined them last night for episodes 3 and 4.

The low incomes still exist, but the development was actually well built if not well designed to the extent that I believe it is more than housing of last resort and, after the rehabilitation planned through RAD, will attract some families with higher incomes than the ones there now. And that is the key, creating the viable community that will attract a wider range of incomes.

In response to Reed, the Yonkers case was also about schools and resulted in open enrollment. So where you live has relatively little to do with where you go to school. Of course, this approach is not an unmitigated success. Many white, middle class families pulled their kids from the system, so all the schools became less integrated. When we did our study under a CHOICE neighborhood planning grant for Cottage Place Gardens, we found that our residents on averaged traveled 45 minutes to school. It also makes it more difficult to impact a development as improving the local school does not necessarily benefit the people who live nearby. That is why I think you have to plan for all communities even though the resources do not exist to implement the plans.

Great follow-up question Justin!  And I was wondering the same thing:  what is the other half of the story? How do we (and how did Yonkers) address the harms of concentrated poverty by simultaneously breaking down barriers to inclusion in "higher opportunity" neighborhoods and improving the conditions in public housing for those who either choose to stay or didn't "win" the lottery.  I am also glad you emphasized resident "choice" in your question -- this is something that Marge and I have suggested in a recent Urban Wire blog post should be the driving feature of housing opportunity programs and policies.  

We shouldn't assume that the moving to new neighborhoods is always either the best option or the preferred option for residents of public housing.  In many cases, residents of public housing have created strong social networks and found (or created) economic opportunities in their own neighborhoods. In other cases, market dynamics in the surrounding neighborhood can introduce new opportunities that make "staying put" both a viable and attractive option.  In still other cases, interventions by public, philanthropic and community-based organizations can effectively revitalize distressed communities by promoting quality schools, economic development, and pathways to employment.   And lastly, "receiving" neighborhoods may lack the kinds of formal and informal supports or access to transportation that can sustain moves to opportunity -- we see evidence of this in research on HUD's Moving to Opportunity experiment. 

By saying this, I am not suggesting that there aren't plenty of very serious negative consequences of growing up and living in deeply distressed areas of concentrated poverty, which Sue very accurately captures in her post, and too much research to hyperlink to here has demonstrated.  But I am also interested in how we can transform those neighborhoods, rather than abandon them, as we seek more balanced housing policy approaches.  I am glad to hear from Joe that the community in Schlobohm is taking some positive steps in that direction.

This morning I rewatched the first episode of Show Me a Hero and was reminded that the part of the story that David Simon tells so well is usually the hardest part for us policy wonks to navigate in real life: politics.

In every one of his shows, the Wire, Treme and Show Me a Hero, Simon gets you inside the brains of politicians and lets you see the impetus behind their political decisions. 

My own experience has been that race politics play a difficult and divisive role in ending segregative housing policy. The issue  is that no elected official gains any immediately apparent political benefit from integration. If you are a white elected official representing a majority white district, there are very few circumstances where integrating your district will boost your chances of re-election. And if you are a black elected official, your ability to get elected is likely a direct result of segregated housing policies and racially packed redistricting.  The last thing you want are new white residents.

In both cases, the political presumption is that homogeneity benefits electeds. 

I do think we have to find a way to show eleteds immediate benefits that come from supporting housing integration policy. And we need to be honest with ourselves that we, policy wonks, are quite restricted in our ability to do so as non-partisan 501(c)(3)'s and federal government employees.


Throughout the Show Me a Hero series, I continued to think about the interviews many of us at Urban conducted with public housing residents as part of the evaluation of the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program. Specifically, I thought about the residents I met in 2000 who were still living in Chicago’s Stateway Gardens, one of the public housing high rises that was ultimately demolished. During those interviews, multiple residents talked about having spent their entire lives living in the apartments; mothers worried that their children and grandchildren might spend their entire lives in the same type of housing in a comparable, high poverty neighborhood.  During the finale, I wondered about those Chicago residents I met and where they are today.

Reed’s important point about schools also reminded me about the rich array of school-based services and after-school programs that some of the public housing residents enthusiastically described and relied upon, services and programs that some of the families who had move to higher opportunity areas felt they no longer had access to in their new neighborhoods. The residents I met also described the strong social networks that Solomon referenced, the social ties that in high poverty neighborhoods can also play a vital role in the development and implementation of revitalization efforts.   

I find it interesting that the discussion kind of mirrors HUD's evolution on its approach. First, the answer to tough developments was to upgrade them. Then came HOPI VI which said human capital improvement is as important as physical capital improvement. Then came CHOICE which said it is not enough to  improve the quality of life in the development, you need to consider the whole neighborhood.

Unfortunately, while HUD was moving in the right direction conceptually, it was moving in the wrong direction financially. Each approach had more comprehensive, grander goals, but each was more poorly funded than the last. Early HOPE VI had funding of $500-600 million, while CHOICE gets $120 million more than 20 years later. It is a credit to the housing authorities that have succeeded, that they have understood the importance of the holistic community building approach and have found ways to overcome the financial challenges.

I’d like to add two more points of evidence to this rich conversation.

First, I appreciate James’ point about the political realities mitigating against pro-integrative policies.  But, while it’s very tough to overcome the political and market forces that perpetuate segregation and poverty concentration, Americans want more racially and ethnically mixed neighborhoods than they are getting. Research finds that a substantial majority of whites say they would be comfortable living in a neighborhood that is more than 20 percent black, and more than half say they would be comfortable in a neighborhood that is more than one-third black. When asked to choose the racial mix they would most prefer, most blacks select a neighborhood that is roughly half white and half black, but most would be willing to move into a neighborhood with a larger share of whites in order to obtain high-quality, affordable housing.

And second, the task of building open and inclusive communities has to go beyond the siting of subsidized housing. Across the country, the gap between the number of low-income households and the number of housing units they can reasonably afford has widened steadily, and public programs to close the gap meet only a small fraction of the need.  Sadly, it is unrealistic to expect public housing subsidies to expand significantly in the foreseeable future, so advocates and practitioners have look beyond housing units and developments that are publicly subsidized to find ways to expand the production, financing, and operation of moderately priced housing by the private sector.


It is with a touch of sadness that I must close this thoughtful discussion of HBO’s Show Me a Hero series. Thank you to all the Policy Debaters for your sharp insights on housing and the intersections with race, place, schools, politics, and more. Between this debate and our first Show Me a Hero conversation, we have touched upon a host of important points and perspectives. In closing, I want to highlight Marge’s important charge: we need to continue to push to find ways to build open and inclusive communities that go beyond our traditional approaches. We look forward to continuing that conversation further here at the Urban Institute and in communities nationwide.