Urban Wire How public servants have helped expand housing mobility
Emily Blumenthal
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On September 27, I sacrificed valuable football-watching time to be part of a discussion that celebrated much lesser-known heroes than NFL stars: bureaucrats. 

That Sunday afternoon, the Urban Institute hosted a discussion on housing segregation and the policies used to combat it—the issues highlighted in HBO’s latest miniseries, Show Me a Hero. Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell moderated a panel featuring US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro, who was joined by David Simon, the writer and executive producer of Show Me a Hero and The Wire, along with James Perry, formerly of the New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, and Marge Turner, senior vice president of the Urban Institute, for a conversation about race, class, and place.

Show Me a Hero tells the true story of a polarizing fight over the construction of public housing in Yonkers, NY in the late 1980s. The show depicts a real-life saga that lasted nearly three decades, in which the city of Yonkers was sued for systematically segregating its housing and schools, violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The city was ordered to build scattered-site public housing, a mandate that sparked vitriolic protest from Yonkers residents who strongly resisted the development of public housing in their neighborhoods.

The issues the city and people of Yonkers are grappling with in the show are still very much at play today in many communities across the country: segregation, racism, and as result, opportunity determined by where you live.

Show Me a Hero centers around Yonkers Mayor Nick Wasicsko. Simon noted that while the mayor’s story is Shakespearean in many ways, it is not Wasicsko who is the hero. “The real heroes are the bureaucrats, and some of the residents,” said Simon.

You don’t often hear “bureaucrat” and “hero” used in the same sentence, especially coming out of the mouth of a non-bureaucrat. Simon went on to explain that as a proponent of pragmatism over idealism, he appreciates bureaucrats, saying “that’s where the rubber hits the road.”  

In our disdain for and frustration with bureaucracy, we often caricaturize these public servants. However, the knowledge, expertise, and dedication of some of these individuals are central to much of the good work being done in the public sector. 

The expertise and tenacity of bureaucrats is largely responsible for HUD’s groundbreaking Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration. In their book Moving to Opportunity: The Story of an American Experiment to Fight Ghetto Poverty, authors Xavier de Souza Briggs, Sue Popkin, and John Goering illustrate how this demonstration found its legs.

Launched in 1994, MTO offered a modest test for a powerful idea: that helping poor people move out of poor urban neighborhoods could dramatically improve their lives. A court-ordered initiative to fight poverty and racial segregation in the Chicago area, Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority, inspired MTO and offered federal policymakers a viable solution to a seemingly intractable problem. Academic research provided encouraging evidence that the approach was beneficial for low-income families, in addition to being administratively feasible and legally advisable. 

Alex Polikoff, the lead plaintiff’s attorney for the Gautreaux case in Chicago, along with a committed core of policy and research staff within HUD, including Urban’s own Marge Turner, successfully pushed for the agency to pursue the demonstration and built support for the proposal, winning congressional authorization for what became the largest low-income housing demonstration in decades.

We continue to reap benefits from the MTO study. Years after the last MTO report, which found mixed results, Stanford economist Raj Chetty used new methods to show that MTO had significant improvements for the economic mobility of children in the program.

The MTO demonstration provides one example of the significance of the sustained commitment and resourcefulness of the kinds of bureaucrats that David Simon lauded.

“It was a pleasure, in some ways, to honor the cogs in the wheel,” Simon said. 

Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab