Q&A: Joseph Shuldiner on housing, community, and the future of Yonkers
Housing policy hit the small screen this year. HBO’s latest miniseries, Show Me a Hero, shone a light on challenging housing issues faced by communities across the country, but seldom given such wide-reaching attention. Co-written by David Simon, the creator of The Wire, the miniseries tells the true story of a polarizing fight over the construction of public housing in Yonkers, NY in the late 1980s. (We recapped the miniseries and hosted policy debates over its polemics as well.)
While the show is set nearly 30 years ago, the issues it touches on—affordable housing needs, social and racial integration, coordination between federal policy and local action – are still very much at play today. To understand more about the legacy of the housing struggle in Yonkers and how the city’s story can provide insight to other cities grappling with similar issues, we spoke with Joseph Shuldiner, executive director of the municipal housing authority for the city of Yonkers.
Shuldiner has a long and esteemed career in housing. He has held leadership positions at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Chicago Housing Authority, and the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. Shuldiner also served as the assistant secretary of public and Indian housing at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Our conversation with Shuldiner has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Thinking about the challenges Yonkers faces regarding housing, education, equity, and integration, in what ways do you think Yonkers’s challenges relate to those with which other cities are grappling?
Obviously, some of the issues are similar. The "not in my backyard" sentiment is a pretty common reaction. I think it played out here with a lot more vitriol than in some other places. The problem you get with a scattered site approach is that if you need to locate a hundred units, it would be nice to locate it in one site and have the fight once. If you build a hundred one-family homes, you have a hundred fights at a hundred sites. It's always a balance, plus it's more expensive to do it that way. I think in some ways, this has played out in a lot of places.
What unique aspects of Yonkers’s story did Show Me a Hero illustrate?
I think it was important that the show depicted the authority’s attempt to bring in people to try to both prepare the residents for what they're going to face, and at the same time to make some outreach to the communities. I really think, as difficult as it may be for the impacted neighborhoods to accept this housing, it's also pretty difficult for the residents who are making a move. They're leaving a comfort zone and going into a strange area. I think too often the housing is just built or they're given vouchers and told go out there and have a nice life. You need more.
In the show, the fact that the people were complaining more about the neighbors staring at them gets at the sense that they were unwelcome. Why would you choose to move someplace where people don't want you to be? You want to be where you're wanted. I think having necessary supports is an important aspect.
How have efforts to foster inclusive and integrated communities played out in other places?
One strong example is the inclusionary zoning work in Montgomery County, Maryland, where you weren't just setting down a group of housing whether it was one unit or a hundred units. You were integrating it into a larger development.
We really don't have many instances where adding affordable housing to a neighborhood had a detrimental impact. In fact, in some neighborhoods, it's been an improvement. Frankly, at least in my experience, economically and racially integrated neighborhoods are much more vibrant than the alternative. Even the rich enclaves don't have the kinds of activity that an Upper West Side in Manhattan or Hyde Park in Chicago or a Westside in Los Angeles or neighborhoods in Washington, DC [do]. It's actually the integrated neighborhoods that are the more exciting places to live. There's just more happening, more activity.
Show Me a Hero illustrated some of the fears and apprehensions associated with building affordable housing. Do you think these fears were born out?
I think not. Admittedly, it's 20 years later, but it's hard to say that our property had a dilatory effect on the value of the block. I would say that somebody coming now would look at this property and say, "What was the fuss?"
How do you view the role of HUD in engaging with local housing authorities and departments?
I think if you look at why there's a federal housing agency, the answer is to enforce fair housing and equal opportunity, so it should focus on that, and it should focus on providing technical assistance, and it should focus on getting maximum funding, and it should become less focused on oversight.
I think the [Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing] rule is good. I think historically HUD has been unwilling to take on politically powerful entities, and as a result they tend to enforce these rules against the less politically powerful. I don't think that it's necessarily this administration's failure, or the last administration's failure. It's somewhat the nature of the beast.
If the jurisdiction goes through the process and says, "Hey, here are our opportunities, and here are our obstacles, and here's what we're going to do," then you show some flexibility in terms of their realities, I think that's fantastic. If you just, say, check the box that, "Hey you have this and you didn't address it so we're taking your money away," I think that's problematic.
What advice would you give other cities and housing authorities facing issues like those you’ve seen in Yonkers?
You need to be aware of and sympathetic to these issues. I think the best thing is to be talking to everybody. It’s important for us to get a more public campaign in terms of the positive aspects of having integrated communities, and of having affordable housing.
People talk about, "Well, we have to have mixed-income housing so that the poor people can have role models," I think that's limited use. I think it's the reverse. We have to have mixed-income housing so that the middle- and upper-middle-income people can engage with low-income people and see that they have the same value system they have, they've just had more restricted opportunities.
We have to increase opportunities, and we can't tell people what opportunities they have to take. Opportunity means you have the choice, but it has to be an informed choice. It has to be, "Hey, you can live in various places, here are the pros and cons, wherever you go, we'll support you. We'll support you in that decision, and we'll support you in being successful where you go."
Where do you see Yonkers headed? What are your top priorities for the Yonkers housing authority in the future?
I think [current Yonkers] Mayor [Mike] Spano has gone and said the right thing, which is that we embrace diversity. That's the difference between now and 20 years ago. Twenty years ago we did not and now, on the official level, we do. That's a pretty big change.
I want to leave a housing stock that will be available for people who need it for a long time. Our stock right now is old and needs upgrading. Upgrading it and providing viable housing to the next generation of people who need it is important. As an authority, it would be great to continue to be integrated further into the larger fabric of things, so that the authority is not looked at only as a group that houses poor people, but as a vibrant part of our community. We're part of the renaissance of Yonkers. I think that's important.
This blog post 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.
Photos by Lydia Thompson, Urban Institute