Health Equity in Housing Book Club: “Knocking on the Door”

Q&A with Christopher Bonastia, PhD

This is the first in a series of posts we will share during our research for our housing equity project. Have a suggestion for what we should read next? Let us know.

In his 2006 book, Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs, Christopher Bonastia, PhD, reviews the federal government’s role in perpetuating residential segregation in the United States, and its fleeting attempts to desegregate the nation’s neighborhoods.

Dr. Bonastia discusses the active role federal agencies and courts have played in creating and perpetuating residential segregation. He points to the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as significant players in segregation and desegregation.

Understanding the roots of segregation and policy attempts to desegregate is key to understanding housing as a social determinant of health. Empirical research has shown associations between black-white segregation and an increased black infant mortality rate, elevated rates of black mortality, black homicide rates, and other negative individual and public health outcomes. Addressing racial residential segregation is imperative when attempting to improve any of those health outcomes.

Christopher Bonastia is professor of sociology at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, as well as associate director of the Lehman Scholars Program and Macaulay Honors College at Lehman. He is the author of Southern Stalemate: Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia as well as Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs.

Our team read Knocking on the Door during our initial research period on housing, health equity and legal levers. Continue reading below for our interview with Dr. Bonastia about this book and ongoing research in this area.

CPHLR: Given the progress that has been made since the book was written (HUD’s new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation; the settlement with Westchester County, NY; the Supreme Court’s ruling on disparate impact under the Fair Housing Act), are you more optimistic about federal efforts to reduce residential segregation than you were when you wrote Knocking on the Door?

Christopher Bonastia headshot

Christopher Bonastia, PhD

CB: I can’t say I’m more optimistic now about federal efforts to desegregate communities. Westchester has repeatedly delayed implementing the settlement it agreed to—that is, actually building affordable housing. Even if the county had abided by the spirit of the settlement, I don’t think this would have encouraged other localities to follow suit voluntarily. It is rare that they do.

CPHLR: What can advocates and policymakers do, without HUD’s assistance, to help desegregate our communities?

CB: Local policymakers could relax zoning regulations in their suburban towns; they could offer tax abatements to developers that set aside X number of units for low- and moderate-income families. But in many cases this would be political suicide, and not many are willing to take that plunge. Even in places like New York City, developers get tax breaks for these set-asides, but they are far too small to offset the pounding waves of gentrification.

Perhaps this points to the realization that approaches to desegregation—or better yet, true integration—will vary by community. It depends where you are starting from, where you want to get to and how you plan to stay there. The last part may be the most vexing.

CPHLR: Can you give us an example?

CB: The Bedford-Stuyvesant (Brooklyn) neighborhood, where my multi-racial family lives, was for decades viewed by many whites as a “no-fly” zone: a dangerous, virtually all-black “ghetto.” Now, the issue is whether long-time residents will be priced out of the neighborhood. It has already been happening for some time. From what I can tell, most blocks remain majority-black, but most of the individuals moving in are white and middle-class. Attempting to prevent re-segregation through gentrification presents a different set of obstacles than, say, attempting to stem “white flight” when people of color move into a neighborhood.

CPHLR: How does this relate to issues of gentrification and predatory development?

CB: Without a doubt, there are plenty of people trying to enrich themselves by pressuring long-time owners to sell at prices well below market value. But I don’t know how you prevent honest transactions—whether rentals or sales—where people with higher incomes, typically white, wish to move to the neighborhood. The attitude that people bring to their new neighborhood is important, as explored in WNYC’s recent “There Goes the Neighborhood” podcast series. (Full disclosure: my wife was a producer on this series.) If you move in with the attitude of, “we are taking over,” you are part of the problem. If, instead, you enter with the idea of respecting the culture and perspectives of long-time residents, that is at least a start.

CPHLR: So what can be done?

CB: Suburban towns that remain overwhelmingly white could make themselves more welcoming to people of color. I don’t know if many residents of these towns view it as being in their self-interest to do so. And if we are talking about voluntary efforts to desegregate housing, that is one of the core issues: at the end of the day, most residents will only embrace changes that they see as being in their self-interest. Appeals to morality or social justice typically fall flat. To return to a point I made in Knocking, it seems that the prospects for widespread desegregation would be bright only when all localities in a metropolitan area are required to provide a specific number of low- and moderate-income housing units. Few towns will act on their own, voluntarily.

CPHLR: Why is integration so essential?

CB: The benefits of integration are that it provides a more vibrant cultural life, and prepares children of all backgrounds for living in a world that is less and less “white.” Sadly, these arguments have been made by integration supporters for decades, with little traction. Even in cases where new movers (typically immigrants) have helped towns to retain their economic viability, cultural conflicts have often ensued. People want the “good” parts of change (if they even perceive these), but not the difficult ones.

Over the last several decades, fewer whites have objected to desegregation in principle. However, many continue to object to desegregation in practice. Speaking in the late 1950s about the reluctance of teachers to accept involuntary transfers to schools in low-income neighborhoods, one NYC school board member said: “I am getting weary of statements that support ‘integration in principle’ and oppose the simplest forms of implementation.” The same could be said about housing desegregation six decades later.

It is fairly well-accepted that whites will exit a neighborhood (or school) when the white population there decreases to a certain level (though this threshold can vary). While it can be dificult to prevent “white flight,” it is even trickier to maintain white demand when vacancies occur. In attempting to do so, a community risks alienating its other residents if they perceive that the town is bending over backwards to woo whites. In some cases—such as Brooklyn’s Starrett City, which opened in 1976 as the largest subsidized housing development in the nation—racial quotas were established to maintain a clear white majority. As a result, prospective white tenants spent less time on the waiting list than did tenants of other races. Before the Reagan-era Justice Department had these quotas abolished, some Black and Latino families with the intense desire to relocate to Starrett City chafed at this differential treatment. It is not hard to understand why.

At the same time, given the reluctance of many whites to be in the unfamiliar position of finding themselves in the racial minority, I continue to struggle with envisioning viable approaches to stable residential integration. As we have been reminded all too often in 2016, white racism morphs and adapts constantly, but it remains fiercely resistant to eradication.

CPHLR: How do you think we can use, or more effectively use, law and policy to shape housing to positively impact health?

CB: Localities must be vigilant in ensuring that landlords fulfill their responsibilities to tenants. There is simply no excuse for a landlord to withhold needed repairs, fail to provide adequate heat, or prevent rodent infestation, to give a few examples. Sometimes the motive is simple neglect; other times, landlords seek to force families out so that new tenants, paying higher rents, can move in. Fair housing laws, as well as other laws aimed at protecting tenants, have little value when vigorous enforcement is not practiced.

CPHLR: Thank you, Dr. Bonastia, for speaking with us!

One thought on “Health Equity in Housing Book Club: “Knocking on the Door”

  1. Dr. Bonastia makes reference to solid data that shows that white begin to move when a certain threshold of new minority residents is reached. I wonder if that process, or at least the threshold, is changing as younger white people who have grown up in more diverse communities (or at least gone to reasonably diverse schools, worked in reasonably diverse workplaces, and/or lived in diverse cities) make up more of the population. Is it possible (and not wildly optimistic) to think that a generation that has embraced LGBT rights and cultural diversity might see their self-interest differently than older whites?

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