War on the Suburbs: How HUD's Housing Policies Became a Weapon for Social Change
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There are few things more synonymous with the American way of life than the suburbs. While certainly not without problems, the suburbs have been home to middle class Americans since the end of World War 2, and even before. But the suburbs are under attack from certain elements of the left as a source of social inequality and (what else?) “white privilege” and “white supremacy.”
If you are alarmed by this article, that’s a good thing. Because these elements of the American left seek nothing more than the total destruction of your way of life, from the people who live in your communities to the types of houses that you live in to the places where you will be allowed to shop and how you get from one place to another.
The policy is called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), but beyond this specific HUD policy, there’s a philosophical and political attack on suburbs that goes well in excess of any single policy. There is, without mincing words, a War on the Suburbs in America. It is a war not against a geographical location or a type of housing or community, but an attack on a way of life.
Most people are aware of the existence of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but don’t think much about it. However, HUD has a lot more ambition than you might think: Under the Obama Administration, they made it their mission to radically change the makeup of America by attacking the suburbs.
AFFH isn’t just a program. It’s a directive and a sort of raison d'etre for the entire Department. Effectively, the program requires any town or other jurisdiction receiving federal housing funds to keep track of statistics with regard to race, disability, familial status, economic status, English proficiency, and other categories. Any discrepancy between the community’s records and those of targets set by the federal government is considered evidence of discrimination and funds might be withheld.
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AFFH isn’t just “social engineering.” It is a profoundly totalitarian system that forms the bedrock of HUD’s war on the suburbs.
While the alleged inspiration for this is – what else? – “equality (of outcome),” the truth is much more hard nosed. The War on the Suburbs serves the dual purpose of both punishing those who do not kowtow to the totalitarian aims of the Democratic Party as well as further atomizing these communities, breaking them up, urbanizing them and making them easier prey for big business and big government alike.
HUD has moved away from AFFH, or at least the Obama Administration’s interpretation of it, under the Trump Administration. The changes greatly dismayed the Obama-era HUD Secretary Julián Castro, who said they did nothing less than gut what AFFH was under the Obama Administration. While the new way of doing AFFH was challenged in court, the courts sided with the administration for once.
However, threats of AFFH resurfacing have come up during Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. Tucker Carlson discussed the effects of AFFH, as well as Biden’s plan to continue the regulation:
Americans are fleeing urban areas in huge numbers. Big cities are just too mismanaged, they’re too dangerous. Unless you’re very rich or very poor, you’re getting out. New York City lost 53,000 people in 2019 – they will lose far more than that this year. Most of these refugees have relocated to the suburbs, where they imagine they are safe from the effects of disastrous urban policy. But they’re not. Democrats want to abolish the suburbs. They are too clean and nice, therefore by definition, they are racist. The Biden campaign has highly specific plans on how to do this.
It’s called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, it’s a HUD regulation, it was written during the Obama Administration. Biden’s advisor’s plan to enforce it. It will cut off critical federal funds from municipalities unless those municipalities submit to federal control of urban planning. Towns will be ordered to abolish zoning for single-family housing – because single-family homes, needless to say, are racist. Low-income, federally subsidized apartments will go up in the suburbs. It’s a good bet you won’t see any of this, you won’t see projects being built in Aspen or Martha’s Vineyard or anywhere else Eric Holder vacations. But in your neighborhood? Oh yeah.
The War on the Suburbs began under President Barack Obama. Obama himself was an opponent of suburban sprawl and declared in February 2009 that the days of suburban sprawl were “over.” Obama’s rhetoric – urban-centric – can often be contrasted with that of the previous Democratic President, Bill Clinton, who self-consciously and ostentatiously sought ways to connect with suburban and rural voters. In comparison, Obama appointees at HUD and EPA tended to come from big cities in blue states.
The term they use is “smart growth.” This effectively means forcing more and more Americans to live in higher density areas. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Undersecretary Ron Sims, Transportation undersecretary for policy Roy Kienitz, and the EPA’s John Frece all favored this agenda. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was quite straightforward in his language: the administration sought to “coerce” Americans out of cars and onto light rail. The stimulus package passed by the president to the tune of $8 billion focused largely on light rail, which only benefits Americans living around a handful of larger cities.
Such policies have little chance of passing through legislation. However, there are administrative and bureaucratic means to foist these programs on American citizens. Bureaucratic czars can simply deny funding to cities and states that are not in compliance with the diktats of the president’s agenda.
Europe, the UK in particular, provides an example of what houses will look like when the urbanite proponents of “smart growth” get their way – the average house size in the UK is a scant 800 square feet.
83 percent of home buyers prefer the single-family home commonly associated with the suburbs when house shopping, according to the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders.
Beyond aesthetics or a “green” politic, there is another reason why those favoring a strong role of big government and those who cheer for “woke” big corporations might prefer to see the suburbs committed to the dustbin of history: the suburbs represent individual aspiration and decentralized control. Cities represent a highly bureaucratized form of living with much less individual ownership. Put in simple terms, urbanites are more atomized, more controlled by central authority and have less skin in the game – perfect consumers, perfect employees.
There is an element of class war here: the ideological issues that play the best in suburbs (roads, wages, schools, housing prices) are effectively the issues of the middle class. Compare with the agenda advanced by the Democratic Party since the lame duck years of the Obama Administration: climate change, “gender” ideology, amnesty for illegals and racial grievances. The latter of these are largely the purview of affluent, professional-managerial class types who tend to congregate in America’s urban centers.
Finally, the rise of the War on the Suburbs coincides with a rise in suburban voters going red. While this trend has been underway since 1966, it was largely reversed under both Obama and Clinton. However, Scott Brown’s election to the Senate in 2010, and Mitt Romney’s failed campaign in 2012, heralded the beginning of a move by suburban voters to the Republican Party. The difference has been even more pronounced at the state and local level where governors, senators and congressmen have won office thanks to overwhelming support from the suburbs.
Democrats are right to fear the suburban edge. Even though there has been explosive growth in urban areas over the last decade, it is mostly concentrated in what are mostly cities in name only – Ft. Worth, Phoenix, Charlotte, Houston – rather than classically dense urban areas such as Boston, Philadelphia or San Francisco. Thus, the War on the Suburbs is ultimately a political weapon.
Predictably, even establishment conservatives have joined in this pile on. No less an institution than The American Conservative, founded by Pat Buchanan, has put forward the notion that the suburbs and the single-family housing unit are a Big Government program that need to be abolished. This article does little more than put a market-friendly spin on the vitriol produced by the various left-wing sources cited. It is a striking indictment of movement conservatism.
There are a number of reasons that people choose to live in suburbs, but they can mostly be boiled down to two: First, you don’t have to share a wall with anyone or have your neighbor’s house a whopping six feet away. Second, the suburbs are a much safer place to live – and thus, a far better place to raise a family – than the urban cores.
This is, according to those who wish to destroy your way of life, a form of (what else?) “white privilege.”
If we have henceforth covered the mechanisms by which urbanites wish to destroy the suburbs, consider this an exploration into the ideology they will use to do so. “White privilege,” as with other aspects of so-called “critical race theory,” is, in practice, a form of racial demonization whereby whites (and, increasingly, non-black minorities, in particular Asians and affluent Hispanics) are painted as unworthy of their property and position in life.
Any disparity in outcomes in favor of whites (or any other ethnic group) is treated as de facto evidence of discrimination and racism. Rarely mentioned is that whites are actually third by income with regard to race (behind East Asians and Indians). When broken down by nationality, whites appear in only three of the top ten slots with regard to income in a list dominated by Asians. In the next ten (i.e., the top 20) there are only another three white nationalities represented. Thus, “white privilege” theory is, at best, misguided and, if we are being less generous, is an outright, propagandistic lie.
Remember all of this the next time you read “rich” and “white” paired together as a lazy political smear.
Once the suburbs are branded as “racist,” it then becomes a matter of public policy to attack them and dismantle them as communities. This is what is behind the attack on the suburbs in general, but single-family housing units in particular.
Single-family housing units are currently the epicenter of the battle in the War on the Suburbs. Charlotte, North Carolina has sought to eliminate single-family housing units entirely. Minneapolis, Minnesota, who in mid-2020 were in the process of eliminating their police department, was able to successfully eliminate single-family housing units by a 12-1 vote. For its part, some in Albuquerque (not exactly the picture of urban density) have suggested banning backyards.
There has been an attempt to retcon the history of single-family housing units as “racist.” An article on Chicago Unheard, a left-wing education blog, details the ideology in stark, “mask off” terms: wanting your kids to go to a good school or live in a nice neighborhood is racist. Part of this is a general sleight-of-hand by the affluent, professional-class American left, which long since ditched concerns with income and the working class for racial fetishization: “racism” no longer means what everyone thinks it does (i.e., actions and attitudes reflecting racial bigotry), but rather the definition used by campus radicals: an invisible power structure that, like phlogiston, explains every instance of disparate outcomes.
The News & Observer, the main newspaper in the Greater Raleigh area, likewise put the question into bold, stark terms informed by the spate of left-wing rioting in the United States, starting in the summer of 2020: destroying single-family housing is the next phase in the war against the American way of life. The article calls not just for the allowance of multi-family housing units, but active attacks on single-family housing units.
Leading lights in the Democratic Party likewise championed the destruction of the single-family housing unit at the norm, including 2020 presidential candidates Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro. For their parts, Cory Booker claims to live in a $435,377, detached, single-family unit in Newark, though it’s not clear that he actually lives there – or, indeed, in Newark at all. Elizabeth Warren lives in a $3.6 million home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. No word on whether or not they would be selling those to move into a quadruplex, which underscores another important point: The affluent progressives who champion the destruction of the suburbs will, as usual, not have to live with the consequences of the policies they support. They will be able to use their wealth to insulate themselves.
The battle against single-family housing units is philosophically in alignment with the broader War on the Suburbs: Any neighborhood whose demographics do not match those desired by ideologically motivated government bureaucrats is going to be destroyed. The weapon is the Section 8 housing benefit and we already have a rather famous example of a community destroyed by it: Ferguson, Missouri.
Most Americans know of Ferguson, Missouri as the place where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a police officer. Brown had threatened and attacked the officer after robbing a nearby store.
None of this mattered much to the rioters, however. They destroyed the city in an orgy of violence that came in three waves: First, August 2014, after the initial shooting. Second, late November and early December, after a grand jury found that there was no evidence to indict officer Darren Wilson on any charges. Finally, there was a third wave of rioting in August 2015, on the anniversary of the shooting.
Section 8 has played a key role in transforming communities like Ferguson from close-knit suburbs into violent, atomized hellholes. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch article on the matter, detailing how the reasonably comfortable middle-class suburb was transformed into the high-crime area where police were forced to constantly patrol. The New York Times buries the lede and notes toward the very bottom that “like other older suburbs, Ferguson has lost a fair share of more affluent residents, and lower-income families have taken their place.”
Time does not mince words: Its article on the phenomenon was called “How Ferguson Went From Middle Class to Poor in a Generation.” Within 20 years, the town went from majority white with low unemployment and poverty rates, to majority black with 13 percent unemployment and doubled poverty in a decade.
One of the reasons? Ferguson’s zoning laws do not prohibit high-density housing structures, which made it an ideal target for destruction by Section 8.
As America’s larger urban centers become more gentrified, there has been a concerted attempt to move the underclass out and into low-rent suburbs with little political clout. What we can expect to see under a new Democratic administration is effectively the weaponization of the urban poor to bust up the suburbs and throw them into chaos.
Ferguson isn’t the only place where this is happening. An extensive dive into the subject on City Journal, which called for the end of housing vouchers entirely, discusses how many working-class black families who left the cities to escape the problems that cause everyone to leave cities, are encountering the same social dysfunction in their new suburban homes.
The genesis of Section 8 as the primary means of government housing funding comes during the Nixon Administration. Whereas previously the government had preferred to build housing projects (which obviously come with problems all their own), the Nixon Administration preferred Section 8 for two reasons: First, it favored the free market (to an extent) over straight government intervention. Second, it did not require maintenance costs to be born by the government.
As with many government programs, it quickly became a cash cow for those who knew how to game the system while leaving those it was intended to help high and dry. It also had the impact of creating ghettos in suburbs where once there was none. Former Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland has stated that Section 8 vouchers replace "vertical ghettos with horizontal ones.”
The impact goes far beyond simply increased crime, though that would surely be enough. EMTs are routinely called for the same kind of people clogging urban hospital emergency rooms with vague complaints of nonspecific malaise. Schools are destroyed by an influx of problem pupils. Gang crime emerges where once there were none. The increased crime comes with increased social costs, all of which must be borne by the working-class families who inhabited the area before the legion of Section 8 tenants were dumped on their community. The sum total of all of this is that property values decline.
Another unintended consequence is increased segregation. Where poverty-level blacks who have just moved out of impoverished urban neighborhoods move into comparatively affluent white suburbs, the result is white flight. Ferguson is an example of this.
The point isn’t to beat up on Ferguson. It is simply that Ferguson is a well-known place in America for all the wrong reasons that is also an emblematic example of what Section 8 and high-density housing units can do to a formerly stable, safe, working-class community.
The fight goes even beyond the single-family housing unit and into the entire layout of suburbia. The Wall Street Journal notes that urbanists have a fixation on “expand[ing] often underused train systems, downtown condominiums, hotels, convention centers, sports stadia and ‘star-chitect’-designed art museums, often at the expense of smaller business, single-family neighborhoods and local shopping areas.”
There is a growing hostility toward the yard and the garden. The New York Times ran a piece denouncing your lawn as racist and contributing to global warming.
In what is perhaps the most extreme form of hostility toward the suburban way of life, in March 2020, The Atlantic ran a piece by David Brooks attacking the very existence of the nuclear family. The article discusses the extended family as a backdrop, mostly to point out the “unnatural” (whatever that means) character of the nuclear family. When it comes down to solutions, the mask slips: Brooks suggests that we replace our families of birth with families of choice, effectively bringing the atomized, hyper-individualistic, “choice” of the free market to the family unit.
This represents yet another attempt at atomization: Replacing blood families with what are effectively “Uber for families.” Such people are necessarily more vulnerable to victimization and predatory activities by both big business and big government.
This might at first seem a bit far afield from the matter of housing, but it is not. The attack on the suburbs must be seen in the broader context of an attack on the American way of life. It is not an attack on buildings, but rather an attack on a lifestyle – one enjoyed or aspired to by the overwhelming majority of Americans.
The affluent, protected classes, connected to the halls of power, are in no danger. It is the average American who will suffer. Just as the decline in the quality of public schools has left the affluent, who can send their children to private schools, unscathed, so will the destruction of the middle-class suburb leave unscathed those who can afford to live in gated communities, behind high walls, well insulated from the consequences of their politics.
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