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Trump repeals rule meant to integrate neighborhoods, further stoking racial divisions in campaign

President Trump
President Trump, shown speaking in the Rose Garden earlier this month, is looking to end housing policies that support integration.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

With President Trump facing sagging support in the suburbs, his administration on Thursday targeted an Obama-era affordable housing regulation, the latest in a series of appeals to white voters’ fears of crime and declining property values.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would scrap a regulation known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which was implemented by President Obama in an attempt to promote more integrated communities. Under the rule, cities receiving some federal housing aid had to develop plans to address patterns of segregation or risk losing money.

The new regulation from the Trump administration would allow local governments much broader latitude in deciding if their policies were racially discriminatory.

“Washington has no business dictating what is best to meet your local community’s unique needs,” Ben Carson, Trump’s housing secretary, said in a statement.

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The announcement may have less practical effect in California than elsewhere in the country. In 2018, after Carson first announced plans to unwind the Obama fair housing rule, state legislators passed a bill enshrining a similar effort in state law.

Thursday’s decision follows Trump’s embrace of racist rhetoric to defend Confederate statues, attack Black Lives Matter protesters and, more recently, to criticize housing policies. He’s claimed that Democrats want to “abolish our beautiful and successful suburbs by placing far-left Washington bureaucrats in charge of local zoning decisions,” and he’s warned that they’ll be “bringing who knows into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down.”

Trump’s rhetoric presents a picture of peaceful suburbs and chaotic cities, one that reflects, in part, his background as a landlord who settled a Justice Department lawsuit that accused his family’s company of discriminating against Black tenants, and his formative experiences in New York in the 1970s and 1980s.

Experts on housing call the image an outdated caricature.

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“Trump is really in a time warp,” said Richard Florida, an urbanist at the University of Toronto.

As if to prove the point, Trump tweeted a message to the “Suburban Housewives of America” after his administration’s announcement on Thursday, saying “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream.”

But white voters today are more likely to see racial bias as a problem, according to polls conducted in the wake of nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. In addition, the nation’s crime rate peaked in the early 1990s and has declined fairly steadily since then.

And although individual neighborhoods across the country continue to be highly segregated, the suburbs as a whole are not as racially uniform as they once were.

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Over the last three decades, the share that whites make up of the residents of long-standing suburban communities — such as those in the Inland Empire — has dropped 20 percentage points, with whites now making up less than 60% of those suburban dwellers, according to demographer William Frey, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

“Generally, the image that suburbs are white bastions is one that hasn’t been true for several decades,” he said.

Although Trump has tried to suggest that Obama’s housing rule would lead to more dangerous neighborhoods, academic research also has shown little to no link between affordable housing and higher crime rates.

A recent study conducted by Stanford University economists found affordable housing developments led to crime reductions in low-income areas and had no effect in higher-income neighborhoods.

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“The infinitesimal risk of increased crime as a result of increased ‘affordable’ or multifamily housing in U.S. suburbs is massively outweighed by the benefits to those actually housed, and other benefits of reducing concentrated poverty,” said Michael Lens, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA who has studied the issue.

Trump divided the suburban vote almost evenly with Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and he won the support of more white voters. Now that he’s trailing badly in the polls to Joe Biden, he’s been increasingly unabashed in appealing to racism among his supporters.

This week, for example, the White House threatened to veto bipartisan legislation to fund the Pentagon because it included a provision that would rename military bases that had been named after Confederate leaders.

Trump has also enlisted the support of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a white St. Louis couple who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters from the lawn of their mansion. They made an appearance on a campaign call, and they’ve since been charged by a local prosecutor with unlawful use of a weapon.

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Corey Lewandowski, a senior advisor to Trump’s campaign, denied the appeals were racist, calling that characterization “completely egregious.”

“I believe Black people live in the suburbs too,” he said. As far as Trump raising the specter of spiraling crime, Lewandowski said: “The issue of law and order is at the top of mind for many people.”

Trump’s rhetoric and actions, however, continue a century-long history of the federal government working with private real estate interests to develop and maintain segregated communities, especially in the suburbs, said Paige Glotzer, a historian at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and author of the book “How the Suburbs Were Segregated.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed zoning rules that specifically separated whites from Blacks in housing in 1917, a series of local and federal practices, including mortgage redlining and providing housing assistance only to white World War II veterans, effectively blocked Black residents from living in newly developed suburban communities.

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“What it meant to be successful was to live in the suburbs,” Glotzer said. “But the only way you could live in the suburbs was to be white. That helped to cement an idea that African Americans were not there due to some personal failings when in fact it was decades of public and private segregation that was often enforced with violence.”

In 1968, the passage of the Fair Housing Act aimed to ban racially discriminatory housing practices and integrate previously segregated communities. But with the approval of the federal government, many suburban homeowners blocked such efforts by playing on fears about urban disorder, crime and lower property values.

Trump’s similar fear-based appeals, Glotzer said, have “been coded to mean race for so long. Trump knows that his audience understands what he’s saying and who he’s referring to.”

Although Trump has been facing a backlash over his racist rhetoric and heavy-handed crackdown on protests, he could still find political success with a more narrow focus on housing, said Karyn Lacy, a sociologist at the University of Michigan whose work focuses on the changing nature of America’s suburbs.

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“For the majority of Americans, their home is their only, and certainly most valuable, asset. Embracing debates about supposed increases in crime and declining property values once Blacks move in — that’s racist too, but white suburban voters may accept it if they believe doing so will protect their asset,” Lacy said.

Fights over adding housing in the suburbs are not always partisan, as shown by recent experience in California.

For the last three years, Democratic state lawmakers tried to push through legislation to increase apartment construction in neighborhoods now zoned almost exclusively for single-family homes — an effort that could have had an especially strong effect in remaking wealthy suburban Bay Area and Los Angeles communities.

While opposition to the proposal included many activists from low-income renter organizations worried about gentrification and displacement, some of the most intense hostility came from suburban homeowners in liberal neighborhoods who complained about the potential loss of local control over development and their community character.

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The state plans failed earlier this year. Lawmakers are now weighing less aggressive proposals to increase homebuilding in suburban communities.


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