You may have seen the signs – they say, in Spanish, English, and Arabic, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” (There’s also a variant in Hebrew, English, and Arabic.) In an atmosphere of demagoguery and baseless hysteria about foreigners and immigrants, not to mention escalating actual danger, this kind of gesture is important (not sufficient, but important). I intend to get one for my lawn.
But their popularity also makes me a little uncomfortable. When I was on a work visit to recently to Montclair, N.J., where my office is located, I saw these signs all over the place—on churches, lawns, and business windows. This is not surprising. Montclair is an epicenter for liberalism, well-known as a haven for (upper class) interracial couples, and the home of multiple former Obama administration officials, New York Times higher-ups, foundation officials, and the like.
Seeing those signs everywhere made me smile. And it also made me cringe. Because while the makers of the sign meant “what country you’re from,” what the sign says is “no matter where you are from,” and I know that for most of these folks, that actually isn’t true—not if “where you are from” is nearby Newark, Irvington, or East Orange, the mostly black, mostly poor cities only a few train stops away. Not if “where you are from” is “the projects.’” Definitely not if you are hoping to become their neighbor by getting a unit in a proposed affordable housing development, which get opposed there just as energetically as they do in much more conservative ‘burbs.
Montclair is not alone. NIMBY reactions are predictable and loud in any primarily homeowner neighborhood, regardless of political affiliation or ideology, to any development that might change the class makeup of a neighborhood, even slightly. Usually there is an unspoken racial anxiety that comes along with it. Often the opposition is couched in more acceptable terms—fear of overloading the sewer system or the schools or traffic problems (research on projects that get approved over these objections has shown most of these concerns to be baseless).
Sometimes the disguise is even thinner. HUD recently ruled that the city of Houston was in violation of the Civil Rights Act for canceling the construction of an affordable housing development in a predominately white neighborhood. As John Henneberger, MacArthur Fellow and director of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Services, explained in a blog post for Shelterforce magazine (which I edit): The HUD ruling catalogues a litany of statements of residents and elected officials opposing Fountain View that HUD calls “coded language, which when considered in context, has been recognized by the courts as expressing racial animus”–everything from, “Bringing them here will bring down this area” to “people come in here and they steal the tires off our Suburbans.” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is vowing to defy the ruling.
Fair housing got a little bit of national attention when Ben Carson was nominated to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and people scrambled to figure out if he had any experience with housing beyond living in it. Turns out his major declaration on the subject was an op-ed in the Washington Times calling efforts to enforce the Fair Housing Act social engineering. What many people don’t know is that another possible candidate who had been floated for the HUD position was Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who has, like Mayor Turner, actually fought HUD fought tooth and nail to defy the law and consent decrees to allow Westchester towns to keep themselves segregated for years.
We’re used to the hypocrisy about supposed advocates of small government wanting to interfere with women’s reproductive choices and in everyone’s bedrooms. We don’t talk as much about the irony when champions of reducing regulation come to the impassioned defense of regulation in the form of zoning whose only purpose is to make it hard to build housing that “the wrong sort” could afford. Perhaps we don’t talk about that so much because an awful lot of liberals agree with them. This is a problem everywhere, despite some modest good news about the trends on the racial integration front—more neighborhoods are integrating than resegregating and multi-ethnic neighborhoods, while still a tiny fraction, are becoming more stable, not merely the transitory states they were once assumed to be. I don’t want anyone to take down those signs about being welcoming to neighbors from everywhere, or to stop prioritizing the real and present danger facing our immigrant neighbors (who need affordable housing too, by the way). But if you’re looking for another way to actually walk the welcoming neighbors walk, may I suggest looking into who can afford to be your neighbor in the first place?