When the Reactionary Is Visionary: The Illusion of Low-Income Housing in Sunbelt San Diego

In the Spring of 2007, New York City witnessed the revision of a city planning legend long steeped in controversy. Three separate exhibits – “Remaking the Metropolis” at the Museum of New York, “The Road to Recreation” at the Queens Museum of Art, and “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution,” hosted at Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery – attempted to reimagine Robert Moses and the built environment he constructed in New York City.

Without question, Robert Caro’s magnificent The Power Broker: The Rise and Fall of New York remains the seminal work on Moses’s career. While notable problems with Caro’s sourcing and interview methodology persist, much of The Power Broker’s narrative remains the accepted wisdom on the Moses legacy. In terms of race, the narrative fundamentally asserts that Moses’s public works reflected his disdain for lower classes and non-whites. First, Caro points out numerous examples of Moses’s subtle but telling class bias: “He restricted the use of state parks by poor and lower middle class families … by limiting access to state parks by rapid transit … he began to limit access by buses. He instructed [his assistants] to build the bridges across the parkways low – too low for buses to pass.” (Caro, Power Broker, 318). Not only Caro noticed this prejudice. Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member and FDR’s Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, reflected, “He doesn’t love the people … It used to shock me because he was doing all these things for the welfare of the people. … He’d denounce the common people terribly. To him they were lousy dirty people” (Caro, Power Broker, 318).

Moses’s views on race proved no more advanced, as Caro suggested that the New York power broker viewed Blacks as “inherently dirty,” limiting the ability of black groups to obtain permits to visit Jones Beach or discouraging African Americans from using the “white beach.” Moreover, within New York City Moses often refused to build recreation sites such as vest pocket parks and pools in minority neighborhoods. As one aid summarized, “Well you know how RM felt about colored people.” (Caro, Power Broker, 513). There would seem little doubt that Moses’s contributions remain tinged by racial and class biases, so why the attempt at revision?

Published in conjunction with the three exhibitions, the Kenneth Jackson and Hilary Ballon-edited Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York juxtaposed handsomely crafted photographic images of Moses’s work around the five boroughs and Long Island with short essays on the meaning of them.

[Author’s note: in the interest of full disclosure, the author was once a student in a graduate course taught by Professor Jackson.]

In particular, Martha Biondi’s essay “Robert Moses, Race, and the Limits of the Activist State” made a critical observation about Moses’s contributions. Biondi acknowledged that it remained “troubling that the man who built so much of the New York metropolitan area’s infrastructure was influenced by the long arm of Jim Crow” (121). Yet Biondi pointed out that “the built environment is not forever bound by Moses’s vision.” Today, after the demographic changes of post war New York recreated and reorganized communities several times over, those very pools and parks built for middle and upper class whites now serve non-white patrons. Despite his racism, Moses ended up building for the very people he disdained. A delicious irony not lost on the book’s essayists. New populations absorbed Moses’s legacy for their own uses, their own lives, their own lived experiences. At least, Robert Moses built things.

Sunbelt San Diego – 1979 – 2009

In 1997, while attending the annual meeting of National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, Chicago Housing Authority George Phillips commented on a tour of San Diego’s newer public housing. “This is totally different from what we have in Chicago,” he said. “Our public housing is much larger, with a greater concentration of public-housing residents . . . This is the model we would build on.” (Weisberg, Lori, “Public housing conferees like what they see,” November 9, 1997)   Praise poured forth as the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC), the municipal agency responsible for administering public and low income housing in the city, received recognition for excellence throughout the 1990s and most recently 2008 for its innovative approaches in creating affordable housing.

Certainly, the city’s exit from the federal system in 2007 served as a shot heard across housing circles nationwide — a sign that perhaps there existed another way of administering public and low income housing at the local level. Federal policy had long ago shifted toward dispersed, scattered site units. Nixon shifted federal monies away from construction to what became known as Section 8 or subsidized housing, which redirected funds to the private market. In the early 1970s, Nixon placed a moratorium on the federal construction of public housing units. Though he increased funding for housing assistance, Nixon shifted federal monies to block grants that encouraged infighting between the fragile “liberal” network of housing agencies, developers, builders, and unions. Also, Nixon’s adoption of the Section 8 program “shifted resources from building and maintaining public housing to handing out rent subsidies, so poor tenants could rent from private landlords,” Bruce Schulman writes in The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (p. 29). Typically, as in this the case in San Diego, Section 8 participants pay 30% of their income toward rent, with the subsequent difference subsidized by the city.

Favored architectural trends affected how observers viewed San Diego housing. The emergence of New Urbanism among architects in the late 1980s and 1990s meshed well with San Diego affordable housing activists. Even the scattered site, dispersed nature of public and affordable housing in San Diego earned approving nods. One might step back and gaze longingly at the city’s lazy good luck; no one here suffers the deprivations of poverty like unfortunates in St. Louis or Chicago may have in their vertical prisons. Thank God for the wisdom of city fathers.

Or maybe not. A closer look reveals a sunbelt city that avoided building nearly any type of public housing, a reticence that contributed to the municipality’s late entry into non-profit community development corporations’ (CDC) private-public affordable housing. Such timely failures have had costs, as one local housing activist point out: “The city of San Diego has the largest proportion of low-income renters in need of affordable housing, when compared with the rest of the country.” (Shapiro, Melvin, SDTU, “Where does San Diego Housing Commission money go?” July 11, 1999) Moreover, the lack of concentration noted by Phillips reflected not just the style of San Diego’s public housing, but also its paucity. Ironically, other attendees credited the SDHC for being “further along” than their own housing commissions, but this viewpoint failed to acknowledge that much of San Diego’s housing style and “dispersal” did not represent a new orientation but rather one born out of resistance to public housing throughout the post WWII period, not to mention the late 1970s and early 1980s (Lori Weisberg, SDUT, “Public housing conferees like what they see?”, November 9, 1997).

The first impulse most have when conceptualizing public housing inevitably conjures up monolithic block towers. Growing up on the south suburban fringes of Chicago proper, public housing elicited horrific fantasies of deprivation and crime. The 1992 horror movie Candyman  utilized the Cabrini Green projects as a central aspect of its story line. The reader can assume that Cabrini Green’s portrayal in the film highlighted its darker aspects. For those driving from the southern suburbs into Chicago on I-94, public housing towered over everything. Moreover, even in their destruction, they remain infamous. Few images have resonated like the implosion of the Pruitt Igoe homes in St. Louis. The demolition of Pruitt Igoe (1972) and towers in Chicago during the late 1990s and early 2000s symbolizes the perceived failure of public housing. Certainly, the modernist severity of the Robert Taylor homes and the density of low-income populations in underfunded isolated high-rises suggested little hope.

However, recent scholarship suggests life in public housing to be more complicated than popular conceptions. Recent works such as Sudhir Venkatesh’s American Project or Rhonda Williams’s The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality have found support networks, political activism and community that many observers failed to acknowledge. With that said, many observers might argue that San Diego deserves recognition for avoiding the construction of a Southern California Cabrini-Green. What if San Diego’s innovation is really just a case of unintended outcomes born out of exclusionary housing policies?

The Southern California metropolis entered the federal public housing system late and with ambivalence. In 1978, the Federal government threatened to cut off San Diego Community Block funding monies if it continued to operate without an agency committed to housing. Mayor Pete Wilson bowed to federal pressure, creating the San Diego Housing Commission in 1979. Most cities formed similar entities decades decades before.

At one time, federally owned government housing numbered 15,000 units in San Diego.  Much of it constructed under the provisions of the wartime Lanham Act, the housing provided quarters for defense industry personnel and military families. However, after the war the federal government and city worked to disposition the housing for a number of uses from private ownership (see Linda Vista) to  Navy management, municipal housing (think the old Frontier housing complex adjacent to Linda Vista) and in some cases simple demolition. By the late 1950s, the city counted approximately 3200+ units of municipal housing.  Unsurprisingly, the figures continued to dwindle.

By the time of SDHC, the day of public housing high-rises had long passed. Still, though the city avoided the kind of problems older “frostbelt” municipalities endured, its housing situation remained far from secure. By the turn of the 21st century, San Diego’s lack of affordable housing came to be seen as a pervasive quality of life issue.

The problem with San Diego’s approach was that it had no approach. Local officials and residents objected to even the idea of a housing commission. While avoiding the superblock styles of history certainly deserves praise, San Diego failed to build much of any affordable and low income housing. By 2008, the city only ran a total of just over 1,300 public housing units.

Moreover, the few low-income units that did get built failed to conform to the “balanced communities” policy the city promoted. The city’s neighborhoods were each to shoulder the burden of low income housing equally, but the result was a complete concentration of units in South San Diego. San Ysidro, a town that sits on the US-Mexico border, absorbed more public housing than most other municipalities nationwide, to the point that in the early 1990s conflicts emerged between Latino and Black residents of local public housing. As one journalist noted, “The influx of blacks angered the residents of predominantly Hispanic San Ysidro, many of whom believed that the housing should have been rented only to those already living in the area” (Ozzie Roberts, “Racism’s many shades,” SDUT, November 20, 1991).

Local newspapers identified social tensions three years earlier, as the local South Bay publication the Star News noted nearly identical problems. Since the opening of a 225-unit low-income housing project in 1988, “complaints from residents of the projects have ranged from expression of racist, anti-black sentiments to violence between teens.” Andrea Skorepa, director of Casa Familiar, a social services agency, admitted that the presence of blacks caused “resentment among some Hispanics” (“Five Minute News Brief,” The Star News, August 11, 1988). To be fair, the city of San Diego cannot be blamed for San Diego County’s mistakes. However, one would imagine they had some influence decision regarding the location of such housing.

This reticence not only prevents the development of physical units, it retards the growth of the kind of infrastructure, experience, and connections that government and private agencies need to stay effective in their provision of housing. Thus, when the federal government’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit (1986), Credit Readjustment Act (1977), and 1990s HOPE VI legislation all combined to facilitate the development of mixed income affordable and low incoming units through public private relationships with CDCs and CBOs, San Diego failed to take advantage, once again starting from behind. As a 1991 San Diego Union Tribune article pointed out, “Non-profit housing groups in 20 U.S. cities this year will divvy up $62.5 million in loans and grants, compliments of a national consortium that finances low-income housing. San Diego won’t get a dime” (Marsha Kay, July 7, 1991).

Two years later, in April 1993, observers still described the growth of the non-profit development sector as “fledgling.” Despite its founding in the late 1970s, the national organization Low Income Support Initiatives (LISC) only opened its first San Diego office in 1991. How important is LISC? A 2001 study written by Kim Slack for the Harvard Business School reported that since its creation in 1979, LISC had “invested . . . more than 3 billion dollars in community organizations to help combat poverty, most often by developing affordable housing for low income residents” (Slack, Kim, “Low Income Housing Support Initiative,” June 12, 2001). From 1987 to 1993, the region had only produced 1000 units through the low-income housing tax credit and private public partnerships. Nationally, the combination of tax credits and CDCs created 125,000 units annually (Weisberg, Lori and Sharon Spivak, “A new optimism on housing for poor,” SDUT, April 16, 1993). The absence of LISC, CDCs, and other aspects of the private public affordable housing infrastructure exacted a cost for all San Diegans.

By the early 1990s the city estimated there were about 60,000 low income and very low-income households in need of housing assistance, while local planning agency SANDAG suggested a need of 161,000 low income units in the region. Unfortunately, only about 40,000 such units existed. When the SDHC announced it would open up its waiting list for low income housing assistance, the agency was inundated with 40,000 calls in fifteen minutes (Weisberg, “Bond provides measure of hope for low income housing,” SDUT, April 16, 1990). In 1990, the SDHC administered Section 8 housing assistance to 6,707 families with 22,000 others on a waiting list. A year later the city assisted 7,395 households (Weisberg, “Missed deadlne shuts out subsidies” SDUT, Dec 13, 1991) By 1997, the number had grown to 8,400; nearly ten years later, the SDHC assisted over 12,000 families through Section 8 vouchers, while 40,000 remained on a waiting list that averaged between five to seven years (Weisberg, “A blueprint for change,” SDUT, November 17, 2006). As of December 2009, 14,000 households received Section 8 vouchers (Weisberg, SDUT, December 1, 2009).

Naturally, this dependence on Section 8 means the city’s stock of affordable and low-income housing becomes even more crucial. Unfortunately, it took political leaders until 2003, when the City Council declared a “state of emergency” regarding the city’s lack of affordable housing, for anyone to really acknowledge the issue, and even then it seemed as much a matter about levels of future homeownership than really assisting the working poor (Patricia Butler and Cary Lowe, “California needs to rethink its land use policy for affordable housing,” SDUT, May 23, 2003).

Granted, haranguing an overburdened and underfunded agency can appear unseemly. After all, when the SDHC established a Housing Trust Fund in the early 1990s, it witnessed the raiding of the fund’s coffers by the municipal government to plug budget shortfalls. The commission itself endured a mid-1990s grand jury investigation that questioned its “lending practices,” identifying specific loans as inappropriate. (Weisberg, “Agent of change,” SDUT, January 20, 2008) Along with these difficulties, for the past three decades federal funding for urban program development declined precipitously. Even under Clinton, though minority homeownership increased significantly, affordable housing failed to experience the explosion in federal funding many activists had hoped for. Combined with San Diego’s and the larger Sunbelt’s ideological aversion to taxation and government more generally, circumstances for the SDHC never proved ideal.

Perhaps the SDHC difficulties represent a symptom of a larger problem: the privileging of homeowner/taxpayer identities over all others, such that homeowner status represents the ultimate in citizenship. Richard Ronald’s The Ideology of Homeownership: Homeowner Societies and the Role of Housing addresses this very issue, concluding that the home as a form of capital accumulation undermines other forms of membership in society while reducing the state’s responsibility for social welfare, shifting this responsibility to the individual. Thus, those lacking land tenure such as renters and public or low-income housing residents find themselves denied the same level of citizenship.

The perceived effect of certain groups on housing values emerges as a chief characteristic for their judgment. Former San Diego Democratic Congressman Jim Bates (44th Congressional District- San Diego 1984-1992) said just as much in the early 1980s. Speaking to the Star News in December of 1984, Bates summarized his views on those lacking land tenure: “I am not a fan of low income rental housing because there is no question that renters don’t maintain the property” (“Bates continues probe of Navy housing,” Star News, Dec 23, 1984). Just to place Bates in context, he was the liberal Democrat of the four House members representing San Diego, the other three being conservative Republicans.

Other writers have addressed the Sunbelt ideology and its broader effects. Robert Self’s American Babylon: Race and Class in Postwar Oakland explores the rise of the taxpayer/homeowner identity that culminated in passage of the infamous Prop 13 (it drastically limited property taxes), passed by the anti-government/anti-tax enthusiasm of Orange County, and the suburban residents fleeing Oakland. Prop 13 proponents masked naked racism with the race neutral language of middle class homeownership. Becky Nicolaides’s My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles 1920–1965 explores similar perspectives in Southern California, where working and middle class whites, despite historic divisions, united in the name of “community” to prevent school and residential integration.

Bruce Schulman’s excellent The Seventies points out the pervasiveness of Sunbelt identities, referring to such individuals as “demi-rednecks” or “faux bubbas.” According to Schulman, they “brandished a set of shared political attitudes: they resented government interference … they disliked bureaucrats, pointed headed intellectuals, and ‘welfare Cadillacs.’ Demi-rednecks formed the foundation for conservative populism, the tax revolt, and the Reaganite assault on the welfare state. The ascendant Sunbelt, a new political force was primed to accelerate the erosion of American public life” (Schulman, Seventies, 117). The celebration of the white, middle class, respectable homeowner ideal helped mask the racist impact of housing policies by trafficking in race neutral language.

For all his faults, Robert Moses at least built things. Granted, Moses built more infrastructure than housing (though he built several prominent apartment complexes in the city), but he left a built environment that ironically has become a central aspect of the minority communities he long viewed as inferior. San Diego built almost nothing. Certainly, race and Sunbelt economic beliefs contributed to this situation.

The larger point here is that the condition of San Diego’s low income and affordable housing results from a pervasive political ideology, grounded in the rhetoric of free markets and property-based citizenship. San Diego never wanted public or low-income housing. Segments of the population rejected those it perceived as low-income residents. According to a SDHC Task Force report, by the end of the 1980s, not only did San Diego exhibit a severe shortage of affordable housing, many landlords and realtors continued to discriminate in terms of housing: “Blacks seeking to rent apartments in seven separate sections of San Diego faced some form of discrimination 40% of the time, according to a covert test of the housing market presented to the San Diego Housing Commission.” Moreover, the same study “concluded that the city has racially and ethnically segregated housing patterns, an imbalance that is partly attributable to low-income housing programs enacted by the city” (Leonard Bernstein, “Black Renters Met Bias, S.D. Study Finds,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1989).

When it removed itself from the federal public housing program in 2007, many hailed San Diego for its innovative approach. One year later nearly 18 other municipalities had applied for similar status. No one seemed to notice that nearly 30 years after the city relented to federal authorities in creating the SDHC, San Diego left the federal system altogether, all while having committed itself to minimal levels of low income and affordable housing construction. One might even argue the city’s ethos had won. However, its effects punished not only the working poor but its middle class residents as well, who witnessed a steady rise in the cost of housing. Apparently, what’s old is now new. Of course, following a housing crisis and a damaging recession, what does the homeowner ideology mean? A glance at the local newspaper might help. A September 2009 article in the San Diego Union Tribune reported that SDHC hoped to add 1035 subsidized units over the next five years.

The reason for such largesse? Severely “depressed housing values” (Lori Weisberg, “The price is right,” SDUT, September 20, 2009).