Book Review: The Color of Law

I’ve always found describing a book as “important” a bit pretentious.  But I make an exception for this one, whose full title (with US spelling) is The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America by Richard Rothstein, published by Liveright Publishing.

In it, Mr Rothstein dissects how the US establishment has systematically separated people by skin colour/ethnicity and class.  As he argues in his preface, the deeply divided US cities of today “were not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States”.  

The key feature in this process has been access to housing and deliberately discriminatory laws that prevented African-Americans and other minorities from living in some places, while confining them to others.  Critically, as Rothstein concludes, this poisonous legacy endures – and I would add, assumes renewed toxicity under President Trump.

The book provides copious evidence of how the law has been used as a weapon of racism, but also pays tribute to the many people who resisted it.  One example is how the city of Chicago, backed by the federal government, refused to permit public housing in predominantly “white” areas.  Defending this de facto apartheid, President Gerald Ford’s solicitor general said “There will be an enormous practical impact on innocent (i.e. white) communities who have to bear the burden of the housing, who will have to house a plaintiff (i.e. black) class…”

When I visited Chicago in May, local housing justice campaigners were fighting – against stiff resistance – to include a relatively small number of “affordable” (not public) housing in Jefferson Park, an area with fewer than 1% African-American residents, in a city where they comprise at least 30% of the population.  As one of the campaigners told me, “It’s as though we’re back in the 60s”.

The Color of Law shows that a particularly pernicious element in keeping people in their place is the planning system, known as “zoning” in the US.  From supposedly benign, even enlightened, roots, land-use planning quickly became an instrument of social and ethnic engineering.  Although overt residential segregation has been illegal in the US since 1926, as Rothstein notes:

…numerous white suburbs in towns across the country have adopted exclusionary zoning ordinances to prevent low-income families from residing in their midst.  Frequently, class snobbishness and racial prejudice were so intertwined that when suburbs adopted such ordinances, it was impossible to disentangle their motives and to prove that the zoning rules violated constitutional prohibitions of racial discrimination. (p53)

Legal mechanisms under-pinning racist housing policies and practice in the US have been reinforced by the grossly disproportionate financial subsidies provided by the State to private home owners (predominantly white), by comparison with that to tenants of non-market rented housing (predominantly non-white).  This systematic, politically motivated, bias is being deepened in the US today, where the Trump administration is driving through savage cuts to the affordable housing budget and seeking to hike rents for public housing tenants.

From a UK perspective, the author’s apparent faith in the potential of the US Constitution to promote social equality, against all the evidence he presents to the contrary, seems odd.  But it would be a mistake to think that any of the issues in this excellent and yes, important, book don’t have their close or direct comparison in the UK.




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Book Review: Municipal Dreams: The rise and fall of council housing

Today feels like an appropriate day to write a review of Municipal Dreams by John Boughton (Verso).  I won’t publish it until tomorrow though, mostly because of the book’s title, which is one of the few things I don’t like about it.

Amidst today’s mawkish media coverage and hypocritical political hand-wringing, this book is a reminder that the Grenfell atrocity was the consequence of policies that, if not intended to kill, were designed to dehumanise.

Perhaps the best thing to say about Municipal Dreams is that it’s a very good read.  John Boughton really knows his stuff, as anyone whose looked at his blog of the same title will know.  But unlike some “experts”, he doesn’t show off to his reader.  Instead, the book offers an accessible, but meticulously researched, account of a social policy phenomenon with huge contemporary relevance (especially today).

It’s a thoughtful, reflective and sympathetic history of council housing and its unique contribution to British society. Above all, it celebrates the true, inter-generational value of council housing, beyond, but not excluding, its architectural merits. The book also provides a thorough chronology of the sometimes bewildering array of government policies down the years that have attempted to balance investment in council housing against the interests of a private market that has consistently failed to build the homes we need.

Boughton also slays some myths about council housing. He demonstrates that:

“…council estates in their earlier years, and well into the post-1945 era, were the home of a (relatively) affluent and aspirational working class. Indeed, their success to a significant degree rested on just that. The true story of ‘Broken Britain’ is not failed council estates, but an economy that failed their residents” (p47).

Boughton shows that one of the reasons for this success was the generally high-quality of most 20th century council housing, much of which remains today, despite the prejudices of those who use design as a pretext for demolition. The book also illustrates that council tenants weren’t passive recipients of council housing, but fought for its creation and preservation. The estates they live on now have a narrower social demographic than Nye Bevan envisaged in his “living tapestry of a mixed community”. But as Grenfell reminded us, council housing is still far more diverse than the mono-tenure, monochrome suburbs against which they are often judged.

One of the most important lies nailed by Municipal Dreams is that council housing receives a disproportionate amount of government spending, compared to the private market, when in fact, the opposite is true.  As Broughton says:

“…council housing is not, in any meaningful sense, ‘subsidised’. Construction loans are repaid and, in most cases, the homes themselves become an asset, not only to those who live in them but a financial – and income generating – asset to the local authority.” (p256)

This point has a particular relevance in the aftermath of the Labour Party publishing its housing policy green paper, with its half-hearted commitment to council housing and a general lack of an ambiious social vision of the kind described in Municipal Dreams.

Unfortunately, John Boughton tends to adopt too defeatest a tone himself. He doesn’t give quite the credit to grassroots housing campaigns of resistance as he might (the council homes built by the defiant Liverpool city council of the 1980s is a particular ommission) and he’s reluctant to attack the motives of those who have been hell-bent on destroying council housing. But I have a sense (although I’ve never met him) that John’s a nice bloke and doesn’t want to think ill of people. Today of all days, I don’t find that difficult!

In the end though, Municipal Dreams comes to praise council housing, not to bury it and is highly recommended.

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Reflections on Chicago and Rump America

I’m sitting in a very comfortable bar, drinking cold beer, watching several sports on a TV screen the size of our house, waiting for a big plate of well-cooked (if a bit unhealthy) food to arrive. These are some of the things I enjoy about this country.  But of course, there’s a darker side, which Chicago exemplifies. I’ve been here before, but never really got to grips with it. This visit has shown me why it’s sometimes called The American City.

Even by the brief standards of post-European US history, Chicago has packed an astonishing amount into a relatively short time. I saw a picture yesterday of this place in the early 1830s – a few huts on the side of a river, adjacent to an enormous lake. As with so many other cities, it was shaped by water. What, within a few decades, became the crossroads of America grew because it sat between the trade links of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi. There followed a population explosion that made it one of the biggest cities in the world by the end of the 19th century.

Historical landmarks are a bit invidious, but since going from frontier outpost to industrial metropolis, Chicago has seen the Great Fire of 1871 (which destroyed most of the existing city), the Haymarket incident, the fight for the 8-hour day and numerous other important labour movement struggles, the seminal 1893 World Columbian Exposition which sparked an architectural renaissance, a deadly “race riot” in 1919, rife gangsterism during prohibition, the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966 and the fight for housing justice, the Democratic Congress of 1968 and more. It’s a city that drips with history and has been memorialised by some of the great American literature.

But today’s Chicago seems to have more that divides than unites it. Socio-economic polarisation, inscribed with ethnicity, has become a feature of most 21st century cities and is particularly pronounced in the US, with its history of racist housing policies and practice (Richard Rothstein’s recent book, The Color of Law, is well worth a read on this). Even so, I’ve not been to many places where skin colour so clearly marks a line between one area and another. In 1996, I briefly entered the fringe of a township in Cape Town and had an immediate sense that this was another place.  Parts of Chicago feel similar.

I’ve heard Chicago described by an African-American who lives here as “the most racist city in America”. In a country where racism is linked to so much social injustice, that seems a big statement. But when Dr. King came here, he said he’d never encountered such hostility, even in the Deep South. Part of the reason for that was that King was deliberately confronting residential segregation, unsuccessfully. Although various legal reforms have prohibited overt discrimination in the housing market, walking around Chicago shows it endures, albeit in different forms.

This is most obvious in certain parts of the south and west of the city. The Bronzeville neighbourhood in the South Side was decimated when thousands of homes owned by the public housing authority were demolished after 2000.  Few of these homes have been replaced: thousands of people have been displaced.  I first visited the area in 2015 and wrote about it in my book, describing it as a ‘class war zone’.  Re-visiting this week, I wondered if maybe I’d exaggerated.  I didn’t.  The scale of abandonment and neglect is massive.  If anything, what I saw of the West Side was even worse.  These conditions are compounded by the sense that they are the result of deliberate policy and that for people in “the other” Chicago, they are out of sight and therefore, out of mind.

All of which makes Chicago – and Rump America – a troubling place to be.

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Knives, lives and homes

Even allowing for statistical and social variables, the fact that London’s murder rate can be compared with New York City’s indicates the gravity of the situation here.  It’s depressingly predictable that most politicians’ response to our young people killing each other is to call for more policing.  I accept it’s part of the picture.  But obsessively seeing the problem through the prism of “law and order”, often as a proxy for talking about more uncomfortable subjects, offers no real hope of solving it.

Despite my own obsessions, I’m not arguing that the housing crisis is directly or solely causing rising violence among young people.  A complex range of factors is involved.  But my thoughts keep going back to a passage in my book, featuring an interview with Demetrius Bonner, a housing and community activist from the South Side of Chicago.  Demetrius said to me:

“They knew when they tore the buildings down that they’d displace people.  Children have had to move schools, some to suburban areas in the far South Side, so it’s a double displacement.  The black community’s social infrastructure has been destroyed.  The demolitions have also disrupted the gang structure.  Today the violence is random.” 

The last sentence is particularly chilling for what’s happening in London today, but actually, everything else Demetrius says has an echo.  The passage continues: 

To illustrate his last point, [Demetrius] produces a photo on his phone showing the dead body of a 14-year old boy shot in the street behind Demetrius’ home a few days before we met.  It’s no more valid to attribute such shocking incidents to contemporary urban policy than it was to post-war public housing, but there is a profound sense that some South Side residents have been abandoned to their fates while the authorities pursue an ideologically-driven clearance policy. 

Even when I wrote this in 2015, the level of violence and abandonment in Chicago felt like something that exemplified the differences between the UK and US.  The history of American social policy – and of course, the wide presence of guns – seemed to suggest that, although the pressures on working class urban communities over here were approaching those of places like the South Side, they weren’t as bad.  Now I’m not so sure.

Broadly, I’d still say the UK doesn’t have the brutality of American society, but recent events in London suggest we’re heading that way and reaping the whirlwind for decades of cuts and austerity.  Working class communities in general and women and young people in particular have been the main targets of revanchist policies against the Welfare State.  As in the US, people with black and brown skin are disproportionately likely to suffer as cities become ever-more socially and ethnically divided.  Within this, the fundamental question of housing looms large.

Speaking on Radio 5 on 26th March, Michelle McPhllips reflected on the many reasons why young people, including her own son, are dying on London’s streets.

“When our kids leave school now, there’s no incentive…You used to be able to get a job and start renting a flat.  Flats are too expensive now.  Most families have three generations living in the same home, so that’s another pressure.  What they’re seeing is areas where they’ve knocked down council housing and put up these glorified flats costing £465,000.  The people coming out of that flat have got a lovely car, £100 trainers.  The kids literally on the other side of the street haven’t got that.”

Michelle lives in Islington.  Her words have a particular resonance for me because they precisely describe what’s happening around the Islington council estate where I work.

Young people have been demonised in the UK for many years, especially if they live in stigmatised social housing, something that reached a peak after the 2011 London riots.  Since then, the housing crisis has deepened and scores of council estates are now threatened with demolition, leading to the kind of displacement and disruption described by Demetrius Bonner in Chicago.

Neoliberal and profit-driven urban policies have produced cities in which many young people literally feel they have no place.  They find it almost impossible to find a home they can afford in the communities where they were born, thwarting their ability to develop independent lives.  Their social networks, sense of belonging and feeling of respect from the adult world have been stretched to breaking point.  Nothing could be more perfectly calculated to create a situation in which young people don’t care, either about the lives of others, or their own.

The generation of working class youngsters at the centre of the current wave of street violence has only known Austerity Britain.  The childcare services, youth clubs, leisure facilities, education, job and housing opportunities available to their parents have been decimated.

In the early 1990s, during the height of the disastrous War on Drugs in the US, a police officer working in deeply deprived communities in Jersey City said to me “It’s all very well saying ‘Just Say No’ to kids.  But we have to give them something to say ‘yes’ to.”  That should start with a decent, secure, truly affordable and safe home.



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Learning from DC

We recently had the pleasure of Dominic Mouldon staying with us.  Dominic has been a housing activist in Washington DC for 30 over years, where he currently works for the One DC campaign.  It was Dominic’s first visit to the UK and I asked him a few questions about his trip.

GR      On Wednesday 14th March, you joined the silent walk to remember the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster.  How was that for you?

DM      I felt a deep sense of solidarity.  There was a special feeling of respect for the lives lost, especially when they handed me a little badge with a victim’s name on it to wear during the walk.  That was really moving.  It reminded me of how shocking it was for us, in the US, to hear about the fire.  I also experienced the dignity and power of silence.  Finally though, it was very telling to walk through areas separated by only a couple of miles and see such huge differences between them.  I saw the deep class and economic divide reflected in the different homes and buildings along the way.

GR      Thinking about your visit overall, what comparisons and differences will you take back to the US in terms of the housing situation and how people are responding to it?

DM      I think I’d need a longer visit to properly answer that question.  But the first thing I noticed that’s really different is the sheer scale and volume of the new private property developments in London, even compared to most US cities, including DC where there’s been a frenzy of new building.  But the number of towers and their height that are going up here was scary to me.  It felt exactly like the social and ethnic cleansing we see back home, but on an even bigger scale.

The second difference is how we organise.  We both want to win.  We want to stop displacement and change the social, political and economic tide that’s causing it.  So how do we do that?  We need more people to get involved and get their hands dirty.  I think of it like growing grapes that you want to turn into good wine.  If you’ve got a vineyard of 10,000 acres and you’ve only got one person per acre working it, that’s a bit overwhelming – a bit like the housing crisis can seem.  But if you have 10, 20 or 100 people to an acre, you feel like you can win.  We don’t have enough people in the vineyard in the US either, but we do have a longer tradition of training and paying campaign staff.  Over here, most campaigners are combining activism with a job, family and other responsibilities.  Maybe that’s something for you to think about.

I also think, over here, you might want to consider more the relationship between ethnicity and displacement or other aspects of the housing crisis.  Fundamentally, I still believe housing inequality is about social class, but we need to recognise the significance of ethnicity within that: how black and brown-skinned people are more likely to be the victims of the housing crisis.

In terms of similarities, the violence and viciousness of what I’ve heard about here is very familiar.  I’ve been told lots of stories of people being kicked out of their homes by organisations who won’t give up until they’ve smashed entire communities.  That’s exactly the same as the US.  I also noticed how similar the human impact is.  I was told again and again “I feel stressed out”, “I feel like I’m not valued as a person”, “I’m getting headaches”, “I’m losing my community”.  Somebody I met at the Aylesbury estate yesterday used exactly the same words as someone I work with in DC – “They wouldn’t treat dogs this way”.

GR      There’s a lot to say about President Trump, but so far, how do you think his administration has impacted on the housing crisis specifically?

If you’d asked me just after he was elected, I’d have said “it doesn’t make any difference”.  He’s just like all the others.  But now I’m getting really concerned.  He’s implemented huge cuts to housing programmes for people on low incomes.  Billions of dollars are being removed from budgets intended to meet the needs of the people we work with.  He’s also trying to reinstate an ideology from the past, linking public housing and welfare benefits to the politics of respectability, as defined by him.  At One DC, we believe everyone has a right to housing.  What our government’s saying is that only certain people have that right.  So things are getting worse.  Trump has launched an economic and ideological assault on the poor.  It’s not just housing.  It’s healthcare, education and other social programmes that working class communities rely on – and pay for.

GR      There’s been a revived interest over here in “The Wire”, which some see as an authentic insight into urban America.  You were brought up in public housing in Baltimore, where the TV programme’s set.  What do you think?

DM      I can be very brief on this.  I don’t like it.  It worries me that people, especially politicians, might use “The Wire” to inform their decisions.  Some of the storylines may have some truth, but it’s only a fragment of the experience of living in those places.  It’s only one writer’s viewpoint.  I think in some ways the programme perpetuates and reinforces stereotypes and dehumanising myths about African-American people and public housing.


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The Housing State We’re In

It’s hard to sustain anger at the housing state we’re in.  Every time you think you’ve heard the worst example of corporate greed and policy failure, you hear something else.

The following ad is for a home currently being built opposite the council estate where I work.  Just in case you think you’re seeing things, yes, the ‘guide price’ is £1.2 million and yes, the seller is a housing association.

This particular outrage doesn’t stop there.  This is one of 16 homes within the development for sale at over £1 million.  The most expensive is on offer for £1,670,000.  The land Southern Housing Group (SHG) is building on used to be publicly owned (occupied by a school).  The site sat vacant for at least three years, while the local housing waiting list got longer.  The development – “The Featherstone” – is being marketed by arch gentrification agents Savills, as “the definition of urbanity”.  According to the planning permission, of the total of 65 homes, 19 (30%) should be for social rent, although we can no longer take such figures or definitions for granted.  According to its 2016/17 annual report, last year the number of homes SHG let for social rent fell, while the number for misnamed Affordable Rent (up to 80% of market level) increased.  During the year, SHG built 393 new homes, made up as follows:

Shared Ownership 169 (43% of total)

Affordable Rent 87 (22% of total)

Open Market Sale 49 (12% of total)

Private Rent 48  (12% of total)

Social Rent 40  (10% of total)

During the year, they made a “surplus” (i.e. profit) of £62 million.  Over the last three years, SHG has received £2.3 million in government grants.

In other words, despite significant public funding and amidst an acute housing crisis, only 1 in 10 of the homes built by this so-called social landlord last year, would have any chance of helping those in most housing need.

Like, for example, the family I know living immediately opposite The Featherstone who will be evicted by their private landlord any day now.  They’re desperately looking for another home in the area where the three young children have spent their whole lives.  They’ve tried everything, including leafleting the local neighbourhood (see below).  Needless to say, they’ve got no chance of living at The Featherstone, which stands as a mocking reminder of the prospect of homelessness and their uncertain future.

This is the housing state we’re in.  This story is only one of thousands like it, but it could have been different.  When the school was demolished in 2012, the land could have been kept in public ownership.  The local authority could then have built council homes on it.  They could have used section 106/”planning gain” money from the numerous private property developments in the area to help pay for them.  Even after the site had been privatised, the council could have insisted on more genuinely affordable homes for social rent.  But no local politician (nor the local MP) has raised a peep about this scandalous situation.  Even now, with the spectre of Grenfell in mind, they could demand to know how this scheme they authorised has become so detached from the lives and needs of local people – where there are almost as many homes for sale for over £1 million as there are for social rent!





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The Florida Project

I’m loath to recommend things, but The Florida Project is well worth seeing.  It depicts an America beyond complacent, artificial consumerism where real human values struggle, but also flourish.  In some ways it’s I, Daniel Blake for the US – a child’s-eye view of an increasingly brutal and brutalising society.  (It also gives a rare cinematic representation of what I do for a living.  I’m a bit disappointed Willem Dafoe got the part ahead of me, but he nailed it.)

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