Will the Battle of the Suburbs Play Out Differently This Time?Roundup
tags: housing, affordable housing, suburban history, zoning
Lily Geismer is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College. She is the author of Left Behind: How the Democrats Failed to Solve Inequality and Don't Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party.
On Thursday, to break a stalemate over the state budget, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul agreed to table her housing plan that included proposals for building more affordable units in the suburbs. The move was a victory for suburban elected officials and residents. State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Great Neck) had called Hochul’s proposal an “existential threat to our way of life,” while grass-roots groups disseminated mailers warning that it would “flood YOUR neighborhood with THOUSANDS of new apartments.”
The indefinite postponement of Hochul’s plan portends ominously for a growing movement that aims to make affordable housing more available as well as the many politicians — from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to President Biden — who have promised to upend exclusionary zoning practices. Yet history tells us we shouldn’t be surprised. Instead, the defeat is a throwback to an all-but-forgotten “battle of the suburbs” that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s on a variety of different fronts. That past fight exposes how difficult it will be to overcome suburban resistance today.
In 1968, stakeholders around the country took notice after a presidential commission convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson — the Kerner Commission — warned that continuing “with our present policies” risked permanently fracturing the United States into a poor “largely Negro” society located in cities, and a “predominantly white and affluent” one centered in the suburbs.
The NAACP launched a legal attack against exclusionary housing practices in affluent suburbs, which its executive director, Roy Wilkins, deemed “the new frontier in the civil rights struggle.” President Richard M. Nixon’s housing secretary, George Romney — father of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — also undertook an ambitious program called Open Communities, which withheld federal funds from suburbs that opposed HUD-sponsored affordable housing developments.
This effort spread to the grass-roots level, too.
Many suburban residents, particularly in affluent liberal communities, began crusading to build affordable housing that could racially and economically diversify their predominantly White and affluent communities.
In Newton, a Boston suburb known for its excellent schools and liberal values, a group of citizens formed the Newton Community Development Foundation (NCDF) in 1968 and created a plan to build over 200 units on 10 sites around the 100,000-person community. At the same time, suburban liberals from Newton and nearby Lexington lobbied the state to pass the so-called Anti-Snob Zoning Act in 1969, which provided a mechanism for low-income housing developers to appeal zoning regulations in communities with less than 10 percent of their housing affordably priced.
This law was the first state-level effort to try to curb the exclusionary zoning practices of suburban municipalities.