In the second episode of the miniseries Show Me a Hero, which premiered on HBO last Sunday, angry crowds — all white — protest at a Yonkers, NY city council meeting discussing a plan to put a measly 200 low-income households in the more affluent parts of the city. Many people watching surely believe that they wouldn’t be throwing diapers at the council if they had been in Yonkers in 1987. I’m not so sure.
Yonkers residents protesting public and affordable housing at a city council meeting. Images from HBO unless otherwise noted.
DC may be close to half white and half black, but many neighborhoods are far from diverse, racially or in income level. West of Rock Creek Park and east of the Anacostia River are worlds apart, as much as Show Me a Hero’s depictions of Yonkers east and west of the Saw Mill River Parkway.
DC hasn’t taken very serious steps to change this reality in the last decade, but even those to move 1% of the way have been met with more than 1% of the anger and opposition we can see in Show Me a Hero.
In the series (and in real-life history) a federal judge found that Yonkers had violated civil rights laws and the Constitution by concentrating all of the low-income housing into a small area of the city. The judge ordered Yonkers to build 200 units of public housing and 800 of affordable housing in sites elsewhere. The council (all white) fought against the ruling to the bitter end.
Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko is faced with a council where no member wants new public housing in his district.
The first two episodes of the miniseries, by The Wire creator David Simon, show council resistance as the judge progressively threatens officials with contempt charges and fines. They also depict the intensity of public opposition to the idea of anyone who makes less money than they do living in their neighborhoods. “It’s not a black and white issue,” one says, unpersuasively to much of the series’ 2015 audience.
Meanwhile, in DC in the 2010s, what affordable housing gets built mostly goes east of the Anacostia into the District’s two poorest wards. Residents there keep pointing out the unfairness of adding even more subsidized housing in areas with high unemployment and relatively few retail or transportation options, but it continues. The Gray Administration even approved a proposal to build on public land in the Mount Vernon Triangle but locate required affordable housing units in Anacostia.
The concentrations of white (left) and black (right) residents in Yonkers in 1980. The darker the green, the higher the percentage. Image from Social Explorer via Uncovering Yonkers.
In DC’s richest ward, new housing inevitably means a fight
There hasn’t been any push to build affordable housing west of Rock Creek, but there have been a few efforts to build some higher-income housing that wasn’t the detached single houses on large lots that predominate. Apartments on the site of the old Wisconsin Avenue Giant, the development now called Cathedral Commons, drew battles and lawsuits for well over a decade.
The DC Zoning Update proposed allowing homeowners with basements or carriage houses to rent them out instead of prohibiting the practice outright, as is the law today. That plan is still slowly grinding its way through the approval process after getting watered down significantly amid endless delays over more than seven years now.
And a 2003-2004 plan to allow denser development along Wisconsin Avenue near the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights Metro stations provoked a massive backlash. At the tail end, opponents attacked Ellen McCarthy, the planning director at the time, and successfully pushed for her ouster.
None of these efforts would have created much if any exclusively low-income housing. Some people, like Councilmember Vincent Orange, therefore argue wrongly that opposing new housing has no impact on low-income residents at all. But if it’s so controversial to allow more market-rate housing in an already expensive area, where units might just go to some young singles and couples or retirees, imagine the firestorm if the same housing would have actual poor people. You don’t have to imagine it; you can watch Show Me a Hero.
The specter of different people raises alarm
In the show’s second episode, Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) hears on the news about the increasing chance of some low-income housing coming to her neighborhood and says, about the people who would live in low-income units, “they don’t live the way we do. They don’t want what we want.”
In the 21st century and outside the crispness of a scripted television show, people don’t quite say that, but some messages on the Chevy Chase listserv about the carriage house proposals came close. One person wrote, “I’m especially concerned about [these units], and sympathized with the parent who expressed concern for his young childrens’ safety if no controls were instituted on who could occupy such units.”
And these would have been units where an existing Chevy Chase homeowner hand-selected the person to rent to, not ones awarded through a housing lottery. What would this writer and the others who expressed similar sentiments done if the plan had actually been to desegregate the Chevy Chase neighborhood?
Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) is a single mother and public housing resident struggling to afford life in Yonkers.
This year, the US Supreme Court upheld a strong interpretation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act in a Texas case that has a lot of similarities to the Yonkers one, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued stricter rules to push cities to do more against housing segregation.
With the memorable and viral phrase “Liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets,” Kriston Capps argued in Citylab that many liberals’ professed views won’t stand up to the reality of actually getting affordable housing near them. Capps notes how a Republican county executive was elected in Westchester County (which includes Yonkers) after his Democratic predecessor approved new affordable housing across the county.
Lisa Belkin, author of the book on which the miniseries is based, wrote in the New York Times that “[s]upporters of desegregation won the Yonkers battle — but the high cost of victory lost them the war. Few in this country had the will to risk another divisive, ugly municipal bruising any time soon.”
Many officials in DC and elsewhere might look at the miniseries, the real-life experiences in Westchester and DC and everywhere else, and conclude that residential segregation is something best ignored. That’s certainly what the councilmembers in Show Me a Hero wanted to do. But as David Simon illustrates with cuts between the council hearings and scenes of the real lives of the affected low-income people, the human cost of inaction is very high.