Christian Dorsey, the vice-chair of the Arlington County Board, gave an amazing speech at the Alliance for Housing Solutions’ annual Leckey Forum in June. He talked about historical racism in our housing policy, about environmental justice in locating infrastructure and polluting industry. And he tied it to today’s debates over housing and density in a powerful way.
“When our language becomes about, ‘Let’s make sure we “protect” neighborhoods,’ he said, “what we have to acknowledge is that means protecting a level of unaffordability and segregation and affordability that exists. You can’t have one without the other.
“And we can’t kid ourselves into thinking we can have it both ways. To tout our progressive bona fides with housing and affordability, while also accepting the framework that certain neighborhoods have to be ‘protected.’ Ask ourselves: ‘Protected from what?’”
The speech echoes many of the “YIMBY” arguments gaining currency around the county and with an important racial equity lens. Listen to the whole thing. I've also transcribed most of the key parts of the speech below.
As we think about housing and the nexus between housing and inclusivity and increasing racial and socioeconomic diversity, the pursuit of effective public policies to achieve these outcomes is often thwarted by political considerations. But these considerations, in my opinion, are not immutable. They can change.
Housing, as we all know, is incredibly important. It’s one of the elements on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s at the base level of our physiological needs. And it also stands as a pillar for what many people consider to be a component of their quality of life.
And for most Americans, it remains true still today that housing is the primary way for them to achieve financial security and also to transmit wealth to future generations. We can never dismiss or underestimate the primacy of housing in our county.
But despite that primacy, there is a lack of widespread understanding of how public policies have contributed to the segregation of our neighborhoods and schools as well as the lack of investments in communities of color, the suppression of political power for people of color. …
As we look at what caused that all to be – the great migration of African-Americans from the South to the North – as minorities shifted to cities seeking greater opportunity, what they found in many circles was racial resistance.
And they also found exploitation by people who could capitalize on the fact that you had a large number of people with limited options who could further be exploited by creating laws that restricted not only where they could be but also confined the neighborhoods that they were in, creating limited opportunities for them to buy, and mostly being in an endless cycle of renting, but not only renting based on fair market value but based on people who wanted to exploit the situation.
Now, this period of our history has largely been repudiated. We have the Fair Housing Act, and event during the Obama administration we doubled down and we have … Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. Our country has made it very clear that we reject those notions of the past.
Those are, of course, good things. However, they are not sufficient to remediate the circumstances that they created. The very notion that we have neighborhoods that were not an option for people of color, not open to people of various religions. It was not just the proverbial walling off. It was literal.
We see it in Arlington with Halls Hill. We see all across our country. With highways that separate desirable neighborhoods from undesirable neighborhoods. Railroad tracks and other infrastructure. And in those places that were literally walled off and separated, that’s where industries that we thought would have a noxious and toxic effect on the community at large, that’s where it was determined to be appropriate for them to be placed. Unwanted industries, industries that could cause environmental concerns – these became the elements of infrastructure in many communities that were open to people of color. That is something that has not effectively been undone.
And so, if we think about what are our chief barriers today to realizing an inclusive community through housing policy, … another area that we have to really examine ourselves is how we go about the business of providing for the land use in our own communities.
One area, zoning. The whole idea that we have one dwelling per lot, and we allow for the increasing footprints in the dwellings on said lots, absolutely factors into our affordability challenge. It restricts housing supply and increases the prices of housing on those parcels.
Now, I recognize that many of those communities where that is the paradigm are lovely communities that people are extremely proud and happy to live in. And we certainly – certainly – don’t want to change in any way the notion that neighborhoods are for people, for families who want to grow and stay in Arlington for generations.
However, that does not mean that our own way of looking at zoning in neighborhoods is to preserve something that actually contributes to our affordable housing and diversity challenge. There are other ways to think about it. And when our language becomes about, “Let’s make sure we ‘protect’ neighborhoods,” what we have to acknowledge is that means protecting a level of unaffordability and segregation and affordability that exists. You can’t have one without the other.
And we can’t kid ourselves into thinking we can have it both ways. To tout our progressive bona fides with housing and affordability, while also accepting the framework that certain neighborhoods have to be “protected.” Ask ourselves: “Protected from what?”
The corollary to that is also density. We think about density in many ways in Arlington but often you hear, we have to mitigate density. We want to concentrate density in certain areas. We want density to be something we don’t deal with. Again: If that is our framework and our paradigm we are losing a key tool to deal with affordability. …
I talk to a great many Arlingtonians. And what I hear as often as this idea that we need to protect our neighborhoods and mitigate density, I also hear that I want my neighborhood to be a place where I can interact with people from diverse backgrounds. I want my kids to go to schools where they interact with people from diverse communities and diverse life experiences.
I think we need to hold people to that and engage them on those levels, and then expose them to the tools that can actually make that a reality.