Sunday, February 26, 2012

George Romney

On our reading list this week: Charles M. Lamb’s excellent book about housing segregation in suburban America since 1960 called, well, Housing Segregation in Suburban America Since 1960. On our minds: George Romney, Republican Governor of Michigan, father of Mitt, and, most importantly for our purposes, really awesome, super progressive HUD Secretary under Nixon. As Lamb writes, “Romney is remembered not only for his enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, but also for his innovative plans to racially and economically integrate the suburbs.” Despite being a Republican, Romney believed that strong federal policy could avert society-wide repercussions of isolating the poor and minorities in deteriorating cities. Here’s Lamb: "What was needed then, according to Romney, was equality of results as well as equality of opportunity. The secretary assumed that federal policy should seek to ensure that actual economic and racial integration take place in the suburbs. The time was right to open the suburbs to all, build racially balanced new communities, and make the cities more pleasant places to reside." Sounds like our kind of HUD Secretary!

Romney spearheaded two programs to achieve his goals: "Operation Breakthrough" and "Open Communities." The first was conceived as a program for the massive building of mass-produced low and moderate-income housing. But as the name suggests, Operation Breakthrough also had an integrationist agenda (although "dispersal" was Nixon's term of choice): in order to receive HUD money for sewer grants and the like, suburban communities would be required to waive restrictive requirements in their building codes and zoning ordinances. This "big stick" approach was obviously unpopular, and HUD was predictably accused of being socialistic and even totalitarian: protests of Breakthrough projects popped up in Indianapolis, Wilmington, Houston, Kalamazoo, and other cities, and the program produced far fewer units than it had hoped. "Open Communities," a "clandestine" policy designed by Romney and his aides with virtually no White House involvement. A precursor to the MTO program, the goal of Open Communities was to provide African-Americans with housing in white suburbs that they were previously unwelcome in (Lamb quotes a 1969 memo from Romney's Special Assistant John Chapin, stating that "the white suburban noose around the black in the city core is morally wrong, economically, inefficient, socially destructive, and politically destructive"). As with today's Housing Mobility programs, SMSAs with high segregation and little or no affordable housing were targeted. Unlike Operation Breakthrough, however, Open Communities was based on carrots: participating communities received sewer and water grants, open space grants, and funding for urban renewal.

Open Communities had a long, somewhat tortured history that you can read about in Lamb's book. In the meantime, it might be appropriate to wonder why Mitt’s old man isn’t getting more attention in this Republican primary season. Why, in a debate, or even in an interview, has no one asked Mitt about his father’s legacy? If someone had, we would of course see how far the apple has fallen from the tree. We'd also have to consider how radical it would be today for anyone to say things like "We've got to put an end to the idea of moving to suburban areas and living only among people of the same economic and social class" (George Romney, 1969), or [The racial face-off between the cities and suburbs] is the most potentially explosive situation that our nation faces" (George Romney, 1970). As any reader of this blog or others like it know, it's not like these issues are any less important today than they were then.

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