Woe has come to affluent suburbs. Not only are they facing high rates of foreclosures, but some of the houses are becoming Section 8 rental units. I kid you not. Here is a great article from the NYTimes about Antioch, CA where African-Americans from Oakland are using their Section 8 vouchers to find affordable subsidized housing in the 'burbs. Check it out. There is also a post at Tony's Kansas City with some raging comments here.
The situation is ironic on a number of levels, but let me use some of my insights to sharpen the focus. The Times article pits the poor Section 8 tenants against the hostile and frightened white suburbanites. While that generates a great sympathy angle for the tenants, it does little to get at the deep issues. The Times article touches on some research that has been done on Section 8 dispersal programs where low income minority tenants are moving to the suburbs. The findings suggest that they are bringing their crime with them from the city and bringing down the quality of life in the suburbs. While that "fact" may be true, it is the interpretation of what it means that is very disturbing and it is that interpretation that permeates the Times article.
Having lived in an inner city neighborhood for a couple of years, I have a better sense than most white suburban people about the issues facing residents who migrate to the suburbs. First the section 8 tenants who are black and by necessity, low income, are moving into a neighborhood of white middle and upper middle income residents. This is culture shock for all concerned. But the big difference for the white folk is that they use their position of privilege to define what the suburban community life ought to be. They assume that life as they know it should be the default. And if minority poor people are coming into their neighborhood, they should "assimilate" and adopt the default standard of living. Those that don't are obviously unfit to live in the neighborhood and this leads to the white residents to bemoan how their community has changed. If those same white residents moved to the inner city, they would expect the existing black residents to conform to the expectations that whites bring with them (gentrifiers are known for this). No loud music or cars, no street gatherings, no hustling - because white people believe that their way of life is the way everyone should be living their life.
I am not saying that drugs, violence, and domestic disturbance ought to be tolerated in anyone's neighborhood. On that point whites and blacks agree. No one other than the perpetrators wants that kind of life condition. But whites assume that these life conditions are voluntarily adopted by minorities and/or come with the inner city territory. Bigoted whites assume that any black person who moves into their neighborhood will be violent and do drugs. Well meaning whites assume that now that these poor black folk have been delivered from the ghetto that their lives will turn around and they will live like the white people do. Only the clueless would think either of these two positions are true.
Yes, the inner city is a tough place. It is loud, it can be violent, there are drugs. But what I encountered most is that it is stressful. Stress caused by not having enough money to pay the bills when an emergency comes along. Stress caused by not having a full-time job with benefits. Stress caused by a local economic market that is built on hustling - drugs, stolen merchandise, and the ultimate renewable good - one's own body. Stress caused by being constantly surrounded by boarded up houses that white suburban investors couldn't flip or houses that neighbors couldn't make a go of. Stress caused by vacant lots everywhere filled with trash that no matter how often it is removed, it is replaced by new trash as fast as the weeds that grow high. Winter is the only respite from visual blight because it is too cold for the weeds or the trash dumpers.
Suburbanites are beginning to understand what this stress is like and how it affects your life. The news is littered with stories about rampant foreclosures and the impact it is having on neighborhoods that once were the model of American life. The fact that homeowners from CA to MO are becoming section 8 landlords is producing a lot of stress for their former neighbors! This is a nationwide phenomenon. Someone needs to look at the crime trends in neighborhoods where foreclosures are up and employment is down. You don't think that suburbanites are resorting to domestic violence, pawning their stuff (on craigs list and ebay until they sell their computer, and then the pawn shop becomes convenient). You don't think they will turn to petty crime (maybe at the office or the shopping mall) to help make ends meet?
When low income tenants move to the suburbs on a Section 8 voucher, they come as poor people but not necessarily as ghetto thugs. They bring with them an experience of what day-to-day life is like and their boundaries of behavior are based on the stress and culture that they know. It is not a stress that typically exists in the suburbs and it is not a culture known by white people. Why is it that white people in the suburbs are offended by people gathering outside of their home and being loud? Why do whites or middle class people look at blacks and poor people as being uncouth and barbaric - to the point that they will call the police to take care of the "disturbance." I now live in a mixed neighborhood of middle class and working class people (and student renters) in Camden, NJ. People here sit on their front porches and mingle and talk loudly. They are OUTDOORS. It is ok. The behavior is not just about being social. It is about protecting turf. No one bothers people on my block because we demonstrate that we are attentive to our neighborhood. Two blocks away there is petty theft because transplanted suburbanites don't tend to their street.
In Antioch, CA there are some simple ways to address the tension. Instead of sitting at the Starbucks sipping a $5 latte and complaining about how black tenants are ruining your community, get engaged with your neighbors. In the 1950s and 60s there was a service called "Welcome Wagon" to help acclimate new residents to the neighborhood, give them coupons to patronize neighborhood merchants, and generally set the tone for what the norms were in the community. As a society we let go of that kind of standardization of culture and the Welcome Wagon went the way of the dinosaur. However, many neighborhood groups and community organizations still welcome new residents with a gift of a plant or other housewarming token, just to let the new residents know who to call if they need help, have a question, or otherwise are lost. Imagine who might need this help - maybe new residents that have come from a completely different place and are now in a culturally foreign environment???? Ya think? Instead of complaining that poor black tenants are not living exactly as you think they should and are "changing" your community, and are bringing crime with them...try embracing them in a way that forces you to examine your own expectations and provides some neighborliness.
Now the inevitable conclusion is that there will be nice, white people who embrace their new neighbors and welcome them, only to be rebuffed and deduce that crime follows people from the inner city. "I tried" they say, "but they didn't respond and there is nothing else I can do." Except call the police and join the local latte whiner's club. Whites assert privilege and use the police to enforce their world view. It is laughable that researchers frame this as section 8 tenants bringing crime with them (like it is in their suitcase and they unpack it) or that crime follows them (like a lost dog) to the suburbs. Put people with stress into any situation and crime will ensue. To suggest that a change of geography is all it takes to change behavior, then let's all move to Palm Beach!!