The Morality of Housing Policy
The policies involved reflect how we choose to view and live with one another. At the same time, land-use policies and their implementation through zoning ordinances establish and maintain systems of inequities making them routine. This way of doing things puts enough steps between the policies and the individual so no one has to discuss the moral implications of land-use policy. We don’t have to question the morality of policies implemented by the FHA in the mid-20th century that affectively codified racial segregation and excessively burdened the poor. Instead, the implications of public housing policies are reduced to routine decisions of individually meeting the requirements (i.e. find a single family house in a homogeneous neighborhood) and you can own your own little piece of the American Dream.
The Divine Privilege
This examination should begin well before the effects of the policy are realized. The examination of the morality of a particular policy should begin with the development of the policy. The part of society that is given the responsibility of developing public policy are the first check that society has in its attempt to establish a government that adheres to its divine mandate to provide a system of justice. With this in mind, let’s return in particular to early American housing policies.
This corporation was tasked with dropping the rate of housing foreclosures by refinancing mortgages for a longer period of time (thirty years). This agency also developed a system of rating homes that highly valued new construction in homogeneous neighborhoods. If Jews and blacks moved into a neighborhood that would prevent that neighborhood from receiving a high rating no matter what the quality of the property. This system was later adopted by the FHA, which replaced the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the late 1940s, and this practice became known as “red-lining.” Surveys of real estate agents during this period showed that in some regions up to 80% of the agents refused to sell property to blacks in white neighborhoods. These surveys also showed, among other things, that agents were more likely to charge minorities more and banking institutes were less likely to loan to minorities strictly on the bases of race. Institutionalized actions such as these aid in limiting the chances of minority communities to overcome obstacles by cutting off their access to areas with greater economic opportunity. Along with this, the favoring of new construction almost instantly devalued older neighborhoods because individuals could not qualify for home loans in these areas.
The moral implications of this policy did not have to be discussed because the questions were answered on an ethical level. Because of this . . . I’ll do that. At this level right and wrong do not have to be addressed. In essence, returning to Bonhoeffer’s supposition, society is not fulfilling its duty to create a just system of government adhering to a divine morality but is placing itself in the role of divine arbiter. The developers and administrators of public policy have already made the moral decisions by putting a value on the worth of certain segments of society. This leaves only the ethical and routine questions of how to best structure those policies. Then as the manifestation of these policies become evident, society becomes duplicitous in these actions because it fails to ask the moral questions of its actions thereby creating a society based on its own morality instead of a divine morality.
This creates a situation where the lines of right and wrong can be pushed around in order to suit our wants. Parts of society continually search for means and methods to separate themselves from the masses and to hold themselves apart from the rest. That is why we must quiet our natural impulses so that we may enter into thoughtful processes that lead to policies that are equitable to all. A government based on a divine morality causes the individuals in a society to not only consider their personal situation, but those individuals that make up society must also examine the consequences of their individual actions on others.
This does not mean that if the administrators of the HOLC or FHA had taken this approach they would have created a utopia. But when people face the tough questions they are often able to adjust and prevent problems from becoming entrenched and almost insurmountable. Recent housing policies have attempted to ask questions dealing with the equities of the situations created by the implementation of new housing policies. This hasn’t led to the development of a perfect housing policy but has led to thoughtful initiatives such as mixed-income developments, urban infill programs, and greenspace programs that attempt to answer questions of just and equitable treatment. As with most plans conceived of mice and man, they rarely go the way they are suppose to. By keeping our moral compass, however, society can always keep in mind that it really is more about trying to do it right than actually getting it right.