One of the initiatives pushed by former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro in his role as secretary of Housing and Urban Development was to attempt to move more low-income citizens into affluent suburban neighborhoods.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the government’s right to do that under the 1968 Fair Housing Law. That law was immediately thwarted by President Richard Nixon. He nixed then-Housing Secretary Mitt Romney’s attempt to enforce it. But Obama and Castro wanted to use it to help struggling families move out of neighborhoods beset by poverty.
"Unfortunately, too many Americans find their dreams limited by where they come from, and a ZIP code should never determine a child’s future," Castro said.
A range of studies indicate that when children from low-income families attend school with children from affluent families, they are more likely to graduate, to attend college, to earn more money, pay more taxes and lead more stable lives. And they don’t pull down the performance of affluent students.
Castro also authorized higher Section 8 rent subsidies to put low-income families in more expensive suburban neighborhoods.
This stirred up a storm in the conservative media.
The conservative news website Breitbart, under a headline reading "Obama Using Federal Funds to Push Urban Poor into Middle-Class Suburbs," featured a photo that appears to show looters in front of a Ferguson liquor store.
"That’s all good for the cities' managers, city property owners and for millennial college-graduates, because it helps local developers to gentrify 'urban blight' for urban professionals," Breitbart announced.
It is unlikely that Castro’s initiative will be pursued by Donald Trump’s HUD secretary, Ben Carson — much to the relief of suburban politicians, including some Democrats.
But that doesn’t mean cities like San Antonio can’t pursue economic desegregation. One strategy: invest in keeping lower-income families in inner-city neighborhoods undergoing gentrification as more affluent individuals and families escape the suburbs.
The politics are easier. People moving into transitional neighborhoods know that low-income people are already there. Pushing them out is a consequence, but not their goal.
We should help families stay in their homes as property values and rents rise. We should also add new housing in or adjacent to the neighborhoods. One example: The Cevallos Lofts on the edge of King William. In exchange for tax breaks, 25 percent of the units are rented to people making more than the minimum wage, but not enough to afford market rents.
San Antonio is particularly well situated to promote economic integration because of developments in the San Antonio Independent School District. For many years it offered little or no incentives for families that had a choice to use its schools. The late Judge Andy Mireles, who had served as school board president, once told me that more educated parents weren’t wanted because they would uncover widespread corruption in the district.
That has changed under Board President Patty Radle and Superintendent Pedro Martinez. The district is offering a range of attractive magnet schools and other programs. Even before that, parents who had moved into the King William area worked with other parents to make major improvements at the neighborhood school, including a dual-language program.
The Bonham Academy is now rated so highly that affluent families have for years been moving into the neighborhood partly so their children can attend Bonham. This despite the fact that more than half the student body qualifies for the free lunch program. They, of course, are prime beneficiaries of the school’s economic integration.
So for the next four years, at least, perhaps we should not fight uphill battles trying to push low-income people to affluent suburbs. Let’s help them stay in areas that affluent families are gentrifying.