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The road to racial justice in Princeton must include housing justice

<h6>Elizabeth Medina / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Elizabeth Medina / The Daily Princetonian


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This article is part of the Opinion section’s Black Futures at Princeton series. Click here to view the full project. 

Unless otherwise stated, all estimates come from 2015–2019 American Community Survey data provided by Social Explorer.

While gathered with over 1,000 others outside of FitzRandolph Gate on June 2, 2020 to protest the murder of George Floyd, I could not help but reflect on the scene. Here we were — students, faculty, staff, and community members — protesting the scourge of anti-Blackness at the main entrance to one of the world’s most elite institutions, at the foot of a gate named after a slave owner and one of this institution’s most prominent original benefactors. I fixated on the image of the gate between campus and the broader community, which is not unlike the literal and metaphorical gates in our communities that work to exclude and produce inequality.

As someone who studies housing policy, particularly policies regarding affordable housing and integration, I spend much of my time thinking about causes and possible remedies to exclusion and inequality. I grew up in Kenosha, Wis., which is 45 minutes south of Milwaukee — the area with the highest level of Black-white segregation in the country. Long before I was a social scientist, I could tell in my many visits to Milwaukee that the degree of racial segregation and inequality there was completely unnatural.

The road to racial justice must include housing justice, and this requires us to contend with racial segregation. Few articulate the urgency of the problem as effectively as NPR correspondent Gene Demby. As he explains, housing segregation is in everything

Take a hypersegregated area like Milwaukee. It ranks near the bottom in upward mobility for large cities. In the second half of the 2000s, it had the highest rate of concentrated poverty in the country. During the 2011–12 school year, among a sample of 23 school districts with the largest K–8 enrollment in the country, Milwaukee registered the highest rate of K–8 school suspensions and tied for the highest Black-white suspension rate gap. Wisconsin has one of the nation’s most disparate Black-white incarceration rates, driven in large part by prison admissions in Milwaukee County. Between 2009 and 2011, one in eight Milwaukee renters experienced an eviction, a hardship disproportionately borne by Black women.

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None of this is coincidence. Mountains of evidence detail racial segregation’s role in producing and maintaining Black-white inequality. Decades of racist public policy and exploitative financial and real estate practices  combined to produce not just neighborhoods like Franklin Heights in Milwaukee — where Black residents make up more than 90 percent of the population and the median household income hovers near $24,000 — but also neighborhoods in Whitefish Bay, which are overwhelmingly white and have median household incomes well over $100,000. Most residents of Whitefish Bay, separated from Franklin Heights by less than five miles, benefit from this enormous, intergenerational imbalance in resources that reproduces itself over time. Sociologist Charles Tilly had a name for this: opportunity hoarding

The municipality of Princeton, like many communities across the country, is no exception in this regard. It registers an estimated $866,200 median property value, well over the $217,500 national average. Median rent at $1,532 indicates a rental market with prices that burden many households and exclude even more. As of November 2019, Princeton’s affordable housing waitlist contained nearly 2,000 households.  

No matter how you slice it, Princeton is highly unaffordable and out of reach for many households, but given the country’s history of racial and ethnic inequality, this particularly excludes and prices out Black and Latinx households. 

This has implications for ethnoracial inequality — not only between primarily white and privileged places like Princeton and primarily Black and Latinx places like Trenton that have weathered decades of disinvestment, but also neighborhoods within Princeton. The census block group comprising the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Princeton’s historic Black neighborhood where residents today face intense housing cost pressures, has a median household income just north of $47,000, far short of the nearly $138,000 median household income for the entire municipality. 

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A large body of evidence makes clear that housing shortages, especially in tremendously advantaged communities like Princeton, are largely artificial. We have been systematically under-funding and under-producing housing for decades, especially low-income housing. This has led to our current reality in which a majority households below the poverty line spend no less than half of their income on housing during normal times, with approximately 10 million renters at risk of eviction in the coming weeks. 

The National Low Income Housing Coalition puts the gap of affordable rental homes at 3.6 million, which, again, disproportionately impacts households of color. This undersupply of housing continues to inflate housing prices and rents, which benefits wealthy homeowners to the detriment of pretty much everyone else. It also maintains ethnoracial and socioeconomic segregation, which enables opportunity hoarding and helps fuel ethnoracial and class prejudice.   

While much attention is paid to federal housing policy (and rightly so), much of this exclusion operates at the local level via exclusionary zoning. Researchers have proven what many have long suspected: local government meetings tend be dominated by disproportionately white, wealthy homeowners who protest any development in or near their neighborhoods, no matter what heights the housing crisis reaches. In many ways, Princeton, despite positive developments in the recent past, fits this description.

In recognition of Black History Month, understanding this history is an essential step on the path towards undoing our country’s historic wrongs. Indeed, many in our Princeton community are taking these steps. Over the past summer, a group of Princeton students and faculty, in partnership with the Pace Center for Civic Engagement and the Princeton Civil Rights Commission, assembled the Princeton Affordable Housing Map, which details the past, present, and possible future intersections of race and housing in Princeton. The story map, which was the subject of a Wintersession seminar this year, continues on. Contributors will present findings and recommendations to the Princeton municipal council on March 8 at 7 p.m., all of which will be live-streamed on Zoom.

I encourage members of our community to explore and engage with this story map. It represents one of the tangible ways to participate in the movement for housing justice, which I will continue to explore in future columns.

Better yet, you could join Princeton Mutual Aid’s efforts to build solidarity in our community. Members of Princeton Mutual Aid have been doing the hard work of building a more racially just and inclusive Princeton, from advocating for more affordable housing in Princeton to providing for our neighbors who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic to many other initiatives.

The protest of racial injustice outside the FitzRandolph Gate last summer gave us a glimpse of what a true university community looks like — students, faculty, staff, and community residents all united against racism and injustice. Our work, then, is to realize this community, not just in the aftermath of racist acts, not just during Black History Month, but each and every day. To effectively eliminate the forces of exclusion in our country and world, we would be wise to start with those in our own community.

Matt Mleczko is a Population Studies and Social Policy doctoral student at the Office of Population Research and the School of Public and International Affairs and a graduate research assistant at The Eviction Lab from Kenosha, Wis. He can be reached at mmleczko@princeton.edu

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