The City of Chicago has an interesting Section 8 philosophy that mandates apartment buildings – even the really fancy ones – have a certain number of abodes set aside to serve as Section 8 housing.

It’s not a bothersome provision. Most of the Section 8 tenants are perfectly nice, and the apartments are doled out through a lottery system to preserve at least a sense of fairness. But it’s always interesting to note that there’s a certain unidentifiable percentage of your neighbors who don’t pay very much for an apartment you often consider selling your organs on the black market to afford.

If the Obama administration has its way, a similar program will expand from just high-cost, high-rise apartments to wealthy neighborhoods. A new HUD rule, due out this month, is supposed to suggest what critics are calling a “utopian vision” of HUD’s equal opportunity housing plan: granting money to organizations to put up “affordable housing” in traditionally affluent neighborhoods.

The Obama administration is moving forward with regulations designed to help diversify America’s wealthier neighborhoods, drawing fire from critics who decry the proposal as executive overreach in search of an “unrealistic utopia.”

A final Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rule due out this month is aimed at ending decades of deep-rooted segregation around the country.

The regulations would use grant money as an incentive for communities to build affordable housing in more affluent areas while also taking steps to upgrade poorer areas with better schools, parks, libraries, grocery stores and transportation routes as part of a gentrification of those communities.

“HUD is working with communities across the country to fulfill the promise of equal opportunity for all,” a HUD spokeswoman said. “The proposed policy seeks to break down barriers to access to opportunity in communities supported by HUD funds.”

Typically, as a libertarian conservative, I’d be diametrically opposed to these sorts of housing mandates. After all, the right to own property is one of the foundational rights of our republic, and self-organizing into neighborhoods, free from government manipulation and societal engineering is part of that right. But this kind of forced gentrification is one of those instances where something ends up being much more interesting in practice than it does on paper.

Chicago, for instance, has a hipster problem. Hipsters move into a decaying neighborhood – usually an ethnic neighborhood, though not exclusively – open up fair-trade coffee shops, put up bike posts and sell artisan tacos from food trucks under canopies of string lights for a while, while cleaning things up and making it both safer and more commercialized. Once they’ve hiked property values enough that mainstream stores are the only ones that can afford storefronts on the neighborhood’s main drag, the hipsters declare said neighborhood “over” and move on to the next available decaying quadrant. This is all done, incidentally, in the name of social justice, as the mostly liberal post-grad crowd can’t help but believe that their presence – and their money – is making the lives of neighborhood residents that much better. “Now they can get organic veggies!” they say. “They have access to public art!” they crow. “We’ve vastly improved their neighborhoods,” they think.

What really happens is much, much worse. Longtime residents are often forced to uproot because property values – and by extension, property taxes – take a violent hike upward. Hipster businesses, financed by student loan deferments and trust funds, drive out mom and pop stores, as the kids prefer handmade pies to bodega cats. Neighborhoods lose their character, cultures become whitewashed – often literally – and residents are forced to move to lower-income neighborhoods without the quality, safety and community that they’re used to. Hipster efforts to “help” the great unwashed end up hurting the very communities they intend to help.

I’m not saying I want this to happen – not by far – or that gentrification doesn’t have its benefits. But it’s all in how you execute the program. Generally, gentrification happens naturally. With this effort by HUD, it would happen on a planned scale, which means that even the slow change most neighborhoods experience would be carefully managed by midlevel bureaucrats.

And then, there’s the question of where these new “neighborhoods” designed to even playing fields are supposed to go. If HUD’s vision is to become reality, this lower-income housing would have to be located in places where the opportunities truly are: places with better schools, better health care, nicer homes and higher property values. Places where people would live if they had the money to live there, schools where people would send their children if school choice were a reality. This means, of course, that most of these housing projects would go in high-income, mostly white, possibly very liberal areas.

It would be interesting to see, if and when this is brought to fruition, which communities are staunchly opposed to such a change in their own backyard. I can almost guarantee, judging by their reaction to things like school choice, that limousine liberals will balk at the very idea of having to share their schools and grocery stores with what they consider to be the undesirables. They may know what’s best for poor people, but they certainly don’t want to have to interact with them.

It may be the progressive dream, but it quickly becomes the progressive nightmare.

Featured Publications