Orfield v. Goetz

12 Apr

The University of Minnesota is the home to two high-profile housing scholars who are highly articulate, impassioned advocates, and hate each other’s guts. In one corner of the great housing debate is Ed Goetz, a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and head of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. His sparring partner is Myron Orfield, a law professor who served in state congress for twelve years who heads the U of M’s Center on Race and Policy. I’m the sort of person who can be entertained by high academic drama, so I’ve spent a chunk of the past year exploring their dispute, from participating in an abortive effort to get them to debate in person to settling for taking both of their classes at once. Today, Goetz’s class finally fleshed out their debate in full, giving me a chance to be accused of being a “closet integrationist,” among other things. (We were assigned sides, and being myself, I was trolling pretty hard.)

In its simplest form, the Orfield-Goetz debate boils down to this: Orfield’s acolytes believe that the most effective way to create opportunity for low-income populations and people of color is to scatter more affordable housing throughout a metropolitan area.  An agenda of full-scale desegregation is the most effective way to improve educational and economic outcomes, and policies that further concentrate low-income people in center cities or declining suburbs only reinforce cycles of poverty. Goetz’s backers, while not opposed to scattered-site housing, believe it is overly paternalistic to speak of moving black people to white neighborhoods so that they can benefit from living around white people. Goetz claims there is an affordable housing crisis in all parts of cities, and that we can’t be too picky about the siting; abandoning work in currently distressed areas will only make them worse.

The main point of contention appears to be Orfield’s treatment of community development corporations and other affordable housing developers that do the bulk of their work in already distressed areas. He calls out these developers for perpetuating inequalities, marshaling social science data to show the clear improved outcomes for low-income individuals living in “neighborhoods of opportunity.” Goetz counters by noting the extreme political obstacles to desegregation, a lack of evidence demonstrating success when programs are implemented, and the troubles left behind when investment pulls out of areas that are already struggling. He also questions the data and methods Orfield uses to arrive at his conclusions.

I can posture easily on either side, and it’s easy to toss about charges of racism or segregationism here and there. In this blog post, however, you’re stuck with me, so you’re going to get an unsatisfying and complicated answer. In writing this, I’m making some gross over-simplifications to reflect general perspectives in a debate; both scholars are considerably more complicated than this. Goetz in particular seems to appreciate a good argument wherever it comes from, and just finds Orfield’s lacking.

Orfield is something of a persona non grata in the urban planning program, but I’m still glad I sought out his class this semester, and doubt my planner colleagues would be as dismissive of him if they heard his in-person pitch. His perspective is a unique one, and he brings in new dimensions, such as schools. Urban planning, for reasons I do not entirely understand, rarely discusses education policy, and yet it is perhaps the biggest driver of residential choice out there. Case in point: both Orfield and Goetz, along with a whole host of U of M academics, live in Southwest Minneapolis, the one corner of the city with strong public schools. As someone who spends a little too much time over-thinking how I’ll handle this sort of decision when I have kids of my own, I can’t fault them at all. One’s own children are often where ideals go to die.

Goetz won’t dispute education’s potential, though the two can wrangle over the details. Still, one of the most striking things about this argument is the amount of common ground that these two share. Both seem to have fairly similar politics, are well-versed in the major literature and court cases around the issue, and infuse plenty of nuance into their arguments. They know housing policy doesn’t operate in isolation. In their debates, they tend to agree on 95 percent of things. And yet somehow that other five percent has become deeply personal, to the point that they won’t appear on stage together.

Both make the argument that the other side wants to limit choice, with the Orfield vision forcing people out into suburbs they may not want to live in and the Goetz version preventing people from any access to the potential perks of higher-income communities. (Neither one will work alone; both acknowledge this.) Both views appear overly idealistic in their own way, as Orfield puts his faith in the glacial tide of Fair Housing Act enforcement to create meaningful anti-segregation measures, while Goetz’s side would like to think that investment in long-suffering neighborhoods will somehow flip trends that have seemed so intractable for so long. (Fair points on both sides.)

Goetz’s most powerful counterpoint to Orfield’s skepticism of focus on already distressed areas has its roots in history: the current situation in inner cities is the direct result of decades of disinvestment, both public and private, and pushing people to leave will only further the decline. These places aren’t going away, and people will continue to live there. The only response here is deeply cynical: how can anyone in the housing world, knowing what has happened over time, trust that politics won’t continue to reinforce these divides? Better to hedge one’s bets and build things where wealthy white people will continue to live, as these areas will continue to do well, say Orfield’s people. The courts, at least, can push through a pro-integration agenda while being somewhat shielded from public opinion. The dreams of serious investment in distressed areas won’t work barring a political revolution, and even then, it threatens to degenerate into an us-versus-them dynamic that ends poorly for everyone.

Orfield is perhaps at his most radical when he attacks self-segregation by people of color: in his view, an all-Somali school in Minneapolis that seeks to empower its students is an unacceptable obstacle to integration. The question, then, is whether the right to self-determination and the bonds built by such concentrated schools and neighborhoods trump the social science that shows questionable outcomes. What’s the real goal here, the freedom to choose one’s own way, or a cohesive and fully integrated nation-state? As Orfield would ask, can separate schools and neighborhoods truly be equal? Or are we content to measure “success” on each community’s own terms, with no relation to the other?

The trouble here is that the “black community” (or any other racial or ethnic group, including white people) is not a monolith. Some people want to live around people who look like them, some actively want to live in diverse places, and plenty of people outside of academia or in certain chambers that react directly to it (where racial issues are always lurking under the surface even when not explicit) don’t care a whole lot. We have results from racial preference surveys that show that, for example, blacks and whites have different ideal “racial mixes” for their neighborhoods, and these dynamics, barring outside forces, will trend toward re-segregation. Still, all of this seems a horribly crude way to think about public policy and the people involved. Goetz points out that we often blur the line between whether housing policy focuses on places or people, and how one deals with that has serious implications.

When a couple of students discussed the debate with Goetz at the start of the school year, he expressed discomfort with two white men in their respective ivory towers deciding the fate of residents of low-income housing. It’s a fair point, and one consistent with his broader argument: the people who live in these places should be driving these decisions. For Orfield, on the other hand, higher ideals overpower the choices of individuals, which may on the whole create collective action problems as everyone acts in their own sorry self-interests. It’s an ancient debate, one that hearkens back to Aristotle observing the world around him while Plato looked to the sky in search of the perfect vision.

I started planning school because I was pulled by the instincts that guide Goetz: to build communities from the ground up. I still tend in that direction, though I’ve rediscovered some sense of ambition and a few crosses worth dying on, to say nothing of disgust with the bureaucratic morass that has pulled out my inner Robert Moses at times. My decidedly unsatisfying conclusion is to preach patience: collect more data, run more studies on what works, let different places experiment with different approaches to see what they can achieve. And whichever direction we go, invest more, period.

I’m glad both Goetz and Orfield do what they do, because these questions don’t have easy answers, and this sort of honest debate is exactly what future planners need to wrestle with. As proud as we may be for seeing the light and coming to this program with our visions of how the world could be better, we still should be in awe of our own ignorance and inability to “solve” things with a few easy ideas. That ignorance should not inspire sadness at our smallness in the face of the world, but relish: we have a problem to attack here, and we need to get to the bottom of it. This is what graduate school is for, and these are the debates I hope we continue to have even after we head out into the world and become real people. This is the challenge to which we’ve devoted our careers, and it won’t get any easier beyond the halls of the academy. We’d better learn how to enjoy the ride.


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