I was fortunate enough recently to be able to follow-up my post about the woman who is starting a gourmet grilled cheese shop that will hire ex-cons by actually seeing her lecture a full house of 100 architectural students. Emily Hunt Turner was trained as an architect and was an attorney with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) before resigning, essentially in disgust with its lack of progress. She talked to us about the problems with HUD and how the young minds in the room could someday use architecture for good.
So I’ve spent several hours since her talk researching housing discrimination and segregation in America. And after all that, what I learned is that it is incredibly complicated, and I’m not going to pretend like I really understand it. Needless to say, with Ben Carson as its new head, things are probably not going to be looking up anytime soon for people who need public assistance.
She gave a few crazy examples of HUD issues, including Atlanta, circa 1996 Olympic Games. Atlanta prepared for those Olympics by campaigning against the poor and homeless and, in order to make everything ready for TV, they criminalized being homeless and poor—no shit.
Atlanta passed a set of ordinances that targeted the homeless: it was illegal to enter a vacant building, unlawful to enter a parking lot without a car, and begging was prohibited. The homeless, particularly African Americans, were also targeted and arrested for laying on park benches and jaywalking. Thousands upon thousands were arrested. Ironically, Atlanta is the home to the first public housing project to open in the U.S.—and the first city to completely close all of its public housing projects.
Low-income housing, despite its ideals, essentially led to the concentration of low-income and often black individuals in inner city public assistance high-rises. Then white people moved to the suburbs to get away from the poor black people. Then everything collapsed--quite obviously, in retrospect.
Mitt Romney’s dad, George Romney, was the head of HUD under Nixon. He was a good guy with a vision. He said “We've got to put an end to the idea of moving to suburban areas and living only among people of the same economic and social class."
Nixon wanted to fire him for that crazy idea.
Mixed income housing (vs public housing) was introduced in the 1990s with the thought that housing could be built around the idea that people of different incomes and color could live in the same areas. That didn’t work either.
Part of the problem, Emily told us, is that desegregated housing is left up to individual communities, despite federal law. Cities are given money by HUD, but end up building housing that itself does nothing to desegregate—because HUD simply doesn’t enforce policy. The last time any HUD director even tried was George Romney—45+ years ago!
Emily told all the students that through their work they should seek to do something simple: “Find ways to support people—all people—rather than exclude them.”
She’s leading by example with her grilled cheese shop, where she’ll hire ex-cons, often discriminated against in housing and employment, train them, offer mental health assistance (many have issues which are often left untreated because we don’t have national health care!), and then will get help moving them beyond working at a grilled cheese shop.
It’s essentially cheese as a portal to something better. Which is no surprise to me, because I’ve always believed in the power cheese.