By Peter Boody
Racial hostility is one of the major reasons why people oppose affordable housing in their communities and they have grown more brazen expressing their animosity in racial terms in the years since the nation’s first black president came to office.
That was one point made by Curtis Highsmith, the executive director of the Southampton Town Housing Authority, when he spoke before a small group last Thursday evening, June 23, at the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center, which hosts speakers every month on a range of topics.
“Times have changed if you look at the political profile right now,” Mr. Highsmith told the audience of about 25 people. “PC [political correctness] has gone way out the door and people are feeling more comfortable saying things that typically two years ago, or even a year ago, they wouldn’t have felt comfortable saying.”
The country was united after 9/11, he said, but “then we progressed to a point” at which the nation had its first black president “and it all went sideways,” he said, “and unfortunately we have the most uncomfortable environment, politically and socially, that we’ve had in many years.”
He said his wife had asked him to stop looking at the letters and comments in The Southampton Press, where he said someone had asked “who elected him with this much power” and suggested the he should be tarred and feathered and sent packing.
“If there was no Obama, there would be no Curtis,” Mr. Highsmith said he’d seen someone say in the paper.
He made his point about a decline in political restraint on racial animosity after having told his audience that a developer affiliated with the Housing Authority, invited to speak at a backyard barbecue about affordable housing issues, had been met at the gate by a Caucasian man who told him he was not welcome.
The man told the developer “you’re going to bring nothing but blacks and Mexicans to my community. We don’t want you here and several of my friends feel the same,” according to Mr. Highsmith.
“It really is a battle,” Mr. Highsmith said of the effort to provide affordable housing in the face of such focused and energized community opposition. “It’s not all racial … However, there’s a huge issue and when I hear” certain comments “I’ve got to shake my head. Are we in 1960 or 2016?”
The public was invited to Mr. Highsmith’s talk but there were many empty seats and some complaints that the local papers had not publicized it or chosen to cover it.
“I would have expected this room to have been filled with kids, young adults, parents” with a need for affordable housing, Mr. Highsmith said. That lack of a presence leaves those in favor of housing projects without a political voice, he argued, as did Bonnie Cannon, the executive director of the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center. Both said that proponents needed to join forces to balance what politicians are hearing from opponents.
“The problem is opposition usually speaks the loudest,” Mr. Highsmith said, “and when you don’t have something to counter that opposition like numbers, like people,” it gives the politicians or elected officials less incentive “to look at a project in a positive way.”
Saying he was going to “speak candidly this evening about a lot of issues and concerns,” Mr. Highsmith listed three topics he had learned from the town’s Citizens Advisory Committees and civic associations that he should not bring up when appearing as a speaker: “Don’t do Section 8,” he said, referring to the federal program to provide subsidized housing, “don’t even say the words ‘affordable housing’ and certainly don’t bring up race.”
Even though they are very different programs, he said “affordable housing” was considered just another term for “Section 8” and that both had negative connotations for some people because of a range of concerns.
Against Section 8 projects, he said he’d heard: “My property values will go down; it will turn my Mayberry community into a ghetto; they don’t take care of their property; too many babies and a burden to the schools; they don’t pay taxes so there’s a tax burden; overcrowding; they are food stamp, lazy, unemployed people looking for handouts; there will be illegal immigrants and minorities.”
Against affordable housing projects, he said he’d heard: “There will be undocumented workers; I’m in favor of it, just not here; there will be too much density and environmental impacts; there’s only one bedroom so there won’t be families; it will attract crime and drugs.”
“You hear all this and then you ask, ‘Why shouldn’t I bring up race?’” Mr. Highsmith said.
“The fact of the matter is when we speak of and bring up racial issues, it’s uncomfortable,” he said, but avoiding the issue means “allowing segregation in our communities and that’s the nature of what these projects are supposed to encourage: diversity,” as well as community growth and expanding opportunities to attend better performing schools.
“Someone said affordable housing was the new Civil Rights movement,” Mr. Highsmith said, agreeing, “there are a lot of similarities. “The purpose of the Civil Rights movement was desegregation and what we’re trying to do is desegregate communities.”