“Urban Progressivism” Didn’t Cause The Racial Housing Gap, Racism Did

Since the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed, the Star Tribune has been publishing a series of editorials reflecting and commenting on the proposals that have emerged to address the issues of police violence and the racist system that underpins and fuels it.

Unfortunately, before retroactively seeking out and publishing the perspectives of people of color, the Strib has instead chosen to recycle quite a bit of tired commentary from the usual suspects. This has included an editorial from former Senator and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, whose day job now involves lobbying for a regime that prosecuted an illegal war on a neighbor and ordered the assassination and bone-saw-butchering of a critic. Not everyone who has weighed in is as morally vacuous. However, many who have written in the Strib and elsewhere are people who held power and spurned their chance to take bold action to remedy the historical inequities that are still present in Minneapolis. Now, they have the arrogance to try to blame the current city leadership—which has acted more boldly than any before it—with the problems that they allowed to fester.


Enter into the fray Carol Becker, an elected member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation. It is quite an achievement, but her recent editorial “Counterpoint: Minneapolis is ‘progressive’ and has terrible racial disparities,” is my vote for the most offensive of the entire genre. Proudly ignorant of history and contemptuous of the intelligence of the reader, for these reasons it should never have been published.

Small Errors

You do not need any special training or knowledge to note that Becker makes a number of completely unsupported assertions. For instance, in her closing, she attacks advocates for the 2040 plan as “mostly paid”. Despite having spent years making the accusation that support for the plan was astroturfed, she has yet to uncover any evidence of this. This is because it simply doesn’t exist. The Star Tribune should be ashamed to have allowed such a slander to slip past its editors.

Becker also makes the claim that “there is no bigger indicator of a family leaving poverty than availability of a car”. This is the kind of statement that deserves a citation. When subjected to any amount of scrutiny, it fails a basic test of causality. Owning and operating a car is a major expense. The ability to own and operate a car is a good sign that a family is not in dire poverty. However, did the car create those improved financial circumstances, or did the improved financial circumstances allow for the purchase of the car? There is a strong correlation between people who are not in poverty and people who dine at Spoon and Stable, but it would be obviously ridiculous to imply that it was dining at Spoon and Stable that was the cause of a family’s escape from poverty.

As a matter of fact, the relationship between car ownership and poverty is quite a bit messier than this simplistic framing suggests. Millions of Americans are underwater on their car payments and a bust in car loans is a sword of Damocles above the American economy. This is yet another reason why it is critical that cities build transportation networks that do not require the use of a car for access.

In addition to those dubious statements, Becker also makes several statements that it is hard to consider anything but outright lies. She writes; “The city’s 2040 Plan, the bible of urban progressives, says we must cut automobile travel by 40% in the next 20 years. Yet they never talk about how people will get to jobs.” This is demonstrably false. For instance, under ‘Goal 2: More Residents and Jobs‘, the plan states “A crucial element of residents’ ability to access employment and of a vibrant economy generally is public transit. While transit has improved in Minneapolis, it is still far behind the level of transit accessibility and mobility the city’s residents once enjoyed as they accessed jobs, services and housing.” This goal is supported by a wide array of policies aimed at improving mobility and access and at locating new and existing jobs along transit corridors. A typical example is ‘Policy 20: Transit‘, which explains “As our city’s population grows, it will be necessary to increase the frequency, speed, and reliability of the public transit system in order to increase ridership and support new housing and jobs.” Follow this thread further to the city’s draft Transportation Action Plan, which is a direct outgrowth of the 2040 Plan. The executive summary of the Go Minneapolis TAP includes the language; “Our streets will be organized to enhance access to jobs.” All of this information is public. Why Becker felt compelled to misrepresent it is beyond comprehension, except that she cultivates a base of readers who are unable to do their own research.

One Big Mistake

The objections above are small potatoes however, when placed alongside the editorial’s central thesis, an egregious misunderstanding of history. Becker wants to make the argument that Minneapolis’s progressive policies are to blame for the city’s yawning racial disparities. Which progressive policies? Becker is specific: “When I talk about ‘progressive,'” she writes, “I mean a very specific set of policies that define urban progressivism today. One touchstone is density. We must build more housing, goes the refrain, at almost any cost.”

Already, this line of argument shows its flaws. Minneapolis’ racial disparities are not only a local phenomenon. Cities around the country have the same problems. Are the size of these problems correlated with density? There’s no evidence of it. Nor are these racial disparities a new phenomenon. They can only be blamed on policies that ‘define urban progressivism today’ if those policies also defined urban progressivism in the past. Becker does not show evidence that they did, and that’s because it’s not the case. The policies of urban development have shifted dramatically in the past decades, especially on the issue of density. Less than thirty years ago, leading lights of urban progressivism were fixated upon the idea that design at lower densities was a key strategy that could change the fate of impoverished urban residents. They were wrong. Through the HOPE VI program, the federal government financed the demolition of dense modernist public housing blocks and replaced them with public housing developments that were influenced by the New Urbanist movement and aimed to capture the aesthetic of mid-century suburbia. The result was the loss of thousands of public housing units in already-reeling neighborhoods, and no widespread improvement in the fortunes of the people who lived there.

Becker, however, has a specific thesis. Homeownership is how a generation of Americans achieved generational wealth. The path for Black residents to gain the wealth of their White neighbors is to own homes which will then appreciate in value. What stands in their way? The Minneapolis 2040 plan and progressive leaders who have presided over a city that has built far more rentals than ownership opportunities. She writes: “It should be no surprise that Black families cannot build wealth through homeownership—urban progressive policies haven’t produced any homes to own.”

Urban progressive policies haven’t produced any homes to own?

I’ve read a lot of commentary about this subject, and I admit that I have never seen this angle before. The assertion that the country lacks single family homes to own is facially absurd. There are few things this country does better than building single family homes at great scale and low cost. (Not to mention that home ownership is perfectly compatible with multi-family buildings).

In the next paragraph, Becker specifically claims that the city is not producing enough large, multi-bedroom homes for Black households, which she notes are more likely to be larger or multi-generational. Here again, her assertions fail a test of causality. A leading reason why households in America become multi-generational is because they lack the wealth to live separately. Are some Black families not buying homes because there are not enough options to suit a preference for multi-generational living? Or are they living in multi-generational households because only by pooling their resources can they afford housing at all?

Becker’s explanation for the racial homeownership gap in Minneapolis is worse than silly. It’s gaslighting. The cause of the homeownership gap is not some kind of inefficiency in the market caused by benighted urban progressives. The cause is a sustained campaign of racist discrimination that was (and to a degree still is) practiced at every level of the real estate industry, aided and abetted by all levels of government. It has two parts. The first locks Black families out of owning homes in areas where prices were set to appreciate. This segregation was first enforced by racial zoning. When that was ruled unconstitutional, it was enforced by racial covenants. When those were ruled unconstitutional, or when White sellers and Black buyers conspired to break these barriers, this system of American apartheid was enforced by White mobs who waged campaigns of terrorism against the interlopers, their neighbors. These local rules and mobs were sanctioned by local authorities. At the federal level, the lucrative system of federally-backed mortgages that fueled America’s homeownership boom and the generational wealth of millions of White families was rigged through redlining to exclude investment in Black communities. When the last of these explicitly racist structures was broken down, the damage had long since been done. Single-family zoning today limits the supply of homes in exclusive neighborhoods, artificially keeping prices high. Prevented from gaining wealth through mid-century homeownership, many Black families now lack the resources to live in these areas and access the amenities they provide. Legal barriers have been traded for economic ones, but the result is much the same.

The second part of the system relentlessly scammed Black families of what wealth they did acquire. A common strategy called ‘blockbusting’ occurred when realtors spread a panic in a White neighborhood that Black families were coming to move there. Even if they were not personally motivated by racial animus, homeowners on that block knew (and were told) that if the neighborhood became more integrated, property values would fall. The realtors then would buy these homes from the desperate White families on the cheap and sell them to Black families at above their market value. This arbitrage was possible because while the supply of homes was not constrained, the supply of homes available to Black people was extremely constrained. Thus, Black families ended up forced into situations where they had to pay a premium if they wanted to own a home, for which the value was financially engineered to never increase. Sometimes, Black families were not even able to purchase homes before going bust. Many homes were sold “on contract” which meant that the buyer would be allowed to live in the house and pay it off, but until they paid the full price, they owned none of the asset. A missed payment could serve as justification for an eviction, after which the house would then again be sold “on contract” to another family, at no loss to the seller, who retained full ownership with none of the responsibilities. This scheme is so infamous, it became the principle exhibit in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” Becker’s indifference to history omits recent history as well. Black homeownership surged in the early aughts thanks to a system of cheap credit that proved to be built upon quicksand. That paper wealth evaporated in the financial crisis, leaving behind a trail of foreclosed homes and gap-toothed neighborhoods that disproportionately effected Black families and the places where they were concentrated.

No Excuse

This history isn’t secret. It is increasingly well-known and well-documented. Interested readers can pick up Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, Tom Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit, or a number of other books to learn more. Not everyone may know this history, but it should at least be compulsory knowledge for anyone seeking to write editorials in the local newspaper about these issues.

Becker writes that “Urban progressives ignored, then gutted, policies that shaped development, allowing developers to go where they would make the most money, not where we needed it. Uptown and Northeast have thousands of new housing units and jobs, yet Broadway never seems to change. This didn’t just happen. It was chosen by urban progressives.” This is profoundly ahistorical. It erases black letter history in order to score a self-serving political cheapshot. It denies the architecture of racial segregation and rebrands that odious machinery—insultingly—into a force for equality.

Characterized throughout by the use of rhetorical slight of hand and a loose fealty to the facts, all while masking a deeply false assertion at its core, this editorial is an unwelcome and unhelpful addition to the conversation about policing and racial gaps. The best we can make of it is to learn from its mistakes and resolve to do better in understanding the history that brought Minneapolis (and the rest of the country) to this point today.