Newsrooms and Implicit Bias

Elaine Clisham
Jul 30, 2015 · 4 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Bailey Corner in south Jersey, a successful inter-municipal affordable-housing collaboration. Photo courtesy New Jersey Future

Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy.

As you may have heard, we have quite an affordable-housing tempest going on in New Jersey right now. The state Supreme Court finally got fed up with the Christie administration’s governance-by-neglect approach to the issue and authorized lower courts to act as arbiters to determine whether municipalities are making good-faith efforts to provide housing for people of all incomes, as a previous court decision and subsequent state law both require.

There’s a deadline by which towns that want some breathing room to address their affordable-housing situation must file documents with the court. Many towns have filed, many others have not, including quite a few in the Press of Atlantic City’s coverage area. Fine; the step is voluntary, and all it does is buy some time.

But if you look at that Press story, you’ll see a poll that readers can take, to express their opinion on whether towns have any responsibility to provide affordable-housing options (as if they have the choice). Look carefully at the only available options:

  • Yes; towns need to accommodate poorer residents;
  • No; if you’re poor it’s your fault;
  • How about some subsidies for rich people?

This is my biggest objection to the poll — the assumption that there’s nothing wrong with the way we provide housing at the moment. In case no one has noticed, local zoning is a massive intervention in a market, explicitly intended to foster a certain outcome. And in many, many areas (full disclosure: including my own township) local zoning, either intentionally or as a side effect, excludes people of lower incomes, via any or all of several mechanisms, including:

  • Large minimum lot sizes, usually with deep setback requirements. I realize “large” is a relative term, but if an entire municipality requires lots of three acres or more before a house can be built (as mine does, with the exception of two small village zones), and if land is expensive, you’re automatically saying that you only want people of means living there.
  • Only one type of housing permitted. Want to build a duplex? Want to add an apartment over a garage? A carriage house? Want to develop a piece of property with four attached townhomes? In many areas (again, including mine, with some narrow exceptions), you can’t. Single-family only, please, because otherwise one or both of two things might happen: “Those people” — you know, the ones who can only afford to live in cramped, multi-family housing — will bring with them all the urban pathologies you fled the city to avoid; and/or you’ll be making room for lots of families with schoolchildren, and we know what a drain on public services they are.

[Update 7/31/15: Here’s a law professor, writing for the urban-planning site Planetizen, discussing how zoning codes, while not explicitly racist, are certainly similar to racist housing discrimination.]

I do realize that there are sometimes physical constraints on housing development — sewer capacity, for example, or natural-resource protection — and obviously those will prevail in the affected areas. (I also realize that no zoning is not a desirable option either, lest truly noxious uses suddenly show up.) But these kinds of residential zoning restrictions are rampant in unconstrained areas as well, and they serve to drive up housing costs artificially, because, of course, they are interventions in the market supply-and-demand mechanism. The governmental attempt to ensure the availability of more affordable options is no more than an effort to counterbalance that intervention.

So, Press of Atlantic City, by all means show your upper-middle-class suburban bias in your polls and reporting if that’s your thing. But keep in mind that when you portray affordable-housing residents in such simplistic and condescending terms, you’re also talking about the Millennial children and aging parents of your sweet-spot Baby Boomer readers, who can’t afford your municipalities’ large-lot housing and have to move away because they can’t find smaller options in the community they really want to live in. You’re talking about the waitress in the diner where you sell single copies of your paper, who has to drive a half-hour to her job because she can’t live in the same town where she works; about the bank teller where you deposit your advertisers’ checks; about the mechanics who keep your press and your delivery trucks running. Piss them off if you want, but don’t be surprised when your readership numbers decline because they don’t see themselves portrayed honestly in your coverage.

Also keep in mind, Press of Atlantic City, that when you alienate a group of people — for example, people of lower incomes (who may, by the way, also be of an ethnic or racial minority)— you reduce the credibility of all your coverage, and you make it harder to recruit people from those groups as employees. I’ve been seeing some stories lately about the woeful state of #mediadiversity, and my response is: You have only yourselves to blame.

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