January 18, 2024

Heart and Home Column from Joshua Ishimatsu


Neighborhoods and a Social Model of Advantage/Disadvantage
When I was in my mid-20s and living in Los Angeles, one of my half-brothers, who had learned about me through a family friend, looked me up on the internet and contacted me. He was living in LA, he had a daughter in elementary school, he worked in tech, and he was curious to meet me. So, we arranged to get dinner together.

After some initial, awkward introductions, he wanted to talk about our father. Do I keep in touch with him? What was his involvement in my life? What did I think of him and how he had fathered and abandoned so many children?
It was the first time I had met one of my half-siblings. But not for him. He had a full sister, so he knew her, of course. And he said that he had found and met another of our half-brothers. This other half-brother also had a sister, whom he hadn’t met. He said that he thought that there were more of us out there. He was still looking.

I couldn’t say much at all about my experience with our father. My mother and father were never married. I have my mother’s last name. My father was never involved in my life and I only have the vaguest memories of ever seeing him.

I could tell my half-brother wasn’t happy with my answers, with how I said I didn’t really ever think much about our father at all. He pressed me. It felt like he wanted me to talk about what a bad person our father was. He wanted someone to commiserate with. He wanted someone to give him license to air his grievances more than he already had.

At some point in the evening, I became grateful for never having had my father in my life. My half-brother was carrying the burden of having known our father, of having been hurt by him. In the context of the evening, I felt that I was better off than he was – less tethered to this specific pain. I felt, in a bedrock/epiphany-kind-of-way, that I was a more emotionally centered and stable person than I would otherwise have been if my father had been more present in my life.


Last month, I wrote about the Social Model of Disability – a framework created by disability activists who argue that “disabilities” are not inherently negative, and that the disadvantages of any disability are socially created. The disadvantages that come from having a disability is because we have not adequately invested in physical and social infrastructure. After all, we do not have adequate public policies nor adequate social/cultural awareness and practices, and we did not build things with due care from the get-go. That is, the disadvantages that come from having a disability exist because our society and culture are not adequately caring, inclusive, equitable, or just.

In my column last month, I said that most forms of what we conceive of as being “disadvantaged” should be viewed with a similar lens. I am writing about my experience meeting my half-brother, in part, to emphasize this point. There is a ton of stuff out there in the world – in academic writing, in policy discussions, in popular culture, in everyday conversations and beliefs – about the disadvantages of coming from a “broken” home. I know well that, in our current social-political context, there is economic hardship associated with being a single-parent or growing up in a single-parent family. But these hardships are not inherent to being a single parent. They are about the cost and availability of quality childcare, about how work is compensated (especially “women’s work”), about the mismatch between work hours and school hours, etc. – these are society-wide policy decisions. So, if we chose to have more social support for all children and parents – if our society was more caring, inclusive, equitable, and just – there would be less hardship for single parents. And if we minimize the economic hardship around single parenting, we see it for what it is. Not as something inherently bad. Not as a moral pathology part of a Culture of Poverty or part of the decline of Western Civilization. But as a familial living arrangement that sometimes happens and that can often be the right choice, depending upon the specific context (as in my case).

When I met my half-brother, I was in L.A. for school and was in the middle of my grad school gauntlet. I was doing a law and masters in urban planning joint degree. Back then (not too different from now) what I read about, thought about, and talked to my peers about – I ate, breathed, slept, and dreamt about was urban policy, inequity, race, justice, zoning, housing law, gender, neighborhoods, community development, placemaking… So, when I had this epiphany about personal-scale notions of disadvantage/disability, I also applied it to what I was learning/thinking about neighborhoods and urban development.

So, I now believe that, when it comes to groups of people (e.g., communities, neighborhoods, etc.), we also should think about “disadvantage” in terms of how it relates to larger social forces/policy decisions. As with individuals, disability and disadvantage are not inherent to any group of people or community. And, as with individuals, what makes a community or neighborhood “disadvantaged” is extrinsic to the community or neighborhood. That is, what is bad about “bad” neighborhoods did not come from the neighborhood. It comes from disinvestment, from racist land use policies and decisions, from inequitable distribution of resources, from racist policing practices, from racist siting of transportation infrastructure, etc., etc., etc. It also comes from and is reinforced by the belief that these places are bad places. Being labeled a bad neighborhood almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of stigma and disinvestment. But even with all this, so-called bad neighborhoods are full of great things. Even through hardship, people are resilient, creative, and wonderful.

And this is what really makes me angry about the TCAC/HCD opportunity maps. For those who aren’t affordable housing finance wonks, the vast majority of affordable housing currently being developed in America relies upon funding through the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). Through an arcane set of rules and processes, each state distributes the state’s annual allocation of tax credits. In California, the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee (TCAC) administers a competitive process to select which proposed affordable developments receive tax credits (and thus which proposals get built and which languish). Since December 2017, TCAC has adopted a scoring system that rewards family housing proposals that are located in neighborhoods that are designated “high” or “highest resource” (generally neighborhoods that are whiter and higher income) and discourages family housing proposals in euphemistically designated “low resource” or “high poverty and segregated” neighborhoods (together, generally, neighborhoods that are lower-income and have higher concentrations of people of color). Based on research by Raj Chetty about the economic mobility of children born to low-income parents, the TCAC opportunity map policy seeks to incent more family affordable housing in the places where higher proportions of low-income children have grown up to be higher wage earners. Because of the extreme levels of competition for LIHTC awards, this policy effectively precludes the development of family affordable housing in “low resource” neighborhoods (high overlap with so-called “bad” neighborhoods).

Despite good intentions, the TCAC seeks to solve the wrong problems. Siting affordable housing in a “bad” neighborhood is not inherently a problem. When it’s done with the intent to segregate, it’s bad (see, for e.g., Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.). But when it’s done as part of a larger, more comprehensive community-driven plan to invest in a historically neglected neighborhood and to build upon what is already great about the neighborhood, it’s a good thing that has had documented good results (see here, for some case studies from Chicago). By precluding family affordable housing in “low resource” neighborhoods, TCAC has removed an important tool from the community development toolbox. And, even more problematically, TCAC is unintentionally reifying racist beliefs about what makes good and bad neighborhoods and is unintentionally repeating patterns of investment strikingly similar to the old redlining maps.

So what can be done differently? Not to toot my former employer’s horn too much, but I think that the City of San José’s Siting Policy does a lot of what the TCAC opportunity maps intended to accomplish (i.e., incents housing in parts of the City where affordable housing has historically been limited) but does a much better job of embracing a BOTH/AND approach to affirmatively furthering fair housing because it expressly preserves the possibility for development of affordable housing as part of comprehensive community development plans in underinvested neighborhoods. And even more than this, we need a deeper commitment to movement building, to shifting power and resource allocation, such that low-income communities and communities of color have the power, the resources, and the tools (this is about affordable housing and also about much more than housing) to define our communities for ourselves.