Not all of those pictures will be alike, but enough will be so that a common perception is formed.
In all likelihood, that perception — often reflected in comments and conversation on this newspaper's website and elsewhere — may not be accurate.
For example, did you know that 40 percent of all Section 8 tenants in
Or that of all the rental units in
Did you know that 60 percent of those who use the Section 8 voucher program in
Joel Johnson knows all those things; it's his job.
Johnson is the executive director of the Montgomery County Housing Authority and was among the many public officials present July 16 for the Building One Pennsylvania summit held at the
Sitting at a table with a Mercury reporter, a representative for state Sen. Anthony H. Williams, Pottstown Schools Superintendent Reed Lindley and Pottstown School Board member Thomas Hylton, Johnson rattled off the figures during a wide-ranging discussion about the urban issues the summit was organized to address.
For example, he observed that if 40 percent of those using Section 8 housing vouchers are elderly, they are unlikely to be the cause of so many of the crime and social problems commonly, and not always fairly, associated with Section 8 tenants.
Johnson said it is true that roughly 55 percent of all those using the Section 8 housing program live in Pottstown or Norristown, but said that is a matter of choice and market forces, not any policy of his agency.
He also explained that many low-income renters are likely to gravitate toward Pottstown and Norristown for a number of practical reasons — the rents are cheaper, both have public transportation systems for those who can't afford a car, and many of the agencies they are most likely to use, such as Welfare, public health clinics and employment offices, are located in those communities.
Johnson acknowledged that there is a line of thinking that suggests those who rent, particularly with the help of a public program like Section 8, are less likely to have as firm a stake in their community as those who own their own homes. But he observed that a very high percentage of residences in
Johnson also noted that a study analyzing 911 calls in
He did acknowledge that the study did not compare calls from those who rent with the rate of calls from owner-occupied homes.
Reflecting on comments made earlier in the day that the development of today's suburbs was subsidized by the federal government's construction of an interstate highway system, Johnson said, "If gas hit $10 a gallon tomorrow, housing prices in
Policy to Steer Housing
And like highway policy, government policy on housing can help exacerbate the inequity that marks housing choices in
Much of that policy is made in
He said 19 states have instituted "growth management laws" that reduce new construction in outlying areas, thus steering development back to existing communities with existing infrastructure.
Even in a difficult economy, new figures from the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project of Temple University show that in 2008, the latest year for which the project had figures, the highest rates for new building permits continued to be outside traditional towns.
The report is available online at http://mpip.temple.edu/
In Montgomery County, the highest percentages are in places like New Hanover,
As government policy can unwittingly assist in the emptying out of cities and towns, it can also work to reverse that trend.
Orfield noted that housing agencies in
"The historic inequalities in
Effects of Segregation
The rest of the country proceeded along the same path in the years after the two world wars, said David Troutt, a professor of law and justice at
In addition to federal highway policy, the new federal mortgage programs helped people move out of the cities and into the suburbs which, as the result of local control, could zone their communities to make it more difficult for minorities to move there, he said.
"A system was created in which blacks, like cement plants, were simply bad for property values," said Troutt. "And for those communities, it meant that racial integration would also look like fiscal suicide."
The Rev. Gregory Holston, senior pastor of St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Trevose,
Now, with the effects of the issues facing the nation's First Suburbs becoming more evident, and those once affluent communities becoming "concentrated centers of poverty,"
The Rev. David Eckert even sees those patterns reflected in his church,
Eckert said, "We're still a wonderful community, but day after day, I see that undercut. I ask young couples why they're not buying a house here and they say why pay the same money for a house with a smaller yard and a higher tax bill?"
His church, Eckert said, "likes to donate to the needy, but now we find our donations are going to people in our own church."
The issues are broad and regional and need that kind of solution, Eckert said. "We have to stop blaming the new residents and take a look at solutions."
One solution, offered by Bryan Greene, assistant secretary for fair housing at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is for his office of 600 to continue to fight discrimination.
"We've had more investigations in the last three years than in the last 15 combined," Greene said.
"A segregated country is not sustainable," Greene said. "We have to end the tyranny of the ZIP code."
That will only happen, said Karen Miller, a former two-term mayor of Reading and now chief of staff for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, when groups like the one gathered in Lancaster "challenge beliefs and challenge complacency" in Harrisburg and Washington.