Upending the Neoliberal Segregation Narrative

I live and am raising my family in the Montopolis neighborhood of Austin, Texas. Montopolis, also known as “Poverty Island,” is a low-income community of families whose population is 74% Hispanic and 10% African American and whose per capita income is $18,683. The Coronavirus pandemic has hit us hard. Even worse, we are currently facing coordinated efforts to destroy our community in favor of densified urbanist “affordable” housing. Exclusionary Zoning, segregation, and a lack of affordable housing supply are the primary justifications being utilized by a cabal consisting of local government, developers, and non-profits.

Neighborhoods such as mine are an important proving ground for present-day neoliberal theories of urban governance. If the politics of cities such as Austin are a guide, obsession with segregationist zoning is best understood as a form of class politics, an urban safe space for a certain brand of anti-racist racism. It serves as a convenient receptacle for a broad range of neoliberal sentimentality about the virtues of “integration,” something which conveniently is never described with any analytical rigor. While paying lip service to desegregating and densifying the suburbs, complete with Black Lives Matter signs on front lawns or painted on public streets, advocates pursue or facilitate aggressive policies of gentrification, displacement, and environmental destruction in historic communities of color, mine included.

In order to survive, we have chosen to oppose their “housing everywhere” policies of densification, missing middle™ housing promotion, form based building codes, blanket rezonings in favor of real estate developer interests—in short their neoliberal governance—in favor of more traditional policies of race and class uplift that place family and community, not the market, first. Along the way we have learned a few things.

Lesson Number One: The Present Day Neoliberal Fight Against Exclusionary Zoning is a Pretext for Gentrification

The prevalence of 20th century racial discrimination—of which zoning discrimination is only a part—is not an argument for the enactment of supposedly “neutral” policies that initiate or deepen gentrification. The policy fixation with exclusionary zoning, therefore, is misdirected and politically misguided, especially in Sunbelt states, such as Texas. Paper and pencil theorizing about the evils of governmental segregation too often excludes or minimizes the realities of how capitalist real estate is actually conceived, financed, constructed, and administered. The truth of how this sausage is made must never be spoken too directly.

Here is the Texas truth: it is private actors who implement tailor-made development policies and who bear primary responsibility for spatial segregation. The primary role of politicians is to perform the bidding of special interests in exchange for campaign donations, business opportunities, and political support.

For instance Houston, the nation’s third largest city, does not have zoning yet is also highly racially and economically segregated. Recent hurricanes and flooding have also revealed it to be an environmental dumpster fire. How did this come to be?

Government of course plays a role. But the main answer lies with Municipal Utility Districts, a.k.a. MUD’s. MUD’s are governmental real estate accelerators in rural areas and have become the preferred form of publicly subsidized real estate finance in Texas and in other Sunbelt states. All of the major community developments in the Houston metropolitan area over the past 30-40 years have been developed using Municipal Utility Districts. Some of these communities and their approximate acreage include: The Woodlands (27,000 acres), Clear Lake City/NASA (15,000 acres), First Colony (10,000 acres), Sienna Plantation (10,000 acres), and Cinco Ranch (5,400 acres). The City of Houston has acquired a significant portion of its land and population through annexation of these districts. The City of Sugar Land is another well-known example of MUD status being utilized to accelerate land development and the installation of infrastructure. Perfectly legal restrictive covenants were included in each case.

To say that MUD development is often suspect would be an understatement. For instance, Harris County MUD 187 was created in 2008 when a Houston developer arranged for two people to move their trailer onto a 519 acre site on the edge of Richmond in Fort Bend County. Those two individuals then voted to confirm the MUD, which then sold $188 million in bonds to finance the real estate development. A nice cherry on top is this: unlike city councillors in home rule or general law cities, officials elected to the governing board of a Texas MUD cannot be recalled by voters.

As planning icons Norman Krumholz and John Forester noted in 1990, “neutral action in a world of severe inequality reproduces that inequality.” Universal upzoning initiatives in cities such as Portland, Minneapolis and Austin are not strategies to combat inequality or to tackle the affordable housing crisis, they are supply side trojan horses whose predictably negative impacts are being disproportionately borne by low income communities of color such as mine.

Lesson Number Two: A System Cannot Fail Those it Was Never Meant to Protect

The story of African-American freedom is also the story of access, ownership and control of land. Emancipated slaves understood the importance of land ownership and autonomy under the system America’s constitutional designers had established. I have already referenced Houston’s place as a neoliberal zoning utopia. Often omitted is the fact that the greater Houston area is also the location of many “Freedom Colonies,” autonomous African-American settlements created after the Civil War. The proliferation of such communities in the 1870‘s and 1880‘s and their 20th century destruction during Jim Crow, teaches important lessons about oversimplistic presumptions of Black community support for “integration.” The same real estate boards and chambers of commerce recently touting their support for Black lives mattering have vigorously opposed desegregation for most of their history. In Austin they helped to defeat the city’s first fair housing ordinance in 1968 (in the largest referendum vote in the city’s history) by declaring it to be “forced public housing” among other derogatory terms I won’t repeat here.

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As Edward Goetz has shown, “integration” in practice is mostly a one-way road. Neoliberal elites engineered it that way. Spatial segregation has existed as long as cities have existed. Therefore, what exactly is “integration?” Is it the same as non-discrimination? These questions still await a proper answer, in my view.

The true test of anti-segregationist fervor was always the degree to which advocates of desegregation supported community based struggles against unwanted development and followed the lead of bona fide social justice movements led by indigenous (not imported) African Americans and other minorities.

The art and mystery of zoning is largely driven by the desires and actions of real estate oligarchs. Any argument for integrating the suburbs has to be matched by an equally strong commitment to preserving the family character of low income communities of color and protecting these neighborhoods from aggressive real estate speculation.

Also important is this: political and financial support for bottom up, community based and led development efforts. The deployment of the non-profit industrial complex to gentrify communities such as mine is deeply problematic, hypocritical and racist.

Lesson Number Three: Public Housing Destruction Was the Incubator for Regnant Neoliberal Housing Governance

The most important precursor for our present era of neoliberal governance, the testing and proving ground, was 1990‘s public housing demolition. The view then was that public housing was in a state of “severe distress” and had to be de-densified because the ugly and crime ridden housing projects did not have enough “defensible space.” Initiatives such as “drug elimination grants” were all the rage. “Mixed income” developments were the answer, it was argued, although the data in support of such notions was always fuzzy and cherry picked. Goetz’s still excellent book New Deal Ruins lays out the sordid story of public housing dismantlement, family displacement, and building destruction, back when such racist and classist engineering was still described as being compassionately conservative.

The cultural and perhaps genetic inferiority of Black people was also implied. One thing the decades-long propaganda campaign against public housing ultimately confirmed was this: nobody likes poor Black people, not even other Black people. The origins of this ultimately lie in slavery.


It’s clear to those paying attention that neoliberalism as public policy has been an unmitigated disaster for most poor people and People of Color. In its name planners and politicians have destroyed communities, eviscerated public institutions, cheapened culture, and have made the world a profoundly more fearful and unequal place. But neoliberalism was always more of a political project. Its deployment of vocabulary such as “choice,” “freedom,” “opportunity,” gave it an almost religious character (who could possibly be against freedom or the maximization of “options?”), while cynically masking its elitist economic agenda. The high priests of this false God remain new urbanists and their associations both inside the non-profit industrial complex and academia. Their influence was always premised on their proximity to money and power, not the substance behind their self-serving political pronouncements.

The path that lies before us is clear: straightforward socialism. The Three R’s: human rights, aggressive regulation and downward redistribution. Housing that is of, by and for the people. 80 plus years ago this was the housing ideal; it remains an ideal still. As society sinks ever deeper into an early 21st century drain, perhaps we can finally enact it.

Fred L. McGhee is president of the Montopolis Community Development Corporation and Director of Preserve Rosewood, both located in Austin, Texas. An archaeologist and public housing scholar/activist, he is the author of “Two Texas Race Riots,” “Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood” and other works. His forthcoming book is titled “Tarnish on the Violet Crown: The Rise and Fall of Public Housing in Austin, Texas.”