The best books about the government housing rules that decide who gets to live where in America

Why am I passionate about this?

After decades writing about how to improve the lives of low-income children through education, I concluded that I had to writing about housing policy too. Government housing laws essentially dictate where kids go to school in America. In addition, since writing in college about Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for president, in which he brought together a multiracial coalition of working people, I’ve been obsessed with finding ways to bring those groups together again.  Reforms of housing policy in a number of states has done just that: united working people across racial lines who were sick of being excluded – by government fiat – from places that provide the best opportunities.

I wrote...

Book cover of Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don't See

What is my book about?

Why is housing in America so expensive, residential areas so segregated by race and economic status, and people’s commutes to work so lengthy? Excluded describes the ways in which local government zoning rules that ban multifamily housing and set mandate minimum lot sizes help inflate the costs of housing, drive separation of racial and economic groups, and damage the environment by forcing urban sprawl. While one might expect these discriminatory laws to be most prevalent in politically conservative areas, where residents support building a wall to Mexico, liberal areas are the worst offenders. 

The good news is that in communities across the country, a populist coalition of working people across racial lines is beginning to enact reforms to tear down these invisible walls that do so much harm to the country.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Richard D. Kahlenberg Why did I love this book?

The Color of Law does a brilliant job of making clear that racial segregation in America is not merely the result of market forces or individual choices; it was manufactured by government through a series of twentieth-century policies: racial zoning, redlining, and enforcement of racially restrictive covenants.  The effects are still felt today.

I modeled my own book after Rothstein’s and updated his analysis to show that today, economically discriminatory zoning laws have replaced racially discriminatory practices, which helps explain why racial segregation has declined by 30 percent since 1970, but income segregation has doubled.

By Richard Rothstein,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Color of Law as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Widely heralded as a "masterful" (The Washington Post) and "essential" (Slate) history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein's The Color of Law offers "the most forceful argument ever published on how federal, state, and local governments gave rise to and reinforced neighborhood segregation" (William Julius Wilson). Exploding the myth of de facto segregation arising from private prejudice or the unintended consequences of economic forces, Rothstein describes how the American government systematically imposed residential segregation: with undisguised racial zoning; public housing that purposefully segregated previously mixed communities; subsidies for builders to create whites-only suburbs; tax exemptions for institutions that enforced…

Book cover of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Richard D. Kahlenberg Why did I love this book?

Desmond brilliantly reverses the usual tale – that poverty causes eviction – to show that eviction also causes poverty. 

He tells the stories through families, Black and white, whose lives are upended simply because they missed a housing payment and were thereby evicted. Desmond lived in high poverty neighborhoods during his years researching the book and vividly tells the lives of the people he got to know. He points out how central housing is to whether or not individuals can flourish in America.

By Matthew Desmond,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Evicted as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Beautifully written, thought-provoking, and unforgettable ... If you want a good understanding of how the issues that cause poverty are intertwined, you should read this book' Bill Gates, Best Books of 2017

Arleen spends nearly all her money on rent but is kicked out with her kids in Milwaukee's coldest winter for years. Doreen's home is so filthy her family call it 'the rat hole'. Lamar, a wheelchair-bound ex-soldier, tries to work his way out of debt for his boys. Scott, a nurse turned addict, lives in a gutted-out trailer. This is…

Book cover of White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality

Richard D. Kahlenberg Why did I love this book?

Sheryll Cashin has impressed me ever since we were law school classmates. Now a Georgetown Law Professor, she is not only a brilliant analyst but also a vivid storyteller. 

She shows how the high levels of racial and economic segregation that many take for granted is not at all natural and do profound harm to Americans of all backgrounds.

By Sheryll Cashin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked White Space, Black Hood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A 2021 C. Wright Mills Award Finalist

Shows how government created “ghettos” and affluent white space and entrenched a system of American residential caste that is the linchpin of US inequality—and issues a call for abolition.

The iconic Black hood, like slavery and Jim Crow, is a peculiar American institution animated by the ideology of white supremacy. Politicians and people of all colors propagated “ghetto” myths to justify racist policies that concentrated poverty in the hood and created high-opportunity white spaces. In White Space, Black Hood, Sheryll Cashin traces the history of anti-Black residential caste—boundary maintenance, opportunity hoarding, and stereotype-driven…

Book cover of Moving Toward Integration: The Past and Future of Fair Housing

Richard D. Kahlenberg Why did I love this book?

Richard Sander, whom I have known and respected for years, has, with his colleagues, written a deeply comprehensive and authoritative book on the origins of housing segregation, the consequences, and what to do about it.

By comparing highly segregated metropolitan regions with ones that are less segregated, the authors demonstrate that high levels of housing segregation provides the central explanation for a whole host of other racial gap in America, including those related to educational achievement, employment, and mortality rates. The book is a stirring call for action.

By Richard H. Sander, Yana A. Kucheva, Jonathan M. Zasloff

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Moving Toward Integration as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Reducing residential segregation is the best way to reduce racial inequality in the United States. African American employment rates, earnings, test scores, even longevity all improve sharply as residential integration increases. Yet far too many participants in our policy and political conversations have come to believe that the battle to integrate America's cities cannot be won. Richard Sander, Yana Kucheva, and Jonathan Zasloff write that the pessimism surrounding desegregation in housing arises from an inadequate understanding of how segregation has evolved and how policy interventions have already set many metropolitan areas on the path to integration.

Scholars have debated for…

Book cover of Fixer-Upper: How to Repair America's Broken Housing Systems

Richard D. Kahlenberg Why did I love this book?

Jenny Schuetz of the Brookings Institution manages in Fixer Upper to pull off two things at once: to provide an authoritative and deeply researched account of how America got into its housing mess; and to convey the material in a way that lay readers can easily grasp.

She finds, among other things, that the worst forms of exclusionary zoning are found not where one would expect them: on the coastal areas which is home to America’s most liberal voters. A smart guide about the problems bedeviling housing policy and what to do about it.

By Jenny Schuetz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fixer-Upper as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Practical ideas to provide affordable housing to more Americans

Much ink has been spilled in recent years talking about political divides and inequality in the United States. But these discussions too often miss one of the most important factors in the divisions among Americans: the fundamentally unequal nature of the nation’s housing systems. Financially well-off Americans can afford comfortable, stable homes in desirable communities. Millions of other Americans cannot.

And this divide deepens other inequalities. Increasingly, important life outcomes—performance in school, employment, even life expectancy—are determined by where people live and the quality of homes they live in.

Unequal housing…

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A Sparrow Falls

By Vicki Olsen,

Book cover of A Sparrow Falls

Vicki Olsen Author Of A Sparrow Falls

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Air Force brat World War 2 junkie Gallivanter Beret-wearing Francophile Book hoarder

Vicki's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In this book set against the backdrop of a changing America, Sarah must find the courage to confront the ghosts of her past and come to terms with her future. Sarah, a young woman from the rural town of Tolerance, Arkansas, has endured an impoverished and painful childhood.

But now, as the innocence of the 1950s transforms into the turbulent 1960s, Sarah must find the strength to overcome her traumas, forgive those who have wronged her, and discover her true self. With its moving and often disturbing narrative, A Sparrow Falls is an evocative account of a young woman's journey…

A Sparrow Falls

By Vicki Olsen,

What is this book about?

A moving, sometimes disturbing, beautifully written book...Amazon Customer Review
Set in Arkansas as the innocence of the 1950s morphs into the turbulent ‘60s, A Sparrow Falls is an evocative account of a young woman emerging from an impoverished and traumatic childhood as she finds the inner strength to overcome her past. Te ghosts of the past and come to terms with her future is in the strength to forgive those who have wronged her?
Content Advisory: This book is intended for mature audiences and contains child sexual abuse and disturbing imagery.

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