Impact

You Can Merge Two Goals: A Talk with Scholar-Activist Gregory Squires

July 31, 2023 960
Gregory Squires holds the plaque honoring him as the Gittell Award winner

Housing inequity equity has taken center stage in many policy debates since the 1960s aimed at ensuring, if not universal housing, at least fair housing. Sociologist Gregory Squires has been at the center of that work since the mid-1970s, when he worked as a research analyst with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights before entering the professoriate in 1984. For his work on the many facets of the struggle to advance fair housing, the Urban Affairs Association has honored him with its 2023 Marilyn J. Gittell Activist Scholar Award.

This award was established to highlight field-based urban scholarship and promote the dissemination of work by scholars whose work spans activism, scholarship, and engagement with community. The award is co-sponsored by Sage, the parent of Social Science Space, and the UAA. The award is named for Marilyn Jacobs Gittell, a political scientist and community urban activist who wrote seminal works on citizen participation and was herself an impassioned participant in one of the most controversial social experiments of her time, the decentralization of New York City’s schools. Gittell was the founding editor of Urban Affairs Quarterly (now known as Urban Affairs Review), the first journal Sage published.

In honoring its 2023 pick for the Gittell Award, the UAA wrote, “Dr. Squires has demonstrated clear commitment to community engagement and activism on behalf of marginalized communities, particularly in terms of urban housing and development policy. His decades-long steadfastness to these causes embodies the spirit and practice of the activist scholar.”

Squires is currently a research professor and professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology at George Washington University, where he has been since 2000 (10 of those years as department chair).

His C.V. is studded with other awards for his work in urban affairs, from government (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Reinvention Award in 1996), non-profits (the Volunteer Service Award from the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council in 1998), and of course, academe. Recent awards include induction to the Distinguished Service Honor Role (2020) and Contribution to the Field of Urban Affairs Award (2018) from the UAA, Lester F. Ward Distinguished Contribution to Applied and Clinical Sociology Award from the Association of Applied and Clinical Sociology (2013), the Robert and Helen Lynd Lifetime Achievement Award from the Community and Urban Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association (2011), the Joseph B. Gittler Award for Significant Scholarly Achievement in Contributing to the Ethical Resolution of Social Problems from the Society for the Study of Social Problems (2009), and the Stuart A. Rice Award for Career Achievement from District of Columbia Sociological Society (2007).

Squires is currently a member of the Fair Housing Task Force of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Social Science Advisory Board of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and the Board of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC. He also served a term as a member of the Consumer Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Board from 1996 to 1998 and sat on the advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 2012 to 2014.

Social Science Space asked Squires about this work and the current state of housing equity. His answers appear below.

Could you describe the journey that led you to sociology, and then to housing?

I guess I’m a product of the 60s. About 50 years ago, I read an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about a group of self-identified “radical economists” who wanted to “do well and do good.” Basically, they wanted the perks of an academic life but wanted to do research on and support groups like labor unions, welfare rights organizations and other similar entities.

When I was with the Chicago Regional Office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights I read an article in the Chicago Tribune in which organizers for the National Training and Information Center, run by Gale Cincotta, called the president of Allstate Insurance a rather crude name. NTIC was organizing against Allstate’s redlining of predominantly white working-class neighborhoods on the northwest side of Chicago. I found it interesting that anyone could actually hold a job in which they directed such name-calling against the captains of industry.

I also thought if redlining was going on in such white neighborhoods, it was probably a problem in Black communities. We conducted a study of insurance practices in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods and found that indeed, redlining was a serious issue. After our report was released, I was invited to speak at several fair housing organizations and have pursued related housing issues since.

Is housing a right?

It isn’t, but it should be. See the penultimate question below.

Given your background in fair housing, what are some things you find yourself saying in conversations about today’s housing issues – say high cost, evictions, homelessness, redlining, appraisal bias, or perhaps something else – that either surprises or resonates with others?

Particularly in conversations about housing subsidies in low-income neighborhoods and for low-income families, I often point out that through the mortgage deduction and capital gains tax deductions on the sale of a home, we provide far more in the way of subsidies for homeownership for middle –and upper-income families than we do for low-income families. Sometimes this is the end of the conversation, and sometimes it leads to a very productive discussion.

And given your perch as an emeritus professor, perhaps you could offer some insight on how housing equality has, or hasn’t, changed in the years you’ve been an observer. And are you an optimist or a pessimist these days?

I’ve often said the glass is half full and half empty.

Half full

  • Black/white index of dissimilarity dropped from 80 in 1970 to 55 in 2010
  • In 2012 white and non-white homeseekers were equally likely to get an appointment and learn about at least one housing unit
  • The share of whites favoring laws prohibiting housing discrimination increased from 37 percent in 1972 to 69 percent in 2008
  • $6 trillion have been invested in traditionally underserved neighborhoods, in part due to the Community Reinvestment Act (a federal ban on redlining). This is according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which has negotiated over $600 billion in community benefits agreements in recent years targeting low-income and minority neighborhoods.

Half empty

  • In 2010 the typical Black family lived in a neighborhood that was 35 percent white compared to 40 percent in 1940
  • In 2012 whites were told about and shown more homes than equally qualified Blacks and Hispanics
  • Hypersegregation persists where Black population is high
  • In 2014, 28 percent of whites reported they believed they should have the right to keep Blacks out of their neighborhood and would favor a law allowing such discrimination
  • Gentrification has resulted in the displacement (geographical, cultural, political) of long-term residents of urban communities

Use the National Association of Realtors as a bellwether:

National Association of Realtors 1950

  • A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood

National Association of Realtors Code of Ethics today

  • REALTORS shall not deny equal professional services to any person for reasons of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity…
  • When involved in the sale or lease of a residence, REALTORS shall not volunteer information regarding the racial, religious or ethnic composition of any neighborhood…
  • REALTORS shall not print, display or circulate any statement or advertisement with respect to selling or renting of a property that indicates any preference, limitations or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.  (http://www.realtor.org/sites/default/files/policies/2015/2015-Code-of-Ethics.pdf)

A statement of principles does not indicate how all behavior has changed on the ground, but it is still evidence of an important shift.

You worked in both academe and in government. What did you learn about government that wish every academic knew? And what about the academy do you wish policymakers understood?

Academics, particularly those who would like to have an impact on policy and the problems they study, need to have a better idea of the deadlines and other bureaucratic constraints that people outside of academia have to deal with in order to get things done.

And policymakers need to understand that academics do not work just six or nine hours each week (teaching two or three courses per semester) during the academic year with the summers off. First, summers are when most academics get their research done and they are generally not paid for the summer months even though they are evaluated and rewarded primarily based on their research productivity. And during the year, academics are supervising graduate students and, increasingly, undergraduate research. They participate in many department, college, and university service activities that involve faculty recruitment, curriculum revisions, creation of new programs, etc. They contribute to professional associations by presenting papers, serving on committees, holding elective offices, etc. They review journal and book manuscripts for publishers. They write letters of recommendation for students and serve as external reviewers for candidates for promotion at other universities.

Academics do far more than just teach their classes.

In looking over your career, it seems like you’re focused on improving existing systems as opposed to blowing them up. Is that a fair assessment?

I think I’ve been involved in both worlds. It is the case that most of my work has focused on fair housing and community development activities that may not be in compliance with current rules and the actions that might be taken within the current legal context to advance those interests. This might be thought of as Michael Harrington’s concept of the “left wing of the possible.” But recently, I have been exploring the ideas associated with the Right to the City Alliance. Basically, this means looking at housing as a right to which all citizens are entitled rather than a commodity that goes to the winners in the private market.

Advocacy is sometimes seen as suspect in some corners of the academy. How did you come to embrace advocacy? What advice do you have for a young scholar-activist who wants to follow in your steps, or those of Marilyn Gittell?

Marilyn Gittell
Marilyn Gittell

I encourage young scholars to engage in advocacy if this is something they are interested in. But I also make it clear what they have to do to get promotions and tenure. So, I find myself offering very traditional advice to get through the system (e.g. publish in top-ranked journals and book publishers, etc.). At the same time, I offer advice on how they can do advocacy work.

But I make it clear they should not try to carve out two separate career tracks. As a practical matter, they can’t be pursuing two careers at one time. But they can merge the two goals. They can select research topics that address critical social problems and have important policy implications. After they have published the findings of a scholarly study they can spend just a few more hours carving out a 700-word op-ed for their local newspaper.  Universities expect faculty to provide public service, so young scholars can volunteer for non-profit advocacy groups, perhaps even becoming a staff or board member after a while. 

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

View all posts by Michael Todd

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