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CLARENCE PAGE: Trump turns panic peddler to nervous NIMBY suburbs

Updated August 4, 2020 - 9:26 pm

Having made his name in real estate, it is oddly appropriate that President Donald Trump’s re-election efforts have steered him into a new version of panic peddling.

“Panic peddling” or “blockbusting” describes the now-illegal practice of persuading property owners to sell cheaply out of fear that people of another race, ethnicity or income group are going to move in and bring down property values. Then the unscrupulous peddler sells the same property for a higher price, most likely to a member of the feared minority group.

Trump isn’t selling property this time. He’s selling himself.

“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low-income housing built in your neighborhood,” he boasted in a tweet last week during a visit to West Texas.

He was referring to his scrapping of a government program Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing initiated by his old foe President Barack Obama that tries to reduce racial and economic segregation in suburban areas. In other tweets, Trump has warned that his likely Democratic opponent Joe Biden “will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream.”

The AFFH rule requires housing agencies and communities that receive federal housing and development funds to report steps they are taking to promote residential desegregation under the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Will Trump’s new panic pitch work? Curiosity drove me to call Alexander Polikoff, lead counsel since the late 1960s on the landmark Gautreaux public housing case. That long-running case led to the first “Section 8” federal housing vouchers that help low-income, elderly and the disabled afford decent housing in the private market. Yet, despite the past successes of Section 8, Polikoff told me in a phone interview with regret that he thinks Trump’s panic-peddling ploy may just work.

“The three-word phrase that raises more alarm in headlines than any other,” he told me, “is ‘low-income housing.’ ”

Sure, countless studies may show that low-income Section 8 rentals do not necessarily lead to crime, more poverty or lowered property values. “But some people will never be convinced,” he said. “NIMBY (not in my back yard) is still strong.” Still, Polikoff agreed with me that attitudes have changed a lot since the 1960s — fortunately for the better.

Sure, Trump’s panic pitch may be music to a lot of people’s ears. But he also embarrasses a lot of people, including many in his own party. Having rejected advice to reach out and expand his political base, he has chosen instead to speak primarily to people who already agree with him.

Meanwhile, countless others care more about what gives him less comfort: the pandemic and the country’s recent economic collapse. I don’t think his approach is a winning one. But that’s why we have elections.

Email Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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