Old Problems, Old Approaches
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of an ongoing series of contributions from participants in The German Marshall Fund’s flagship leadership development program, The Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF).
Le Blanc-Mesnil, now a suburb of Paris, was established in 1792. Originally a farming community, it experienced significant growth following the great wars as a center of industry and manufacturing. Immigrants from former French colonies came to le Blanc-Mesnil as economic refugees seeking a better future. Le Blanc-Mesnil grew prosperous through the mid 1960s, but then its industrial base began to contract, leading to higher unemployment and loss in household income.
This story is familiar to me, having arrived from the state of Michigan in Europe as a Marshall Memorial Fellow. Average household income in Le Blanc-Mesnil fell during the postwar deindustrialization of the region. Unemployment was twice that of the national average at 20 percent, 38 percent of the housing stock is social housing, and a full 50 percent of the population fall below the poverty line for income tax purposes. Migrants from north Africa continue to come seeking a better future and housing conditions continue to deteriorate due to a lack of public investment. The community is stigmatized and marginalized as a plurality black and brown Muslim suburb with little economic future.
Like many post-industrial cities, however, there is a small but growing group of young and passionate people who are determined to make a better future for their city. Some were raised in social housing in Le Blanc-Mesnil, left, and have now returned. Many more never left and have been working tirelessly to improve their city. This community of activists have taken control of city hall, ousting the long entrenched political establishment, and are embarking on an ambitious agenda to change how Le Blanc Mesnil serves its citizens.
The centerpiece of this transformation is an ambitious plan to deconcentrate poverty in social housing by building new mixed-income communities. The goal of this plan is to fight the stigma, create social cohesion, improve the tax base of the city, and create a more diverse and resilient community. In total, the city seeks to replace approximately 3,000 units of social housing all funded through the French government. These units will be replaced one-for-one but integrated in mixed-income buildings where not more than 50 percent of the units are market rate.
Like the U.S. Hope IV and Choice programs, this program is ambitious and thought to be the key to solving very complex social issues that have evolved over decades. Will the French learn from our mistakes? In the United States, we know that housing is fundamental to social mobility. We also know how destructive bad housing policy can be to social cohesion. What we don’t yet know is whether housing policy is the solution to those same ills. To torture a medical analogy, we created the conditions for a disease to spread through a population. We can change the conditions and stop the disease from spreading through environmental factors, but the population is still sick. No amount of improvement in external condition will change that fact, and if left untreated, the disease spreads through generations. Only when we combine a change in conditions with a population intervention do we see lasting results. Societies need to invest in education, health, childcare, and nutrition in coordination with investments in housing if we want to see real improvements in social mobility.
Le Blanc-Mesnil, like Detroit in my own region and other former industrial cities, is reinventing itself. Transatlantic partnerships could inform how the French approach their own national housing crisis.
Aaron Seybert, Social Investment Officer for the Kresge Foundation, is a Spring 2017 Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.