Several months ago, while walking through my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., I noticed an impressive number of front-lawn placards celebrating and welcoming refugees. The signs made me proud. I like living in a place where people openly celebrate tolerance and diversity.
Several days later, my pride curdled into bitterness. As part of some reporting on housing policy, I found a State Department page offering advice to Afghans and Iraqis resettling in the U.S. The upshot: Stay away from D.C. “The Washington, D.C., metro area including northern Virginia and some cities in California are very expensive places to live, and it can be difficult to find reasonable housing,” the website warns. “Any resettlement benefits you receive may not comfortably cover the cost of living in these areas.”
My city’s prohibitive housing costs flow, in part, from the district’s infamous war against new construction. Much of D.C. is off-limits for new development, thanks to widespread single-family zoning, berserk historical-preservation rules, and a long-standing aversion to taller buildings, which stems from both federal law and local rules. If the city’s housing policies are so broken that the federal government has to explicitly tell immigrants to find somewhere else to live, then signage welcoming refugees is both futile and hypocritical. The same neighborhoods saying yes to refugees in their front yard are supporting policies in their backyard that say no to refugees.
This dynamic—front-yard proclamations contradicted by backyard policies—extends well beyond refugee policy, and helps explain American 21st-century dysfunction.
The front yard is the realm of language. It is the space for messaging and talking to be seen. Social media and the internet are a kind of global front lawn, where we get to know a thousand strangers by their signage, even when we don’t know a thing about their private lives and virtues. The backyard is the seat of private behavior. This is where the real action lives, where the values of the family—and by extension, the nation—make contact with the real world. [Continue reading…]