Fair Housing is NOT War on the Suburbs

Posted by Jason Reece, PhD on February 1, 2017

The Obama administration’s revised Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule has recently come under fire—again—by the new administration. Attacks on the rule have been debated here on Rooflines, but what is lost in this debate is that AFFH has been successfully piloted, and this experience should be informing our policy debate.

The AFFH rule was revised in 2015 to produce a more robust assessment tool of fair housing for entitlement communities, in response to criticisms of lackluster assessments conducted under the previous model. The revised AFFH rule documents a detailed planning process, providing significant data resources to support assessment efforts. Although the new rule is not perfect, reform was sorely needed, and it presents a significant opportunity to assure HUD’s grantees are working to further fair housing in their respective communities.

President Trump’s reputation and hostility to fair housing is well documented. His selection for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has long resisted civil rights efforts, and his choice for HUD secretary, Ben Carson, has referred to the rule as federal “social engineering.” These positions represent a long standing resistance to the new rule from many in the Republican party, particularly Tea Party supporters. In May 2016, Republicans in Congress attempted to eliminate AFFH, but their efforts were rebuked. Conservative publications such as Breitbart News Network have referred to AFFH as a “war on the suburbs,” and the rule has been a focal point for some of Trump’s alt-right or white nationalist supporters. Most recently, legislation was proposed to eliminate the rule and to not allow HUD to produce geospatial data on racial segregation.

A pilot of the AFFH rule
As the debate on the future of AFFH continues, it has focused on the theoretical impacts of the proposed rule. But, lost in this debate is the fact that a pilot of the new rule was tested on more than 70 grantees of the Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) across the nation.

The Fair Housing Equity Assessment (FHEA) was an analytical assessment required of all regional planning grantees. The FHEA utilized a process of data, deliberation, and decision-making (the 3 Ds), which closely mirrors the AFFH approach of community participation, analysis, and fair housing goals/priorities. The analytical tools (geospatial data, segregation data, etc.) were identical to the AFFH analytical tool kit produced by HUD. The FHEA would also emphasize direct engagement with underrepresented groups within regions. For nearly four years, I worked with colleagues at PolicyLink, the Minnesota Housing Partnership, and the Kirwan Institute as a capacity builder for HUD with regional grantees completing the experimental FHEA process. We also completed an evaluation of the process, focused on rural communities that had struggled more with the FHEA structure.

Benefits of the FHEA/AFFH model:
The FHEA was an unfunded mandate that was adopted after the first cohort of SCI grantees began their planning process. To say that grantees were resistant or frustrated with this new requirement is an understatement. Yet, our evaluation research and field experience indicated that despite a rough early start, the majority of grantees found the process to be quite beneficial to their regions. Grantees identified the process as expanding capacity (data, knowledge, dialogue) to address issues pertaining to affordable housing, fair housing, and regional equity. Many grantees found that the process enabled a conversation around race and equity, which was nonexistent previously. The planning process also directly impacted policy, programming, and investment, as grantees across the nation identified policy reforms (such as enhanced affordable housing measures), programming changes (such as better targeting of community services), and new investment (attracting new funding to address affordability issues), which were a direct product of the planning process.

Challenges with the Model:
The model utilized for the FHEA and the proposed AFFH was not perfect. We found many challenges that should provide a base of lessons learned whether the rule persists or if some states follow it without a HUD mandate. The data provided by HUD was not perfect, and many communities found it better to supplement HUD’s analytical metrics with their own data, ranging from quantitative information to qualitative voices from the community. The assessment worked best when conducted at a regional scale, which was a natural fit for SCI, but more challenging with the regional fragmentation of entitlement communities. Although HUD is encouraging collaborative regional assessments, there is no assurance that this will take place. Good assessments also required resources, and grantees reported that the process cost between $50,000 and $100,000 in staff resources. SCI grantees received resources from HUD to conduct their planning efforts, entitlement communities would not be receiving this supplemental assistance.

Moving from philosophical to an evidence based debate:
AFFH’s pilot, the FHEA, built substantial regional capacity and expanded the focus to include equity, which is not commonly found in regional planning efforts. As we stated in our evaluation research, “the challenges (of the FHEA) are surmountable and the outcomes of the FHEA process can be profound.” Many grantees identified the FHEA as directly informing changes to their policy and new investments. More importantly, in contrast to claims made by AFFH opponents, the sky did not fall in regions using the assessment. Local communities still had their land use autonomy and regional planning efforts were collaborative, not a top down mandate to local governments. So, as we debate AFFH in the early months of the Trump administration, or as states (such as California) may consider adopting the AFFH model, we need to refer to and learn from these real world experiences.

(Image: cadfael1979 via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

About the author more »

Jason Reece is an assistant professor, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, in the City & Regional Planning Program, at the Knowlton School of Architecture. His research and professional experience focuses on social equity in city planning, health equity and asset-based community development. Jason has acted as an advisor and capacity builder to foundations, non-profits, community organizations and government agencies. He has managed more than $10 million in research initiatives and contributed to more than 100 scholarly or technical publications. He has worked with partner organizations in more than 30 states in the US and acted as a capacity builder for the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development Sustainable Communities Initiative for four years. He currently is President of the Board of Directors for the Parsons Avenue Community Development Corporation. Jason was formerly the senior associate director and director of research for the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity, at The Ohio State University. He established the opportunity communities program at the Institute, developed the opportunity mapping methodology and established the Institute’s health equity program.

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