Seizing the Moment to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing

Posted by Sarah Treuhaft on June 3, 2015

Housing and community development issues do not get the attention they deserve in the national media, but our field is having a moment. Last month, two new studies from Harvard economist Raj Chetty and colleagues presented powerful evidence that neighborhoods have a strong and enduring impact on economic mobility and success. The place where children face the worst odds of escaping poverty? Baltimore, where the racial segregation and neighborhood inequities created and maintained by government policies came into stark relief after the police killing of Freddie Gray and subsequent social unrest. And recently, The New York Times Editorial Board chastised the federal government for failing to enforce the Fair Housing Act legislated in the wake of the 1960s’ riots and perpetuating “housing apartheid.”

Positive change is clearly necessary. A large majority of the neighborhoods that were poor when the fair housing laws were passed are still just as poor today. And Patrick Sharkey’s research reveals the extent to which Black families have been confined to living in poor neighborhoods:


The vast majority of African American families who are currently in poor neighborhoods—about 80 percent—have lived in similarly poor neighborhoods for at least two generations, even if they've moved from one place to another. That's true for about half of the small percentage of white families currently in poor neighborhoods. For Black Americans, neighborhood poverty is a continuation of neighborhood disadvantage that has been experienced for long periods of time.

Isolating families from opportunities—and thwarting their potential—has cascading social and economic impacts. Lower mobility means reduced earnings, less income to spend in the local economy, and fewer savings to use to weather emergencies and make longer-term investments in education and entrepreneurship. Chetty’s study reassessing HUDs Moving to Opportunity program using a new dataset and methodology found that the children who moved to lower-poverty neighborhoods earned 31 percent more by their mid-twenties than their counterparts in public housing located in high-poverty neighborhoods. They also were more likely to go to college, and went to better schools.

Can this combination of research, media attention, and social action lead to real change? On the policy front, there are reasons for hope. The original Fair Housing Act prohibited housing discrimination and required jurisdictions receiving federal housing dollars to take steps to actively overcome historic patterns of segregation and promote fair housing choice. But enforcement from the federal government has languished, leaving housing advocacy groups to face this gargantuan task on their own. Now HUD is now in the process of finalizing a new set of regulations to strengthen jurisdictions’ obligations to “affirmatively further fair housing.”

The rule would will sharpen the tools for communities (both advocates and government agencies) to advance multiple needed approaches, including making investments to reconnect low-income communities of color to their regional economies, fighting housing discrimination, and increasing affordable housing choices in neighborhoods with good schools and other ingredients for economic success. It contains several important components. It requires a data-driven analysis of impediments to fair housing and the factors contributing to areas of racially-concentrated poverty and high unemployment. It also requires resident engagement on fair housing and community development issues, which is critical for accountability. And it requires jurisdictions to apply federal funding—such as Community Development Block Grants and HOME funds—to address their fair housing challenges.

Recent shifts in policy and practice in the Twin Cities illustrate the types of changes we should see more frequently when the rule hits the streets. In 2014, the Met Council adopted a new formula for allocating federal transportation funding that explicitly uses equity criteria to select projects. The formula—which will guide an expected $150 million in investments over two years—adds an “equity” section to more familiar infrastructure criteria such as usage, safety, and impact on congestion. Projects that benefit low-income people, people of color, children, people with disabilities, and the elderly get more points, as do projects located in “racially-concentrated areas of poverty.”

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Met Council member Adam Duininck described their more proactive approach. “To us, equity can't just be about how we do the least amount of harm to communities, but it has to be about how we lift communities up,” he said.

The Met Council’s new formula came about after their analysis of fair housing and equity (similar to the analysis required under the new rule) documented rapidly changing demographics and vast racial inequities in access to opportunity and housing choice. About 261,000 residents in the region live in racially concentrated areas of poverty where 50 percent or more residents are people of color and 40 percent or more of households earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. The share of the population living in such neighborhoods tripled from 3 to 9 percent since 1990.

Acting on the report, the Met Council adopted equity as one of five key goals in its Thrive MSP 2040 regional plan, and committed to assessing its investments and operations an equity lens.

Regional agencies like the Met Council guide billions of dollars in public investments—investments that shape the structure of opportunity and disadvantage across regions. The new fair housing rule provides a path forward to begin to channel these investments in ways that counteract decades of inequitable growth patterns and move us towards the vision of regional equity.

Over the past several years, PolicyLink has been working with regions to strengthen their fair housing assessments. On May 20, we hosted a webinar providing information about the rule and how you can work to ensure your jurisdiction’s fair housing assessment is comprehensive and provides useful data to inform policy. While government agencies will need to take the lead, getting to equity outcomes will only happen if advocates and community leaders weigh-in, share their expertise, and hold these agencies accountable to equity goals. Please take action to leverage this new rule to make real progress on fair housing and help all neighborhoods throughout your region become true launching pads for economic success.

Also, please join us to strategize on how to advance racial and economic equity throughout regions at Equity Summit 2015 from October 27-29 in Los Angeles. Raj Chetty will share his research at the event, and we’ve extended the early bird registration through June 30. We hope you'll register.

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Flickr user Matthew, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

About the author more »

Sarah Treuhaft is director of Equitable Growth Initiatives at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity. She leads the organization’s work on demographic change and the economy, collaborating with local and national partners on research and action projects that aim to build a more equitable economy. She manages the development of the National Equity Atlas (www.nationalequityatlas.org), a web-based data and policy tool produced in partnership with the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.

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